Is ‘plus size’ clothing really ‘normalising’ larger bodies?

One of Sophia Norris's "curvaceous goddesses" in clothes from Pocket Watch and Petticoats.

One of Sophia Norris's "curvaceous goddesses" in clothes from Pocket Watch and Petticoats. Picture: Pocket Watch and Petticoats - Credit: Archant

Promoting body positivity and clothing for fuller figures can help fight stigma and boost self esteem. Can it really be true that it can lead people to underestimate their weight? Sheena Grant reports.

Sophia Norris at her reproduction vintage and retro clothing boutique, Pocket Watch and Petticoats,

Sophia Norris at her reproduction vintage and retro clothing boutique, Pocket Watch and Petticoats, lpswich. Picture: Lucy Taylor

It’s not unusual for customers to be delighted by the clothes they find at Sophia Norris’s Pocket Watch and Petticoats boutique but sometimes, the joy is so intense they are reduced to tears.

The women affected like this are almost always among a band of people Sophia describes as her “curvaceous goddesses”, shoppers who are unused to finding a shop that stocks such beautiful, flattering dresses in their size.

Sophia’s stores in Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich sell repro vintage clothing lines in sizes 6 to 26.

“I get very passionate about what I do,” she says. “Although I sell a huge range of sizes I would say my average customer is size 18-22. They are my curvaceous goddesses.”

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All-too often, says Sophia, these women have little chance to feel good when shopping on the high street, where much of the clothing on offer in their size is shapeless and ill-fitting.

“When they first come into my shop many of them often say they haven’t worn a dress for years. They’re in tears when they try one on here and look in the mirror. They see themselves in a completely different light and that is such a wonderful experience for me. These clothing styles from the ‘40s and ‘50s era embrace the feminine form.”

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And, she says, people need to stop judging fuller-figured people, particularly women.

“There are no stereotypes here. It doesn’t matter what height, size or shape you are, I just encourage ladies to come in and feel fantastic in their clothing. Why shouldn’t everyone feel fabulous every day? There are all sorts of reasons why people have fuller figures, including the side effects of some medicines and the amount of hidden sugar in foods. Whatever the reason, it’s nothing to do with clothes.”

Her comments come after researchers from the University of East Anglia suggested the normalisation of larger body shapes and launch of plus-size clothing ranges may be leading to an increasing number of people underestimating their weight, undermining efforts to tackle England’s growing obesity problem.

Dr Raya Muttarak, a senior lecturer in the UEA’s School of International Development, says her work highlights a possible unintentional negative consequence of promoting body positivity that may prevent recognition of the health risks of being overweight.

She says analysis of data from almost 23,460 people who were overweight or obese based on their Body Mass Index reveals that weight misperception - that is, the numbers of overweight people who think they are a healthy size - has increased in England over the past 18 years

Men and people with lower levels of education and income are more likely to underestimate their weight and consequently less likely to try to lose weight. Members of minority ethnic groups are also more likely to underestimate their weight, but are more likely to try to lose weight. Overall, says the study, those underestimating their weight are 85% less likely to try to lose weight compared with people who accurately identified their weight status.

The research shows the number of overweight individuals who are misperceiving their weight has increased from 48.4% to 57.9% in men and 24.5% to 30.6% in women between 1997 and 2015. Similarly, among individuals classified as obese, the proportion of men misperceiving their weight in 2015 was almost double that of 1997 (12% vs 6.6%). Currently, 63% of adults in the UK are classed as overweight or obese.

Dr Muttarak said: “Seeing the huge potential of the fuller-sized fashion market, retailers may have contributed to the normalisation of being overweight and obese. While this type of body positive movement helps reduce stigmatisation of larger-sized bodies, it can potentially undermine the recognition of being overweight and its health consequences. The increase in weight misperception in England is alarming and possibly a result of this normalisation.

“Likewise, the higher prevalence of being overweight and obesity among individuals with lower levels of education and income may contribute to visual normalisation, that is, more regular visual exposure to people with excess weight than their counterparts with higher socioeconomic status have.”

But Sophia disagrees, about the clothes at least.

“It would be awful if anyone said they were going to stop making clothes in all sizes because all it will do is make people feel less good about themselves,” she says. “Especially since in many places now, plus-size clothing is considered to start from size 14, which is totally ridiculous. People need to eat healthily but love their curves and the bodies they have got.”

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