During Full Figured Fashion Week, I attended the Pulse of the Plus Size Community Panel, which discussed the challenges, trends and future of the plus size community. It was hosted by comedienne Erica Watson. Panelists were Jill Hutchison, Publisher and General Manager for Sonsi.com, Katheryn Finney, founder of the TheBudgetFashionista.com and CEO of TBF Group, LLC, Madeline Figueroa-Jones, editor of PLUS Model Magazine, Jennene Biggins, Founder and CEO of Voluptuous Woman Company, and Leslie Medlik, who works for Re/Dress NYC.
The “Plus Size” Label
The definition of “plus size” is a fluid one. Some designers consider anything over a 10 or a 12 to be plus sized. Considering the “average sized” woman in the United States is a size 14, this label is misleading. Jill Hutchinson said she gets asked all the time “am I plus size”? She stressed that “plus size” is wrongfully given a negative connotation, and that you are what you are regardless of the label put on it.
The panel had a variety of opinions as to the labels put on the “plus size” woman. Leslie Medlik‘s opinion was not to sugarcoat it, a plus size woman is “fat” and women should take back the word proudly. Erica Watson too had problems with euphemisms, noting that a “curve” is often a “fat roll” and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Jill Hutchinson preferred to focus on terms that will make a woman comfortable with herself. Madeline Figueroa-Jones stressed the community should be focusing on the real issues rather than words.
Too often people get so bogged down in nitpicking over words that the substance gets lost. While I believe in “telling it like it is,” I don’t see any benefit in trying to “take back” a word with negative connotations. Many weight-acceptance activists who do great work and have wisdom to impart call what they do “fat acceptance.” While I appreciate how they bring attention to important issues, personally I’d rather see derogatory terms and slurs eliminated rather than “redefined.”
Plus Size Models
Plus size designers frequently fail to use models that look like the female customers who will ultimately be wearing the clothes. Madeline Figueroa Jones asked a manufacturer why it didn’t use plus size models of color. The manufacturer’s response? Customers don’t respond to “bigger, darker” models. Their research was based on a study they did in 1998.
A woman from Catherine’s was in the audience. She asked her employer why they don’t use models truer to their customers’ body types. Catherine’s told her they conducted a study and determined customers wanted smaller size models that they could aspire to be like. The size of this focus group panel? Only 25 women.
Charging More for the Same Thing
Retailers often charge more for plus size offerings that are exactly the same as their regular size counterparts. Katheryn Finney listed the litany of excuses retailers give: pattern changes, different models required (which they often aren’t even using), more fabric, and less volume in sales. She stated that the solution is to “support those who support us.”
The woman from Catherine’s noted that Catherine’s charges more for their larger plus sizes. Ironically, Catherine’s sells more of these larger, more expensive clothes than the smaller plus sizes.
Considering the large number of plus size women in the United States, the excuse that there is no clothing market for them is a feeble one. A woman who works for Fashion Bug stressed that the buying power is definitely there. The problem is that manufacturers make unattractive, ill-fitting plus size clothes. Understandably, women don’t buy them.
Stefanie Cunningham of La’Grace International, who is launching a plus size bra line in Fall 2011 put it eloquently: “Bras are supposed to support, lift and fit, not bankrupt you.”
Katheryn Finney opined that success in high-end fashion offerings has a trickle-down effect to lower-priced offerings, and encouraged the audience to support high-end independent plus size designers. The panel as a whole noted that designers and retailers should work together to make plus size clothing more readily available and economically viable.
Plus Size Women “Selling Out”
There are many smart, successful plus size women out there. Katheryn Finney noted that plus size women executives are quite prevalent in television network management. Yet there are so many exploitative and denigrating weight loss reality shows out there. Likewise, plus sized women are so rarely represented and even more rarely in a positive light. It makes one wonder if there is a fear of identification and self-hatred going on. It is truly sad to see women lacking the courage to advocate for themselves and other women.
Designers’ “Dirty Little Secrets”
The panel discussed how many designers will design for both regular and plus sizes but treat their decision as a dirty little secret. They don’t want to dress or design for the few plus size celebrities out there. They don’t want their plus size offerings featured in magazines. Plus size women in the spotlight instead turn to independent designers to get what the more mainstream designers refuse to provide them with.
Skinny Little Girls As Part of the Plus Size Community
A wedding boutique owner who is launching a line of plus size wedding dresses stood up and said she had been worried about coming to the panel, that people around her would be asking “who the hell is the skinny little girl?”
I’ll admit I had my own reservations. I’m far from a skinny little girl. But I’ve been dieting and losing weight, and I wondered to myself whether that made me a “traitor to the cause.”
I was pleased to find that panel members didn’t define supporters of the plus size community by size. Jennene Biggins said women should come together, noting that some women divide themselves even further by delineating between “regular plus size” and “super plus size.” She added that there is nothing wrong with trying to lose weight and be healthy, so long as you are committed to the cause.
This panel was not just about fashion but body acceptance and fair treatment of women regardless of size as a whole. I was inspired by the speakers and encourage readers to think about it.