Separate But Equal? The Politics of Plus Size

When I opened my Gmail and saw the subject line of the weekly newsletter Forever 21 sends to its customers, I bubbled up with hope. “New Name: Faith 21 Will Soon Be Forever 21+.” Forever 21, a brand I’ve been addicted to since my tweens, was finally taking the admirable step of integrating their plus-size line with the rest of the Forever 21 line. Then I noticed the deal-breaker caveat: the tiny plus sign at the end. My face fell, I heaved a sigh and closed out of the email.

The plus-size section, deemed so egregiously ignoble by normative society that it’s relegated to its own racks and its own corners, has always held my distaste and fascination. In the moment when I thought Forever 21 had blended its plus-size line with the rest of its clothes for young women, I caught a glimpse of something progressive–the abandonment of body politics and the start of a shopping experience that doesn’t single out and exile bigger women.

I’ve never appreciated that Forever 21, a line that predicates itself on modernity, youth and forward-thinking, felt the need to separate their larger sizes. After spending some time browsing through both the plus-size and non-plus size sections, it becomes apparent the only thing separating these lines is size, not style. For all of the other Forever 21-owned spinoffs like Heritage 1981, Forever 21 Twist, Love 21, 21Men and Twelve by Twelve, their separate placement in stores and on websites is clothing style. Is fat a clothing style that merits segregation? Why can’t we all just shop together?

As a former plus-size girl who would squirm over the awkwardness of having to discreetly meander to the plus-size section, I always felt a vague sense of indignation. Instead of staying with my other high school friends, I was being forced to the most foreboding area of the store, with its huge “+” placards and billowy mannequins. It all seemed to scream that I wasn’t normal; I wasn’t average. I was plus. Though I’m a non-plus now, I can’t help but look over my shoulder across the years and the clothing racks and ponder the necessity of the great divide between plus and non-plus. Separate, but definitely not equal.

Defenders of the plus-size section would say that plus-size people know how big they are, that it’s obvious to anyone else in the store and that by giving them their own section stores are just making it easier for them to find clothes that fit. This logic begs the question: Why isn’t there a minus-size section? A special area for abnormally thin girls who can’t fit into average sizes? Because abnormally thin is still considered normal, no matter how far away from normal a girl is. Thus even the wispiest girls are accommodated with size zeros and even double-zeros in the same section with the rest of the clothes.

The average U.S. woman is nowhere near a size zero, but a size 14. According to the Los Angeles Times, that makes 62 percent of our country’s women plus size. But the curvy and the full-figured have become the invisible women of the clothing industry, even though they make up more than half the customers. Forever 21’s top competitors–H&M, Charlotte Ruse and Wet Seal–perform even worse in the plus-size arena. H&M briefly had a plus-size collection within its stores up to size 26, but then discontinued the line within the U.S. in 2005 for “redesign.” Charlotte Ruse has no noticeable plus-size line and only accommodates larger women by offering L and XL sizes. Wet Seal does have a large and stylish plus-size line, but it’s offered online only and the fashion chain shows no signs of integrating plus sizes into non-virtual stores.

Women’s clothing stores have become estranged from the reality of women’s diverse figures. If we’re going to accept all forms of beauty and put an end to the body politics that single out and alienate our larger sisters, one of the biggest battlefronts is on the racks of department stores, clothing retailers and fashion chains. So the decision of Forever 21 to change its extended sizes line to Forever 21+ represents a lateral move at best. As a chain that’s growing rapidly (nearly 500 new stores since CEO Don Chang founded it in 1984) and defining fashion for an upcoming generation, it has the unique chance and responsibility to help change societal perceptions of what the female body should look like.

It’s time to drop the +.

Photo from of Flickr user Bakkanrecord under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. This has always been a bone of contention with me. You are not alone in your feelings. Fashion Bug, though I haven't been in for quite some time, desegregated their plus sizes from exile and filed all the sizes together when they redesign the store to be casual on one side ans work/professional/formal on the other side. Though they also renumbered the sizes, I am guessing so no one had the stigma of wearing a double digit that started with the number 2, so it was confusing until you figured out the new system. At least they tried, and I hope they are still following this paradigm. I have pretty much given up being a consumer of clothing because of this oppressive, ridiculing separatist business plan. Agreed- the + needs to go!

  2. Serena Freewomyn says:

    I can relate to your frustration over plus sizes. I just spent a frustrating day in the thrift shops trying to find some winter sweaters. Big girls must be getting rid of all their smaller clothes – because the shops were flush with clothing in Small or Medium, but hardly anything in Large . . l let alone XL or higher. Target only carries up to a 16 in the women's section. I've had to buy maternity clothes in order to get bathing suits and dresses that fit. Where are the affordable clothing options for the size 14+ woman?

  3. Clothing brands generally make different styles under the "plus" designation, which makes department integration a little difficult. While some shirt/dress styles are made throughout the size spectrum, manufacturers tend to redesign cuts for what they think is a more flattering fit to larger or smaller figures, so there would still be racks that were segregated due to style issues. I'm not apologizing or agreeing with it, I just worked as a fitting room attendant and pondered the same question myself on many a slow day.

  4. Actually, shops DO have a section for small sizes – it's the Petite section. 😉

    I've noticed that many selections are unavailable in the petite and plus sections and vice versa – and that could stand to change.

    • Raven, Petite is a totally different thing. That's for short, not necessarily small… =)

    • That's not correct. Petite is for women that are below average in height. The size ranges are the same as the 'regular' clothes. The offerings are just cut to accommodate women with shorter torsos and legs.

      • Iliana Echo says:

        Actually, Raven is right. Petite sizes are also cut small through the hips (I wouldn’t know about tops, though someone I know said they’re also cut smaller across the shoulders). It’s actually kind of annoying because I have short legs and wide hips, which basically means there is NOTHING in a standard department store pants section that fits me.

        • I think what the author is trying to get at, is the fact that “fat/plus-size/full-figured” women already feel segregated in life. Adding another thing to the list of things to be wary of, is not only unnecessary but also exhausting.

          And even though “petite” women face backlash, it’s usually not equivalent to the direct and searing jabs taken at “plus-size” women.

          For example, “petite” as a standard of beauty is much more widely accepted than being full-figured is. One is never questioned as to why one is petite, it’s just accepted, but one has to always have to defend oneself for being “plus-sized” be it genetics or otherwise. And, lastly “short” is never a go-to word to insult a woman, whereas “fat” does way more damage than could be imagined, to most women.

  5. Terrific article. As a "plus size" woman (a term I despise) it's heartening to know there are "normal size" women who understand and care about this subject.

  6. I disagree. While it can be disheartening to go to the back of the store to find my size of clothing, at least I don't have to sift through rack after rack, looking through size small, medium and large to get close to my sizes. The moment I get excited about a colour or detail on a top… nope…. no plus size. I'd rather see the limited selection I have right from the beginning, and make my choices accordingly. NO store is going to make everything for both "regular" and "plus" women. That's just the way it is. Give me my special section, and I'm fine. If you want to avoid the stigma of having to shop at the back, head to a plus size fashion boutique and get fabulous service, amazing quality and unique finds… all served up by other plus size women!

  7. I'm a large woman, an Amazon, and many times I feel like a refugee going into those stores. The selection bites sometimes…and I'm in NYC; The fashion capital of the world!

  8. I think is great. If you are a big size person whyshouldn't it be recognized? As a small girl, I have no problem on being recognized as a petite. Oversize people tend to be to sensitive on this issues…Also, overweight should not be encouraged and relating to bigger sizes as "normal" sizes it only helps supporting overweight.

    • Some of the people responding to this article are saying that they disagree and even encouraging the separation of plus sizes and "normal sizes". Like how can you say that relating to bigger sizes as normal promotes being overweight? Just because you wear a plus size does not mean that you are overweight. Take me for example, I am a very blessed woman when it comes to my upper half and as a teenager I had to move up to plus sizes just to stay into tops and at that time I was not overweight. I feel that this article speaks the truth and represents how many plus size women feel. I personally adore Forever 21 and it's style but I remember when I was younger and would go into the store hoping that I could find something in stretchy in large or x large just so that I too could be as stylish as all my friends. Well, you can imagine how many times I successfully did that. So when Forever 21 came out with a plus size line I too was ecstatic but there are so many problems with this line.
      #1 it's not in every forever21, I have to go to a farther mall just to find one with faith 21, oh excuse me forever21+.
      #2 The name is horrible, it's uncreative and I too would like to see plus size clothing incorporated with what some people consider to be normal size clothing. I don't understand why some people feel that just because we are slightly larger we do not want to look stylish and sexy too. I honestly believe that the only reason that the name was changed from faith 21 was so that "normal sized" people wouldn't accidentally go to that section thinking that it was yet another sub style section.
      #3 The Forever 21 that I shop at is literally considered a department store so you can imagine how big it is. And you would think that with two floors the plus size area would be bigger than the average store, but it's not. It's hidden and abandoned and every time I go I realize that only half of the section has been updated. There is still clothing there that was there in the summer. But in no other section in the store is it like this.
      #4 There are not enough clothing choices both in the stores and online. If you go to the plus size section of the website you might find like 2-3 pages for each section. But the "normal sizes" have well over 20 pages for each section.
      Lastly, I would like to ask what makes those sizes normal? I feel that people should look at clothing sizes the way they do people, nobody is truly considered "normal" because we are all different and unique in our own way. I am plus size and that makes me different and unique in my own way, but that does not mean I deserve to be considered "abnormal".

    • Alondra, Referring to people as "big sized" and "oversized" shows your ignorance. The word is plus size. And size 14 is a normal size. A person who is a size 14, isnt overweight, so stating that it supports someone to be overweight shows your ignorance and continues the ignorance that society puts forth in fashion which is exactly what this article says. And the fact that you are a small girl and dont know the proper words or the correct sizing of "normal" women, doesnt surpise me.

      • Thanks for your response. I speak English as a third language and I don’t think is appropriate to name “ignorant” a person that does not have the same language skills as you do. Maybe that is actually ignorance? 🙂

      • Iliana Echo says:

        I think you’re confusing “normal” and “average” here. The AVERAGE woman is a size 14, which I agree is not overweight. That doesn’t make me any less normal than a size 14 because I am a size 4-8 (4 on the bottom, 8 on top). I don’t mean to minimize what you’re saying, but I dislike being called abnormal for being small as much as people who are bigger dislike being called abnormal for being larger.

  9. Has anyone ever noticed how the size 14s are always the first to go? I've been curvy my whole life, and in my teens I was not happy in my own skin. I had to learn that what the media portrays is often not the case in reality, and that many men and women prefer a girl with a little meat on her bones. Also, I learned to not seek validation in others but to love myself for who I am.
    One of the first moments when I had this realization was on a shopping excursion, where I found myself becoming frustrated because the sizes always skipped from 10 to 18 or so. I then realized that this is because sizes 12, 14 and 16 are in much higher demand. You'd think in a world full of thick, beautiful women (who are loved for their curves and feminine softness), retailers would equip themselves with adequate clothing in the most popular sizes.
    I'm sick of feeling ashamed when I shop. I'm not ashamed when I walk down the street, go to work, or sit in a lecture hall. I'm not ashamed when I'm out shaking it in a club with my friends. Why should I be made to feel like there is something wrong with me when I'm out giving a store my money? Maybe we should boycott these stores that treat us bigger girls like lepers. Or maybe we should boycott clothes all together :). This is my ass, world. If you don't like it, you can kiss it.

    • I’ve noticed that 12s and 14s seem to be hard to come by, also L and XL, but that’s not actually because they’re in higher demand. I learned this working in retail. The distributor sends a certain number of pieces in each size, and most of those are in the medium range. So for example, we would get a run of shirts, which would be comprised of 34 shirts, distributed in this way: 6 XS, 8 S, 10 M, 6 L, 4 XL. So it’s not necessarily that there are more people buying these sizes–companies just make fewer of them.

  10. I totally relate on not fitting every where and being the in-existent size
    you see, I'm not a normal plus, because in fact I don't fit in plus unless they carry down to 12 or 13)
    why? because I am short I'm only 5'3, my clothes go from 10 to 14, I have big boobs and big hips and for my short frame I look like a curvy fat girl. (even if I am not really a standard plus)
    what really bugs me is that I don't fit anywhere!
    I barely fit in standard sizes of many stores often going to L or XL if they have an XL , and they don't have a lot of styles available in those sizes. I got o a plus stores and most only carry sizes from 16 rarely 13 or 14, sometimes I just frustrate over this problem… I really decided to learn how to make my own clothes

  11. What a neat story here, Great post I enjoyed it very much, really cool!!!!!!!! Latrina Yray

  12. Agemaki says:

    I dislike the association of curvyness with larger sizes. When I put on weight I do not become curvy, possibly becoming less curvt because it all goes on my tummy rather than my breasts and hips. I have trouble finding pants that fit properly because I have a larger waist but narrower hips. My mom has the same problem and she sometimes just wears men’s pants.

  13. An excellent article that would be vastly improved if the author weren’t so obsessed with letting us know she *was* a plus-sized girl and now is ‘normal.’ Am I supposed to be abnormal?

  14. Even for the tallest women (i’m nearly 6 foot) size 10 and 12 should fit if you are in a healthy weight range. Medically healthy. 14 and up (plus size so called) is for women who are overweight. Overweight is normal nowadays (sadly) but should not be. We should be placing more emphasis on getting people healthy than we are on getting clothing stores (and particulrly those in this article which are targeted ast young women) to stock clothing for women who are huge.

    • It’s not okay to segregate people because they are larger–even if that size were the result of poor health (which isn’t always the case–I have a cousin who is fit, but she has a build that places her as a size 14, at age 13!)

      Should we have a plus-size section in restaurants, too, where people who want larger portions can be seated as “others?” Or how about separate gymnasium sections– 0-200 lbs, and 200+?

      It’s not right to create an imaginary cutoff of “too large” and force the women who are over that limit to shop separately from other , “normal” women; a men’s and women’s designation makes sense, a large and small does not; they’re women, too, they want to look good, too, they’re paying customers, too.

      Think of the outrage over the airlines’ request that overweight passengers purchase two tickets; even that makes more sense, because if you’re large enough you’ll take up two seats. Insensitive or not, at least there is a logistical justification for that bias. My question is, what is the reason that larger women should shop separately, or not even be accommodated at all? A person’s size and/or health should not justify irrelevant segregation. If they can make clothes for those sizes, there is no reason to keep them separate.

      I am petite, never been large a day in my life, and i say, down with the +!

  15. i am only 16 and I wear a 11 or 12 depending on the store and I was positive that I was not that big until One day my friend decided to go to forever 21 and I could not find my pants size and I just thought they were all gone. And then I noticed they have a plus size section where I found my size easily. This was very upsetting I did not know I was “plus sized.”

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