OPINION: All I wanted was an outfit that fit, but instead I have 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 on my bed with my phone, scrolling desperately.
That continued for countless nights for several weeks. My browser jumped from shop to shop, country to country. I would calculate how many dresses I could order online at a time – to try on then return – before I would run 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, I began panicking.
* ‘Patronising’ posters welcome plus-size women to the beach in Spain
* The next frontier for fashion is beyond a size 14
* Ethical fashion’s plus size problem
It is a tale as old as time: If you are fat and want a fancy frock, it is slim pickings.
It is like these brands read from the most toxic pages of my teenage diary – that I am worthless, and will only be deserving of nice clothes once I am skinny.
They watch me – a size 24 – thumb through the racks looking for a size 16, smirking, knowing that I am hoping for something loose fitting that I can squeeze into and feel good about myself for the one week before I rip it like the Hulk .
You didn’t read that wrong. I said I’m a size 24 looking at size 16, and that is because those numbers seem to mean whatever the brand wants them to mean.
Some, such as Kowtow, stock XXLs, which made my heart flutter before reading that their XXL is just an 18.
For the shops that do go larger, such as Postie Plus and Farmers, plus-sized clothing is shunted into a corner. They might as well put up privacy curtains to shield our red faces when we realise none of the six outfits available are what we want.
When I found out Kiwi brand Ruby went to size 24, I thought that would be an obvious winner, but no dice: the brand had 18 options for me. Lovely options, but nothing formal.
For the record, even if we take the conservative estimate and say size 14 is the average for Kiwi women, at the other end of the size spectrum, size 4s had 178 options. Make of that what you will.
So now you have given up on mainstream shops, what’s next?
If you live outside of Auckland or Wellington, dedicated plus-size stores are thin on the ground.
Even more rare is variety. Dunedin has three stores (rest in peace, City Chic), but if you swapped their signage I wouldn’t know the difference. Each offers a similar range of leggings-thin pants and modest tunics, screaming “business casual”.
Online was my only option. In theory, it gave me access to a literal world of fat fashion. Unfortunately, it isn’t immune to fat clothing sins. Cold shoulders. Feral florals. Picnic blankets-cum-dresses. And why are there so many quirky patterns?
I can only assume the goal is to trick and/or distract people into thinking you are thin.
I don’t want to be the funky fat person in the room, I want to feel powerful. God forbid, hot.
As a veteran of keyboard shopping, I knew quality and sustainability would be an issue. But I had found some real winners before. I figured the more expensive the items were, the better they would be.
My matching hot-pink blazer and pants combo at $120 a piece? A dud. I kept the blazer, but threw back the pants, with material so thin they could disintegrate with spit.
A gold dress I thought would be too big was too small. A black dress I thought might invoke a classic, timeless vibe, instead was frumpy.
I began looking for tailors – was dressmaking still a thing? – and could only find bridal outlets, some whose costs began at $1000. Miserable.
OK, but why does it matter what you wear?
When you are fat, your size is the first thing people see.
Being fat is why a lot of people won’t read this article. It will also inspire a series of emails telling me to lose weight.
Even when I got my first death threat as a journalist, it ended with a paragraph about how fat I was.
We are told over and over that being fat is a moral failing, and we don’t deserve to feel good about how we look.
This shame breeds a lack of change. In a country as small as ours, local plus-sized brands struggle to get a foothold, unable to compete with the pace and low prices of clothing giants such as Shein.
Beka 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 realise, “actually, I can wear what I want”.
In 2020, she started The Curve Closett, a clothing rental company that specialises in plus-sized clothes for formal or dressy events.
Fenton has about 60 dresses in her catalogue, up to size 26. While she isn’t necessarily building a fashion empire from the bottom of the country, she ships to all corners of Aotearoa, filling a niche in high demand but not well catered for .
“It’s not just frustrating, it gets you down,” Fenton says.
“How 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 is this misconception that if you’re overweight, you don’t care about looking good.”
Going online gave her a sense of freedom, the opportunity to not “hold back” her style, but a huge barrier was a lack of sustainable or ethically made plus-size clothes.
Fenton supports brands with values she shares, but if you couldn’t afford to?
“Sometimes finding a nice dress in your size is hard enough on its own, let alone considering ethics,” Fenton says.
Shein – the world’s biggest clothing brand, offering low prices but at the cost of worker exploitation and the risk of faulty products, which couldn’t be returned, was one company she wouldn’t buy from.
Her top tip is to not give up, and to not write off brands if you have had a bad experience.
“There’s a lot of rubbish out there… sometimes it is just bad luck.”
I had three bad luck orders in a row. I didn’t have the time or heart to go for a fourth. Instead, I thought back to the most expensive item of clothing I’ve ever worn – a pair of dress pants a male friend bought from a men’s suit hire.
I would love to name the shop, but the worker didn’t get permission to be interviewed. However, from what I can tell, a lot of men’s suit shops work similarly – without size limits.
Anything they don’t have in stock, they could create from scratch. If they had something that fit some parts of your body but not others, they would tailor.
The staffer said it wasn’t uncommon 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 spending sometimes twice as much as something off the rack.
But I gave him my measurements and within a fortnight I was trying on a pair of pants that didn’t just fit well, but felt great on.
The material was solid, soft and kept its shape. At $200, it is still the most expensive item I have bought – $70 more than the see-through hot-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 fat fashion in New Zealand continues to make me and other plus-size people (not just women) feel like shit.