Inequality in Clothing Stores

Shopping in the plus size section of department stores can feel humiliating when the store is designed to keep you out of sight.

| January 2019

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/LIVINUS

Plus-Size Sections are Separate and Unequal

“It’s embarrassing to walk into a department store knowing that the plus-size section is on the third floor in the back corner, away from most customers. When I finally get there, people walk by and sneer at me.” (Female, white, age 61, 4´11˝, 200 lb.)

According to the Los Angeles Times, the average American woman weighs 162.9 pounds and wears a size 14, yet retailers treat her like an anomaly. Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of American females are considered overweight. Many plus-size women shop online rather than face the unpleasant experience of shopping in a store, yet when they do so they lose the ability to see, touch, or try on merchandise in advance – and often have to return whatever they buy. As Ginia Bellafante wrote in her article “Plus-Size Wars” in the New York Times Magazine, “Given the fit challenges a plus-size customer faces, the shift to a virtual space where nothing can be tried on can seem alienating to her – a directive to wear a muumuu.”

Just as African Americans in the South had separate, “Colored” building entrances, a not-so-subtle form of discrimination occurs in the design of many retail establishments that place plus-size clothing in hidden, hard-to-find locations, out of sight from the rest of us.

Full-figured women can shop at plus-size chains such as Lane Bryant and Fashion Bug or big-box stores such as Kohl’s and Target. Walmart is the top seller of plus-size apparel in the United States. Yet women who seek more style and fashion at mainstream department stores often feel like second-class citizens. And many retail stores don’t even sell plus-size clothes at all, although they may have them available online. The message sent to plus-size customers: “You’re not good enough to shop here.”

As a result, large women face a catch-22: they purchase less than they might otherwise because they don’t find enough appealing merchandise in stores, hence retailers point to poor sales figures as evidence of low demand and fail to provide the supply.

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