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Last year, I ran a series of roundtable discussions with members of the Alpine Parrot community to understand why there was such a massive disconnect between retailers (who seem to think there is no demand for outdoor apparel in bigger sizes) and our customers (who are desperately seeking outdoor apparel in bigger sizes). 

Content warning: Today I’m writing about the experience of shopping while existing in a bigger body. It’s a traumatic experience for a lot of people, so feel free to skip today’s post if it’s not something you feel will serve you well today. 💛

Here’s the major takeaway from those retail roundtable discussions: retail shopping in a bigger body requires an act of courage.

I personally hate shopping in stores. I can never find anything that fits me, and after a while it really starts to wear me down. Even if I don’t shed tears in the dressing room (though that’s 100% happened!), I’m sad that I can’t find things to wear that make me feel as amazing as I know I am. 

The roundtable discussions made it clear that not only was I not alone, but we can summarize the problem with shopping in three major ways:

Shopping is literally uncomfortable

Small dressing rooms, dressing rooms without benches, and narrow aisles between clothes mean it can be physically difficult for folks in bigger bodies to find and try on clothes. A lot of independent specialty stores have small footprints, and there’s often quite a bit of product on the floor to try to appeal to as many different types of outdoor enthusiasts as possible. The lack of available space to maneuver around the store can result in feelings of claustrophobia and keep bigger bodied folks from wanting to return.

Shopping is figuratively uncomfortable

Whether we’ve been doing outdoor activities for a long time or are just starting, it’s daunting to go into retail stores. There’s a lot of gatekeeping that can - intentionally or otherwise - happen in the outdoor industry, and there’s a lot of anti-fatness that comes along with that. Even the most well-intentioned staff members will accidentally say something that can push folks out. 

Some examples:

  • Asking if there’s anything in my size and being given an XL, even though it’s clearly too small.
  • Being directed to the men’s department because nothing in the women’s department fits.
  • Having to explain that no, I’m not a beginner at a given sport, when asking for specific gear.
  • Having to ask for the weight limits of specific gear because it’s not listed anywhere on the marketing materials.

Not to mention that we very rarely see plus size mannequins or athletes in bigger bodies in the posters and ad materials throughout the store. 

How we shop is inherently different

When a person who wears mainstream sizes walks into a store, they scan the racks for styles that interest them, and then they find their size before walking into a fitting room. When a person who wears plus sizes walks into a store, they scan the racks for their size, and then have to choose among the available styles to see if any interest them before walking into a fitting room. This seemingly tiny difference in experience is actually quite significant: the mental energy required to hunt and peck among the racks only to walk away with absolutely nothing is painful. It often means that folks in bigger bodies have to settle for what’s available or walk away empty-handed, neither of which is particularly great for outdoor activities that require specific gear to be safe and comfortable.

Change is a long way away

There is a LOT of work that needs to be done before we can experience equal parity for everyone who wants to walk out of outdoor stores with the gear they need that day:

  1. Brands need to create products for bigger bodies.
  2. Retail stores need to carry those products in their stores while also becoming easier to navigate and more welcoming.
  3. Customers need to go into stores and give feedback, either by buying those products or giving actionable feedback for stores to do better.

We know change is hard. It’s exhausting and painful! And yet we need to do the hard work if we want to see the change.

If you wish things could be better, here are a few things you can do to participate in the retail revolution:

  1. Go to retail stores! Your presence shows that not only do you exist, but you are interested in making a purchase (even if you can’t). We recommend going with a friend, because it’s more fun and there’s strength in numbers.
  2. Buy from brands that you appreciate and respect (even if it’s not us). Brands can’t exist without cash flow, and they need to turn their inventory into cash so that they can make new inventory.
  3. Share your critical, actionable feedback with both brands and stores. Everyone wants to be better, and when feedback is actionable it’s a lot easier to make things happen. “You suck,” sadly, isn’t enough. “My body needs more room in the hips and I can’t find any pants that support me that way,” on the other hand, is quite helpful!

I hope this post was helpful, both in understanding the challenges of plus size apparel in retail stores and also in commiserating in the inherent challenges of simply existing in a bigger body and wanting to participate in nature.

Is there anything that I missed? Let me know 💖