Despite recent years’ progress toward celebrating body diversity, the fashion industry is still miles away from finding equal footing for plus-size customers. Most retailers still don’t offer options above a size 14, ignoring that the U.S. women’s plus-size apparel market is valued at $24 billion. As for the brands that do tout themselves as size-inclusive, their extended sizing collections are commonly cut off at a size 26 and feature a very specific range of designs (peplum tops, caftans, and stretchy nylon fabrications). Typically, these pervasive issues are seldom discussed, but size-inclusive fashion hub The Power Of Plus is trying to open that dialogue.
Launched in July 2020 by fashion writers Gianluca Russo and Shammara Lawrence, The Power of Plus is a digital community that’s doing what few brands and platforms are doing: allowing plus-size folk to center themselves in conversations about their community. Also found at @thepowerofplus.co on Instagram, the platform amplifies plus-size voices and offers resources about size-inclusivity, fashion, mental health, and much, much more. “Ultimately, we want The Power of Plus to be the go-to lifestyle destination where plus-size people are celebrated and supported in their journeys towards body acceptance,” Russo shares with TZR.
To celebrate its first anniversary and growing crop of over 13,800 Instagram followers, The Power of Plus launched a social media campaign on July 19 and invited its community to use the hashtag #PowerfullyMe to share their experiences of being plus-size. “[The campaign] is the perfect way to encourage people in our community to share what makes them feel most powerful and authentic, and to highlight the power we have as a collective when we use our voices for good,” says Lawrence to TZR. Under the #PowerfullyMe hashtag, you’ll discover stories of radical self-acceptance, empowerment via skin-tight clothing, and — perhaps the most common theme of them all — gratitude for finding a supportive group of plus-size folks.
With its ongoing campaign and genuine support of its community, The Power of Plus is allowing plus-size people to take the space needed to advocate for themselves and share their authentic experiences, two things the fashion industry has historically not done. To further extend and amplify the conversation that The Power of Plus started, TZR spoke with three creatives — Lydia Okello, Lauren Chan, and Sean Taylor — about fashion’s size-inclusivity problem and how the industry can best improve. Below you’ll read about their experiences working in fashion as plus-size people and what they believe brands can do to better support plus-size consumers. Additionally, they share their thoughts on the over-commercialization of body positivity, plus-size discrimination with luxury fashion, and fatphobia on social media. Scroll onward to read their stories.
Lydia Okello is a model, writer, and digital content creator whose work centers around plus-size fashion, sustainability, and expressions of identity through personal style. “I'm queer and non-binary, so that does intersect with my work,” they detail.
With their extensive background working in sustainability, Okello has encountered several toxic ideologies within that sector of the industry and goes on to explain how those malignancies are frequently weaponized against plus-size people. “Unfortunately, the ethical fashion movement is filled with a lot of folks who are focused on virtue signaling and on creating rules of the right way to do it. And to be quite frank, a lot of fat people don't have clothing options beyond cheaply made fast fashion due to constraints like budget, sizing, or time,” Okello says.
Okello continues: “In my opinion, a lot of thin people within ethical and sustainable fashion villainize and alienate folks by chastising their shopping decisions when, for a lot of people, that is just literally what the options are. That doesn't make them bad people and that doesn't make them less ethical. And that doesn't mean that there's no way for them to be a more sustainable shopper,” they add. “Because, who knows, maybe that person that buys a pair of pants from Forever 21 keeps that pair for years and they mend it several times. Maybe they even pass that pair of pants to another person, and those pants get worn again. That is also a means to being more sustainable,” Okello postures.
Just as ethical fashion has been hijacked by “gatekeepers” and people with “extreme privilege” as Okello says, the content creator believes the body-positivity movement has also moved far away from its origins. “The history of body positivity, or fat liberation, was also rooted in politics that were working to fight racism, gender inequality, and homophobia as well. So to see all of that activism get watered down to people who are like a size eight and bending to the side to say, ‘See, I have stomach rolls but I don't mind!’ — it just feels reductive,” Okello offers.
They continue to outline how body-positive ideologies have been co-opted by industries that can use the movement as a means to a profitable end. “[The body-positivity movement] is being used to market things. It's not being used to make people feel better about themselves, to feel more comfortable in who they are, or feel more empowered to move through the world without changing themselves,” they share. “There’s a lot of people who want to tell people what they should want to be, and I think fashion has a hard time breaking up with that because that’s a huge selling point in the industry. Fashion as we know it — modern fashion — is a pillar of marketing, and it’s used to sell an aspiration to glamour, desirability, wealth, or status,” Okello explains.
Okello also believes the fashion industry’s push for body positivity and diverse sizing still perpetuates the idea that there’s an “acceptable and palatable fat body type,” which, as they point out, is widely harmful. “Now that there’s the inclusion of bigger people, there are a lot of parts of fashion that still want to uphold a specific ideal, even if the ideal is now a size 12, or a size that isn’t a one or two. Like straight-size people, there’s such a huge variety in how plus-size people look like, so to act as though presenting a new ideal is not perpetuating the same problem is really dangerous,” they say.
The digital creator says they have seen their fellow members of the plus-size community ask for representation outside of the industry's meticulously crafted plus-size ideal, and this makes them hopeful. “I've been seeing a lot of conversations about plus-size people who aren't just the Ashley Grahams of the world and who don't have a perfect hourglass figure, or, like, the right kind of fat so they'll have a very flat stomach and still have very slim legs,” they say. “I'm encouraged by conversations about other groups excluded by the fashion [industry]. People are talking about accessibility and disability, and people are talking about representation beyond, you know, just like a thick white woman.”
As for how the fashion industry can work toward genuinely becoming more size-inclusive, Okello says there is one essential first step brands must take. “If you don’t already have fat people working at your company in positions of power — which statistically, we know is likely — then hire fat people. Hire fat industry folks with knowledge about what is needed and where some of the differences are, especially because, for plus-size folks, fit is very important.” Additionally, they say beyond hiring plus-size people, brands must include their consumers in the creation of garments. “Talk to fat consumers and do focus groups and fit testing. Do tangible research before launching a product because I think a lot of the follies and mistakes that we have seen from the brands claiming to be inclusive are because [the brands] think they can dictate to a fat customer what they want, as opposed to working with fat customers,” they say.
Ultimately, Okello theorizes that the disconnect between brands and consumers is a result of society’s harmful habit of dehumanizing plus-size people. “I’d like brands to take a viewpoint that fat people are also people, which sounds extremely obvious but doesn’t seem to connect quite yet [for some brands],” they offer. “If you’re a brand creating an extended sizing line, remember the customer that wants that extended sizing wants what your brand already has. They don’t want a watered-down version, they don’t want an alternate version, and they don’t want a safe or muted option.” Okello says.
Lauren Chan is the founder and CEO of Henning, a womenswear brand focused on ethical luxury clothing for plus-size women. “I decided to start Henning after spending years as a fashion editor who happened to be everything from a size 12 to 20. I never had anything to wear to work that was on par with my peers and that made me look and feel as capable as I knew I was,” Chan describes. Over time, she grew sick of feeling at a disadvantage due to her lack of work-appropriate clothing; thus, Henning was born. “Henning initially focused on clothing that you could wear to work, so power suits, classic outerwear, and stuff like that. Obviously, since then, we’ve had to pivot a bit since the workwear environment has changed, so we now make what I like to call staples.”
The choice to venture into the luxury fashion space was an easy one for Chan. “I think the sentiments that most of us plus-size shoppers have, myself included, of feeling marginalized and left out from fashion over the years only get more heightened as you move into the luxury space,” she says. “Fashion has come so far in the past decade in terms of inclusion, but the advances that we've seen, in my opinion, have largely been in representation.” The founder points to plus-size models walking on runways, starring in major campaigns, and snagging spots on television as incredible inclusive milestones. But, Chan postures, in the shadow of such groundbreaking representation, making luxury products for plus-size women was forgotten about. “[Luxury product] is what I wanted to focus on. I wanted to make sure that if the representation was there and getting better, women across the country also had things to put on every day that made them feel as great as they felt when they saw someone who looked like them in a designer campaign,” she explains.
On the topic of other fashion brands prioritizing clothing for plus bodies in 2021, Chan mentions she is apprehensive due to the devastating effects the COVID-19 pandemic had on fashion companies. “I feel that post-COVID, we may very well be in a phase where we see less inclusion and I'm a little worried about what that may look like, once we are ‘back to normal,’” she admits. “So many brands have shuttered or reduced their pluses lines [because of the pandemic]. I hope we can bounce back to that place we were before COVID because the industry was tracking more inclusively year over year over year.” Nevertheless, she adds, she is hopeful change is on the horizon.
Chan, who worked as a fashion editor at Glamour for many years, cites fashion media as an avenue with incredible potential to combat anti-fatness. But in order for that to happen, she argues, media must make space for people across a multitude of identities. “I believe you need to have people who have lived a plus-size experience and who encompass the intersectionalities of that experience — people of color, Black people, people across the gender spectrum — because I think media is lacking an evolved conversation,” says Chan. “I personally feel like maybe we don't need to have the ‘what to wear to work’ conversation anymore. Maybe, instead, we should be talking about the effects of your treatment in the workplace if you are a non-binary, plus-size person who doesn't have access to clothing that puts you on the same level of perception of success as your peers,” she explains. “I feel that those conversations only get pitched and approved and written well when there are folks in positions who have that experience and are connected to that experience.”
For Chan personally, she’s moving toward a stance of body neutrality. “I think that it’s really important for me to be talking to myself in a way that doesn’t insist that the way I look is beautiful. I want to be talking to myself in a way that says the way that I look has no impact on anything — whether that’s the way I feel, or the way that people perceive me, or the work that I do," she concludes.
Sean Taylor is a freelance digital content creator, plus-size fashion stylist, and a former contestant on season 1 of Netflix’s The Circle. For those unfamiliar with the reality-show-meets-social-experiment, here’s an abridged summary: The Circle is a social media competition show where players craft profiles of their choice — meaning they can be their genuine selves or exist behind a fake profile — and compete to become the most popular. Taylor opted for the catfish route and competed in the show as a straight-sized woman.
“Before coming on The Circle, I thought long and hard about what could make the biggest impact. I think, as body positivity has become mainstream, people think about Lizzo when the phrase body positivity comes to mind, but the reality is that there’s a reason why people don’t feel amazing 24/7,” she says. “The world doesn’t treat fat women that well, especially online, so I went on [The Circle] with someone else’s photos and presented as thin because I know firsthand that the internet can be toxic when you have a body like mine. I really wanted to call attention to that fact and have people reflect on how they treat people online,” Taylor explains.
On the topic of existing as a plus-size woman online on social media, Taylor offers a tidbit of relevant advice. “One of my biggest pieces of advice is to purge your social media of people that make you feel like you have to settle in life. The more of a fat community I’ve found online, the more my idea of what I can get out of life and how fully I can live in life has radically changed,” she recounts. “I think part of the reason this Power of Plus community is so important is that it’s by and for plus-size people. It’s about our experiences,” Taylor says. “Nowadays there are so many brands that want to cash in on us after excluding us for so long, and I think that can still be an alienating experience. Because if there’s not a moment of a brand really listening to what the plus-size community wants, then we can kind of be fed the same harmful ideas — but now we can buy an overpriced pair of jeans in our size.”
Taylor goes on to detail how apparent it can be when brands don’t make a genuine effort — or any effort at all, for that matter — to include their plus-size customers. “[Shopping] can be very frustrating. When I watch my straight-size friends shop, I’m always blown away at just how incredibly different our experiences are. They get to be a lot more selective with choices about how things fit and their preferences,” she remarks. “Whereas I’m very tapped into the plus-size fashion space, but even still, sometimes, I feel like I have to make choices about what I can physically get to fit my body versus if it fits my body how I want it to.”
“I think the part that makes me most upset about that is that I wish I saw straight-size people have more engagement and critical thinking around that issue. In my opinion, this is a feminist issue,” she argues. “The fact that two-thirds of women can’t find something to wear that would be appropriate on a moment’s notice to wear to a job interview or to represent themselves in court — that’s a problem. And I think so often people will make judgments on what people are wearing, and maybe don’t have a lot of critical thinking about the fact that their fat friends just have way fewer options than they do.”
Taylor, however, remains hopeful that the plus-size fashion industry is moving in the right direction. “I think something that excites me about the future is how I've been seeing independent designers and slow fashion brands really take things into their own hands. I think it's key for us to use our dollars to support those smaller brands that are more ethical and also really want to be serving us.” Taylor even shouts out a few indie brands, in particular, that she’s stocking her closet with. “Loud Bodies is an amazing brand, they go up to a true 10x which is incredible. I also have my eye on Nettles Studios, they have some really cool designs. All of [these small brands] are giving us what we really want, and not just some watered-down version of what a thin person thinks that we want. I love that.”