Why Are So Many Stores' 'Size-Inclusive' Options Only Available Online?

68% of American women wear a size 14 or larger, so why doesn't the in-store shopping experience reflect that?

by Emma Specter
May 3 2019, 7:54pm

Spring has sprung, and with it comes an age-old, anxious question for many plus-size shoppers: "Will I be able to find that cute, weather-appropriate sundress/swimsuit/pair of jeans in anything approaching my size?"

The answer to that question might appear to be an emphatic "yes": after all, stores from Madewell to J. Crew to H&M to Ann Taylor LOFT to Anthropologie have expanded their size range over the last year, in what Madewell referred to in a statement last summer as "a larger initiative to reinvent the standard of fit to reflect the real, diverse spectrum of the American customer." That all sounds great — but why, then, can you buy only up to a size 14 in Madewell's stores, with the rest of its "expanded size range" available online only?

Madewell isn't the only store that touts its size inclusivity while forcing shoppers over a size 14 to go online; the same is true at Ann Taylor LOFT, J. Crew, and Anthropologie, none of whom responded to GARAGE's requests for comment on why this might be. (We will update this story accordingly if and when we hear back.) Madewell reached out in the writing of this story, but was not able to provide comment as of press time.

Even adding extended sizing options online is a fairly new development for many major retailers, but when 68% of American women wear a size 14 or larger, neglecting to offer 14+ options in-store seems at odds with logic, as well as with the values of inclusivity and diversity that so many brands like to espouse for woke points. What appears to be happening, then, is that brands like Madewell and LOFT want to have it both ways; they want the good press that comes with body inclusivity, without having to make the financial commitment of offering inclusive sizes in-store at all their locations.

"I think what most retailers would say is that it’s a matter of floor space, and if you carry 0 to 28 in-store you’ve doubled the sizes but not doubled the floor space," Tyler McCall, a deputy editor at Fashionista who regularly covers the size-inclusive fashion industry, told GARAGE on Friday, adding, "I don’t think that’s a great reason, because we’ve all been to a store where there’s a pile of jeans and there’s three size zeroes."

" I came of age in the Paris Hilton body era, and the options during that time (I graduated high school in 2008) were worse than they are now," says Hannah, 29, an archivist living in upstate New York who has worn between a size 12 and 16 since she was 10. (Hannah has asked that her last name be omitted.)

Although fashion options for women above a size 14 have improved since her high-school days, Hannah notes that even when stores do carry her size online, the language they use to advertise it can dissuade her from buying: "It's so dehumanizing to have separate categories for "women" and "plus." Or "regular" and "plus." As in, if you are above size 12 you aren't a woman, or aren't regular. Why can't we just click on an item and see it in all the sizes it comes in?"

Brooke Cundiff, a former executive at Saks who founded CoEdition, a ready-to-wear fashion site for sizes 10 through 26, explains, "This is exactly why we started CoEdition — to give these women access to great style, in the sizes they want. Traditional retailers ignore or take these women for granted. If they do carry their sizes, they hide the clothes on a rack in the corner. That’s insulting."

Filling the gaps in the size-inclusive clothing market are online retailers like Cundiff's CoEdition, Eloquii and ASOS Curve, that cater to a wide variety of sizes (and not just in the old-school, "slimming" darks and neutrals that stores like Lane Bryant have long offered up as a salve to women's perceived body woes.) Still, buying clothes isn't just about the act of purchasing, it's about shopping as a bonding exercise and self-care ritual, explains McCall: "If I go shopping with a straight-size friend, she can try something on and buy it right then and there, whereas I have to go home, order it, hope there’s no shipping fee, hope it fits...It’s a way for brands to say they're doing things fairly, but they're not creating an equal shopping experience."

The question remains, then: if size-inclusive women's clothing is the fastest-growing sector of women's apparel, as Reuters reports, why aren't mass-market brands making a good-faith effort to provide women who wear over a size 14 with an in-store shopping experience? It might be somewhat cynical, but it's hard not to question whether stores like Madewell and Anthropologie see their ideal target customer as closer to a size 8 than a 28.

A whole new season of summer clothing will soon be upon us, and with it comes an opportunity for mass-market retailers to step up and stock their stores with sizes that fit a real variety of bodies, not just the minimum amount necessary for a store to declare itself "inclusive." Your move, J. Crew.