Second hand shopping when you’re plus size? A chat with Laura La Beur on how the sustainability movement must be inclusive for all.

This article has been a long time coming. We can’t keep asking people to be more sustainable when it is not inclusive for all. An example is this is second hand or sustainable shopping when you’re plus size. More often than not, a plus size option just doesn’t exist, leaving you with no choice but to wear fast fashion items. “Boycott fast fashion” is not accessible for everyone. I wanted to share a first-hand experience of the difficulties shopping sustainably when you’re plus size so I interviewed the wonderful Laura La Beur (@sunlashine). Laura is a marine scientist and science communicator at the Smithsonian Institution, Florida. She is an advocate for all things environmental and equality and it was a pleasure to chat to her about such an important topic.

When did you start shopping second-hand?

“I don’t know that there was ever a defining moment when I was like, I’m a second hand shopper. My grandma has always been a very big garage sale person and something that we did very early on was on Saturday mornings, we would go to garage sales! Every Saturday, I would get up early, go to her house, we would make a bagel and cranberry juice to take on the road. And we would just drive around and go to garage sales. Yeah, it was really cute! I’m really close with her! So I think it was super normalised for me, you know, you could just get second-hand stuff you just wash it or you wipe it down or spray it with Lysol or whatever. Some people that I know were kind of weird about second-hand stuff, it made them feel like it was dirty but I never felt like that. I was like, “Oh, look, I bought this purse basically brand new for $1!” I was stoked to get a good deal. I thought it was cool to be buying other people’s stuff, not having to go to the store and dealing with that. I probably didn’t get that many clothes from garage sales early on, because, I mean, our neighbourhood is a much older neighbourhood. But I would get movies and books and trinkets. And then it turned into if there weren’t very many garage sales one Saturday we would go to thrift stores because we love the bargain. 

“I liken it to like finding little treasures and gems, you have to dig through a lot of stuff until you find something that you’re like “Oh my god, this is perfect! I love it! I want to have it!” I think some of the clothes that I found are some of my favourite pieces and it’s stuff that I would never probably buy or pick out at the store, but I tried it on it. And this is another thing too, I tried it on and it’s fit or kind of fit. Okay, I’ll take it, you know, because it’s only $2 or $3 you’re willing to try different things. Did you see that pink crushed velvet dress that I got? I would never, ever pick something like that, but it’s super cute! I’ve worn it on a number of occasions, I paid 3 quid for it and it still had the tag on it!”

Do you try and shop only second-hand? 

“I mean, I would love to just say that I get all my stuff second-hand, but it’s just not realistic for me, and I think most people buy like new bras and underwear. And occasionally, you know, socks and things like that. I would prefer that my clothing be second-hand, but it’s not always feasible. So I think it’s [plus size availability] gotten a little bit better over the years. There are some thrift stores that I just will not go to when I’m trying to get clothes because it’s really challenging to find something and I’m not always in the mood. And it can be very frustrating to not find anything. There’s also certain people that I will not shop with, because they are straight sized and they will be like, I want to go to this store, I want to go to that store and I’m gonna go to this store and I will just have to sit there and wait for them. Because there’s no point, they don’t have my size in those stores that they want to go to. So I don’t often go to thrift stores as a social activity with my friends”. 

Yeah, that’s the thing, you are privileged if you are able to shop second-hand. This is why I want to have these conversations more and raise awareness about it.

“What you said is exactly right. A lot of it comes down to just the privilege of having the options that you have. For me, from my perspective, everyone should be able to buy second-hand things. And, there are options for me but also I don’t want to just have to wear a shapeless, dress every single day. I want to be able to wear jeans and cute t-shirts, or cute tops, or cute dresses, I don’t want to just have to wear oversized t-shirts from the men’s section and elastic baggies.  I mean, it’s a fashion choice. But of course, when you’re thin, you know, it’s like, oh, vintage. When you’re fat you just look fat in those clothes. And people are like, oh, how dare they? Well, if you put a thin person in that you’d say, oh, how fashionable!

“I think the issue is, that it’s not really about fashion, it’s about just being thin, which is bullshit. But with, and this is another one of my biggest pet peeves, many shops, everything has been donated to the shop. And the shop is buying and selling second-hand stuff, which is their business. Everything has been donated to them for free right? And then you have the audacity to charge me $20 for a tank top. When I can go to Walmart and get one for $5. And so the mark up I guess is 100%. Sure you have to pay for renting that space, operating electricity, etc. But, you’re just being given stuff, and then you’re selling it. 

“So then you’ve got influencers or whoever shaming people, ‘Oh, you don’t buy second-hand clothes?’ Well, they don’t fit me and they don’t look cute and when they’re twice the price of what I could pay for it at boohoo or, you know, from Primark? I mean, you can get a shirt for £4.  It’s one thing to be a single independent person, saying those things. It’s another thing to be, you know, trying to clothe your family of 4. Especially when you have a family, you don’t have the time to be digging through bins at a thrift shop”. 

What is your experience shopping for plus sized second-hand clothes? Do all thrift stores that you’ve been to have that as an option? Was this experience different in the UK?

“Yeah, it’s hard. It’s harder for plus sized individuals to find clothing at thrift stores, and just clothing in stores in general. So I think it’s reflective of that. When you think about second-hand shopping, it’s a dilution of what you would find in the regular stores, right? Because people pick and choose what they donate as items. The frequency at which you can find items that fit you, and that you think are cute, or whatever your style or your aesthetic is like, very, very low. 

“So let’s say as a straight size person, and by straight size, I’m using the terms that are reflected in the fashion industry, you go to thrift stores occasionally, and your success rate of buying a piece of clothing, is probably like, maybe 50%. When you’re a plus size shopper, and from my personal experience, the rate that I find clothing at second-hand shops and at thrift stores, is probably closer to like, 5, maybe 10% on a good day. There’s thrift stores that I will just not look for clothes in because I know that it’s not worth the emotional energy that I’d have to put into it. 

“So in the US, in Florida in particular, there are thrift stores that separate their clothing by colour. So when your frequency of finding something is 10%, you have to look through so much more clothing in order to find something. And then here’s the dilemma that I have is that it’ll fit, but it ain’t cute. And so you’re like, do I buy it? Because it fits? And because I need something that’s going to fit? Or do I wait and dig another day and find something that I think is actually like my style or is cute? 

“You also find that once you get up into the 2XL area, everything is like elastic bands. Maybe it could be other people’s style, but I’m not going to wear all elastic shorts! So I think it’s, like I said, lower frequency items, if any, and it’s way more work to look through clothing for those pieces. 

“My experience in the UK was very positive actually. I’m on the smaller side of plus size. So I’m usually like an 18/20 US which is like a 22/24 UK, and in Edinburgh, at least in a lot of the charity shops, they had their clothing separated by size. So I would go into them and it would say the sizes and I would just go to that one section and look through what they had. No, I didn’t always find something. But because Edinburgh is quite, you know, modern, I guess a college town with a few universities, there were items that were age appropriate for me and that I thought were cute and that would fit me. But in the US, especially in Florida, a lot of the things that I find that would fit me are not necessarily age appropriate!”

It’s just exhausting going through all the clothes and that’s even for me where there’s so much more choice. So for you, does it put you off going and trying to find second hand?

“Yeah, when I was in Edinburgh there was a street that had around six charity shops, like one after the other. I think it’s the Heart Association one, they always have plus size items. And in fact, I found some really cute little sassy heels that were Clark’s! And I was so excited! But it’s because I went up to the lady at the register and I asked “Hey, I’m looking for shoes in a UK nine, do you have any?”. She actually went downstairs and dug through the racks, and then brought out both pairs and I still have them. So they weren’t out on the floor and I had to ask, but I’m comfortable doing that. 

“I would definitely have to be in the mood. Now I understand that thrift shopping and charity shopping is not the same as regular shopping – you go for the thrill! You go for the finds, you go for the deals! But I would go to six or seven charity shops in an afternoon. And I would sometimes not come home with anything. And I recognise that’s not abnormal. But you do that, you know, two or three times in a six month period, and you haven’t gotten a single thing? It’s not gonna make you want to go again. And I would always be looking for clothes because I only came to the UK with two suitcases!”

Have you ever used like depop or any of those apps? What’s your experience?

“No, I haven’t and I’ve looked… There’s a couple plus size models that I follow that I’ve seen that they’ve posted on there. I just never get to them in time, or they’re not something I would necessarily want to be wearing because they’re fashion influencers. I’m in Florida – most of the time I wear a T shirt and biker shorts. Like when am I gonna wear this fancy dress?

“Sizes are hard too. I prefer to buy clothing when I can try them on or at least like hold them against me to see if I’m going to fit. For example, I’ve been seeing people wearing cute overalls and I would really like some so I ordered some off Amazon. I looked at the size chart and decided to get the 3XL just because I want them to be a little loose and baggy because that’s the look. They come and I try them on and they almost didn’t fit me! They were so tight. I know that usually I don’t wear a 3XL unless I want something to be baggy on me and be a little bit shapeless. With depop etc. you can’t return stuff. You’re stuck with it. So let’s say I did spend $50 on a second-hand, fancier dress or whatever. It could come and the sizing could be weird. Then I would have to either sell it again to get my money back or just eat that $50. So personally, for me, I’m very conscious of online shopping, I don’t like doing it really.”

What do you think about thin people repurposing plus sized clothes? 

“There is one trend that I cannot stand: people wearing plus size t-shirts as dresses. There’s already so few items for plus sized people that now thin people are buying those items so that they can have a slouchy t-shirt dress? Yeah. Okay, whatever. Like wear what you want. I get it. I’m not here to fight you about your t-shirt dress. But, just know that we hate it!

“But if you don’t have fat friends or family or someone around you in your circles who struggles with these things, of course you wouldn’t necessarily know. And I feel like this is another part of it. If you’re not exposed to that sort of struggle, then of course, you’ll never know. But just because you’ve never been exposed to it doesn’t mean you can’t understand. And there’s a lot of straight size people who will openly be like, well, this isn’t a problem, because I’ve never experienced it. Yeah, of course you’ve never experienced it because you have a smaller body. In fact, people shouldn’t have to persuade you to understand that this is an issue that is real. Fat bodies are being marginalised and excluded from thrift shopping, from fashion, from trying to reduce their waste and be sustainable in this instance, because the options just aren’t there

“There’s a lot of conversation around body normativity, which is the new body positivity. Or, to be normative about your body, like you can just exist in that body, and it’d be a normal thing.. You don’t have to be like, “Oh, I’m so beautiful, my body is fabulous”. I have a body and it gets me through the day and that’s enough. And I think it’s a big life journey for me as a fat person. I mean, yeah, for sure, I’ve been marginalised. Like in shops, in my friend groups, in romantic relationships… I’m on the dating apps now and I’m so sick of men saying “I like your body”, or “I’m into fat girls”, or whatever. You could just say, “you’re beautiful. And I like you”. You don’t have to say “Oh I’m into it”. You don’t have to acknowledge it. I’m also just a person”. 

Have you donated your clothes? I’ve heard of people being refused to donate plus size clothing, have you ever experienced that?

“When I donate, I donate to thrift stores that I never go to because I have donated stuff to thrift stores and then gone back into them and been like, “Oh my god, this is a cute shirt!” and it’s actually… my shirt! I haven’t done it in a while but we did a pretty big clothes purge before I moved to Edinburgh. I went through everything and donated a lot. We just drop clean stuff off in bags.

 “I think the experience with being refused is that some of the consignment shops, where you have to pay like 20 bucks for a sweater, would also buy clothes. So if you brought those in a bag of clothes they’ll go through them and whoever’s working will decide if they’re going to take it or not based on the style, the size, etc. From what I understand a huge part of thrift stores is people will just donate stuff that should be trashed, because they don’t want to throw it away for whatever reason. I know a few though that would not buy back plus-size clothing. You could bring them in a brand new, tags still on it 2XL shirt and they would be like, no, we don’t do plus size.”

Do you think that’s because of fast fashion and the fashion industry in general?

“I don’t know because there is plus size fast fashion also, especially now with Fashion Nova and boohoo and forever 21. But they don’t have a plus size section in store. It’s bullshit. I went to a forever 21 when I first moved to Seattle, and it was when they were threatening to go out of business. I got a bunch of really nice jeans and I went back a couple months later to get some more and they’re like, yeah, sorry, we don’t carry plus size in store anymore. What? In the middle of downtown Seattle? This is a three story store! I don’t want to buy these clothes online because you could get 6 pairs of pants that are all the same size, and only one of them will fit. I don’t know why they weren’t doing it, it was just company policies but I don’t understand what that policy was rooted in”. 

Yeah it’s not like there’s not the market there. It doesn’t make any sense.

“Well, then there’s that whole conversation about the size discrepancy between straight size clothing and plus size clothing, right, and people say “Oh, well it’s because it costs more to make the patterns bigger, it costs more fabric”. Well then why isn’t there a size discrepancy between an XS and XL? There’s only a size discrepancy from straight sizes to a 2XL or 3XL, that doesn’t make any sense. There’s a store, which is a huge legging company. They just announced that they’re including larger sizes, but they don’t carry them in store because the units that they have in store aren’t large enough to fit the bigger sizes and make them look cute for branding. That’s really their only reason for not having them in stores.

“I think this is the same thing with a lot of conversation around diversity and inclusion. You know, some companies are like “oh, we’re making, you know, huge strides in size inclusivity and body positivity”. And it’s not enough. It’s not fast enough. You guys can do way fucking more and you’re sleeping on this. I worked at Patagonia and I could probably wear maybe 1% of their clothing. And the 1% that I could wear was all men’s stuff. I love that company. I loved working there. They do take a lot of stances on things that I care deeply about, but their size inclusivity was one of the biggest issues that they could have taken a stronger approach to fixing”.

Do you find that sustainable brands cater for plus sizes more?

“No, there’s legging brands that do like recycled plastics into leggings which I would love to support, but they only go up to an XL and I’ve gotten to a point where I commented on their page and said, “hey, um, are you guys gonna do any plus sizes?” And they’re like, “Oh, no, sorry. We’re not, you know, we’re not there yet” or whatever”. 

So what can we do to make it more accessible?

“I think it’s just about demanding. I think it’s about raising awareness that it’s an issue. You know you vote and you make decisions based on where you spend your money. It’s not just about plus sized people to demand this change. We need straight sized allies to help encourage companies. Like “I will shop at this company, because they also have clothes that will fit my friends or my family members”. 

“I think people demanding, either openly calling out the companies or just shopping at companies, where they do have those sizes, even if you can find your size. If you care about fat people, or your fat friends, just use your money as your support to shop at companies that also have clothes that are in those sizes. The fight, I guess if you want to call it that, is put on fat people to demand sizes but it can’t just be us. I mean, there’s a lot of us, but it’s not enough, you know. So we need allies to help support the movement, people like you who care and want to have these conversations. I have other friends who they just never really thought about it as an issue. Then we go shopping together and I’m just pissed because they want to go to stores that I can’t get anything at, so I have to sit there and wait for them. Because there’s no point even looking, nothing will fit me. 

“To be honest with you, I think some companies try and make an effort but they don’t even ask fat people, they don’t ask the community that they’re trying to please, what they want. And then it’s not successful, because they haven’t asked anyone, well, what is it that you want? I would love to have a plus size section, I don’t want to have to go through all these straight sized clothes, to find something that’s going to fit me – put the bigger clothes in a different section! So I can go there and look there. I don’t need to look through your whole store”. 

Do you have suggestions for people to follow and voices to amplify?

“If you’re following things on social media that make you feel bad about your body, or “I need to look a certain way in order to wear that”, just stop following them. It’s not worth it. I would also say, make sure that you’re in more ways than one diversifying your feed, if every single account that you follow has models that look the same, or they all look like you try and find some more. Savage Fenty and Eff Your Beauty Standards just had fashion shows, that were some of the most inclusive fashion shows I’ve ever seen and they’re showcasing different models on their website. God, we love to see it, we do! I don’t need to see models that all look like me, but I want to see some models that have big bellies! There’s pear shapes and apple shapes and I’m sick of seeing pear shapes! I want to see some apples like where are my flat ass, big belly babies? 

“Often in pop culture, fat people aren’t showcased as having any other storyline than just a weight loss narrative. You know, it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I started to see fat people showcased in just a normal way. They can have their own story outside of just, “Oh, well they’re trying to lose weight” or “they need to be thin to get revenge on their ex” or whatever. Those are so toxic. Have you seen Fantasia the Disney movie? So the scene where the hippos are dancing with the ostriches? I really want to get a tattoo of those Hippo ballerinas. Hippos are fat. They’re big. They’re huge. And that was the first time I’d ever seen a character being portrayed as fat and graceful and also beautiful. 

“I think there’s a lot more that could be done. Body inclusivity is deeply rooted in white supremacy and the patriarchy. Somebody tweeted about Calvin Klein’s New York City ad in 2009. It was a thin white woman coming out of a pool with a white bikini. And this year, their model was a black trans, fabulous looking model. It’s nice to see the shifts, some companies are really great and it’s those companies that you need to support. If you’re not seeing diversity and inclusivity in a brand, just don’t spend your money there.

“There’s a couple plus size models that I follow like Tess Holliday, she’s fabulous and she tries her best to raise awareness on her on her platform. And she’s like, “if you guys don’t want this, this is who I am. These are the things I care about. If you’re not here to see it, then fucking leave”. I love that. 

“Some of the plus size influencers I follow will post pictures of themselves wearing this underwear brand. I went on the underwear company’s page and all the models on their feed were thin. I mean, yeah, they have diversity but I messaged the company and said “Hey, I love your brand and that you have inclusive sizing but where are all the fat people? Where are all your fat models?”. Like Tess Holliday is out here fucking killing the game and you don’t feature her on your feed at all? 

Did they reply?

“Yeah, before messaging them I would have just been ready to buy a pair of underwear from them because they go up to a size 6XL but their response to my comment was basically “we do feature different size models on our feed and are always open to all sizes”. They feature two fat or plus size people in like months of posts? Anyway it’s just kind of disheartening, to see them have such a lame response when the proof is right there on the feed.”

For sure. And it’s so slow, why is it so slow? Do you have anything else you want to add in terms of shopping and plus size?

“I just want to encourage people to ask, talk to your fat friends. If you’re going shopping, ask them if there’s anywhere that they want to go, or just check in with them. That’s one thing I would appreciate. If you don’t have any fat friends, why do you think that is? And please stop saying that you feel fat in front of us. Or just in general, please stop saying that. You don’t feel fat, you feel bloated. 

‘Check in with your fat friends or you know, whatever they want to identify as, I identify as fat because I think it’s just a descriptive word. And I don’t think that it’s negative. Just keep showing up, shop with brands and with companies that are supporting the things that you care about. If you don’t have any fat friends follow fat influencers online so that you can see what the issues are and where things are going on. Also just start seeing more fat bodies and it normalises it for you, you know? There’s a lot of really great artists who are photographers or painters or just in any media who are featuring fatter, larger size bodies, and it’s nice to see.”

Yeah, everybody needs to diversify the feed.

Yeah, I think you start there, but that’s like a bare minimum. I’m very open, because I think it’s important to share these stories and tell people about what’s going on. Because otherwise, how would they know? You know?  I’m a pretty vocal and opinionated person but I know that for some people, they’re not super comfortable talking about where they’re at, in their journey, and that’s fine. I want change, I want to see change, so I’m gonna yell about it. 

“I think the questions that you’re asking  are reflective of just where we’re at. In more ways than one, I think we should just throw out the whole system [fashion industry] and start again, because, changing it at this point, it’s not going to work. It’ll just continue to be the same model perpetuated because that’s what drives consumerism. If we were to just reject that and say, well, why can’t all these brands be sustainable? There’s fast fashion, and then there’s, I guess, whatever you call, designer fashion, right? By nature, designer fashion is more sustainable. Excluding fur, we’re not including that in this conversation. But because it’s limited, there’s only a few things. But yeah, it’s shocking how much shit is just thrown away, because they don’t want to devalue the brands. I mean, I’ve worked for retailers who just don’t care. Like Patagonia was cool, because they’re trying to repurpose stuff and reuse it in whatever way they can. But there are so many companies that when you return something, even if there’s nothing wrong with it, they just throw it away. And they can just afford to do that because of what they pay to make their products and what they sell them for, which is part of the larger issue”. 

So, please at minimum diversify your feed and support size inclusive brands when shopping. I’ve listed some places to start below! Thanks so much to Laura for sharing her experiences shopping sustainably and second hand as a plus sized woman. Change is happening but we are far from being where it needs to be. To truly be sustainable, sustainability must be inclusive for all.

Accounts to follow: 

Anti Diet Riot Club

Jazzmyne Jay

Tess Holliday 

Megan Jayne Crabbe

Corissa Enneking

Fat Girls Hiking 

Fat Girl Has Moxi

Plus size scuba 

Sam Ortiz 

Size inclusive sustainable fashion brands:

Girlfriend collective (I can vouch for these, their leggings are amazing!)

Universal Standard

thredUP

Rei

Berriez

Birdsong

Plus Equals

Aesthetic Laundry

Nettle Studios

Big Bud Press

Free Label

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