Plus Size: The New Normal

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To view the video feature, please visit: Plus Size: The New Normal 

In a crowded Pentagon City Mall, which boasts over 170 stores, it takes college student Gabby Lewis several hours to find a cocktail dress. Usually she leaves the mall empty-handed, but it’s not from lack of shops to visit; it’s because few stores carry her size.

“This is dismal. Who would wear this?” Lewis asks, as she disappointedly scours the small plus-size section of a three-story Nordstrom’s in the mall. If she doesn’t visit Lane Bryant, she finds herself out of luck.

Her reality is not a unique one. The average size of a woman in America is a 14, which is considered plus size. The term encompasses anyone from a size 12 and up, which leaves a large part of the population looking to transform into a size two to six due to retail and media pressure.

Women in America are fighting a constant battle to find self confidence amongst the messages of the media, which emphasize slimmer figures as being more attractive and socially acceptable. This idea is reinforced in the retail world, where fashion designers and brands cater to smaller women, leaving few choices for the average woman today.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to make more clothes for us?” said fashion blogger Jennifer Jean-Pierre. As the editor of her popular style blog “Comme Coco,” she has received press attention for being a curvy fashionista. “We’re the ones who’ll buy the clothes, so they should cater to us. It makes sense businesswise, too.”

According to research by Rader Programs, an eating disorder center, the average fashion model weighs 23% less than the average woman. Designers are fitting their clothing to a body frame that is simply not the norm.

The number of average women who fall under the category “plus size” far outnumber the smaller ones.  So why haven’t major retailers and fashion houses capitalized on the obvious?

Retailers’ Refusal

“Fast fashion” chain retailer Zara, originally from Spain, is just one of the many popular global clothing stores that does not manufacture their clothes for plus-sized women. Most of their designs stop at size 8, which doesn’t even begin to meet the needs of the average woman in America today.

Their reasoning? Like most things, it boils down to cost. Logistically, larger clothing requires more fabric, which adds up; fabric makes up 60% of the cost for a single garment.

According to a business article by The New York Times, women’s plus size clothing only makes up 17 percent of the women’s apparel market today, despite the fact that Americans have become increasingly heavier in the last ten years. Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, admitted that not much supply or variation exists for plus size women to buy. The big retailers generally stay away.

In limited store space, many retailers say it’s difficult to display items that range from size 0 to size 24. Unfortunately, the plus market then gets treated as an afterthought, something extra that can get cut out if there isn’t room, and that can be squeezed in if there is.

All things considered, some major retailers have turned their back on carrying plus size clothing. In the past few years, Old Navy and Ann Taylor have moved their plus selection to online only.

Ultimately, stores fail to offer options for size 18-20 women, like Lewis, which makes shopping both frustrating and fruitless. “I’m ready to leave,” she says with a sigh, walking toward the mall exit while rolling her eyes.

Hollywood and Cinema

In addition to advertising and retailers, the women we see in the media drive social perceptions of beauty. A glance at Hollywood’s best selling romantic comedies is indication enough that plus size women are wholly ignored when it comes to leading roles.

Some might raise the point that in recent years, actresses such as Rebel Wilson or Melissa McCarthy have found commercial success, but they aren’t known for the same traits or roles as their female counterparts.

Roles occupied by women like McCarthy or Wilson, both plus sized, are not leads or romantic interests. “They’re just the bit of comedic spice needed to take the movie over the edge,” says Lewis, speaking candidly. “So [plus size women] end up thinking we can be the life of the party, but we can’t be the one to get the guy’s number at the end of the night.”

Multiple studies, such as the one conducted by Stice, Schupak-Neuberg, Shaw, and Stein in 1994, have found that the amount of media exposure women receive predict negative feelings about body image as well as levels of body dissatisfaction. Although the relationship between the media and self esteem is not necessarily causal, it’s certainly strong.

Body weight portrayed in the media sends messages that are associated with success and social desirability; the success of thin media figures is often attributed to their weight, meanwhile plus size actress and models are ridiculed in media. A studypublished in the American Communication Journal observed that women who are exposed to large amounts of media portraying thin as the ideal are more likely to accept it as a norm and hold themselves to that standard.

Women who deviate from society’s rigid definition of “normal” are seen as unacceptable and made to feel ashamed of their bodies. It is a rare instance in American society where the majority is outnumbered by the minority. Body dissatisfaction can lead to health issues and unhappiness, and women find themselves trapped in a harsh cycle from which there seems to be no escape.

Signs of Progress

Society is changing. The loud voices of a few individuals have now turned into a collective demand for a shift in our culture.  Slowly but surely, plus size figures have been moving into the mainstream.

From magazine covers like Glamour and Vogue Italia, to high-end designer lines like those designed by Burberry, plus size models are starting to hit their stride. This past fall, Robyn Lawley announced that she would be the first plus size model for Ralph Lauren, one of the U.S.’ major fashion designers.

Plus size and curvy fashion bloggers are also laying the groundwork online. The Curvy FashionistaThe Plus Side of MeFat Shopaholic and The Glitter Thread are just a few examples of frequently visited blogs that are run by women ranging from size 14 to 28.

Retailers ASOS, Forever 21, and Target offer a wide range of specially-made clothing for plus sizes, tapping into a business market that is soon to yield huge profits. It seems more designers and companies will soon follow in their footsteps, creating fashions to fit women of all shapes and sizes.

We live in a time where Full-Figured Fashion Week exists, and it showcases over 20 designers and their unique visions for plus size women. Full-figured models strut down the runway before crowds of women who are eager to purchase clothing that is actually tailored to their bodies.

When the bigger picture is taken into account, it may seem like we’re only taking baby steps. In the next few years, however, the plus size fashion industry will evolve in leaps and bounds.

Soon, when we turn on the television, we will see curvy women cover the screen and we will not look at them like they are out of place.

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