Plus-size shoppers are among the most marginalized retail consumers. Finding high-end designer clothes in plus sizes in mainstream stores — or finding any clothes that are plus-size in stores that don't specialize in plus-size apparel — remains a huge challenge. Through the Internet, a vocal contingent of frustrated shoppers has managed to organize and demand better offerings from big retailers. These so-called "fatshionistas" are the subject of a new study by researchers hoping to learn how marginalized groups attempt to overcome their stigmatized status and find inclusion in mainstream markets.
For the study [PDF], published this month in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers Daiane Scaraboto of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and Eileen Fischer of York University studied the Internet's "fatosphere" — blogs by plus-size women, many of whom expressed interest in fashion. Scaraboto and Fischer, over the course of more than three years, analyzed as many blogs — and their comments — in the fatosphere as they could, going as far back in time as they could (about 10 years). "Indeed, until the online Fat Acceptance Movement provided consumers with an opportunity to communicate and share ideas about larger bodies, those in the plus-size segment tended to interact only sporadically and in very small groups," the study notes.
They then whittled down the blogs in the study group to 89 that addressed "the core issues for the Fat Acceptance Movement," finding that "as the Fatosphere evolved, the feed started to incorporate an increasing number of blogs dedicated to plus-size fashion." They then narrowed down the field of blogs to the 10 biggest, most fashion-focused, and most influential in the fatosphere, which they thoroughly analyzed from their first posts through December 2010. Scaraboto and Fischer also examined media coverage of plus-size fashion in three major papers, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and fashion trade paper Women's Wear Daily, from 1995 to 2010.
"The Internet seemed to provide a forum for people who couldn't connect to one another" in any other way, Fischer told BuzzFeed Shift. "They developed that sense of collective identity rather than suffering in silence." The more progress fatshionistas seemed to make, the more proactive the community would become about advocating for more plus-size clothes in mainstream stores — and the more mentions plus-size fashion seemed to get in mainstream media.
However, fatshionistas haven't made any very big inroads in the plus-size marketplace, as far as Fischer can tell. Fischer, a marketing professor and the director of entrepreneurial studies at York University, notes that as a scholar of business, "You think of a market test as having certain characteristics," but the plus-size fashion market tests "just don't." While stores will launch plus-size lines, it seems like they often don't give them a fair chance at gaining real traction in the marketplace.
"We've given ourselves permission to stigmatize fat people in a way we haven't given ourselves permission to stigmatize anyone else," Fischer adds. "You can't really decouple fat fashion from other discourses on fat-related issues. As long as the only way of talking about fat is in terms of a war on obesity, and you're obviously unhealthy if you're not a certain BMI — as long as it's demonized to be fat — it's going to be easy to avoid it if you're a marketer."
Many high-end fashion labels and clothing makers argue that it's more expensive to develop plus-size samples, and thus to produce things in bigger sizes, or that sizing is too difficult to standardize above a 12 or 14. "I've seen all the arguments about making fashion for the full-size figure, and I know all of that, but at some level they could still make more plus-size offerings and make money," Fischer says.
What Fischer urges retailers to take away from the study is that they shouldn't assume plus-size shoppers don't want fashionable clothes, "because they do." They also shouldn't assume that these women can't afford plus-size clothes, and should make sure that when plus-size customers come into a store, they have enough of the size 18 or 20 in stock for them. "It's also training your staff not to hate fat people," Fischer says. "I'm sorry to be so blunt, but some of the anecdotes in the blogs were just so horrifying — this assumption that you were somehow not intelligent or not able to afford a good dress or that you couldn't possibly be in a professional setting that you'd need one, so [retailers think] why should we bring in clothes for you, because you don't need them. It was just not even subtle."
Though Fischer doesn't see the mainstream fashion industry improving its offerings for plus-size women in a meaningful way anytime soon, she says there's been some progress. "Some of the bloggers that we looked at had really made inroads in being a blogger for Vogue Italia" — which has a "Curvy" section on its website — "for example. It was a pleasant surprise to see the inroads that have been made. But it felt like tokenism." This is obvious in fashion media, where plus-size models remain — if more visible than they were 10 years ago — an exception.
The best plus-size clothing is being made by small retailers and designers who don't have an established reputation. "They do what they need to survive and that may come along with catering to a plus-size segment. But the mainstream is very wary," Fischer concludes. "And the only way to explain it is to think they'll be stigmatized to have fat women wearing their clothes."