Why Don’t We Think Fat People Are Worth Fighting For?

Ijeoma Oluo
Apr 3, 2017 · 9 min read

Asking people to consider the size inclusivity of the stores they shop at is not too much to ask.

AA few days ago, I wrote two posts on fat acceptance and body positivity. I wrote about my personal experience with fat-shaming and diet culture, and the toll it has taken on my life. The response was overwhelming. Thousands of shares, hundreds of comments — a few write-ups about the post in major magazines. While there were quite a few assholes who showed up to make sure we all knew they hated fat people, the vast majority of responses were messages of love and understanding from other people of all sizes who have similarly struggled with the expectations of thinness that society places on us.

I am known to be someone who is not only concerned with problems, but also with solutions. A few days later, while people were still connecting with and praising my posts, I decided to ask a question on Facebook and Twitter:

“If you are thin, and believe in body positivity, why do you buy clothing from labels and stores that don’t sell plus sizes?”

It was, to me, a simple question. As someone who has been long involved in social justice, I’m very used to looking at how my consumerism does or does not support causes I believe in. I am very, very far from perfect — but I try to avoid, say, Hobby Lobby for its efforts to limit reproductive options for employees, or Wells Fargo for its support of the Keystone XL pipeline. I can make these choices because I have other options — yes, it is a little more inconvenient (the Hobby Lobby by my house appears to have way more crafty stuff than my local Jo-Ann’s), but it’s well worth it to me to know I’m not financially supporting businesses that are harming people and causes that I care about.

Businesses care about profit, and denying them my money is the most effective way I have to influence them to change. Further, shifting my money to businesses that are actively helping to support important ideals and causes encourages those businesses to keep it up, and motivates others to try to catch up in order to get some of those profits. As someone with the capital (even a little bit counts when companies are fighting for your every dollar) and the options (I have alternative places to go for the things I need), it is a positive way to use my privilege.

Businesses care about profit, and denying them my money is the most effective way I have to influence them to change.

So, in the same vein of thought, I asked a question that not many people who aren’t fat seem to be asking — when body positivity (and to a lesser extent, fat acceptance) are being supported so vocally by so many, why are we financially supporting businesses that refuse to acknowledge that fat people need clothes too?

The response was, honestly, heartbreaking. The overwhelming response to this post was not positive and affirming, as the response to my previous posts had been. Yes, there were quite a few fat women who agreed that they would love it if thin women examined their clothing-buying decisions and shifted some of them in fat solidarity, and there were a few thin women who thanked me for asking a question that really made them think about their privilege. But a lot — perhaps a majority — of the comments were angry, defensive, and dismissive.

Some women immediately offered up excuses — they don’t have time, they are tall, they are petite, they don’t have the money to be choosy (as if tall, short, or poor fat women don’t exist). Some women were insulted that I’d even ask, replying with comments like “Why would you put the responsibility for corporate decisions on us?” or “Why would you guilt women for their personal choices?” Some women argued that as long as they couldn’t find size 6 clothing at a plus-sized store, we had no right to ask their stores to accommodate us (similar in some ways to the “well, you have BET” argument). Many played the game of extreme hypotheticals; “Oh well I guess I’ll only buy clothing that is organic, fair trade, in every possible size, and kosher or that means I’m a nazi.”

As fat women told stories of the pain and humiliation they’ve experienced when trying to find something — anything — in stores that fits, people doubled down on their dismissals, showing little empathy. Even a few fat people commented that they didn’t think it was right to expect clothing stores to have plus sizes — it was just too much to ask.

These responses reaffirmed a lived truth that has hurt my heart for most of my life: The vast majority of Western society — regardless of faith, race, or political affiliation — does not believe that the dignity of fat people is worth even the slightest bit of effort in defending.

Let’s get this straight — the effort that I was implying with my question is not a huge ask. Sure, shifting where you buy clothes (which most of us don’t do all that often anyway) to a store that also sells plus sizes is inconvenient — you will find the selection lacking, although most stores that sell straight and plus sizes will still have a vastly superior selection of straight-sized clothing for you to choose from — but it can be done. It is what fat people are forced to do every time they want to buy clothes.

This action is not just a way to show solidarity, it is also a great way to use your privilege to affect change. Why do so many clothing retailers and brands not carry plus sizes? For a couple very good reasons: 1) They know that they will get the money of thin people regardless, and 2) They know that not being associated with fatness is good for their fashion “brand.” So if enough thin people were to say, “Nope, a store that doesn’t serve fat people is not the store for me,” and then took their money to stores that were size inclusive — how long do you think stores would suffer the loss of their main source of income before changing their sizing?

This isn’t a frivolous cause. To walk into a store and be told by the advertising and products available that you are not welcome is humiliating. To have this happen in the majority of stores is dehumanizing. To be limited to a few stores that specialize in only the least fashionable, cheapest quality, and most overpriced fashions for fat people is insulting. We can’t take our business to another store — they don’t exist. And as for just buying clothes online — have you ever tried it? Only 50% of the items ever actually fit you, and they are almost always more expensive — and that’s to say nothing of shipping and return costs and unavailability for last-minute clothing needs (say, for a job interview or a funeral). Imagine if that was your only option?

To walk into a store and be told by the advertising and products available that you are not welcome is humiliating.

The exclusion of plus sizes is a denial of services, and clothing retailers are not the only places where we are told that we do not belong. Riding in an airplane, attending a play, watching a movie in a theater, taking our kids on amusement park rides — those are all things that many of us cannot do. Add to that other important areas of fat discrimination, like trying to get doctors to take our medical problems seriously instead of just brushing off every concern with “this must be because you are fat”; the common assumption by potential employers that we are lazy, less intelligent, and “bad for morale”; and the fact that when you can’t find any appropriate clothing — try to buy a suit as a fat woman and you’ll see what I mean — you’re viewed as unprofessional. Then sprinkle on the fact that we are never seen in pop culture except for as the butt of jokes, jokes which are regularly repeated to us in person and online as people laugh and remind us that we are “disgusting” and “unfuckable,” and you have an issue that is harming our lives regularly.

And do you know what it is like to endure all this while also having to wear a fucking polyester tent dress in a couchcover print with a bow on the butt?

Your average thin person who does genuinely care about the wellbeing and dignity of fat people does not have much power to change all of these things. But you do have the ability to encourage stores to serve us by insisting that your patronage depends on access to people of all sizes.

Fashionable clothing should not be a reward reserved for those who are thin, but that is how our society sees it. This assumption promotes fat-hate and body-shame and ties our weight to our right to be seen. No, I may not die if I can’t buy fashionable clothes, but right now, even when I try to buy something as necessary as underwear, I’m reminded that my body size is not welcome. And you know what? I’d like to be able to express myself with my fashion, at prices I can afford, without being made to feel like shit for it. A lot of fat people would like to be able to do the same. It makes me feel good about my body to wear clothing that I like. And if those who say they believe in body positivity can help make this happen simply by making different purchase choices for a while — why is it too much to ask?

I cannot boycott stores that don’t carry plus-sized clothing. I cannot boycott them because I never had the option of shopping there. There is literally nothing I can do to make stores become more size inclusive other than to ask those who have the privilege of access to these stores to help.

So I guess the question I was really asking when I asked why thin people support stores that exclude fat people is, do you think fat people are worth fighting for?

I do, and I really hope you do too.

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Ijeoma Oluo

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Come for the feminist rants..stay for the selfies and kid quotes. Inclusive feminism here.

The Establishment

The conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women; new content daily.