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The fashion industry’s ‘plus-size’ label shames women to fit an unhealthy standard

the fashion industrys plus size label shames women to fit an unhealthy standard

This First Person article is the experience of Laura Sang, a physician in Montreal. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ. Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders and suicidal ideation.

Over a year into the pandemic, I finally had enough courage to venture out and buy new clothes. I know most of us have to some degree experienced the “COVID 15,” and I was no exception.

No amount of regular exercise could counteract the stress, the long hours and occasional lack of access to healthy foods with Quebec’s curfew in effect for several months. I could not deny that I had gained a few pounds and that most of my pants had gotten uncomfortably tight. It was time to treat myself to an upgrade. 

I went to my local thrift store and realized that my pant size had changed. Again. As I perused the racks filled with last year’s “out of season” pants, the same waist/hip size on brand-name pants was labelled as extra-large instead of large. As I tried on item after item, nothing fit until I started trying the pants on in the “plus-size” section.

For the first time in my life, despite only being 10 pounds over the upper limit of a healthy body mass index for my height, I was now forced to shop in a separate area. I was now labelled a “plus-size” woman and could no longer shop in many of the trendy, mainstream stores because they didn’t carry their items in my size.

I was shocked, angry and immediately self-conscious. 

Thinking back to my pediatric-centred rotations over the past few years, I’ve spoken to dozens of adolescent girls and boys with eating disorders. They’ve cried in my presence, stating that they were too fat, that their thighs were too big and that they “weren’t doing a good enough job losing weight.”

Despite the fact that their ribs protruded, their blood pressures were unstable and menstruations/pubertal development had halted, many of these teens struggled with suicidal ideation over their inability to meet their “standards” for thinness.

The rates of eating disorders among adolescents were already high, and have soared significantly throughout the pandemic. Sadly, the wait times to get help are staggeringly long unless hospitalization is required. While this is not the case for everyone, many teens were able to tell me about an inciting event for their eating disorders: anything from not being able to fit into an outfit, to a comment made from a physical education teacher like “you are too big to do chin-ups.”

Stop making zero the standard 

As a physician, I cannot deny that being overweight or obese is a risk factor for a slew of medical conditions. Regular physical activity, a healthy diet and good habits are important for feeling good and living a happy and healthy life. However, we need to stop misconstruing what a healthy body looks like and stop shaming people for not fitting this unattainable, and unhealthy, size-zero standard.

This is especially true for women. Ten years ago, I remember asking an employee for a specific dress in my size, only to be told, “Sorry, we don’t carry that in your size.” I have friends who struggle to find clothing that fits because sizes don’t go below XS. By only offering these lovely clothes to people of a certain size, companies are subtly telling us that anyone outside that range is less valuable and not deserving of feeling beautiful.

Stop making size zero the standard for health and beauty, because it is not. All women are beautiful, regardless of whether they wear XXS or 15X and beyond. All women can do physical activity (to one’s own limits, being mindful of any injuries). All women, and people for that matter, deserve to feel comfortable and beautiful in the clothes they wear. This means offering the same clothes to women of all sizes and shaming no one for the number on their clothing tag.

Eventually, I found a few articles of clothing in the “plus-size” section that were comfortable and fit me nicely. As soon as I got home, I cut off the tags and threw them in the garbage. My body suffered the effects of being a health-care worker during a global pandemic like no other, and I don’t need my pants to make me feel bad about it. 

The views expressed here are merely my own based on anecdotal experience. Please contact your local crisis line or health-care authorities if you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or eating disorders.

CBC Quebec welcomes your pitches for First Person essays. Please email for details.

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