Last year, when Kindra Roberts needed a new jacket before her annual ski trip to Colorado, she nearly had a meltdown. “I spent a week looking everywhere, and I couldn’t find shit,” she says. Roberts has been skiing since she was three, when her dad launched her downhill between his legs. It’s her favorite thing to do. But she’s a size 22 and says it’s hard to find outerwear that fits—and impossible to find lightweight, waterproof-breathable gear. Roberts almost never goes shopping in brick-and-mortar gear stores, where larger sizes are far scarcer than online. She’s since started her own gear site, Alpine Curves, as a side job, because she was so frustrated by the lack of quality options.
The outdoor industry talks a big game about inclusiveness and welcoming people who are not white, male, straight, rich, fit, or all of the above. Addressing these issues often involves tackling thorny, embedded social structures that will take a mix of mentorship, outreach, and confronting macroaggressions to break down. But size is a venue where a concrete step is feasible by expanding sizing scales. “There just isn’t gear available to buy,” says Summer Michaud-Skog, who founded Fat Girls Hiking. “Having that barrier tells people something about how welcome they are in the outdoors.”
What you put on your body when you ski or climb isn’t superficial, especially outdoors, where outerwear is often a necessary tool. “I’ve always admired Patagonia, Marmot, and The North Face. I wanted something as technical as those guys,” Roberts says. “I feel like I can do the things that the people who wear those clothes can do, but I can’t wear them.”
Michaud-Skog says she often hears an irrational argument that fat people should just exercise more—then they wouldn’t have to worry about finding gear, because they’d lose weight and fit into the available sizes. But a chicken-and-egg question is embedded into that, especially because much of our body composition is determined by genetics. “The hypocrisy is infuriating,” Michaud-Skog says. “If you truly believe that losing weight is the answer, then why isn’t there gear to go do it? It’s totally reinforced by the toxic cultural messages we receive.”
A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education found that the average American woman is between a size 16 and 18. But according to Patagonia’s new fit-finder tool, if you plug in those size parameters, you might just be able to squeeze into an XL, the brand’s largest size. If you’re above average, forget it. And ignoring plus-size customers is simply bad business—why not try to appeal to as many customers as possible?
Some big brands are working toward more inclusive sizing. Columbia, for example, offers women’s outerwear in sizes up to 3XL. Obermeyer carries up to size 22. Burton is upsizing its line next year, so a size medium will measure larger, in addition to extending its available size range to 2XL. Roberts has had success with a small, women-owned brand based in Wisconsin called DSG that makes plus-size women’s bibs and jackets with features like pit zips and helmet-compatible hoods, which she says many of the other plus-size brands don’t offer. “Columbia is really embracing plus-size, but their stuff isn’t that technical,” Roberts says.
Michaud-Skog says she thinks the size bias in the outdoors is based in the documented socioeconomic assumption that fat people, and fat women in particular, are poorer or less fit. They don’t conform to the perceived frame of what it means to be outdoorsy—slim, athletic builds—which is perpetuated by nearly all historic media about outdoorspeople.
Patagonia has addressed sizing criticism in the past by saying that it was constrained by factory minimums and didn’t want to create waste by making clothes that wouldn’t be purchased. But that assumption doesn’t line up with what customers and specialty retailers are seeing. In Australia, Monica Balon, who runs Plus Snow, one of the only retailers catering to plus-size skiers, has found that demand exceeds supply in the brands she carries. When Balon opened the online retailer in 2016, after running her family’s traditional ski shop for years and sensing that there was a need for bigger sizes, she was floored. “The whole thing just exploded. Customers were coming out of the woodwork, and stock was selling before I even got it in,” she says.
Plus Snow carries women’s gear up to size 28 and men’s to 10XL, and Balon says she would go bigger if she could, but no brand makes gear beyond that range. “There’s a level of lower-end stuff that people have access to, but if I could get a Helly Hansen that was doing plus-size and was doing it right, there would be so much demand,” she says. “Those customers have money to spend. They just can’t find the gear to do it.”
That lack of options comes from a disjointed chain. Jo Salamon, North American media and communications manager at Arc’teryx, says big retailers can leverage their partnerships and ask for specific goods from brands. She says it’s not unheard of for the brand to do a bigger size in a specific product if someone like REI requests enough of them.
But from the retail side, the message is flipped. Last year, REI’s women-focused Force of Nature campaign promised that the retailer planned to carry more sizes. But Stephanie Richards, senior category merchandising manager for snow outerwear, says they’re dependent on the brands to bring in a wider range. They’re having conversations with brands like Columbia and Obermeyer—which historically have delivered the widest ranges—about offering more sizes to REI shoppers, but so far Burton is the only brand offering newly extended sizing for 2018. Richards says size expansion is harder than just enlarging the original pattern. “The difficulty for brands is the resourcing,” she says. It’s not just making your sizes bigger. “It’s also investing in resources for new patterning. They’re all interested, but the category is volatile, and brands have their other initiatives to keep.”
Debra Criss, director of apparel design at Columbia Sportswear, which offers ski gear up to 3XL, says that’s not necessarily true. “I wouldn’t say it’s harder [to produce larger sizes]. You need a different fit model. That might be the complexity for other brands, but in my mind the actual building of the product doesn’t feel like a departure.” She thinks part of the holdup is brand intent and identity. Criss says Columbia has focused on extended sizes because its identity is tied to being inclusive and appealing to as many people as possible, instead of being a brand marketed around elite athletes. “Columbia isn’t going to be the brand that has intense imagery. We want it to be inviting,” she says.
Richards, of REI, says the push toward bigger sizes is a customer-led story—retailers want to know there’s a need before they stock something. But Michaud-Skog says that puts heavy pressure on the consumer to ask for major changes—and talk to strangers about their bodies—even when they feel like they’re being ignored.
“I call total bullshit on companies that say bigger gear doesn’t sell,” Michaud-Skog says. “If you look at ads and all they feature is straight-sized people, you’re going to assume that’s all they carry. They have to start making plus-size clothes, taking pictures of them, and putting them in their media and saying, ‘Here are people who are out there in our gear.’ I think brands would be surprised, if they market it, how people would respond.”