OPINION: All I wanted was a fitting outfit, but instead I’ve been banging my head against a wall.
Finding out I was a finalist for an award should have been cause for celebration. Instead, I spent the night lying in bed with my phone, desperately scrolling.
This went on for countless nights for several weeks. My browser bounced from store to store, from place to place. I would calculate how many dresses I could order online at once—to try on and then return—before I ran out of rent money.
Shipping would inevitably take time, but at that point I had time on my side. Six weeks later and three failed orders, the panic set in.
* ‘Patronising’ posters welcome plus-size women to beach in Spain
* The next limit for fashion is beyond size 14
* The problem of ethical fashion sizing
It’s a tale as old as time: If you’re fat and want a fancy frock, this is a fine choice.
It’s like these brands are reading from the most toxic pages of my teenage diary – that I’m worthless and will only deserve nice clothes when I’m skinny.
They look at me – a size 24 – thumbing through the racks looking for a size 16, smiling, knowing I’m hoping for something loose so I can squeeze into it and feel good about myself for a week before rip it like the Hulk.
You didn’t read it wrong. I said I’m a size 24 looking at a size 16, and that’s because those numbers seem to mean whatever the brand wants them to mean.
Some, like Kowtow, carry XXL, which made my heart skip a beat before I read that their XXL is only 18.
For stores that go bigger, such as Postie Plus and Farmers, plus-size clothing is tucked away in a corner. They can also put up privacy curtains to shield our red faces when we realize none of the six available outfits are what we want.
When I realized that the brand Kiwi Ruby went to size 24, I thought it would be an obvious winner, but no dice: the brand had 18 options for me. Nice options, but nothing formal.
For the record, even if we take the conservative estimate and say a size 14 is the average for Kiwi women, at the other end of the size spectrum, a size 4 had 178 options. Make of it what you will.
So now you’ve given up on brick-and-mortar stores, what’s next?
If you live outside of Auckland or Wellington, dedicated plus size stores are few and far between.
Even rarer is the variety. Dunedin has three stores (rest in peace, City Chic), but if you switched their signs, I wouldn’t know the difference. Each offers a similar range of slim legging pants and modest tunics that scream “business casual”.
Online was my only option. In theory, it gave me access to a veritable world of thick fashion. Unfortunately, it’s not immune to the sins of fat dressing. Cold shoulders. Wild flowers. Picnic blanket-dresses. And why are there so many strange patterns?
I can only assume the intent is to trick and/or distract people into thinking you’re weak.
I don’t want to be the fat person in the room, I want to feel powerful. God save us, hot.
As a veteran of keyboard shopping, I knew quality and durability would be an issue. But I had found some real winners before. I thought the more expensive the items, the better they would be.
My hot pink blazer and pants combo at $120 a pop? A fool. I kept the jacket on, but threw back the pants, material so thin they could fall apart with spit.
A gold dress that I thought would be too big was too small. A black dress that I thought might bring a classic and timeless vibe, instead it was puffy.
I started looking for tailors – was tailoring still a thing? – and could only find bridal shops, some starting at $1,000. Miserable.
OK, but why does it matter what you wear?
When you’re fat, your size is the first thing people see.
Being fat is why many people don’t read this article. It will also inspire a series of emails telling me to lose weight.
Even when I received my first death threat as a journalist, it ended with a paragraph about how fat I was.
We are constantly told that being fat is a moral failing and we don’t deserve to feel good about our appearance.
This shame brings lack of change. In a country as small as ours, large-scale local brands struggle to gain a foothold, unable to compete with the pace and low prices of clothing giants like Shein.
Becca Fenton, 24, also spent her childhood feeling like she didn’t deserve to look good.
Fashion was something she had always been interested in, but dressing the way she wanted wasn’t an option, especially in Invercargill, she says.
It took her until she went to university to realize, “actually, I can wear what I want.”
In 2020, she started The Curve Closet, a clothing rental company that specializes in plus size clothing for formal or dressy events.
Fenton has about 60 dresses in her catalog, up to size 26. While she’s not necessarily building a fashion empire from the bottom of the country, she does ship to all corners of Aotearoa, filling a niche in high demand but not well taken care of. .
“It’s not only frustrating, it’s overwhelming,” says Fenton.
“The way we present ourselves is a reflection of how we feel. Overseas there are clothes that make you feel fashionable, instead of grandma’s tablecloth.
“There’s a misconception that if you’re overweight, you don’t care about looking good.”
Going online gave her a sense of freedom, the ability to not “inhibit” her style, but a major obstacle was the lack of sustainable or ethically made clothes.
Fenton supports brands with the values it shares, but what if you couldn’t afford it?
“Sometimes finding a nice dress in your size is hard enough on its own, let alone considering the ethics,” says Fenton.
Shein – the world’s largest clothing brand, offering low prices, but with the cost of labor and the risk of defective products that could not be returned, was a company she would not buy from.
Her main advice is to not give up and don’t give up on brands if you’ve had a bad experience.
“There’s a lot of garbage out there… sometimes it’s just bad luck.”
I had three orders unfortunately in a row. I didn’t have the time or heart to go for a fourth. Instead, I thought back to the most expensive clothes I’ve ever worn—a pair of dress pants that a male friend bought from a men’s suit rental.
I would like to name the store, but the worker did not get permission to be interviewed. However, from what I can tell, many men’s suit stores operate similarly – no size limits.
Anything they don’t have in stock, they can create from scratch. If they had something that fit some parts of your body but not others, they would sew.
The employee said it wasn’t unusual for plus-size women to come into the store looking for the same thing I was, but it wasn’t always possible to accommodate their shape without sometimes spending twice as much as something off the shelf.
But I gave him my measurements and within two weeks I was trying on a pair of pants that not only fit well, but felt great.
The material was strong, soft and held its shape. At $200, it’s still the most expensive item I’ve bought—$70 more than the sheer pink version that failed me all those weeks ago, and probably would have only lasted half a dozen wears.
The result of all this has left me with more questions than answers.
I don’t know what the way forward is, but I do know that the lack of plus size fashion in New Zealand continues to make me and other plus size people (not just women) feel like shit.