In a fabulous Washington Post op-ed this week, design guru Tim Gunn blasted the fashion industry’s unwillingness to “make clothes to fit American women” — specifically plus-size women. The average American woman now wears between a size 16 and 18, Gunn pointed out, but many clothing designers and merchandisers still refuse to produce anything larger than a 12.
From a commercial standpoint, this refusal is baffling — they’re ignoring a whole lot of women, and leaving a whole lot of money on the table as a result. And from a moral standpoint, it’s dehumanizing to pretend that plus-size women don’t or shouldn’t exist.
“Have you shopped retail for size 14-plus clothing?” Gunn writes. “Based on my experience shopping with plus-size women, it’s a horribly insulting and demoralizing experience.”
Tim, take it from a size-14-plus woman: You have no idea how right you are. But bless you, truly, for making the effort to find out and talking about it in public. That’s a lot more than can be said for the designers you quote, who say monstrous things like, “No one wants to see curvy women” on the runway (smooth branding move there, Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel), or who use patronizing and ridiculous phrases like “real woman” or “certain population” to refer to plus-size women.
You know what, though? “Plus-size” is also a patronizing and ridiculous phrase that really ought to be banished from fashion. It sounds like, “Well, sweetheart, there are normal sizes, and then there’s your size.”
This is demoralizing for plus-size women — but it's also one reason why clothes shopping can be so demoralizing for all women. We need women’s clothing sizes that make sense, and they shouldn't be segregated into normal or plus or petite. Sizes should just be sizes.
Being a size 14 can feel like you’re on the edge of a fashion cliff
For most of my life, I’ve had the privilege of being basically “normal size” when it comes to clothes — albeit at the very upper acceptable range of normal. I’ve always been more or less a size 12, with the exception of about one Jenny Craig–fueled year in high school when I got down to an ego-boosting, but probably too skinny for me, size 6. (“Can you imagine me as a B-cup?” I asked my fiancé while writing this piece. His immediate reply: “I don’t want to!”)
In the past few years, though, I’ve gained enough weight that I now wear more like a 14 or 16. While it depends very much on the brand and style, that’s basically “plus size” territory.
You can still sort of get by as a size 14 in mainstream stores. But there’s no guarantee, and the selection is usually more limited. Being a 14 can feel like you’ve hit the final warning sign before careening off the edge of a fashion cliff: Caution: Plus-Size Gulch Ahead. There Be Dragons and Fat Chicks.
All of a sudden, I have to try to find new places to shop — or else scramble to find something attractive at the old places, digging through the mere 10 percent or so of merchandise that those places see fit to give the 67 percent of women who wear size 14 to 34.
When your size is “plus,” you yourself are “other.” Your needs are no longer important enough to make anyone bother working all that hard to meet them. The hard work is on you to figure out something else. Sizing out of “more or less a 12” means I have to shift my whole strategy for buying clothes — and my conception of myself can’t help but shift a bit, too.
When I realized that I wouldn’t lose enough weight soon enough to avoid needing a whole new casual summer dress wardrobe this year, buying a batch of “plus-size” dresses online from Old Navy felt like some kind of shameful concession. At least they were dirt-cheap, I told myself; this is only temporary.
It’s a bit of a crapshoot to buy dresses online without trying them on first, but you still have better odds (both of finding something and of retaining your dignity) than walking into the store only to find that it doesn’t have anything you want in your size. I ended up loving most of the dresses, but the whole thing felt like a stealth job.
But sizing is a mess for all women — which makes clothes shopping miserable
Here’s the bizarre thing: Because women’s clothing sizes are such an arbitrary, nonsensical shitshow to begin with, I’m not “plus-size” everywhere. I can still fit into some “large” or even “medium” tops at H&M. I’ve been to mainstream retail stores where 14 and 16 are just regular numbered sizes like all the others, and stores where 14 and 16 merge together into the amorphous blob “1X,” and stores where “1X” is more like a “16/18” — whatever the hell 14, 16, or 18 actually means in the first place.
Even when I wore a 12, though, I could never count on finding something that fit me in a typical store — especially if their sizes “ran small.” My plus-size dilemma really just puts a finer point on the problem that I, and every other woman I know, have always had trying to shop for clothes.
I doubt there is a single American woman alive today who has never found clothes shopping to be “a horribly insulting and demoralizing experience,” as Gunn put it. (If you are someone who hasn’t, I would like to meet you, and possibly submit you for rigorous scientific study.)
Vox’s Dion Lee, who wears a size 4, recently walked into three different stores, tried on three different pairs of “size 4” jeans, and only found one that fit her properly. In the video below, Lee explains why women’s clothing sizes are so nuts in the first place — it basically boils down to “size inflation,” wherein designers kept making clothes with smaller and smaller numbers to make women feel skinnier. That was a dumb idea, and it still is.
The obvious solution: Sizes should just be sizes
Look, designers, I don’t know what to tell you: You have tape measures. We have waists, chests, and hips that can easily be measured with them. This can’t be that difficult. Maybe if women’s clothing sizes corresponded to our actual body sizes — if sizes were just sizes — shopping could be a more dignified and less stressful experience for all women.
But that’s especially true, and especially necessary, for all the women who are currently stuck navigating a needlessly complex and humiliating “plus size” regime. I look at the many gorgeous women I know who are bigger than I am, and I think about how it must be even harder for them to shop for clothes, and I think: What the fuck?
Are we so committed as a society to making women feel terrible about their bodies that it’s not enough to shame them for having bodies with the “wrong” distributions of fat and muscle and bone — we also have to sabotage any and all efforts to make those bodies look good with clothes on? (You’d think the financial health of the fashion industry depended on women’s insecurities or something.)
But there’s no grand conspiracy here, other than our usual cosmic microwave background patriarchy. Designers are lazy. Creating clothes that flatter different body types is hard, and it’s a lot easier to just hire a bunch of rail-thin, similarly sized models and demand that every woman look like them.
Still, that laziness is also steeped in misogynistic scorn (hi again, Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel, I haven’t forgotten you). And it comes from a fundamental lack of imagination — not just the creative imagination you’d hope to see from professional designers, of all people, but also the empathetic imagination required to actually care about the lives and needs of others.
Yes, I’m working to lose weight — and the fashion cliff is no small part of my motivation to do so. But here’s the thing: I still fundamentally like my body. I don’t feel unattractive. Quite the contrary; I feel gorgeous, and I feel worthy of clothes that will make me look gorgeous — me, my body, my curves, not somebody else’s.
I’ve spent a long time being mad at my body for not fitting into the clothes I want it to be able to wear. Most women probably have.
But I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I’m mad at the clothes for not fitting my body instead. I’d recommend it. Who knows, we might give some of these lazy designers some inspiration.