Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU study shows lack of plus-size activewear often discourages women from exercising

By Chelsea Bannach Correspondent

Alana Gruss is an active woman.

She loves yoga, taking her young children on walks, and hiking. She wants to be fit and set a good example for her family.

“It’s so important,” she said.

But for Gruss, who wears plus-size clothing, finding activewear can be a challenge.

“I’d say it’s discouraging,” said Gruss, a Spokane Valley resident.

Gruss isn’t alone.

A recent study from Washington State University found a lack of fashion options has plus-size women feeling frustrated and might be hindering activity. The study, recently published in the journal Fashion and Textiles, found exercising is a challenge when large women can’t find activewear in their sizes, and that many resort to menswear or cease to be active instead.

Clothing tied to identity

The researchers interviewed 56 women for the study, led by Deborah Christel, assistant professor in the WSU Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles.

They asked the subjects what they wear for exercise, how they perceive clothing availability and how satisfied or dissatisfied they are with exercise clothes.

Most women in the study perceived having limited freedom of dress, and many reported dressing in men’s clothing – sweats, basketball shorts, and T-shirts – to engage in physical activity.

“They feel like they have no other option,” said co-author Linda Bradley, professor in WSU’s Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles department. “It’s that sense of defeatedness that’s a real problem.”

Women also reported that as clothing size increased, their clothing choices were even more restricted, and they felt it was their duty to lose weight in order to have the clothing they desired.

“Clothing is a powerful way to express one’s identity,” Christel said in a news release. “Obese women are not provided with the exercise clothing they want and, as a result, they are less likely to exercise and more likely to feel compromised in their personal expression.”

Stigma hinders activity

“The stigma about fat people is everywhere,” Bradley said.

Stereotypes lead many to think women are large because they aren’t active and aren’t interested in being active – which just isn’t true, she said.

“You can be extremely strong and fit and still be a large woman, but the bias is there and it’s a real problem,” she said. “Not just in the general public, but in the industry, as well.”

Most popular athletic brands rarely offer sizes larger than XL for women, according to the researchers. One top exercise apparel company offers eight items in its women’s plus-size line, compared to more than 2,000 items in its women’s smaller sizes. The same company offered more than 200 items up to size 4XL for men, a reflection of the fact large men don’t face the same stigmas as large women, Bradley said.

Gruss, who didn’t participate in the study, said, “It’s not a laziness issue.”

“We are healthy,” she said. “We love to exercise, and we love to be active and spend time with our families in healthy ways.”

Past studies have shown weight bias is a barrier to physical activity and can result in overweight women feeling uncomfortable exercising in public. On the other hand, having desired clothing for exercise can promote physical activity.

“It actually increases motivation to work out,” said Nicole O’Donnell, a doctoral student in WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication and co-author of the study.

However, consumer reports show that while more than 65 percent of women in the U.S. wear plus-size clothing, plus-size clothing often costs more, and is offered in fewer styles, colors and varieties than apparel in standard sizes.

“A lot of the designers are young women who design based on what they value, not what’s out there,” Bradley said.

One participant reported some freedom in choice, but added, “once a woman reaches a certain size, designers think she doesn’t care what she looks like, and that is not true.”

Another said, “I think it is why oftentimes I’ll just go with some ratty pair of sweats I know I already have at home, instead of trying to find new clothes – because it is an exercise in frustration.”

O’Donnell said designers often just make standard sizes larger, rather than accounting for differences in body types.

“They need to instead make clothes that fit the needs of the plus-size community,” O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell, who works with the WSU Murrow Center for Media and Health Promotion, teamed with Christel and Bradley because research on the issue has both fashion and health communication implications.

The authors concluded that for the women in their sample, it was nearly impossible to be obese and feminine, especially in the realm of exercise clothing.

Bradley and O’Donnell said they’d like to see the fashion industry do more to promote healthy lifestyles for larger women by making clothing that satisfies the consumer and fits a greater diversity of sizes.

“Until then, they will cope by crossdressing,” the study concludes.

The paper, “Coping by Crossdressing: An exploration of exercise clothing for obese, heterosexual women,” can be found at article/10.1186/s40691-016-0063-z.