It’s a Tuesday, and I’m shopping with my friend who happens to be athletic, awesome and a size 4. I’m a size 18, and all I’m thinking is: I want to be skinny.
I had decided the night before that I was going to get off my butt and finally get thin. It hadn’t worked the 325 times prior, but this time felt different. So as we make our way into Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS). I’m excited to pick out some new workout clothes with my friend. We jet to the women’s section, and I start perusing through pants and shirts, looking for stuff that will fit and won’t cling to my body.
A few minutes go by, and soon my friend has a pile of clothes over her arm. Me? Nothing. I can’t find anything that isn’t too tight or too short.
I needed at least a 2XL in the stuff that was on the shelves, but that was nearly impossible to find. I’m discouraged, frustrated and upset — not just upset with what the store had to offer, but with myself. I’d been an athlete in high school, and working out was easy. But in college, I went beyond the freshman 15. More like the freshman 50. After college, losing weight was never a priority. My focus was on going out with friends, drinking and enjoying food. I slowly got bigger and bigger. I tried crash diet after crash diet, but nothing ever worked for me.
As I stood in the store, I could feel the tears coming. I felt weak and not good enough. Because I needed something, I walked myself over to the men’s section and bought a men’s t-shirt. I knew that would fit, but I also knew it wouldn’t look good. I wouldn’t feel comfortable. I felt frumpy and like I had settled. How was this supposed to help me get excited about working out?
After the tears, I thought: There has to be another option. I quickly found that there wasn’t. The plus-size workout clothes I came across looked as if they had been designed for grandparents. Anything attractive was wildly expensive. I couldn’t find anything from the major brands that was cute, motivational and affordable.
So I made another option. I was a graphic designer, so I designed a tank top. I just needed a manufacturer who sold size 2XL in a tank at a wholesale price and a printer who would print smaller quantities. I found it, and my first tank top was born. The top not only fit, but was motivating and got attention. Soon, I began to get the “I love your shirt! Where did you get it?” comments. Then the “Oh, I want one. Do you sell them?” That’s when From Thick to Thin was born.
Exclusion and frustration are nothing new to the plus-size consumer: separate stores, limited inventory, ill-fitting garments and higher prices. Much of the retail industry more or less refuses to serve this customer, citing a slew of excuses. Some companies are very forthright about why they do not produce an inclusive line – because they simply don’t want plus-size bodies in their clothes. Lululemon (LULU) co-founder Chip Wilson ignited a firestorm when, in 2013, he said his company’s signature yoga pants just “don’t work for some women’s bodies.” Former Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) CEO Mike Jeffries also took a turn in the body-shaming limelight when he was quoted in Salon saying, “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”
One of the standard excuses retailers give for not offering more sizes is that it’s just too hard to make those clothes. Indeed, plus-size fashion is not just a matter of sizing up a pattern. There is more expertise needed to design and produce properly fitting garments. Also, there are more variations in body type, which can yield additional challenges. In 2014, Old Navy (GPS) came under fire for charging higher prices for plus-size women’s clothing, but not passing on the same price increases to larger-size men’s clothing.
“For women, styles are not just larger sizes of other women’s items, they are created by a team of designers who are experts in creating the most flattering and on-trend plus styles, which includes curve-enhancing and curve-flattering elements such as four-way stretch materials and contoured waistbands, which most men’s garments do not include,” said Gap spokeswoman Debbie Felix in a statement. “This higher price point reflects the selection of unique fabrics and design elements.”
Yes, there technically is more fabric involved when sizing up a garment. There are additional design labor and manufacturing costs when producing these pieces, as well. On average, there’s a 33.44 percent increase in our costs to produce an extended-size tank vs. a straight size. However, there is more fabric used for a size 10 than a size 0, yet it is highly unlikely that this pricing structure would be regularly implemented on straight-size garments.
So what does my company do about the increased costs? We suck it up and accept them. Is it a bad business decision? Maybe for some companies. But for me, it is the right moral decision. We are not here to judge what size shirt you are ordering. We just want to know that you feel awesome in something that we produced. The best business decision for us was to charge the same for all.
A 2014 survey commissioned by clothing retailer ModCloth with market research firm Paradigm Sample found, unsurprisingly, that 90 percent of women feel more confident when wearing an awesome outfit. Wearing an oversize men’s shirt does not constitute awesome. The study also revealed that 81% of plus-size shoppers say they would spend more on clothing if there were more options in their size, and 88% would buy more if those options were considered trendy.
Plus-size women deserve more than 9% representation in the $190 billion-dollar clothing industry. Instead, retailers largely choose to alienate this market over minor increases in front-end costs instead of considering that equal inclusion not only is the right thing to do, but it’s also a smart business move.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American woman is 5 foot 4, weighs 166 pounds and has a 37-inch waist, which translates roughly to a size 14. Yet many retailers’ sizing maxes out at XL. Why would a store seek to serve fewer customers, not more? Retailers are running businesses, not charities, but why run on a model that says one paying customer deserves clothes but another doesn’t?
As a plus-size individual, I wanted shirts that covered my stomach, shorts that were not uncomfortably short, and pants that did not roll down when I did a squat — all of that and not be forced to live on Top Ramen to afford.
As our business has grown, the shortcomings that exist within the current landscape of the industry have become more apparent. I’m not a fashion designer by any means, but I wanted to offer products that I felt comfortable in. We asked our customers what they didn’t like about other apparel currently available and took that feedback to our manufacturers.
Many companies start with a size small and, as they size up, simply add inches to the waist and don’t increase length or account for larger thigh circumference. We took that feedback and scaled up our product accordingly and correctly. It’s paying off: 65% of our sales are for sizes large and up.
My mindset has changed dramatically since that day I spent crying at Dick’s. I am no longer laser-focused on being skinny; being strong and healthy, at any size, is good enough. I’m now an athlete, regularly doing CrossFit and competing in CrossFit competitions at least a few times a year. But I could not forget that terrible feeling of not being good enough simply because I couldn’t fit into something in a store.
I started my business not to make money but to combat the way I was made to feel that day in a sporting goods store and to make clothes that actually fit American women. My anger over how the retail industry does business has become my fuel. Not having plus sizes in the store, charging extra, not showing real models in their marketing — these are all things that I want to see changed in the industry. My goal and mission is to remind all women that there is a place for them in both the retail world and the fitness world. To have a place where they aren’t excluded or charged more so they can fit in and to remind everyone that we can all be athletes.
Andrea Kuchinski is the owner of From Thick to Thin, an all-inclusive athletic apparel line.
This story was originally published in The Washington Post.