"Why should wearing appropriate clothing be the privilege of only one body type?" Salon readers respond to Lynn Harris' article about fashion for plus-size teens

Published April 8, 2005 6:27PM (EDT)

[Read "Living Large," by Lynn Harris.]

It never ceases to amaze me that in this hyper-capitalist society, more clothing manufacturers don't make clothes for women larger than a size 14. Someone who specialized in well-made tailored professional clothes would clean up.

Even when retailers do offer larger sizes, choices are extremely limited for women who need suits and other traditional business attire. There are times in my professional life when nothing but a suit will do -- have the clothing manufacturers, store buyers and fashion police decided that I don't deserve to be able to conform to my professional dress code? Do they think I should just show up in sporty capri pants and a big shirt when everyone else is in a suit?

But at least I have a job that allows me to spend enough money to buy nice $300 and $400 suits when I can find them. Nonprofits like Dress for Success and battered-women's shelters are rarely able to provide professional second-hand clothing in the sizes most clients actually need. The donations of great Anne Klein size 4 suits from incredibly generous and well-intentioned lawyers and bankers simply don't help. A strict diet and exercise program to lose 100 pounds isn't on the top of the list for women who have fled their homes leaving everything behind. I believe Dress for Success has had to start buying larger-size clothes to make up for the dearth of donations.

Retailers of America, wake up to this market opportunity! Stop judging and start making money. Who would have thought that you'd ever have to say that in our consumer culture?

-- Name withheld

As a 30-something woman who loves Torrid, I feel qualified to add a data point here.

I can assure researchers who are afraid that having decent things to wear might make kids -- or people of any age -- OK with being fat that they're completely off the mark.

There weren't stores like Torrid when I was in school. The only things I could find in my size -- and I wasn't even that heavy at that age -- were absolutely awful. But that didn't exactly make losing weight any easier; it just made me feel like even more of an alien and even more miserable, no matter how I tried to keep the weight off.

After all kinds of determined diets and exercise programs and angst, I'm heavier now than ever before in my life, partly due to medication I take. If disapproval could have kept me thin, I'd have been skinny from junior high school onward. Nothing has made me suffer more.

Believe me, the small bit of dignity that comes from knowing my money is as green as anyone else's and can buy nice things to wear does not making me think "Woo-hoo! I'm not ugly anymore!" It just makes dealing with this on a daily basis more bearable.

-- Amy Brandt

Torrid is encouraging teens to be overweight?

Excuse me?

Replacing affordable school lunches with subsidized fast food encourages teens to be overweight. Dropping P.E. from the curriculum because it doesn't contribute to No Child Left Behind requirements encourages teens to be overweight. An economy that forces all parents and some children in the house to work long hours just to put food on the table (and, thus, increase the amount of prepackaged, processed snacks and meals consumed) encourages teens to be overweight. McDonald's being the second-largest land owner in Manhattan (after the Catholic Church) encourages teens to be overweight.

Being able to shop for cool clothes that fit is merely consolation.

-- Rich Pizor

I'm way out of Torrid's target market, but thank God for it. I love shopping there, I am treated like a valued customer, and the atmosphere is positive and upbeat. I love the clothes they sell, the great lingerie, the head-to-toe accessories and, of course, their excellent customer service. I leave Torrid feeling as if I've had a transformational experience every single time.

In department stores the plus-size department is always a pigsty when the rest of the store will be immaculate, no matter where you are in the world. That message underscores what a lot of us overweight girls already feel -- that we're second class.

What's more, Torrid, unlike many of the nation's leading retailers and catalogs that cater to overweight women, uses actual plus-size models in its ads and on its Web site, so it's possible to imagine what the clothing will look like on you (something not possible with chains who use size 16 girls as the models for clothing marketed to size 28 women).

Having a store that treats overweight girls as decent, deserving paying customers is a godsend.

-- Anna Klenman

I'm 34, definitely past the target market for Torrid. And I've lost over 40 pounds in the last year and a half, so I'm not sure I could shop there anymore. But I have to speak to those who would argue that making attractive clothes available to the overweight will only encourage obesity.

As I said, I've lost a lot of weight recently. I did this the healthy way. I learned about portion sizes. I learned to exercise. I'm now a size 12, certainly not petite, but at 5 feet 6 inches, healthy. Yet, I still cannot find a belt that will reach around my 33-inch waist. It is a terrible feeling, to stand in a store, take an XL belt off the rack, inhale deeply, hold my breath, wrap it around, and know before even opening my eyes that it won't fit. This, after I've lost 9 inches of belly already. It's demoralizing. It makes it hard to feel proud of what I've already accomplished. And it's just a belt.

Clothing isn't everything, but it contributes much to our self-image, especially for young women. If Torrid is doing anything, it is helping girls see themselves as attractive and worthy -- feelings they may not be familiar with.

The first step to taking care of yourself is liking yourself. It's hard to like yourself when the only clothes you can wear are sweat pants and men's T-shirts. Torrid may be doing more to encourage young women to start taking better care of themselves than all the fashion magazines and workout videos in the world. In fact, I may have to check out their belts!

-- Stacey George

I think both ends of the size spectrum are underserved by the clothing industry. I'm not asking for sympathy (and I know I won't get any), but I'm a very small woman (5 feet 1 inch, about 100 pounds) and can only really shop at one or two stores. I've experienced the same shopping dilemma when I go to the mall with friends as plus-size teens experience, but from the other end. My friends can't shop in the stores I like; I can't shop in the stores they like.

With the trend toward vanity sizing in women's clothing (making sizes bigger while the number on the label stays the same), I'm dropping off the left side of the scale. Ten years ago in college I wore anywhere between a 3 and a 6. These days, 0 is usually too large. I have not changed in terms of weight or size. Most things look gorgeous on the hanger and like a potato sack on me.

I wish the clothing industry would stop playing mind games and give women clothes that fit. Plus-size teens and women may believe that being a 0 makes buying clothes easy, but it does not. The largest market is the one in the middle of the bell curve, and that's the one that gets served.

-- Melanie

I'm glad there are stores where larger girls can buy clothes they'll feel good in. Especially ones that don't just size up clothes, but actually design them to look good on larger women.

And as for the naysayers who think that raising an overweight person's self-esteem will make them want to continue being overweight, I invite them to live a few weeks in the shoes of a chubby girl. No matter how good they feel about themselves, I guarantee you they all wish they had they had those smooth, taut bodies that the other girls flaunt so carelessly.

Maybe if big girls felt better about themselves, they wouldn't sit on the couch, eating away, thinking, "Oh, fuck it, I'm ugly and I'll never be different!" Or maybe we would have fewer girls starving themselves to death out of self-hatred.

-- Denise Riffle

I really enjoyed Lynn Harris' article on plus-size clothing for young people. I'm disturbed, however, that some of the experts she references in the article are concerned that the availability of trendy plus-size clothing sends the "wrong message" and will discourage overweight young people from implementing fitness routines.

Our nation is gripped with hysteria over dieting and other weight-loss tactics that simply do not work. We seem to believe -- collectively -- that large people can motivate themselves to thinness through self-loathing and self-abuse. The opposite is true.

In a diet-obsessed culture, people often become much larger as a consequence of strict and self-negating dieting strategies. When a fat teenager hates herself and resolves to diet, the categorical rejection she suffers (at her own hands and the hands of a fat-phobic society) often leads her to sabotage her own best efforts. Real change can never come from a position of self-hatred. Positive and affirming clothing is a huge part of building a strong sense of self, which is a crucial part of overcoming any obstacle in life.

Being a large teenager is often terribly humiliating. Parents, peers, nurses, doctors, magazines, guidance counselors -- everyone tells you that you should concentrate on changing yourself immediately. To most Americans, "fat" doesn't mean "unhealthy." It means "ugly," "out of control," "outsider" and "loser." Instead of understanding the psychological roots of overeating or a sedentary and withdrawn lifestyle, society just demands that these vulnerable teens start getting skinny ASAP and by any means necessary. This is the wrong message to send, for countless reasons.

I applaud Torrid and any other retailers that provide trendy plus-size clothing. People of any age are much more inclined to take a measured and patient approach to lifestyle changes if they are allowed to feel good about themselves throughout the process, at any size or shape.

-- Erin Judge

I am a 24-year-old woman who recently lost 50 pounds. I may not fit into my Torrid jeans any more, but I sure as hell appreciated the boost that access to stylish, inexpensive and youthful clothing gave my self-esteem as I got my act together and regained my health.

I find the suggestion that young women who shop at plus-size stores are being lulled into some kind of complacency about their weight ridiculous and simplistic. Nearly every mainstream magazine and TV program -- not to mention the number of stores that don't accommodate every body -- reinforces that fat is not fine. Why should wearing appropriate clothing be the privilege of only one body type?

-- Erin M. Blakemore

Enough already! Fat prejudice is the last condoned prejudice in this country. A great many people who wouldn't dream of making derogatory comments about any other individuals feel free to express disgust toward the "overweight." Most fat people, myself included, struggle enough to maintain self-esteem without pseudo-scientists using concerns about the increasing incidence of obesity as an excuse to validate prejudices and punish fat people. Maybe we should all be made to wear potato sacks. Would that help?

The idea that teens will remain or become overweight if they are able to find clothing in their size is offensive, and any person espousing it -- however they attempt to rationalize -- is ignorant and intolerant. If that person is also a professional who might be in a position to affect the life of a teen, they may also be dangerous.

-- Dee Quaranto

Feeling too good? Give me a break.

Look, I'm not even a really big person, and even I have difficulty finding clothes that don't look hideous. Nothing for fat girls? There's nothing for anyone with curves. Shirts fit everywhere but the breasts. Pants fit everywhere but the behind. Yes, for some reason clothing manufacturers believe that we have all turned into titless, assless stick figures.

I don't have to shop at Torrid, but there is no way I will begrudge its existence. I'm not sure how forcing kids to wear terrible clothes is going to make them cheerfully lose weight. It hasn't done so yet. Maybe professionals should stop complaining that someone is finally filling a market need while other companies get away with murder. We know that poorer people eat less healthfully, because healthful is expensive. We know that companies target markets in unethical ways. But I suppose it's easier not to tackle the big guys. Let's go after the 16-year-old who has finally found a bra that doesn't look like grandma's underwear.

There is probably room for personal responsibility in all this, but personal responsibility ends when you need to research chemical additives in order to figure out what products might be safe, let alone healthy.

-- D. Fletcher

Don't say Torrid is just for overweight kids. By the 10th grade I already wore a 44DD bra. Not overweight, but you try finding a shirt in the juniors section for big-chested girls. They certainly didn't have it seven or eight years ago. I remember that everything made me look pregnant or cheap.

Imagining a shirt with princess seams for someone my size puts a big smile on my face.

-- Nickie Dunn

A great quote from Dr. T. Joel Wade: "If the teens are overweight due to diet excesses and a lack of exercise and physical activity, then I think the clothing can simply reinforce that they do not need to exercise or care about their physical health."

Maybe Dr. Wade should personally be in charge of a project to station trained nurses at the doors of all Torrid stores. They could conduct a full physical and lifestyle assessment on each potential shopper and only let in those fatties who are fat through no fault of their own, while shooing away the "bad" fatties to the sweat suit racks at Sears. I guess only "good" fat girls deserve to have a positive self-image; the rest can go cry into their carrot sticks night after night.

The most infuriating thing about your article is that its headline frames it as if there's some kind of real, serious controversy stirred up by the existence of Torrid and other stylish plus-lines. The article's main focus was on how much better plus-size girls feel when they can find cute clothes, and how much an improvement in self-esteem they get from dressing in an attractive way. The "controversy" was a side note, opinion directly contradicted by the facts cited in the article. Why does every bit of media attention toward plus-size women have to manufacture some kind of negative spin on their simple right to exist?

-- Sheila Addison

I cannot believe that "a handful of weight-management experts" would be so stupid as to think that larger clothes that fit heavy people would encourage otherwise thin people to remain fat.

But then again, being in the field, it is in their best financial interest to encourage people to remain entrenched in their problems with food and body, isn't it?

-- Nina Echeverria

I think it is a sad state of affairs when Salon is using its precious headline space to create a problem where clearly one does not exist. Childhood obesity is a problem, but no kid is going to get fat so that they can wear "cooler" clothes. I think few would argue that fat is cool in 2005. Only in this puritanical culture could someone write a thousand words on whether there is danger in providing children too positive a sense of self worth.

-- Mike M.

Clothing manufacturers, and the fashion industry in general, are constantly decried as reinforcing a standard of beauty that encourages an unhealthy lifestyle. This attitude has become so common that is has become clichéd. Yet while 1, maybe 2 percent of the population suffers from anorexia or bulimia, 30 percent suffer from obesity. Indeed, the oversized models who market oversized clothing represent a greater distortion to normal human form than the so-called evil standard of female beauty. In other words, if the vast majority of Americans ate reasonable portions of healthy food and exercised regularly, they would bear a closer resemblance to regular fashion models than the oversized ones that supposedly represent the "ordinary" American.

It's terrible that obese teens feel shame about their bodies. But the sudden rise in obesity proves that this is a function of lifestyle and not genetics. For the most part, these teens feel shame because they don't make healthy decisions. Going out of our way to accept their shameful behavior, more or less ignoring the consequences of it, is not the way to handle the problem. The shame is a symptom. The lifestyle is the disease. Don't treat the symptom.

That said, why was this deemed so important that it deserved to be a cover story? It failed to address any of the real issues that naturally tie in to this phenomenon: the "high fructose corn syrup" mafia; the way junk food, TV and video games are used by parents to satiate children's emotional needs; the looming health crisis America faces due to an overpriced healthcare system and a huge population of obese people. In a world where one of every three people doesn't get enough to eat, the trauma that comes from not being able to stop eating just doesn't seem newsworthy.

-- Forrest Fulmer

I understand what you're trying to do in your article about Torrid and overweight teens, but please. This is ridiculous. A store where people can buy clothing that makes them happy -- when I can guarantee that clothes shopping has been a difficult, bordering on the traumatic, experience for most of them -- is unequivocally good. But it's only one store, and it is pricey at that. Having one store out of thousands that offers clothes these kids like and can fit into is not going to make them complacent corporate spokespeople.

It might make them feel better about themselves. I agree with Lauren Solotar -- it is difficult to make the changes required to lose weight and become healthy if you're miserable. Feeling good about your body, regardless of its size, will hopefully lead to taking better care of it.

-- Name withheld

By all means, yes, let's force fat kids to dress and feel like crap for their own good.

Sorry, but the notion that cool clothes for fat teens will encourage obesity is so toxic I can't resist the urge for shrill sarcasm.

The obvious answer is to encourage better eating, more activity, and self-esteem and self-acceptance for all, regardless of size, weight or shape. I hate to break it, fatphobes everywhere, but there will always be fat people, even fat kids. It's laudable to want to help us be as healthy as we can be, but shame, isolation, discrimination and bad fashion will not help us get there.

Cool clothes for all.

-- Mark Reschke

Bravo for Lynn Harris' well-rounded (pun intended) story on the plus-size chain Torrid. I am one of those secretly obsessed 30-somethings that Wendy Shanker describes. My chubby 16-year-old fashion-starved inner child covets these clothes, and my grown-up self happily indulges her from time to time.

Fashionable clothes for fat teens offer the power of transformation and plant the seed that these girls are worth something as people. I get so angry when I see punitive finger-waggling from diet "experts" that would have us believe that stylish clothes that fit are an endorsement of fatness.

This kind of attitude does nothing for fat people except reinforce the idea that their happiness should be delayed until they lose weight. Weight been turned into a moral issue in this country. And if you are too big (insert your definition of "big" here), then you are undeserving of employment, romance, respect and, of course, fashion.

Torrid is a small step in helping those who must deal with issues of weight find a sense of esteem. Only by loving one's self and the body in which it is contained can true health and fitness be achieved.

-- Kimberly Smith

I think it's a welcome change that overweight teens can finally get cool clothing. In high school, I was a healthy, athletic size 12, but I considered myself "fat." Why? Because most of the girls I saw in magazines and on TV were slim and the trendy teen stores rarely carried more than a size 10. So what did I do? I wore baggy, shapeless clothes and figured that if the world saw me as fat, then I was fat.

Fast-forward through years of eating myself into oblivion (and a size 22), smoking half a pack a day, and dating all the wrong men because my self-esteem was in the toilet. It's taken many years for me to realize that I want to be healthy and fit. I quit smoking two years ago, I've managed to get back down to a size 12, and it's been damn hard work. I'm proud of myself, but it makes me sad that I went through all of that.

Let's not take away choices from overweight girls -- they have a hard enough path as it is. Instead, let's support and encourage them to live healthier lifestyles by offering cute plus-size exercise clothing (including sports bras), a more appealing phys. ed. curriculum (belly dancing vs. dodgeball -- which would you rather do?), and having more realistic depictions of women in the media. Let's see a cute, smart size-12 girl on "The O.C." snag a hot guy!

It's way too easy now to get fat in our society. Losing weight today requires a monumental commitment to buck the system, not to mention a very healthy self-esteem. Cheers to Torrid for helping girls with the self-esteem. Now it's up to the rest of us to work on the "system" so that being healthy and fit becomes the easy choice -- for everybody.

-- Krista Chiasson

I am disappointed at the shallowness you've demonstrated regarding the Torrid line of clothing for plus-size teens.

In instances where obesity is not genetic, usually you find that the individual became fat because of low self-esteem. Food becomes a crutch and fat becomes a shield. Most people who counsel obese kids find that low self-esteem is what keeps their clients fat.

To say that making these kids feel better about themselves will make them less likely to lose weight is ridiculous and irresponsible, particularly since you have cited no legitimate scientific study to back the proposition. You offer merely the musings of a couple of professors who seem to have bought into the mass psychosis of the fashion industry's "beauty standard" -- that those who can't fit in size 0 pants and don't have D-cups should feel ashamed and inadequate.

Fat kids in cool clothes are not the problem. The obesity epidemic in this country exists because we are nation that idolizes a nearly impossible definition of beauty and stubbornly insists on maintaining the fiction that obtaining it requires no effort.

We fail to equip our kids with good nutrition information, we fail to provide good physical education resources, we fail to provide healthy school lunches, and then we tell kids they should look like an actress whose physique is only obtainable with the right genes and plastic surgery. In essence, we set our kids up to fail, and then make them feel bad about it.

I suppose that it's no wonder that rather than do the hard work of getting at the real issues behind the obesity problem, people choose to take the easy way out and blame a clothing company.

-- Liz Emrich

Kudos to Lynn Harris for a thoughtful and well-balanced article on a subject all too often glossed over in simple terms. However, I must note that the implication from those who argue that shops like Torrid "encourage" fatness seems to be that simply being fat is just dandy, if not for the minor difficulty of finding appealing and well-fitting clothing. No worries, folks: Even if fatties like me do gain access to more fashionable clothes, there are still scores of other cultural institutions that will continue to try to make me feel like shit about myself for being fat -- and if those institutions fail, there are always plenty of private individuals who will do their part to pick up the slack. I'll still suffer; I'll just suffer slightly less, and I'll do so in a cuter outfit.

-- Lesley Kinzel

I am extremely alarmed at the idea that offering a plus-size clothing option will "glamorize" fat and hence contribute to an obesity issue by making wearers not want to "better themselves."

Clothing that the wearer enjoys should not be a reward for conforming to societal standards; the large girl or woman should not be punished or shamed with unattractive clothes until she fits into attractive ones.

This is dangerously close to framing weight loss as a moral issue, setting up a hierarchy where the garments of the approved can only be earned and should not be given to those who have not made their unruly bodies fit into what is deemed acceptable.

I would venture to note that Salon would not choose 5-7-9, a mall retailer of clothing in small sizes to single out as a promoter of eating disorders and have experts stating that their shoppers were all eating-disorder prone and unable to understand it.

-- Jessica Gillece

I was a fat kid and a fat teenager.

And while I'm no longer fat, I still roll my eyes when I read things like: "If the teens are overweight due to diet excesses and a lack of exercise and physical activity, then I think the clothing can simply reinforce that they do not need to exercise or care about their physical health."

This is a new one: fashionable clothes keeping them fat! The last thing we'd want are girls actually feeling comfortable in their skin and their clothes.

Here's a suggestion for T. Joel Wade and Lawrence Miller. Wear a fat suit for a month. Try to find clothes that not only fit, but showcase your personality, give you a sense of self, and are appropriate for the occasion.

Until you know what it's like to be 14 and desperately want to wear the hip, new T-shirt style everyone else in school has, I offer you both a giant cream pie in the face.

-- Denise Simard

Please! People who're wearing sizes 14 and 16 are not overweight! In fact, they're probably considerably healthier than those who wear sizes 4 and 6. The studies in fact show that it's far more dangerous to be a few pounds under the so-called ideal weight than to be many pounds over it.

I'm surprised you didn't reference Paul Campos' book, "The Obesity Myth" or other studies debunking the reigning obesity hysteria. The data used to claim obesity is a leading cause of death in fact shows nothing of the sort. In fact, far more dangerous than a person's weight is the effect of losing and regaining weight and how unfit a person is. Skinny people who get no exercise are much more likely to die prematurely than "overweight" people who get as little as 30 minutes of exercise a day.

When I feel ashamed of how I look, I eat more, exercise less and continue the vicious cycle. The first step to being able to change my lifestyle in healthy ways is to be able to accept and embrace my body as it is, not loathe it. Three cheers for clothing stores that help.

-- Helen Inglis

I was happy to see Lynn Harris' article about Torrid on the front page, and I was also immediately riled up by the question posed in the opening. As a stylish young woman -- I like to think -- who has struggled with her weight since high school, I feel the pain of every gal out there searching for something decent to wear. I just hit my 30s, and I only wish Torrid had been around earlier.

I also recently made the decision that it was time for me to lose weight. As of today, I have lost over 70 pounds, and I can finally shop in all those regular stores. So I think I am qualified to see this issue from both sides.

I am incensed by the suggestion that having decent stylish clothes to wear would somehow make people want to be obese. Anyone who could seriously suggest that has absolutely no idea what it is like to be overweight in this country. Being young and fat is no fun whatsoever, no matter how nice your clothes are. And let's be clear, just because a girl has a few trendy things to wear does not mean she automatically becomes the most popular girl in school. We still look different, we still have rolls of fat bulging out, we still take up more space, and we still wish we could wear those teeny-tiny miniskirts and super-tight tops that all the other girls wear nowadays. The clothes at Torrid give us a way to feel a part of the bigger picture, but they do not make us look skinny -- and skinny is still the way America expects us to look.

I think the real shame here is that Torrid is one of the only places offering clothes to this size range. The clothes at Torrid are actually made pretty cheaply and often with poor-quality fabrics. We pay a premium for the look, not for the quality. That is the real issue. Plus-size people need more choices and better value for the money -- not to feel guilty for wanting to fit in a bit more.

I think that my decision to finally put effort into a weight-loss regime was aided by the availability of stylish clothes. As I was able to dress better and feel better about how I looked, I became more motivated to lose weight. Improving your self-confidence is a critical step in having the power to commit to such a tough process.

-- Courtney Welch

God, where do these social scolds come from? Overweight teens shouldn't have nice clothes because looking frumpy will motivate them to lose weight? OK, and while we're at it, let's not let them wear makeup or use pimple cream. That ought to get them to study and not have sex!

Do these people ever really come in contact with children?

-- Kathleen Schultz

Hooray for Torrid and other like-minded companies for finally figuring out that everyone wants to look good and feel confident. Hooray for Lynn Harris for pointing out that many overweight people are healthier, and fitter, than their skinnier counterparts.

What is obvious to anyone who has ever struggled with weight or finding attractive clothes above a size 12 is that the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you are to make healthy choices. Self-loathing never led anyone to positive change.

I suppose I should have known that there would be people who want overweight teenagers to feel ugly all the time, as punishment for allowing their imperfections to show.

They remind me of the ignorant woman in my town who "congratulated" a woman in the grocery store on her weight loss. The newly slim woman was in a wheelchair, recuperating from a hideous car crash that cost her her best friend. She'd nearly died twice, had several knee surgeries that refused to heal, and was looking at a two- or three-year recovery time to learn to walk again. Before the crash, she'd been a big woman -- tall, vibrant, a little overweight and extremely athletic. Now she was at the grocery store for her first public outing since the crash in her wheelchair, and she gets this comment: "Wow! Now that you're thin, you must be able to enjoy life fully!"

There is nothing to say to those people. But Lynn Harris' article is a start.

-- Elizabeth Bluemle

By Salon Staff

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