Clothes, Shopping, and the “Fat Tax”

Two years I became a vice-president at a community college. This new job represented a major step forward in my career, and I knew that I would need to upgrade my wardrobe for a more polished look, especially given that I’m the youngest administrator at my college. After I accepted the job, I went through my closet and made a wish list of all the clothing I wanted in my new professional wardrobe. Most of the items on the list were classic pieces like a trench coat, some crisp but well-lined white trousers, a white button-down shirt, and a black knee-length pencil skirt.

When I made my list, I told myself to focus on buying high-quality, timeless items that I could wear for years to come. I adjusted my internal gauges on what I thought I should spend, and gave myself a budget of $1,500 to fund an upgraded wardrobe. It’s been two years now and I still don’t have many of the pieces on that wish list, largely because I’m a plus-size shopper and quality clothing in my size is really hard to find. Many stores don’t carry plus sizes, and the stores that do often charge higher prices for lower-quality clothing. I frequently have to choose between buying nothing or paying more for something I don’t really like. Welcome to the fun world of being a size 20.

From a financial standpoint, it makes no sense that shopping as a plus-size woman should be this difficult. According to research from Washington State University, the average American woman wears a size 16-18. In fact, by some estimates, over two-thirds of American women wear a size 14 (the start of the plus size designation) or larger. Despite the fact that the majority of shoppers need plus sizes, the vast majority of retail space in most stores and even online are devoted to the minority of women in the size 0-12 category.

Take Nordstrom, for example. I went online to look for a pair of pants. Their website lists 2,241 search results, but when I look for my size my options drop to 146 pairs. Meanwhile, someone who is a size 8 has 1,515 options — a 937 percent increase, a fact that makes no sense in world where there are a lot more women built like me than women who wear a size 8. It feels like an odd business model to carry most of your inventory in sizes that don’t fit most of your potential customers — and it’s hard to reconcile the idea that fashion designers and clothing stores would rather not have my money than carry clothing in my size.

The fact that Nordstrom and other department stores carry limited plus-size options has a very real impact on clothing budget. If I find something I like, I can’t wait for it to go on sale or clearance. The competition for items in my size is too great. I also have to be prepared to impulse-buy; when I found a store that had my hard-to-find bra size in stock, for example, I spent an unplanned $235 on four bras because I can never be sure when I’ll find that size again. 

My clothing purchases cost me more than they cost my smaller-sized friends, even if we are buying the same style by the same label. This is true at both high and lower-end stores. Take Old Navy. They currently have a sale on pants in their Harper line, which is great until you see that the same pants, made with the same material, cost $25 for sizes 0-20 and $46 for sizes 1X-4X. This price differential makes almost no sense, especially when you consider that, according to the Old Navy size guide, a person who is a size 16-18 could theoretically fit into both the $25 pants and the $46 pants. Some might argue that you should pay more for plus-size clothing because it takes more fabric to make, but that feels problematic. We don’t argue that women who wear a size 0 or 2 should pay less than someone who wears an 8 or 10.

The lack of plus-size availability at department stores means that my options at discount retailers like Nordstrom Rack or TJ Maxx are also limited. If you are plus-sized and frugal, your options are especially bleak. There is no more depressing place in the shopping universe than the plus-sized rack at a thrift or consignment store, unless you are dying for a faded caftan from someone’s grandma or a baggy Lane Bryant T-shirt that you probably already own, because Lane Bryant is one of the few plus-sized stores found in most malls.

I should note that there is one place where being plus-size saves me money, and that’s in the high-end designer or luxury category. I’ve always dreamed about having a classic Burberry trench coat, but Burberry, like most designer labels, doesn’t carry anything in my size. I never have to wrestle with the question of “can I afford a $1,200 coat?” because it simply isn’t an option.

I’ve compared notes with my thinner friends, and I’m convinced that it costs me 20-30 percent more money (the “fat tax”) and at least 50-60 percent more time to put together a comparable work wardrobe. I keep hoping that more stores will see that there are consumers like me who want to spend money to look nice, but progress is slow and my options are still limited. Until then, my hunt for a great pair of white pants goes on.

Wendy Robinson is a writer and community college administrator. You can find her on Twitter as @wendyrmonkey.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Clothing Series.

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