Shopping While Fat

Shopping While Fat–And Recovering

by Sharon Maxwell, Practice Manager

Growing up, I loved the concept of shopping. But as a fat person, I rarely actually enjoyed it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like shopping or finding new things. However, an invitation to go shopping with friends meant that the message that my body was intrinsically wrong would be reinforced over and over again. And frankly put, I would not be shopping. I might be on the hunt for clothes for the person I was with, but clothes for me? Forget it. 

Shopping While Fat in Recovery [Image description: drawing of a back of a larger-bodied woman looking at clothes on a clothing rack] Represents a potential client in recovery from an eating disorder
On the rare occasion, we went to a store that carried plus sizes, I would leave my friends to go find the dimly lit back corner of the store that was stocked with a few racks of plus size clothing that I usually had no interest in wearing. Upon returning to my friends, I offered myself as the human coat rack, holding everyone’s purses, jackets, and the like.

Shame While Shopping While Fat

I learned from a young age that going shopping actually meant an outing with people I loved. But I never expected to find anything for myself. Instead, I made it my goal to make the trip together as fun as possible. My friends tried on new clothes, and I was their audience of one for the fashion shows they put on down the runway of the fitting room. I would make them twirl or strut down the fitting room runway again, oohing and aahing and taking pictures of them.

No matter how much I truly enjoyed being their cheerleader, I often found myself dreaming of having a body that could fit into the clothes they wore. When they sent me on the hunt for a different size garment, I would find myself running my fingers over different pieces, feeling their textures, and imagining what it would be like to feel them hugging my body. 

My laughter and cheering were often a mask for the deep pain that I felt. Walking through an entire mall and finding almost nothing that fit my body reinforced the long-held belief I had that my body was wrong. Finding clothes that fit my body and that I actually liked was a rare feat. I often settled for the clothes that fit, even if I didn’t like them. 

Navigating Recovery and Lack of Access to Fashion

One of the hardest parts of eating disorder recovery has been the radical acceptance that I will never have a thin body. I will never have the body I dreamt of since I was a young child. Grieving the loss of the thin ideal is a process I am still working through. One of the first steps I took in doing this was going through my closet and getting rid of all of my goal-weight clothes and my sick clothes. The fashion industry did not make this process any easier, as finding clothes to fit my body that was already fat when I entered recovery but has only grown larger since then, has been quite a challenge. 

Lack of Inclusivity in Malls

I recently went to a mall with one of my friends. I haven’t been to a mall in years. But I was quickly reminded why I had steered clear of spaces like those. I asked the clerks of each store we entered if they had inclusive sizing. The overwhelming response was no. On occasion I was told yes, only to have the clerk say they carried up to a size 14 or 16. Even at my smallest, I never wore a size 14-16.

One of the stores we went to had a small corner filled with plus sizes. However, I wasn’t even able to fit in their largest size of what was supposed to be an oversized sweater. I went back to looking at the nick-knacks and holding things for my friend while she shopped. And I did my best to remind myself that the lack of access to clothing wasn’t my fault. Rather this is a fault of the fashion industry at large.

Walking around in a world that isn’t made for me is dehumanizing and defeating. As Aunt Amelia said in an article she wrote about this topic, “This is what the big girls do, we go along, yet can’t get a thing for ourselves.”

Sharon Maxwell shopping while fat in recovery in Los Angeles, California [Image description: photo of a happy fat woman holding clothing at the Plus Bus in Los Angeles, CA]Finding Inclusive Sizing

On a weekend trip to Los Angeles last year, I visited a plus-size boutique called The Plus Bus. I have followed The Plus Bus on social media for quite some time before being able to go to their store. The Plus Bus hosts beach days, hikes, and other events in Southern California. When I walked into their store, I was giddy with excitement. The store is organized by type of clothing and is filled with the most fun and unique pieces. 

This time, my friend held my bag. She looked through the racks to find the most “Sharonesque” pieces in the store. After seeing what I was gravitating toward, the people working in the store gathered clothes they thought I might like. We filled a fitting room to the brim with various options. I tried on clothes that I never imagined being able to wear. I was the star of the mini fashion shows for my friends and the workers. They cheered me on as I twirled and took my walk down the runway in front of the fitting room.

I bought two bags filled with clothes that day, and I couldn’t stop smiling. I’d bought items that I actually loved – clothes that felt like me. I teared up on the drive home from the myriad of feelings I was experiencing. I asked my friend if it was always that overwhelming to have an entire store of clothes to choose from.

Resources For Fat Folks In Recovery and For Those Supporting Fat Folks

Aunt Amelia’s Primer

The following italicized text is a primer for straight-sized and small-fat people, especially HAES therapists, dietitians, counselors, and other clinicians working with clients in large bodies excerpted from the blog of “Aunt Amelia’s” old blog post no longer available on the web:

 I share this to let you in a smaller or “straight-sized” body know that I understand that you might not fully understand clothing for fat bodies, large bodies, plus sized bodies. Even small fat people don’t fully understand the range of sizes and challenges presented by clothing.

However, if you are a therapist, dietician, counselor, or other professional or clinician working with fat people, you need to learn and understand the situation better. Because there are significant differences between sizes and availability of clothing for large bodies. Especially those of us who wear over a US 28. Please also do your work around thin privilege and know that just because your grandma called you chubby one day, you may still be carrying a great deal of privilege, however that is fodder for another post.

As a fat and super fat person, I hope you can imagine how all of this makes dressing a challenge. How hard it could be to even get out of the house. And for a body that is changing, perhaps getting fatter with appropriate weight restoration, not fitting clothes and struggling to buy new ones is a huge trigger. It all sucks and is very painful.

This may well be shared in a session with you. How you handle it is going to tell your client/patient a lot about you and if you are safe. The world is awful to fat bodies and we need the professionals we work with to have some understanding of our realities. I do not blame you for not knowing, I’m simply challenging you now to learn and do better.

Because, I see a fair number of small-bodied professionals who want to help. They put out requests for clothing recommendations for their clients/patients. Except most do not share the client’s size. They don’t know it, they don’t know it matters, or are they scared to ask. Which means that they are missing an important level of cultural competency in this field.

It also is really dangerous and damaging. Just imagine me in session with you, sharing a bunch of stuff about not fitting my clothes, how I’m having a hard time finding clothing, how I just want to go back to diet culture to fit in this world, how crappy I feel about the fat body I inhabit.

Offering to help me as a client find some resources is reasonable. You in your small body simply knows I’m fat, but has no clue about my size. It’s so much bigger than you. So when you bring me these well meaning recommendations you could be doing quite a few things, the two most common microaggressions are:

  1. If all the people you asked are small fat and I’m super fat, you will offer me options that are too small, reinforcing my body shame and struggle.
  2. If you overestimate my size and bring me back recommendations that are all for super fat bodies, you are telling me you think I am also super-fat, which also reinforces my body shame and struggle. Now don’t get me wrong here, there is nothing wrong with super-fat, however society is pretty crappy about it.

Speak with transparency and share that while you know there are resources and you have contacts that can help, you also know that sizing is important and different retailers offer clothes for differently sized large bodies. Then, ask my darn size. If I don’t know if, perhaps the painful and embarrassing act of figuring it out through measurements could be done or processed in session.

Fat mannequin in Los Angeles, California [Image description: a photo of a fat female mannnequin in front of a purple wall] Represents a body of a potential person in eating disorder recovery

But Clothing Is More Inclusive Now, Right?

I have heard more times than I can count, “Things have changed! You can buy plus sizes online. At least X store has plus sizes.” Please don’t be the person to say those things.

While I would agree that there are more options than there were when I was growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, the injustices in the fashion industry are still ubiquitous. Shopping while fat is still a huge challenge.

The Reality of the Challenges Still Present in the Plus-Size Fashion Industry

Large brands are capitalizing off of launching a body-positive campaign and adding plus sizes to their sales floors, only to pull all the sizes from their stores months later. There are companies that market that they sell plus sizes, yet if you look at the sizing chart, their 4X is an equivalent of a traditional US size L. 

Size charts are not always reliable, and a lot of online shops have rigid return and refund policies. Some companies do not accept returns altogether and others require that you pay the shipping fees when submitting a return.

On average, fat folks get paid less than their thin counterparts, yet we are charged more for our basic needs like buying clothing. In fat liberation spaces, this is often referred to as a fat tax. The shirt sold in XXS is the same price as the shirt sold in XXL, yet the moment you enter 1X or beyond, the price of the shirt increases exponentially. The argument is made that a 5X takes more fabric to make than an XL. If that were the true reason, XXS would cost pennies on the dollar compared to all of the size L sold. 

There are only so many options for style and fit at Torrid. Personally, Torrid’s tops rarely fit me correctly.

Online Shopping While Fat

The majority of brick-and-mortar clothing stores do not have plus sizes. If they do, they are likely off in a dimly lit corner of the store with sizing that stops at an 18-20. And that is only inclusive of those with smaller fat bodies. 

Most clothing options for fat folks are only available online. If something does not fit, often the cost of returning the item falls on the consumer. 

There is no set size that all fashion creators make for each size, which makes online shopping extra challenging. I have four different sizes of pants in my wardrobe that all fit my body the same way. This makes online shopping very challenging.

Helping Fat Patients Figure out Their Size

Oftentimes fat folks cannot go to a brick-and-mortar store to find out their size. For fat folks recovering from an eating disorder, their body may change with recovery. Eating disorder clinicians, you can create a safe space in a session to help your patient figure out their size by measuring them and helping them process their thoughts and emotions around the reality of their size. However, please ensure you are equipped with an extra-long measuring tape. Those in superfat and larger bodies will likely need a measuring tape that is longer than the average length of 60 inches. These are easy to access on Amazon. 

Resource List of Fat Fashion Brands for Shopping While Fat

Below is a list of plus-size brands and the sizes they carry. I have included their size ranges, but please note it is important to check the sizing chart to ensure that the size is accurate. 

Fat Fashion Brands Online:

Arq 0 – 24 

What Lo Wants 14 – 32 

Adidas XXS – 4XL 

Tomboy XXS – 4XL 

Fat Mermaids S – 4XL 

AndIGetDressed S – 5XL 

Nuditee 6 – 25

Franklin Jay Custom Sizing 

Parade XXS – 5XL 

Hey Mavensxo XXS – 6xl 

SuperFit Hero L – 7XL 

Madewell 000 – 24

Copper Union Apparel 12-34

Asos Curve 00 – 26

Eloqui 14 – 28

Universal Standard 0 – 40

Jessa Kae XXS – 6X

Ulla Poken 00 – 40

Gia Girl 12 – 28

Fat Fashion In Store:

Target 00 – 26 

Torrid M – 6XL

The Plus Bus (In LA)

Old Navy 16 – 30 (Only available in some stores. Call ahead)

Fat Positive Therapy Provided to Individuals throughout California

Our therapists are HAES(R)-aligned and able to support people of all body sizes with eating disorders and disordered eating in California. Reach out to us to get started. Sharon Maxwell, the author of this piece, will likely be your first point of contact.

With Gratitude for Amelia Mitchell

Post Inspired by a previous post by Amelia Mitchell, LMT, who went by @AuntAmelia on social media. Aunt Amelia was a fat therapist who talked about topics like inclusivity. Since writing her original piece, which has now been archived on the internet, sadly Aunt Amelia has passed away. While she is no longer physically with us, her work still lives on in us today. May we be more inclusive and create a safer world for those living in marginalized bodies.

About the Author

Sharon Maxwell wrote this post. She is a weight-inclusive consultant, a fat activist and a public speaker. Sharon also works as Eating Disorder Therapy LA’s Practice Manager. You can find her on social media at @heysharonmaxwell. Sharon works to help shed light on the social injustices fat folks face while offering practical strategies to fight these inequities. You can also contact her to learn more about her consultation services.

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