A plan free Saturday shaped up rather well with lunch at our favorite local grocery store – Wegmans, some book shopping, and a delightfully impromptu mall trip. Lunch consisted of predictable pizza (on Michaels’ part) and Spicy General Tso’s chicken for me. At the book store, I satisfied a yearning for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Isabelle Allende, while Michael expanded his Deadpool graphic novel collection in preparation for the upcoming movie. In the same spirit of preparation, Michael called his brother to aid him in his quest for a Deadpool t-shirt, an “essential” item to attend the movie. I was less than excited by the prospect of looking at Deadpool t-shirts. That does not, however, mean that I don’t enjoy being at the mall on a Saturday afternoon. If I can meander through the concourse sniffing out what intrigues me, I’m perfectly content. I live off a part-time Professor’s salary, so I’m far from wealthy and have to watch my money carefully, but I just cancelled my cable. I figured I had that extra money to spend. And anyway, on this blog, I want to write about eating and shopping as a woman who wears plus sizes – with an emphasis on the shopping – so I need to do research, right?
I find writing pieces like these important – though, on one hand, they’re lighthearted and all in good fun – because until you’ve worn a higher size than a 12 – or, more problematically, higher than a 16 – you don’t know what it’s like to have to muster your resourcefulness to find cute clothes, and you don’t see the discrimination against full-figured women that I’ve experienced since I gained weight. If you’re slender, read on: get a glimpse of what life on the flipside is like, if you dare. If you’re in my boat, hopefully you can relate to my experience, and maybe you’ll get some tips for helpful shopping locations.
As a rule of thumb, I’m hesitant to visit department store plus sections. There are a couple reasons for this. First of all, as a size 18, I’m technically a XXL, but I can often fit into XL’s I try on, which are in the regular women’s section in a department store. J.C. Penny’s, in my experience, even carries size 18 pants in the “regular” section of the store – Lee’s, to be specific. I have a pair of Size 18 “short” Lee pants that I happily stumbled upon near the ANNA and Lee’s clothing lines at J.C. Penny. But the primary reason I avoid plus sections is because the selection is terrible. With the occasional happy exception, department store plus sections are a wasteland of ugly Christmas sweaters and flowery, moo-moo- like shirts that my grandma probably wouldn’t wear, if she were still alive. And even a strong plus section’s selection pales in comparison to that same store’s “regular” sections. Let me re-emphasize: in many stores, a size 14 is considered a plus-size, and the average woman is a size 14. One can see, then, the effects that the fashion industry has on women’s self-esteem.
Now, I have qualms with the concept of a “plus section” to begin with, but I’ve mostly discarded my qualms with shopping in the plus section, an action which may have sounded just horrifying a year or two ago. I no longer seethe with embarrassment. But if the average woman is a size 14, then I, as an 18, am much closer to the average woman’s size than a size 2, so there’s no need to not carry my size in a store or to relegate me to a special corner section – unless you’re a shopping outlet who’s too embarrassed to have me wear its clothes, if my wider waistline and thick thighs don’t jive with your sleek and trendy image, or if, simply, you want to make me feel bad about myself, which our culture enjoys doing to women. (I will note, here, that in department stores, XXL’s for men are mixed in with smalls, mediums, larges, and extra larges, but for women, XXL’s are by and large reserved for the plus section).
I’m not saying a size 2 woman should be relegated to her own section. I’m simply asserting that my size isn’t so uncommon that it’s necessary to put me in a separate section or avoid carrying my size, at all, in your store. There are plenty of size 18’s, 20’s, 22’s, and 24’s, out there – at least as many as there are 0’s and 2’s, and yet we women who wear, to a degree, a size 14 and above, but especially we women who wear a size 18 and above, are treated like blasphemous aberrations. When I started gaining weight, the hardest thing about my weight gain was seeing my size slowly disappear from stores. The phenomena made me feel like I was abnormally and hideously huge, which I’m not, and this trend points to a real shortcoming in the fashion industry. More problematically, these patterns in the fashion industry make implicit statements about what’s acceptable and unacceptable as a woman. It’s blatant, unchecked discrimination that our society condones because we applaud weight loss (okay, fine, it has some health benefits, but must we treat being thin as an achievement that heavy people are failing at) and condemn “fatness” as a moral failing.
Of course, stores are private companies, and they can carry whatever clothing sizes they’d like, but it doesn’t make their decisions ethically sound. Abercrombie and Fitch got a lot of grief for announcing that they were not going to carry sizes larger than 10 to exclude heavy people from buying their clothes, but those who were upset by that decision seemed to turn a blind eye to the reality that other stores take slightly different but largely similar stances all the time. Express and H & M are among the presumably many stores that don’t manufacture clothes higher than a size 12/Large (as opposed to offering a 14-16/XL) which is a stance similar to Abercrombie’s. Express used to be my favorite store. Almost two years ago, when I was still a size 12, I volunteered to sign up for their text message promotion: if I let them text me about deals, I’d get a significant discount on two pairs of expensive jeans. Now I get stupid promotion texts from a store that I won’t be able to buy from unless I lose at least 30 lbs.
If the average woman is a size 14, then stores like Express and H & M are alienating over half of their potential buyers, which would only seem logical, and largely unquestioned, in a society that sees overweight women as inferior and substandard. But then, it does make those stores seem like elite enclaves, secret clubs that only thin people can belong to, and surely that mystique has some intrigue to its buyers. Isn’t Express making a lot more money because shopping there makes people feel better about themselves, and maybe, better than other people? Of course, shopping at Express is rarely that conscious, and if I haven’t emphasized it enough, my intent in these essays is not to condemn thinness. But Express used to be my favorite store. Instead of skulking in back-corner plus sections of other stores, I could simply buy everything on the rack at Express and have a wardrobe. Now I have to vow to myself that I won’t shop there if I lose weight, because I don’t agree with what the company stands for.
Because I’m skeptical of department store plus sections, I decided to see how extra larges at Bon-Ton – the first store I entered – fit me. I gravitated toward a long, tan, Calvin Klein sweater with a thick neck collar, and an open leather jacket with fur on the lapels. Pleasingly, they both fit well, but they were expensive for clothes that were cute, but not exceptional, so I put them on hold and decided to do some more intentional research for my blog. I headed down the mall concourse, intentionally looking for opportunities to explore what clothes shopping is like for a plus-sized woman. There are few things I enjoy as much as writing and shopping, so one can imagine, I was in my element trying on clothes only to blog about the experience later.
Sometimes, as I walk through the mall and see the diversity of clothes in shop windows, I’m a little envious of my size 8 sisters who can shop anywhere they’d like, and I imagine when I had the opportunity to do so, I took that opportunity for granted and lamented unnecessarily when the medium was too tight and I had to buy a large. I had glanced at a tag once in H&M – a store notably cheap but reasonably fashionable – that suggested they don’t carry extra large sizes, but I had to double-check, had to make sure they had nothing for me there. Like I said, when one likes fashion and is a size 18, she must be intentional and resourceful when she shops. I need to know stores and their offerings intimately.
I will not lie; I was daunted to walk into H & M. I felt like the fat, old-lady outlier infiltrating a store intended for the young, slim and trendy. The worker who greeted me was an average size woman who was my age. She took time to greet me and tell me about the deals going on, which was helpful. Granted, it’s her job, but it made me feel less out of place to be treated like any other customer. There was no plus-size section in H & M, and, as suspected, there sizes only ascend to a size 12, so I slipped out rather quickly. But it occurred to me that I’m not so heavy that I stand out in any special way, and probably nobody was scrutinizing my presence in the store except myself. And still, the sizing in stores like H & M does make one feel left out. Sorry, we have nothing for you her, I imagined someone saying to me. For some reason, I keep thinking of the scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest is getting on the bus, and all the children look up at him coldly, and say in their pointed Southern accents, “This seat’s tay-ken.” Perhaps I’ll explore that connection later.
After experiencing a feeling that might dramatically be referred to as alienation, I decided to cruise on down to Maurice’s. Maurice’s, on the one hand, is not one of those nice stores that integrates larger sizes in with their smaller sizes so that there is no plus section (and those stores do exist). But, they proudly advertise clothes for sizes 14-24 (as opposed to labeling the clothes “plus” sizes) on a sign in front of their store, and their front-of-store mannequins are both slender and fuller (well, fuller for a mannequin). Partially because I’d always assumed their clothes were expensive, and partially because I had my classic go-to stores, I’d never explored Maurice’s plus section. But, with Michael and his brother still perusing Deadpool t-shirts, and with a new blog to research for – with, yes, a purpose – I decided today was the day.
I was admittedly pleased with Maurice’s plus-section. On the one hand, as I stated, I’m hesitant to condone the notion of a “plus” section. On the other hand, while it was smaller than their primary section – as in, took up less space and had fewer items – it wasn’t much smaller, and plenty of fashionable clothes were displayed. There was even a mannequin wearing size 18 jeans! My people are represented here! I thought. And I was comforted by the realization that the mannequin didn’t look unusually wide, as if she would stand out in a crowd. (I’m still uncomfortable enough with my weight gain to imagine, sometimes, that I am ghastly and abnormally heavy).
Now, Maurice’s style, initially, didn’t seem to line up with my own. There were many fashionable clothes in their plus section – including “short” and “long” jeans for exceptionally short or tall plus-sized women, and colorful, stylish, tight jeggings – but the shirts, while fashionable, didn’t strike me as my taste. I thought, however, hell, sometimes I’m narrow-minded about clothes I like, and anyway, I was in a new store, and I was researching for my blog. So I found a navy shirt with some tiny flowers toward the top, and decided, well, I might as well try it on.
Once I start shopping, I enter a steady rhythm, and my surroundings take on a sort of comfortable but exciting pulse. I enter a zone from which few things can remove me, and shirts start practically jumping out at me, saying can’t you see yourself wearing me? Aren’t I cute? I mean, come on, you can just try me on at least. It doesn’t hurt to try me on. Soon I had a plethora of clothes, including a gray pair of the jeggings (I’m starting to become a sucker for skinny jeans and jeggings, especially since I’ve always liked my legs more than my waist). A sweet girl who looked like she was probably in high school offered to start a fitting room for me. And, bonus, she not only asked me my name, but asked me how to spell my name, and spelled it correctly on the marker board outside the door. I continued to whirl through the plus-section, a fierce animal, unstoppable save by some divine force, when the sweet girl came by, a few minutes later, to collect another handful of clothing for my fitting room. Finally, I had wiped the plus section clean, grabbing both 1x’s and 2x’s or each shirt – since, as stated, I can be an XL or a XXL – and settled into my fitting room for some fun.
Well, to my chagrin, I found that I was a solid 2x at Maurice’s, and, suspecting the size 18’s might be small at this store, I grabbed a pair of size 20 jeggings, too, which ended up being the more comfortable fit. Those minor, but partially expected disappointments aside, I tried on myriad cute outfits, and I’ll go so far as to say I felt sexy in the fitting room, trying on stylish shirts with the tight khaki Charlotte Russe pants I’d worn for the shopping trip and the knee-high boots from Lane Bryant. (They’re the only thing I’ve ever bought from Lane Bryant, but I seriously love those freakin’ boots). My newfound satisfaction with my appearance was a relieving turn of events. I don’t doubt that writing about my experiences has helped immensely, because when I started to gain weight, I felt ugly almost all the time.
Michael met up with me, and I ended up giving him a fashion show. The sweet high school girl joined in and reassured me that one of my selections was very cute. The actual dressing rooms, by the way, were clean, fancily decorated, and relatively spacious. Eventually I settled on a loose, low-hanging, baggy white shirt, a black cami to put under the shirt, and the gray jeggings, which I’m still excited to wear. When I checked out, a friendly girl talked about earning Maurice’s points with me. I told her how much I’d enjoyed my shopping experience, and she (who was tiny) affirmed that they had an excellent plus section. My inclination is never to talk openly about shopping in the plus section (recent internet blogging aside) but I never once felt awkward or out of place at Maurice’s, and it occurred to me that presently, there seemed to be no shame in shopping in the plus section. I wasn’t embarrassed at all and in fact felt rather confident. I agreed, and shared my other experiences with her (the fact that in many plus sections, I find clothes best suited for a grandmothers) then thanked her, and walked out of the store a satisfied customer.
If a store feels a need to divide up sections – to have a plus section and a “regular” section – it’s best done the way Maurice’s does it, in an intentionally friendly environment, with an expansive plus-section full of fashionable clothes. The clothes in Maurice’s plus section were varied and appealing, the prices were more reasonable than I expected (I got jeggings, a cami, and an overshirt for $70), and the salespeople are intentionally friendly to everyone in the store, so one need not feel like a “less-than” outcast for shopping in the plus section. If part of what I’m doing is rating stores for plus-sized women in these pieces – and I imagine that’s what some of these blogs might turn into – Maurice’s gets high marks in my book for selection, style, friendliness, and a general feeling of inclusiveness that permeates the store.
After shopping, Michael and I headed back down the mall concourse with the intent of going home. I was no longer seeking only to read Virginia Woolf., but to write about my recent shopping experience. Michael was satisfied with his t-shirt purchase and eager to read more Deadpool. But when a surveyor at the mall asked us if we’d like to each earn $2.00 answering questions about movie trailers, we decided to do something unusual and accept the offer. As it turns out, I had to watch a trailer about a stupid movie called Demolition and Michael got to see the new Ghostbuster’s trailer, but so goes it. A successful shopping day cannot be perfect in all regards.