Sportswear is not just for skinny people

When images were released of a new series of curvy mannequins sporting activewear at Nike's London flagship store, NikeTown, they did a lot of heavy-lifting (no pun intended).

While Nike has been selling a limited range of plus-size items - everything from shorts and leggings to hoodies and training bras - since 2017, these items have, for the most part, been relegated to the secret corners of the internet where only the savvy, plus-size shoppers know to look. (That is to say, all plus-size shoppers, because we're required to be savvy in order to clothe ourselves at all.)

They weren't on the front pages of catalogues or websites, or bumped to the top of search results where only the most aspirational and bouncy-ponytail'ed runners, yoga stretchers and latte-drinkers' images were beamed in an effort to sell an image of health through Lycra.

Nike's new plus-sized mannequins have appeared in their London NikeTown store. Picture: Nike
Nike's new plus-sized mannequins have appeared in their London NikeTown store. Picture: Nike

Images of Nike's plus-size range were hard to come by, which only served to further the narrative that fat people don't shop for activewear, that we don't require activewear, that we are universally inactive.

The inevitable comments on this article, when it's shared to social media, will almost certainly reinforce the stale and disproven notion that a person's health is measurable based on the size of their body. So, to clear that up really quickly: health and weight are distinct factors. It is no less true that all fat people are inherently unhealthy than it is that all thin people (or "straight-size people", as is the common parlance among my kind) are the picture of perfect health.

(The notion that health is itself a marker of morality and goodness is a whole other kettle of complicated fish, and I'll boil it for you some other time. This is about expensive leggings.)

 

If you've been lucky enough to never sit on the receiving end of a barrage of internet comments directed at your appearance and overall humanity, you may be unaware that the general feedback offered to fat people in the world is that we a) are unhealthy and b) need to exercise to lose weight.

Whether the concern-trolls offering these comments would like us to lose weight to become healthy, better fit an aesthetic designation that pleases them, or 'reduce the strain on public health' (not kidding, despite the fact that my only doctor's appointments are to investigate suspicious-looking moles, we're regularly told our existence is a burden on resources) is anyone's guess - but the general reasoning is most often among those three options.

Considering this, the absence of stretchy clothing options might just be the great contradiction in activewear: that the people being shut-out of the market most often are the same people regularly being told they need do what the market insists. Move! Run! Shrink! Be inspired by slogans on changing room mirrors!

Fat people exercise. This is a fact. And in order to attend yoga classes or run a marathon or walk their dogs, fat people require clothes to exercise in.

But if everyday plus-size clothes are difficult to come by, shopping for activewear is a comparatively herculean task. Outdoor Voices, the impossibly trendy American athleisure brand, offers sizing up to an XL; Lululemon, the global behemoth of leggings masquerading as motivational messaging, goes up to an XXL. Both of these average out to around an Australian size 14.

Those of us who wear plus sizes understand why there's such a dearth of options across the board: fashion is a prestige business, where the people wearing clothes are a reflection of the brands that make them. And fat people or those who wear plus sizes aren't deemed worthy to represent those brands. This is especially true in the Instagram age, where anyone tagging the clothes they're wearing can be framed as a kind of amateur spokesperson for that brand.

While more options are arising for plus-size shoppers in the fast fashion arena, in high-fashion, there are very few retailers offering upscale or investment pieces. After all, if someone invests in plus-size clothes, it suggests they have no immediate plans to drastically alter the size of their bodies, voiding that investment.

And that's an unfathomable thought if you believe that altering - specifically, shrinking - our bodies is what fat people should aspire to at all times. It's why we should want to buy the leggings Nike offers up to a 3XL (an Australian size 24) in the first place: to eventually size down into the range that's manoeuvred over the limbs of the 'regular' mannequins.

But that goal is assumed and dangerous and not the default. Some people exercise to lose weight, just as some do it to build muscle or improve their flexibility or relieve tension or tend to their mental health.

On the dedicated floor of NikeTown where the plus-size mannequins first appeared, there are also a range of para-sport mannequins. And if Nike's recent PR disaster about the lack of support for pregnant athletes taught us anything, it's that there is no 'typical' body that needs, enjoys or engages in exercise. Whether they're the picture of "good health" or rarely being pictured at all, people who move, sweat, chase after kids, complain over coffee with other activewear-wearers, or compete professionally need something to stretch over their bodies. Allowing them to find it without having to conduct an extensive and disappointing hunt is the first step on a long path. Hope you've got your sneakers on.

Brodie Lancaster is an author and columnist. @brodielancaster



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