It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message

I bought a lovely yellow blouse recently and the first time I wore it several colleagues told me it looked nice.  I told them it was from Zara, and they all remarked how much they loved Zara.  “I never normally go in,” I shrugged, “But yeah it’s great.”  They couldn’t believe it – Zara is the de rigeur choice of the fashion-conscious office worker.  Well, that’s not strictly true.  It’s the choice of the fashion-conscious office worker who is a size 12 or smaller.  Because more than 90% of Zara’s clothes are only available in sizes XS-L, and by their own website’s admission, their large falls somewhere between a 12 and a 14.  A quick scan of their website shows that of the 518 different tops on sale right now, only 19 are available in a size XXL, and only 150 in a size XL.  In store, I’ve often noticed that the coolest, most magazine hyped clothes, are only available in XS, S, and M.

Here I am being far too fat and uncool for Zara and yet somehow still managing to feel happy.

In previous years, I would have ranted about this “it doesn’t make economic sense!  Where’s the capitalism in choosing to exclude half your target market? The average woman in Britain is a size 16 don’t you know?!”.  But the dark truth is that averages hide a multitude of class issues.  There’s an old adage that says that statistics is the discipline that proves the average person has one breast and one testicle, and never is that truer than when looking at size.

Sure, the average woman in the UK may be a size 16, but that size is not evenly distributed.  When I look around me in upmarket Clapham brunch spots, rooftop bars in Shoreditch, popular instagram feeds, and even at the people around me when I get off the tube in Holborn, no one is a size 16.  A toned slenderness is now the ultimate sign of status and wealth – a sign of leisure time, access to an expensive gym, the opportunity to cook and eat healthy meals.  Fat used to be a feminist issue, now it’s a class issue.  If I go home to my parents’ area, it’s a very different story.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive, gyms are expensive – it’s genuinely difficult to eat healthily on a budget, especially if you’re on a zero hours contract or working two jobs and you never know where and when you’re going to be working so you can’t prepare yourself.

When I lived in Catford, there was a headline in the local paper: “46 chicken shops in Catford and NOT ONE GYM”.  It says it all.

What Zara, and others (I’m looking at you, Urban Outfitters, Mango, & Other Stories and more…), have done may be distasteful but it reflects an economic reality that bleating about statistics hides.  Being fat is associated with being poor, and not with aspiration.  They are selling an aspirational image – they want to be seen on the backs of girls brunching in Clapham and dancing in Peckham.  They don’t want to be associated with mere mortals who might have a spare tyre around their waist and might *gasp* be wearing their clothes in such undesirable areas as Catford – let alone somewhere outside of a chi chi urban destination.  They feel that if they were, their cooler, richer customers might no longer wish to be associated with their brand.  It’s like charities who reject donations from noted racists, knowing the good PR they receive will ultimately be better than the money.  “Fat” women are the noted racists in this miserable equation.

There will be some people who think this is a good thing.  That fat people should feel pressured into losing weight.  That being a size 16 is in some way immoral.  That the best clothes should be reserved for the people who look the “best”.  This is bullshit on a variety of levels.  For a start, for a 5’2″ person to be a size 12 is very different from a 5’10” person.  For another thing, if a person has struggled with eating disorders, or is on certain medications, it could be healthier for them to hover at around a size 14-16 than to risk their mental or physical health trying to become a socially approved 10 or 12.  People also carry weight differently – before I gained weight while working in a desk job, I was tiny on my bottom half and slipped easily into Zara sizing.  But I’ve always had broad shoulders, a long back, and large breasts.  I couldn’t be a size 10 up top without major surgery – far too high a cost for fashion.

Of course, Zara knows all these arguments, and so do all the fashion brands that choose to market exclusively to them.  They’ve just decided not to care.  It’s hard to know if body acceptance movements will bring about a change in their opinions or if they’ll stick to their ways.  Either way, it brings a bitter taste to my mouth to know that it’s more economically profitable to judge half your potential customers as a low class liability than it is to cater to all who might want to buy your products.


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