Plus size, plus price: The cost of women taking up space in straight-sized South Asia

Everything from the clothing to the prices and even the phrase 'plus size' is inherently discriminatory, creating an alienating environment for bigger people.
Updated 19 Oct, 2023

Two sisters walk into a clothing store. No, this isn’t a modified bar joke. One of them walks in, grabs any article of clothing that catches her eye, pays, and is ready to leave within minutes. The other, Miral Waqar, an accountant from Pakistan, however, must spend more time in the same shop, then visit a dozen others, try on a mountain-sized pile of clothes, fall into a body-dysmorphia- fuelled shame spiral, simmer in self-loathing in every fitting room she visits, and then either leave empty handed or pay several times more than her sister for clothes she may not even like, just so she has something to wear.

The only fundamental difference between the two sisters is that one is a size small and the other is not. Yet the cost of the same shopping trip was worlds apart, both financially and emotionally. This is how the fashion industry discriminates against bigger people, through pricing and sizing or lack thereof, especially in South Asia.

According to PLUS Model magazine, “In the fashion industry, plus-size clothing begins at a size 12.” Nonetheless, clothing stores can make it difficult to put a number on plus size — some departments designate a size 12 as plus size while others use a size 14. The average American woman is between a size 16 and 18, but, most clothing lines still sell up to just size 12. Little to no research has been done on the sizing in South Asia.

“Sizes don’t mean sh*t, I fit in a large at H&M and nothing at Zara, a 12 UK in top if it doesn’t have sleeves and a 14 to 16 if it does,” says Tanya Bedi, a graphic designer and freelance model from India. She speaks about how she truly despises the term “plus size” due to its inherent discriminatory nature and the way it alienates bigger people.

“Why the plus? It’s just a size, it shouldn’t be plus or minus. I feel like it insinuates that there is a normal size, and we aren’t it,” adds Bihamaal, an artist and model from Pakistan who goes by Baemisaal professionally. “I think plus size was just created to not call people fat to their faces,” she says.

Dr Renee Exelbert, a licensed psychologist and certified personal trainer speaks about the psychological harm of assigning labels to people based on their size such as “small,” “large,” and “plus size” and how it can be stigmatising. “When they have to shop in a separate section of a store or have to shop in an entirely different store because they’re not like everybody else, that can make somebody feel different in a negative way, because our society has geared it towards [that],” she explains.

Waqar agrees with these sentiments, adding that she would always feel embarrassed shopping in the plus-size section, to the point where she lost weight to gain societal acceptance, saying “I used to be plus size and didn’t enjoy dressing up as I was always self conscious of my body. Since I lost weight, I dress up every day and it makes me feel confident.”

Pakistani RJ and plus size model Sabah Bano Malik echoes similar sentiments. She talks about how fashion had always been something she was passionate about, but the lack of size inclusivity hindered her. “Back in the day, I didn’t even know I could wear jeans for the longest time and so I didn’t get to have as much fun as my friends or my sister did, and it would suck,” she says. “We always view weight and bodies as either winning or failing. Being fat is seen as being a failure and that’s kind of where I think that emotional impact comes from,” she adds.

Why do people care so much about clothing sizes? “Clothes are crucial communicators of identity, tools of self-expression, a way of identifying with others. They affect how other people see or perceive you and can have psychological effects too,” says fashion journalist Babette Radclyffe-Thomas. Dr Exelbert agrees, calling clothing a great mechanism to express your creative style with. “A good outfit could always cure my sadness or make me want to leave my house when I suffered from depression and only wanted to sit in bed. I have always used fashion to gain happiness and comfort in my own body,” adds Bedi.

So, if fashion plays such an instrumental role in people’s self identity and happiness, it is safe to say that not being catered to by the fashion industry can take a huge toll on one’s self worth and emotional well-being. Not finding your size in clothes can make people feel discouraged, uncared for and invisible. “It’s like this dichotomy of being both unseen and seen at the same time, it’s like they know you exist, but they don’t care to cater to you. They see you but they choose not to see you,” says Baemisaal.

Malik delves deeper into how the lack of plus-size fashion affected her health when she moved to Pakistan around 10 years ago. “I felt very defeminised and desexualised in a lot of ways. I kind of stopped taking care of myself when I didn’t get to present myself in the way I wanted. It took me a really long time to find a way to dress in a way that I still felt safe leaving my house but also that I still looked in the mirror and I saw myself,” she says.

Where are all the plus-size girls?

In the media, larger people are severely underrepresented, as only two per cent of women shown in media images are “plus size”.

This portrays being larger as an exception. “My body will always be seen as different than the norm, which is very stupid because I’m sure bigger people make a huge bunch of bodies. It’s not like we’re a minority or something,” says Baemisaal. When bigger people are represented, they are often limited to playing comedic roles, many times their bodies being the butt of the joke.

Often, they’re reduced to the funny fat friend, not the smart, brave or beautiful lead. This can be seen even when they are playing the lead, such as with Sanam Jung’s character Mona in the Hum TV drama Pyari Mona that aired just this year.

Since Pakistani dramas primarily cast size 0 actors as their leads, this representation was long overdue, however, the drama played up harmful stereotypes around plus size people. In just the first episode, it portrayed its titular character as someone whose constant hunger bordered on gluttony, to the point where it led to her general disregard of and embarrassment for those around her. “Pakistan is very into conformity and when you don’t conform, it makes people uncomfortable when you’re out in public with a bigger body and you’re confident and you’re enjoying it and you’re rocking it. I like my body and it’s wild to say that because it really upsets people that I don’t hate it,” says Malik.

“In general, the pressure to be a smaller size exists, and we see that across media. Only recently has that begun to change. We’re finding that there’s a clear psychological advantage when the media shows more realistic body types than the traditional thin model types, such as an increase in body satisfaction and a decrease in social comparisons,” adds Dr Exelbert.

The actors playing the aforementioned “fat friend” roles are usually women. This may play a role in how the term plus size has gendered connotations. “Generally, ‘plus size’ has been associated with women while the term ‘big & tall’ has been used in reference to menswear,” says fashion consultant and VCUQ Professor Ali Khan. Menswear is also more often sold with its measurements in inches or centimetres on display instead of using size labels such as “small” or “large.”

“I don’t think people think of men as plus size, they just think of them as bigger, but I think that’s a greater part of a conversation where people think caring about your clothing is like a feminine trait, even though that’s absolutely not true,” Malik points out. Dr Exelbert talks about how gender affects perceptions of one’s body, especially as a bigger person, saying “There’s some denotation in society about big men being strong and burly, and physical prowess has always been associated with strength. In fact, men who are taller are statistically noted to be more successful. So, these ‘big and tall man’ stores don’t have a negative connotation, whereas plus size stores typically do.”

The psychologist also spoke about how not being able to find clothes in your size specifically if all the clothes are too small for you, can lead to disordered patterns of eating, exercising and even thinking. “It just communicates the message in a salient way that you need to be different. If you’re going to keep up with the standard that has been set, you need to change. That clearly gives the shopper the message that they don’t belong there,” she says.

Taking the fashion out of plus-size fashion

“It’s not fashion’s job to fix the issues of society,” says Khan. “Fashion as a concept is exclusive and discriminatory and can only function as such. Fashion reflects society just like any other art form.” This rings true when we look at how the limiting depictions of bigger people in the media is reflected to us in plus-size fashion. “Five years ago, plus-size clothing mostly consisted of ugly printed loose t-shirts and capri pants. As if we don’t like to wear the same clothes or designs or don’t deserve to wear them,” says Bedi.

Commenting on how plus-size clothes appear very basic and simple, Baemisaal talks about the troubles she faces when looking for trendy clothes in her size. “You won’t see a cute, knitted crop top that you would want to wear in a bigger size, but you’ll find a plain thing instead,” she says. She comments on how plus-size fashion does not allow people to feel desirable, as if they can’t look “sexy,” by talking about how it features clothes that are often either baggy, restricting and tight in the wrong places, or constructed as if people’s heights increase with their weight/body shape. “Often, I find plus size clothing is like empire waist and like fluttery cap sleeves and it’s very matronly in a way. It’s almost like some sort of sad sack that is covering somebody up,” says Malik.

Dr Exelbert adds to this, talking about how this limited range of clothes to choose from can harm people’s mental health by making it harder to express their identity. “Since clothing is a mode of expression, if your choices are slim because there aren’t sizes available for you, you have fewer mechanisms through which to express your creative style. It pretty much says ‘just cover yourself up, don’t cover yourself with style because you’re not as important’,” she explains.

‘A tax on being fat’

As if the emotional costs of being plus-size weren’t enough, the fashion industry also continues to burden larger people financially as well by charging higher prices for their plus-size options. Both Khan and Radclyffe-Thomas say that brands often cite needing more fabric to make larger clothes as the reason for this. The brands, however, fail to explain why all the sizes below what is considered plus size are priced the same despite needing different amounts of fabric. Fabric makes up only a small portion of the overall manufacturing cost. Other expenses that fashion designers and retailers incur are shipping and marketing costs, that are higher, but don’t differ based on the size of the clothes being transported or marketed.

Dr Exelbert brings up an interesting point, saying, “if 67 per cent of American women are size 14 or larger, why are clothes that are size zero to six not more expensive? Because that seems like the minority.” This is where the clothing brands’ argument falls flat, especially when you compare their pricing technique to that of shoes, for example. All sizes of the same shoe are priced equally, because shoe brands don’t discriminate against larger feet the way clothing brands do against larger bodies.

“If anything, you have more customers now because you’re catering to a bigger size. Because when you make something in bulk, obviously your cost is lessened. So, no matter how much cost you really use, they’ll be putting in maybe, what, a little bit more for more cloth, but they’ll also be making so much more because they have more people, more customers to come to,” says Baemisaal. “I know for a fact in fast fashion each ‘crop top’ costs them a few cents to a dollar to make and they usually hold a 600 to 900 per cent profit margin per said crop top. To ask bigger people to pay more as if it didn’t cost them maybe 30 more cents to make that top is ridiculous. People shouldn’t pay a tax to be fat,” adds Bedi.

Who gets to model?

Malik speaks about the internalised shame a lot of people with bigger bodies have grown up with that makes it difficult for them to pursue modelling in the first place. “The fashion industry isn’t breaking down plus-size women’s doors saying ‘hey, come and model for us’, but I also think there is some internalised… discomfort with the fact that your body type specifically has been weaponised against you your whole life.

“It’s like ‘well, why would I model? Why would I show my body in this way when I know people don’t view me as beautiful’,” she says. She also speaks about how plus-size women have also grown up being sexualised a lot more aggressively and starting at a much younger age than others, which further adds to the shame. “When you have a bigger body and you’re rocking more hips or more breasts or whatever they consider the sexual aspects of a woman’s body — though they don’t leave anything behind — it’s kind of told to you that it’s vulgar,” Malik says.

Being a plus-size woman in Pakistan has never been easy. Now add being a plus size model, someone who is constantly under the scrutiny of the public, and a whole new world of challenges is unlocked. Both Malik and Baemisaal have spoken about how there are not enough work opportunities for plus-size models for modelling to be their main source of income.

“The first photo shoots of me that came out, people were rabid in the comments, disgusted with me just being there,” recalls Malik. Although most of her experiences on sets have been positive, such as when working with Khaadi and Alkaram, there have been negative moments in her career that Malik is able to pinpoint, such as being ready for a shoot with no clothes in her size being available on set. “There’s been a photographer or videographer that I know is uncomfortable shooting my body and doesn’t understand what to do. I was just like, ‘oh I feel less than’ and it doesn’t feel great. The difference between that and a photographer who’s not uncomfortable with my body is like night and day,” she adds.

In fact, Malik credits the support and encouragement she’s gotten from brands like Khaadi and even people outside the industry as what’s kept her going. “They’ve really supported me in my career; I’ve never been made to feel like my body was too much or I was too much, if anything they have been encouraging me to be more and be bolder and be more free. The people outside of it have also been really great. It’s been wonderful to see the impact it’s had on people and how people like seeing bodies that not even necessarily look like theirs but are just more representative of other people too,” she says.

Dude, where’s my size?

Despite the recent efforts towards size inclusion in Pakistan, there is still little to no plus-size fashion. Pakistani brands such as Sana Safinaz and Khaadi don’t go higher than a size 16 — the number corresponding with the width of the shoulder in inches. The largest waist size available at Sapphire, Gul Ahmed, Outfitters and Nishat Linen is 34 inches, while Maria B goes up to 35 inches. The scale of sizes from Extra Small to Extra Extra Large is not uniform across the country — let alone globally — which leads to further confusion and inaccessibility.

To access larger sizes, customers usually order their clothes online from foreign companies, after extensive research. Still, not many online retailers offer larger sizes either — a 2018 report by the fashion data analytics company StyleSage found that only 16 per cent of online retailers’ inventories went above a size 12 and that only counted e-commerce sites that carried a full range of sizes, which not all do.

“Pants and jeans I always get from ASOS. It’s the only place that carries my size and I can afford once every few months,” says Bedi. “I’ve been buying custom designs off Instagram shops a lot because they do offer size variety and can alter designs for me,” she adds, speaking about how important customisation and alterations are when shopping for clothes that fit bigger bodies.

Something that sets South Asia apart from the west in terms of manufacturing clothes is that the labour for doing so is cheaper and more readily available to the layperson. “It knocks me down when a design can’t be found in my size, but I come from India, the land of master jis who’ll make you anything you can design for them,” says Bedi. She is not alone — generations of desi women have been designing their own clothes, spending hours in the market picking out the right fabric and getting it stitched by their personal tailor because they cannot find the kind of clothes they want in their sizes at pre-existing clothing stores.

Although this has become somewhat of a cultural quick fix, it just goes to show the privilege that men and smaller women have — while larger women have to single-handedly run an entire production line just to be able to wear clothes that fit them. “When parameters aren’t set that we’re like everybody else and we have to go out of our way to meet our needs, then obviously our needs aren’t being met. Whenever you have to put in extra work to accommodate yourself, it makes you feel different. And when we feel different in general, as people, we often feel stigmatised,” says Dr Exelbert.