At least once a month, I find myself drawn in by a brand using an almost-fat model on their social media feeds. The model - or more often, an influencer - is wearing clothing that fits her fabulously, prompting me to rush to the brand’s site, thrilled with the idea that they may be, finally, offering plus sizes. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.
Rather than making their size offering more inclusive, these brands have merely shared an image of someone wearing the largest size in their collection - an 18 if we’re lucky, but more likely a 14 with stretch fabric - in a performative attempt to appear more inclusive. This is an act I like to refer to as ‘fat baiting’.
Honestly, for fat people thinking these brands might cater to them, the eventual and oh so predictable let down feels more crushing than stumbling across brands that only share images of thin people wearing their clothes.
This complaint may sound overwrought - after all, if the models in the photos fit into the clothes, what is the harm in celebrating that? The key issue here is that optics, not true representation, is at play, and these optics stop consumers from pushing for progress and allow brands to rest on their laurels. The majority of the plus size community is sold clothing on models that fall on the smallest end of the size spectrum - but what about the rest of us? When I see photos of models like Lucy Knell and Imani Randolph - a curve model and content creator respectively who have both done so much in furthering representation for smaller fats and midsize people - on cult London label House of Sunny’s Instagram feed, I feel hopeful that the brand caters to a range of sizes. In reality, it offers XS-XL, which, according to its size chart, translates as size 6 to 14.
Of course, this isn't a criticism of curve creatives like Lucy and Imani, but rather the industry as a whole. With the average woman in the UK wearing a size 16 or above, it’s likely that most of us aren’t seeing ourselves when we scroll through our Instagram feeds or our favourite brands’ sites.
When I reached out to House of Sunny for comment, I received no answer, but the brand is far from alone in this behavior - in fact, they’re hardly the worst offender.
Megan, a 30-year-old fashion design graduate who now works in sales, wears a size 20-26 depending on label, and listed a number of brands that she sees as guilty of this, from Rixo and Daily Sleeper to Lucy & Yak. When I got in touch, all three brands replied with statements on their lack of inclusion that ranged from noncommittal - Rixo assured me that they have “really exciting news being announced soon” - to hopeful - Lucy & Yak promised a range going up to size 28 within the next few months, with a goal of furthering to size 32 in the near future. Disappointingly, Daily Sleeper responded with celebration of their current sizes 2X and 3X, which, when pushed for clarity, they said translate to size 16 and 18 respectively. They did, however, say the brand would be planning “further expansion of the size chart based on the customer feedback.”
These bare minimum attempts at inclusion aren’t acceptable. “I don’t think it is dramatic to say that it feels like I am being gaslit by these brands who present themselves as inclusive, but top out at a size 16/18, especially when inclusivity is central to their comms,” Alanna, a 32-year-old lecturer in fashion communication who wears a size 22/24, tells me. “I think this also sends the message that if you are fat, you are not worth dressing. It lets brands get away with shifting the focus back to the consumer. For example, Rixo’s initial response (now deleted from their social media) to the calls for larger sizes (following this non-inclusive wedding line launch controversy) was something like ‘we’ve got more fabric, we can make bigger sizes, get in touch!’ I find it insulting that I should be the hardest working person in this transaction.”
Whether it’s using inclusive language or a range of body sizes on your social media feeds without actually catering to the people you claim to be representing, it proves that the illusion of inclusivity is only there to appeal to their thin target market. It is the fashion industry’s version of wokefishing - alluding to care about fat people to make politically-conscious straight sized customers feel more comfortable buying from their stores.
“Using fat models in your campaigns is an easy way to earn points, but it means nothing if actual fat people can't find their sizes when we want to purchase these items,” Christina, a 28 social media director who wears a size 20/22, agrees. “Brands which have 'Curve' lines but who don't actually feature fat people in their marketing are also on my naughty list,” they add.
When added up, these arguments might sound like an impossible standard for brands to meet, but Brie Read, the CEO and founder of Snag Tights, who carry sizes 4 - 36, disagrees. “While some may think that fashion brands are taking a major step by including plus-sized models in campaign shoots, most consumers today are savvy enough to see through these kinds of performative gestures and as a result, will shop elsewhere. We saw this play out with the recent collapse of several major retailers in the UK who notoriously were not inclusive enough of plus size people. Expanding an existing collection designed for straight-sized people by just one or two sizes - or including ‘curve’ models in shoots for collections that do not even carry their sizes, is just not good enough. True inclusivity means so much more.”
It’s 2021, and if the pandemic has taught us anything about fashion - from the demise of high street giants to calls outs on social media - it’s that we’re no longer tolerating fake activism. Hopefully, brands will come good on their promises and we will be able to shop a wider range of plus size pieces in the future. With one in five pounds spent on fashion in the UK going towards plus size garments, it seems, at the very least, financially prudent of them to do so. If I had any hope left, I would urge that brands - new, old, those struggling to survive and those that are thriving - realise that the only path to true progress is one that every person, regardless of size, can walk together.