the HAES® files: Breaking up with Shopping; It’s Not Me, It’s You

by Health At Every Size® Blog

A HAES® Approach to Fashion and the Shopping Experience

by Debbie Christel, B.A., M.S., Ph.D. and Susan Dunn, B.S.

I think we’ve all heard those infamous breakup words, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Well, when it comes to clothing, this is theShopping 1 message we hear everywhere from yogurt commercials, to runways, to clothing stores: If the clothes don’t fit, it’s your body that’s to blame, not the clothes.

I don’t know about you, but that message has never sat well with me. So, now I want to share with you how many women
default to blaming themselves when a clothing item doesn’t fit. Then I’ll provide some techniques on how to dump (or break-up with) a shopping experience that many describe as “simply awful.”

When I was first introduced to Health At Every Size® (HAES), I was working on my PhD in apparel design and studying sport and exercise psychology to help me understand the role of athletic clothing during physical activity. I discovered that not all women like their work-out clothing. However, to my surprise, it wasn’t necessarily the physical discomfort of the clothing itself that was problematic. Rather, the emotional discomfort of shopping presented a huge headache. Indeed, the major stress was actually in the shopping experience itself. The process of finding clothing that fit well, had simple yet stylish silhouettes, and was reasonably priced and easy to find was difficult for women—especially larger women.

To make matters even more stressful and confusing, different stores have different sizing systems. For instance, Chicos sells clothing labeled 0-3 while Lane Bryant offers clothing labeled 14-28. However, regardless of sizing and labeling, we’ve all had those shopping experiences where we try on a piece of clothing and it just doesn’t fit right.

Shopping2I was shopping with my friend a few weeks ago who tried on the most adorable orange angora sweater. As the close friend of a fashion designer, she knows better than to let the size tag of a garment have any power to make her feel bad about herself. I thought she looked great, but the first thing of her mouth was, “I just need to have thinner arms, then this sweater would be perfect.” I could tell she felt deflated and, by the words she used, ashamed of her body for the poor fit. I was so glad that I was there with her because I immediately said, “That color looks amazing on you; let me grab you a different size.” Before she could protest, I was down the aisle and found it in the next size up. Not wanting to re-experience body shame, she hesitated to try it on. However, with just a little encouragement, she did, and much to her delight, the sweater fit her body much better.
I repeatedly hear stories like this and know that the shopping experience would be less stressful if women understood a few things about the clothing industry:

  1. Size labels are completely arbitrary. Any company can put any size on any garment. Really, there are no laws or required standards governing this. AND size labels have been changing for years. According to Lee and Steen (2014), a pattern from the 1950’s labeled as 14 is roughly labeled as a size 8 today! So if a size doesn’t fit, trust me, it’s not you – it’s just the tag.
  2. Clothing is designed from a cookie cutter template and produced in massive quantities. Humans are not shaped the same. So if a clothing item doesn’t fit, trust me, it’s not you – it’s the cookie cutter template that needs to be adjusted, not your arms.
  3. Celebrities that can look amazing in even t-shirts and jeans aren’t wearing the same clothes that the rest of us wear. Celebrities get most of their clothing specialty tailored, while most of us wear ours off the rack.
  4. Clothing sold for full price can be expensive and is typically a rip-off. The rule for pricing clothing is usually a 200% markup. This means that while a basic polo shirt costs about $5.50 to physically make. A retailer will typically sell that shirt for about $15 to $30, depending on the target market, materials used, and overhead costs. Personally, knowing that the markup is a rip-off, I can’t justify paying full retail price for clothing. I don’t consider this being cheap, rather I consider it being educated. If you ever feel embarrassed by wanting to go straight to the discount section, I suggest reminding yourself that you are simply smarter than other shoppers.
  5. Yes, weight bias exists in the fashion industry on both ends of the spectrum. If you are too thin or too fat, you will be scrutinized (just look at any tabloid). The way the fashion industry makes money is by hoping that people feel bad about themselves and, thus, will buy more clothes (whether skinny or fat). So, when you’re shopping, remind yourself that you are choosing to break-up with the fashion industry. Yes fashion, it is you and not me.

Shopping for clothing when it’s hard to find items in your size and style can be kind of a chore, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s some advice for reducing the stress:

  1. Go shopping with a trusted ally. Even if you aren’t the same size, just being with a close friend is so important to boostingShopping3 your confidence, and they can help grab other sizes while you are trying on items.
  2. Knowing ahead of time stores or boutiques that sell clothing in your size and style is key. Exploring new shops can be fun, but there’s nothing fun about realizing you can’t buy anything but a purse in a boutique. So, call ahead to see what sizes they offer. If they don’t carry your size, remind yourself that you are not the problem, it’s the store that needs to change. They are the ones losing your business.
  3. Try not to have expectations, but instead have preferences. For example: I’d really prefer to find a great pair of jeans today, but if I don’t, that’s ok.
  4. Check the Sale or Clearance section first, online too. Why pay full retail price if you don’t have to? Also, go to the Goodwill or Salvation Army store where they have a breadth of clothing at great discount prices!
  5. Check clothing measurements on websites. Many brands will have size charts with Bust, Waist, and Hip measurements for their apparel on their website, and some will have this information in store. This will let you know what is likely to fit whether shopping in person or online.

Going to shops when you need a specific item can be really frustrating. Try to build up classics and pieces in your wardrobe over several trips. Having a monthly shopping trip with friends is a great way to do this and, if going to secondhand or vintage boutiques, you don’t have to worry about breaking the bank. Shopping online can be a great approach as well, but just remember if the clothing arrives and doesn’t fit, it’s them not you that needs to change.

Reference: Lee, J., & Steen, C. (2014). Technical sourcebook for designers (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.


Debbie Christel is an Assistant Professor at Washington State University in the Department of Apparel Merchandising, Design, and Textiles. At the intersections of apparel, functional design, weight bias and diversity, Debbie’s research explores design methods for plus size consumers and other diverse body types. Her research and teaching is rooted in the belief that everyone deserves equal access to clothing they desire and that fashion designers have an obligation to design for every body type. She incorporates plus-size design techniques and weight bias education into her fashion design courses. Dr. Christel is also working to approve Fat Studies as a university diversity core course at Washington State University.

Susan Dunn is a Masters student at Washington State University in apparel design focusing on women’s plus size clothing. Plus size herself, she is striving for changes within the fashion industry as well as advancing research in topics such as weight bias, apparel design for diverse body shapes, and improving the shopping experience for plus-size women. Susan anticipates graduating this May and plans to pursue an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at Washington State University this Fall.

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