Because women who wear a size 12, 14 or 16 are at the upper limit of what’s offered at most “regular” clothing stores, it doesn’t take much weight gain for a gal to turn to plus size options. But if you’ve shopped at straight-size stores for most of your adult life, crossing the threshold into a plus size store for the first time (physically or virtually) can feel both liberating and daunting.
While it’s exciting to finally have a shopping experience where you no longer feel so constrained by size, getting to know an entirely new shopping landscape–one that still carries a social stigma with it–can be challenging, too.
Armed with some foreknowledge of the current plus size clothing scene, plus some important mindset tools, going plus size shopping for the first time doesn’t have to be a complete mindfuck. While a lot of your experience is shaped by what’s on offer, what’s happening in your brain while you shop is equally important. So use these tips to boost your chance of having a satisfying shopping experience and end up with some outfits you love.
1. Start with plus size inspiration.
By far the best place to start your first plus size shopping experience is with some fat fashionistas. This is especially true if you hold any doubt in your mind that it’s possible for you to be stylish and plus size. There are an absolute bevy of plus size models and fashion mavens on Instagram these days showing off their #ootd and supplying a detailed trove of information about the brands doing the most (and least) for their plus size customers. Need help getting started? Click here to download a list of School of Bitchcraft’s favourite Social Media Accounts That Won’t Make You Feel Like Shit.
2. Determine your budget and preferred level of quality.
The price range and level of quality for plus size clothing runs pretty well the same gamut as straight-size clothes (until you hit the designer ceiling). For example, at the affordable-but-not-durable end of the spectrum, Walmart carries a limited collection of plus size clothes, as does Old Navy, though much of its plus size inventory is online only—a pain in the ass for people who prefer to try clothes on in-store. Other retailers higher priced, more timeless garments that are higher quality. This includes Lands’ End, Talbots and Universal Standard, a store whose “Fit Liberty” program allows customers to return a garment that no longer fits and exchange it for one that does—for free. This flexibility, plus their capsule approach to building a wardrobe, can make it worth it to invest in (if you can afford it).
For a detailed look at just some of the plus size stores and brands you can start with, check out our Plus Size Shopping Cheat Sheet.
3. Get in the right headspace.
All women, regardless of size, know that going clothes shopping can sometimes just be an emotional minefield, so going into your first plus size shopping experience without doing some work on your mindset first can be a setup for a retail meltdown.
If you’re going plus size shopping without having already processed your feelings about your weight gain or examine any feelings of weight stigma you carry, you will be at a distinct disadvantage. It may sound dramatic, but taking some time to learn how to accept your newly bigger body will definitely help when you’re trying on a pair of slightly-too-small jeans in the dressing room. School of Bitchcraft has resources to help with that.
Above all, no matter what size you fit into now, remember that your body deserves to have clothes that it can fit into today.
4. Gather your resources
When our bodies change and grow, we can be in an especially challenging situation because we really just don’t know what brands will fit us best. Every brand cuts their clothes sliiiiiiightly differently, and it takes trial and error to get to know the brands that work best for you. So it’s important to stay open to experimenting and trying on a lot of what’s out there.
However! Spending an afternoon trying on clothes can go from fun to brutal in a matter of moments. Before starting your web or in-person search, gather up your physical and emotional resources: make sure you’re feeling physically well, you’re in a good mental space, you’ve got some water and snacks in your purse to power you through, and have your bestie by your side, if that helps.
5. Measure, measure, measure….
If you decide to take the plunge into plus size shopping by going online first, remember one cardinal rule: measure twice, buy once. As is the case with straight size stores, every plus size store cuts things slightly differently with slightly different dimensions. Even garments within a store that are the size same can have wildly different shapes and draping. So when you’re shopping online, always be prepared to whip out your measuring tape and consult the size guide, rather than guessing what your size is for that brand.
6. …but don’t get hung up on the numbers.
It’s SO important to understand that the number on the measuring tape or the size tag of a garment literally means NOTHING except as a reference point for the amount of fabric involved in making that garment. That number is not a commentary on your value as a person, your qualities as a friend, your attractiveness as a partner. It’s literally just a way for clothing manufacturers to distinguish between volume of fabric. That’s it.
Unfortunately, weight stigma in our society doesn’t make it seem that way. But you don’t need to accept that line of thinking. When the day comes that a plus size store attendant comes to your dressing room to ask if you need anything in a different size, you’re going to confidently reply, “Yes, do you have this in a size __?” It might be a number that the old you would have been upset by. But you know what? Half the people in that dressing room will be changing into that size, too, and literally none of them will care about the number you call out. If you’re judging yourself for needing clothes in that size, it’s a good indicator that there’s some internal work and care for you to do when you get home.
7. Learn the system(s).
Speaking of numbers, you’ll quickly find that plus size retailers all seem to have completely different approaches to sizing systems. Sometimes one size up from an XL is a 1X, but it could also be XXL. Torrid starts their numbering at 00 (which is actually a 10). And Grrrrl athletic clothing uses a sizing system based on real life athletes, so you might be a size Weili or you could be a size Ali. Sometimes these systems can be downright hilarious; Talbots confusingly used to call their plus size line WOMAN and one can only assume they stopped because of the mass confusion this caused.
Ultimately, don’t be afraid to ask questions of in-store staff or use chatbots online, and be open to experimenting to find what works for you.
8. Look beyond the big box.
If you’ve only shopped in straight size stores until now, you’ve probably only heard of a handful of major plus size fashion retailers, like Pennington’s (in Canada) and Lane Bryant. But there are so many choices beyond the obvious brands, including the little bricks and mortar joint in your hometown. Local independent plus size stores often have a boutique-y feel and attentive customer service that makes them a pleasure to shop at. I had never heard of Your Big Sister’s Closet before I started Googling “plus size clothing Toronto” but I was beyond delighted when I did.
9. Consider straight-size stores with “inclusive” sizing.
More and more straight size stores are bowing to public pressure and are now manufacturing garments in plus sizes. Joe Fresh, Old Navy, H&M, Anthropologie and Reitmans have all jumped on this trend. This makes it much easier for plus size moms, for example, who are shopping for both their kids and themselves at the same store, or for girlfriends who fit a range of sizes to go shopping together.
10. Department stores can be helpful (unless they’re not).
A few years ago, Nordstrom began blending its plus size collection in with their straight size collections, which was initially hailed as a victory for plus size shoppers…until it was clear that, without knowing in advance which brands have plus size lines at all, finding a plus size garment anywhere on the floor was like finding a needle in a haystack. On the other hand, department stores like The Bay have maintained a separate plus size section, which can lead to feelings of annoyance when the straight size Ralph Lauren is on one floor and the plus size Ralph Lauren is on the other. Go ahead and pick your poison.
11. Adjust your expectations.
On one hand, as plus size offerings continue to expand and diversify, the range of looks, colours, cuts and fabric keeps getting better and better. On the other hand, unfortunately, many brands keep churning out garments replete with cheap fabrics, unimaginative cuts (peplum, anyone?) and relentlessly boring styles. It can be maddening sometimes to see what brands are offering this season to straight size shoppers and find that their plus size customer gets another round of last year’s floral cold shoulder look. Stay patient and keep looking, and if you find yourself getting perpetually annoyed, let those companies know.
12. Don’t overlook online-only retailers.
Don’t feel limited to what you can get in person—the world of plus size fashion goes far, far beyond that. For example, Shein, the super affordable online store that carries from size 00 to 5XL, has very cheap clothes (but you get what you pay for). And there are lots of smaller, independent plus size clothing makers and retailers sprouting up online these days. But beware limitations on international shipping if you don’t live in the US.
13. Consider second-hand.
Remember, fat women have always existed and needed places to shop before the internet was born. Before industrious fat women had the kinds of choices they do now, there was always the Goodwill and the church rummage sale. The challenge these days is when thinner women buy second plus-size garments to go along with the “oversize” trend (hey, thinner women? Can you please stop doing that?). However, while searching for plus size clothes at your local Value Village can be time consuming to the point of tediousness, some folks love the thrill of a funky, hard-won find.
14. Recognize your privilege.
It’s important to acknowledge that plus size offerings get more and more limited as they go up in size. It’s one thing if you’re graduating from a 14 to a 16, or an 18 to a 20, but the field of choices can begin to narrow pretty quickly at that. It sucks when a brand announces they have “inclusive sizing,” and it turns out that they only go up to a size 22. The good news is that there’s a lot of pressure on brands to go farther to properly serve the plus size population and many brands are beginning to respond to that demand. But in the meantime, if you’re in that in-between stage between straight size and plus size, just know that along with our struggles also comes privileges that bigger women just don’t have.
15. The tailor is your friend.
Because mass clothing manufacturers are so bad at creating garments that properly fit the full spectrum of women’s bodies, consider keeping a bit of money in your clothing budget for a tailor. Buying a pair of pants that fit in the waist but are too long is far easier to tailor than a too-tight waist in the right length.
16. Interrogate “flattering.”
You also deserve to have clothes that you feel great in–whatever “great” means to you. “Great” doesn’t have to mean “flattering,” not if “flattering” means “makes you look less fat.” If you’re plus size, it’s ok to look plus size—you don’t have to pretend otherwise. The bottom line: you deserve to have clothes that fit you, no matter your size, in the body you have today.
Graduating from straight sizes to plus sizes can be a moment where you practice your bitchcraft, stop seeking out clothes that make you look smaller and begin to claim your space. Be open and tuned in to what you’re thinking and feeling, and skip the side dish of shame. And don’t forget–exploring the plus size landscape and finding the brands that fit your body best can also be creative and fun. Soon you’ll get acquainted with trusted standbys that you can reliably lean on, and can quickly dispense with the brands just aren’t for you.
PS: I’m not getting a cut for any of this!