Precious Lee walks the Versace Spring/Summer 2021 show in Milan. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

Nefarious marketing tactic turns size diversity into a fantasy.

Are we really in the era of size inclusion? As more and more curvy models appear on catwalks, magazine covers and brand campaigns, it would seem that the answer to this question is “yes”. But when you see the marketing tactics at play behind such advancements, it becomes performative at best, and fatphobic at worst. The sad truth is that promising to cater to all shapes and sizes is just a ploy for many brands. And we gave it a name: the washing of curves.

The retail strategy is ubiquitous but sometimes hard to spot. Curve-washing is when brands use body-positive language, marketing, and imagery to appear inclusive when, in fact, they’re not. We often see this when brands use models of various sizes in advertising campaigns or on catwalks without actually selling these same sizes.

“I watch [curve-washing] everywhere,” TikTok creator @hannahleelifestyle said in a recent video, pointing to an ad for the swimwear brand. You swim. The company offers plus-size models on its website, but only offers up to size 14. “I’m getting more and more ads like this, and I want to buy these brands. So I click on it, wait for my size, size 20, and none of them ever got it.

The body inclusion movement has grown stronger over the years, forcing the fashion industry to represent all sizes or face public scrutiny. But instead of doing the work to implement real change, some labels have turned to symbolism. We see it when luxury brands create pieces for plus-size models, influencers and celebrities, but not for their own customers.

Model Paloma Elsesser went viral in early 2022 for wearing the trendy Miu Miu micro-mini skirt, but it was created specifically for her and is not available to shoppers. Lizzo often wears custom Moschino pieces on the red carpet, but the brand doesn’t offer anything larger than XL (size 14). Versace made the headlines to launch curvy models like Precious Lee on the runway in 2020, but true customers can only buy up to a size 12.

Screenwriter Gina Tonic calls this tactic “fat baiting” and argues that it’s actually worse than when brands are overtly exclusive. “For fat people thinking these brands might satisfy them, the eventual and so predictable disappointment is more crushing than stumbling across brands that only share images of thin people wearing their clothes,” she writes in Refinery29.

With the curves washed, fashion brands can continue to operate unchanged while being applauded for their so-called representation. Take Old Navy. The retailer recently reduced its size-inclusive range in stores less than a year after its launch. The BodEquality project promised to create a body-positive shopping experience by stocking sizes 0-28 in all storefronts. But now, large sizes are once again relegated to the online store, with the brand would have quoted demand and supply chain issues as the reason for this change.

In other cases, product lines that claim to be specifically designed for plus-size shoppers often don’t offer a full range of sizes. For example, H&M’s’Body collection‘ claims to be ‘all about embracing every body’. But the dresses and tops in the collection come in XXL, i.e. a size 18. In comparison, Lizzo’s shapewear brand, Yitty, offers up to size 28.

Size diversity in clothing is an important practice in undoing the long-standing exclusion of larger bodies in fashion. And in the supposed age of body acceptance, true activism does not erase the truth.

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