As a junior at Florida A&M University (FAMU), getting dressed for anything means always being “on.” From four-inch heels to faux-fur coats, you’ll quickly learn that a stylish outfit is a mandatory staple for your daily class schedule. While this is a highlight of my day because I grew up loving all things fashion, I soon realized Tallahassee’s options for plus-size women are limited, to say the least.
I grew up in Miami where there was a mall 20 minutes in every direction and they all offered fashionable clothes in my size. It was different once I moved to Tallahassee for college.
As soon as I arrived last fall I noticed the difference in shopping options. I was met with a Forever 21 that kept the same clothes from August to March in the plus-size section. My next best options were Macy’s or JCPenny which only worked when I needed professional clothing.
Online shopping has become my go-to, but then there’s the financial burden of paying shipping charges. It’s even harder when there are last-minute events, socials or, even worse —costume parties. I’m forced to either wear something old or break the bank.
Last year I went to the mall and tried to find a blazer and dress pants for our school’s career fair. I spent three hours searching Macy’s and JCPenney hoping that I’d find something hidden between the racks. The sizes were either too small or if they did fit they were way too maternal for a 21-year-old. I ended up borrowing a blazer from a friend and pairing it with pants I already owned.
Governor's Square is the only shopping mall in Tallahassee and the options are extremely limited for plus-size women. Choosing between Macy’s, JCPenney, Torrid, Dillards, and Express can get extremely redundant. While many department stores include plus sizes, their target audience rarely target or appeal to the 18-24 demographic. According to Retail Dive, “the average department store shopper is slightly older and more affluent than the average apparel shopper.”
I wanted to know if any other plus-size students on campus felt a similar pain and I found they also agree that the shopping experience here is terrible. Arianna Seaman, 19, wears a size 14 and hates the styles that are available to her. “Just because I’m big doesn’t mean I’m trying to conceal it,” says the FAMU student. “I’m trying to show these curves off a little bit. Not everyone’s trying to wear a muumuu.”
Gabrielle Hall, a 20-year-old student at FAMU, agrees, saying that the clothing options are limited when shopping at the mall. And if she is able to find clothes, the style tends to be on the more conservative side. She even added that it’ll look “like a little old-maid dress and it’s not something sexy that [I’d] want to wear.”
In 2018, Sears and Charlotte Russe closed in Governor's Square mall. And four months ago, the Forever 21 location closed their plus-size section. “You have stores closing down that usually carry plus-size clothing,” Richana Johnson, a 21-year-old FAMU student says. “Charlotte Russe closed down, but then they reopened. When I went in, they only had one shelf of plus-size clothes, so I was kind of shocked.”
So how do plus-size women in Tallahassee find clothing options?
Dejania Oliver, a 19-year-old sophomore at FAMU, relies mostly on online shopping. “It’s easier for me to do that than to try to go to a store and find clothes that fit me because a lot of the fashion choices they pick for plus-size women are not my style,” she says. “I’ll just go online and search for things that I like. [The mall] definitely caters to a lot of older women, which is surprising to me because it's a college town.”
While online shopping seems like the safest bet, getting your package on time feels more like an intense game of Russian roulette. And if you’re hit with an important event at the last minute then you have to make the sacrifice to spend an extra $20 dollars on express shipping.
This past homecoming I took a chance at Governor's Square mall again and tried to find a professional dress for our journalism networking event. I knew I wasn’t going to find anything at the mall but took the risk anyway. After searching for hours I was proven right, I couldn’t find a dress. I ended up paying an extra $25 for shipping to rush an order from ASOS, making my total $90 — and it didn’t even arrive in time for the event!
“Plus-size girls are literally spending more money,” Nadia Felder, a 24-year-old recent FAMU graduate, says. “I’m spending way more money than my homegirl, who can buy a one-piece for $12 because she’s a size 7, and her shoes might be $30. In total, she’s spending $42 on her entire look. Meanwhile, my outfit costs $34 just to get here.”
While the malls might not be solving problems, there are several thrift and consignment stores in the area. Lykimbria Jackson, an 18-year-old FAMU student, grew up in Tallahassee and learned quickly that thrift stores were going to be her best option — not only financially, but also for finding her size. Jackson’s ability to find pieces that she loves, but says that it’s still hard work. It takes a lot of digging to find her size, and even then she’ll probably have to alter it to create the look she wants.
“I like to wear things that other people don't have,” she says. “I’ve made distressed jeans and then added patches on the jeans, distressed shirts and added patches, and things like that. ”
Making Do With What You Have
The more common option among the plus-size women I talked to is making something old look new.
FAMU homecoming, as at every school, is a huge event every year where alumni come back to celebrate the school. It’s basically a huge family reunion filled with fun, food , and fashion. Alumni come in their best clothes, while current students make sure to keep up. This week means anywhere from two to three outfit changes per day.
For many girls, there’s a lot of planning to ensure that no one recognizes that you’ve worn a particular piece before. It takes time to go to the mall and try to find the perfect outfit. But as a plus-size student, you might not be able to actually try on your choices because more than likely some or all of them are still being shipped.
Wearing a double-digit size means you have to have double imagination. Many students have to get innovative in order to make something that’s tired look fresh. “If I can't find anything in the mall I have to become creative in my own wardrobe,” Isis Climes, a 21-year-old senior at FAMU, says. “I have to restyle my fashion and say, ‘Okay, what can I put together that I already have but will make a different fashion statement and be a head-turner,’ which is a little time-consuming.”
Not Going At All
The other harsh reality plus-size women face is not attending events because their current closet won’t suffice. Fame Fest, a hip-hop festival held at a popular club in Tallahassee, was sprung on Abigail Vamping at the last minute during homecoming. The 18-year-old planned to attend, but soon realized she couldn’t find an outfit to match the event’s attire. The dress code was “casually fly” for the 18-and-under-crowd and “upscale attire” for those 21-and-older. Ultimately, she decided to stay home. “I was supposed to go to Fame Fest. It was very last-minute and I knew I wasn't going to be able to find an outfit,” Vamping says. “I canceled my ticket because I got so frustrated.”
Choosing between having fun and staying home because your shopping options are limited is not a fair choice to have to make. For Climes, it creates personal insecurity. “[The mall clothes] aren’t always in big-girl styles,” she says. “It can kind of cause low self-esteem because I can't look as pretty as this person due to my size. It will make you think to yourself, Do I have to be a specific size and look a certain way to be pretty? That shouldn't be the case. All fashion and all styles should be across the spectrum.”
Young women attending school want more options that will financially work with their style. Plus-size items tend to cost more than the same piece in a smaller size. That is a burden for a lot of college students whose main source of income is financial aid and their parents. “I want to find something that is good, fits me, and is not too much money because I’m a broke college student on a budget,” Seaman says. “I guess they think because I'm bigger that I got bigger money — but I don’t. I promise, my pockets are still the same size as y’alls.”
I now know, after witnessing firsthand the limited number of places to find plus-size clothing in Governor's Square mall, that it’s better to shop online throughout the year, rather than hope their selection will improve. Young, plus-size women in Tallahassee are made to feel as though options begin and end with bulky, square-shaped, conservative clothes. I don’t dress like anyone’s mother and don’t plan on starting now. There needs to be more options for young, plus-size women, especially in a college town as large as Tallahassee.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue