Size discrimination is all too common in the fashion industry, but new research from Washington State University’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles suggests the phenomenon is also prevalent in the world of fitness apparel.
In other words, a plus-size woman who wants to look good and feel good about her workout can’t pull on some cute activewear and head to the gym like a thinner woman could — even though the average American woman is close to a size 18, according to other research by the study’s co-author, Assistant Professor Deborah Christel of WSU.
Instead, the study shows that plus-size women have no choice but to shop the men’s department for workout gear. “There’s a societal expectation that I think is communicated in clothing availability,” said Christel to NBC. “Companies are saying it’s OK for a guy to be big because we are offering guy clothing, but it’s not OK for a woman to be big because we are cutting it off at a certain size.”
Lululemon — one of the pioneers of women’s high-end activewear — is the prime example of this phenomenon, as the chain only sells clothing up to size 12. After controversy swirled about the company’s pricey yoga pants being too sheer, Lululemon founder Chip Wilson notoriously said during an interview with Bloomberg News that the yoga pants “don’t work for … some women’s bodies.” He later apologized.
It could be that these companies simply can’t afford to make plus-size workout gear — fashion labels that make clothing that fits bigger women often sell it at a higher price, blaming the cost on extra fabric, according to NBC — but more likely it has to do with sizeism. Christel blames high-end fashion companies for overlooking plus-size women in an effort not to “be associated with or condone obesity.” Others simply feel that selling gear only to thin women increases the companies’ “cool factor.” The irony that regular exercise helps a person shed weight, and that athletic wear is utilitarian fashion, seems lost on these companies.
A recent study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that high-end activewear — which has become so chic, many women wear it even when they’re not working out — can actually improve your workout. The study cited something called “enclothed recognition,” which means when you’re confident in the clothes you’re wearing, you’re more motivated to work out, and you see better results. So neglecting to make cute workout wear available to bigger women who want to be fit ends up being counterproductive.
Christel is hopeful that cold, hard facts will eventually sway fitness apparel companies to make their gear available to women of all sizes. “Before any major cultural changes happen, you’ve got to prove the problem with research, so that’s what we are trying to do here,” she said to King 5.
The assistant professor is also making a brand-new class available to students involved in Washington State University’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles. It’s called “Fat Studies,” and it’s been approved by the school but has yet to be scheduled. Christel hopes the class will educate students and future designers and women’s wear professionals “to evaluate their own implicit prejudices about overweight people and study weight discrimination as a social justice issue.”