The truth about shopping while ‘plus-size’

All hail the plus-size woman who navigates a fashion world that was not built with her figure in mind. She monitors online sites for sales, and befriends clerks in Macy’s Women’s department. She prioritizes her wardrobe needs so that she can buy the perfect shoes before they go on sale and nothing but a size six is left. She employs a tailor or some amazing sewing skills. She can read fashion magazines and translate their offerings for women in her size range into actual, wearable outfits. Hail her, y’all, for she has achieved, if not the impossible, than the rare. How do I know this? I am one of those women: larger, stylish and working hard to be so.

The difficulties of being a plus-sized woman—ugh, I hate that term so much, but it’s what the fashion industry has settled on—who wants to be stylishly attired are legion, and most float by unnoticed to those sized in ways that are deemed “standard.”

For women like me, shopping is often a commando operation in which we try to get in and out of the handful of plus-sized clothing stores and plus-sized women’s’ sections in department stores as quickly as possible. The choices are usually quite limited, so instead of leisurely browsing through multiple departments—the swimsuits, the fancy dresses, the sportswear—we land in the one department with our sizes, scan for any item of clothing that doesn’t repulse us, try it on, and get out, on to the next mission.

Next time you’re in a department store, I encourage you to check out where the clothing for larger women is stashed. A store not far near me has placed the women’s department on a top floor that appears to have been under active construction since the late 1970s. And don’t get me started on vintage stores which encourage the assumption that women born before 1990 were always a size 10 or smaller.

Even if we bigger women do find a cute dress in our size, there’s still the problem of the underpinnings: We’ll most likely need to go to a speciality shop or an online retailer to find what my friend calls the “boulder holder” that works with our dress. After all, a good bra makes all the difference. I once took the subway for over an hour to an entirely different borough so that a stranger could manhandle me into the right size.

The list of complaints goes on: Trends take forever to trickle down to plus-size clothing; there’s a strong tendency towards ruffles and doo-dads; finding hats is a nightmare. In short, retail America wants me, and women like me, to settle, to take up the boxy t-shirts and un-fitted capri pants that they’ve decided are what plus-sized women should wear.

But we persevere. In fact, I think that being plus-sized and caring about how I look— and not having 38 hours in the day to shop—has forced me to develop a distinct personal style. I favor classic shapes in grays and blacks, with lots of colorful scarves, sneakers and coats. It feels wonderful to know that I look both put together and unique, and I suspect that if I were a more conventional size I would be more easily lead into following what’s trendy. I love that I look like me, not a photograph in a magazine of someone else.

Sure, I wish that more designers created for a variety of body sizes and types, and that stores were more thoughtful about stocking the same for the myriad of customers who visit. I cringe every season when Project Runway shows the episode in which the designers wail, “I have to dress NON models?!” But I’m proud to be a woman who has resisted all temptation to wear a boxy, embroidered t-shirt and who doesn’t own a single beige item.

After all, isn’t the world a better place when we can all dress how we want? So, yes, stylish plus-sized women should be applauded. In fact, every stylish woman who faces what the fashion industry calls a flaw— from being short to being slim—should be celebrated, for our love of style is truer and more abiding than that of the folks who haven’t had to work half as hard to look good.

Shannon Reed’s work has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Buzzfeed, Vela Magazine,and Narratively among other credits. You can find links to her writing online at

[Image by Eva Duplan]

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