By Ntianu Obiora
In this week’s ‘For Style’s Sake’, we explore the fallacy of the plus-size industry and whether inclusivity is nothing but smoke and mirrors.
For years, plus-size women were marginalised by the mainstream fashion industry despite a large percentage of women worldwide being over a US size 10.
According to a study from the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, the average American woman is between a size 16 to 18.
As society progressed and more marginalised groups are refusing to be ignored any longer, we noticed a shift and now brands are striving to be inclusive but how plus-size is plus-size?
According to the industry, plus-size is anything above a size 8. The majority of plus size models are no bigger than a UK size 12 and brands are projecting an image of largess that in reality isn’t very big at all. Again, bigger women find themselves of on the fringe of the very industry designed for them, or so they are told.
Years ago, plus-size women the world over struggled to find stylish, on-trend clothing. The fashion industry clung to the notion that bigger women just were not interested in fashion and brands, both high-street and high-end seldom catered for the demographic and those that did, did not provide anything fashion-forward. A subculture grew from the sheer frustration at the lack of options for bigger women and that’s how to plus-size fashion industry really grew its wings.
Plus-size brands began to spring up that catered solely to bigger women and not just any type of clothing, but clothing that closely mirrored what we saw in magazines and on models. It was such a powerful statement for the plus-size community who declared that their size had no bearing on their taste and the type of clothing they wanted to wear.
The plus-size industry thrived.
Mainstream brands, keen to key into burgeoning markets noticed this and turned their attention to it. Slowly but surely, brands began to release plus-size capsule collections, first dipping their toes to test the waters. It was more lucrative than they could have possibly imagined.
On runways, in stores, even in the pages of style bibles such as , the plus-size woman is finally getting some fashion respect, not because the industry has decided it’s OK to be big, but because it can no longer afford to ignore her. Retailers must find ways to grow and this is an irresistible market for them to tap into.
However, it has quickly became clear that whilst they were projecting the idea of inclusivity, these brands talking the talk but not walking the walk.
There of course has been a paradigm shift somewhat, though not enough, as darker-skinned models, like Philomena Kwao, have not only found work but have also been massively successful in a market that was easing into the mainstream. Today the plus-size industry has, in many ways, eclipsed the fashion industry overall in its diversity and inclusivity. However, those stories are few and far between and for the most part, the plus-size industry has been merely co-opted by the main fashion industry and is trying to push a narrative that is not very far removed from the days of old.
The majority of plus-size models that are being promoted as such are barely above a size 12. The industry has managed to pervert what it means to be a plus-size model and are possibly causing more harm than good for the plus-size community. Women, looking at adverts are expecting to see models that they can finally relate to and in reality are seeing models who further compound their body image issues and cause them to question where exactly they belong, if anywhere at all.
Alex LaRosa, a self-proclaimed “plus-size model who’s visibly plus-size,” appeared on Huffpost Live to talk about some of her issues with these discrepancies:
In a world where you’re telling women that plus-size is sizes 4 and up, you’re causing body image issues. You’re causing unrealistic expectations that everyone, every woman, should be a size 4. To bring that into the plus-size community, where you’re using sizes 8, 10 and 12, when sometimes the stores don’t even start carrying the clothes until size 14, you’re telling women, ‘You want to look like these models. This is what you should look like, but it’s never going to happen.
The sad truth is plus-sized models’ bodies are headed in the opposite direction of actual plus-size women’s bodies.
Speaking to online platform The Revelist, plus-size model Tess Holliday spoke about how far the industry needs to go to recognise real women with different body shapes as well as sizes. She said:
I’m part of one of those under-represented, unseen groups: plus-size women. And I’m incredibly proud to be the first woman of my size (size 22) to be signed to a major modelling agency, and recognise that it was a milestone for an industry that is typically focused on thinness.
But right now, even in the plus-size part of the modelling world, there isn’t a ton of diversity in body shapes. Most plus-size models are taller than 5’8”, a size 10 or 12, and have an hourglass shape. Where are the other bodies with the shape of a blueberry, like mine? And where are the women with small busts or small butts?
Change will only come, to models and beyond, if women keep demanding it.
Indeed, the plus-size industry has a long way to go to actually capture what it means to be a true plus-size woman. For many women who thought this movement would be the beginning of the end of years of otherness have found themselves once again, excluded.
Thanks to social media, voices reach further and the people have a platform to push their narratives and as Tess Holliday suggested, change will only come if it’s demanded.
The fashion industry might never be what we need it to be for every individual which is why it important that we understand the importance of creating our own narratives and being the change we wish to see.