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It Carries Weight: Plus-Size Invisibility in Health and Fitness Advertising

Updated: Feb 19

Trigger Warnings:

Fat-shaming, mention of eating disorders and body dysmorphia, implied weight loss, ‘fat’ as a descriptive (for emphasis and rhetoric, not to fat-shame).

Content Warnings:

Implied dieting and diet culture.


I want to make it clear that this isn’t about addressing ‘fat-shaming’ by ‘thin-shaming’ in return; it is not to degrade or belittle those that aren’t plus-size yet still struggle with body confidence, eating disorders, weight loss or weight gain. That is a separate topic that deserves its own time to explore with nuances and perspectives that I simply cannot provide. This piece will explore my opinions on plus-size visibility in health and fitness marketing; it is from the perspective of a plus-sized woman that has not experienced mentally harmful thoughts primarily centred around my weight, nor body dysmorphia. I don’t plan on writing an opinion on something I am not able to provide insight about. With that being said, I’m going to complain (again).

Fitting into the aesthetic

Have you ever applied to a retail job where you are required to wear their “high quality” clothes, but they don’t carry your size? During my ongoing hunt for employment, I applied for jobs at H&M even though I knew that even the simplest of items from the store, such as a vest top, would be a snugger fit than I would prefer ("Ribbed Vest Top - White - Ladies | H&M GB").

On the H&M section of Indeed, one person stated in a forum response that when it comes to H&M dress code, “H&M loves when you wear their clothes too because it represents the brand and I've gotten compliments from customers on my clothes and could tell them it's from the same store!” ("What's The Dress Code For Workers Like? | H&M |").

This forum response implies that even if you may not be penalised for not wearing clothes from the brand you work for, you benefit from illustrating the style and ‘wearability’ of their tops, jeans and shoes. But what if ‘wearability’ isn’t an option for you because sizes are too small? H&M’s vest tops go upwards to XL, which is technically a snug fit for me, but if I wanted to exhale or move, then I would be scuppered for choice on larger sizes. Not only that, but any body sizes that are above 2XL have no chance of finding a comfortable fit – so, if you are asked to be interviewed at a high-street retail store, you need to be sure that the store is literally the right fit for you. Why does job qualification and skill have to be compromised by a limited ‘work uniform’ size?

When I walked into an H&M store for the first time, I should have known that none of their items would fit me comfortably. But then again, I don’t think I have ever truly seen someone with my figure, width and shape in their window advertisements.

The first point of contact potential customers may have with retail stores are their window displays and any model photography. However, if plus-size bodies aren’t visible at all in product photos, then it's not feasible for big bodies to buy into the ‘desirable’ aesthetic that these brands want us to ‘achieve’ in the first place. If brands market to customers the idea that achieving a desired ‘goal’ has a recommended retail price, then they should be prepared to market to these target audiences properly. If any advertising or marketing campaign is targeting a specific audience to do something about the wellbeing of their body, then at least make the bodies you are targeting visible.

What’s my problem?

There is no question that body positivity or body neutrality is more commonly visible in advertising and marketing campaigns, such as SAVAGE X Fenty and the various body types that are hired to model the clothing ( My main frustration revolves around any product or service that aims to ‘solve the problem’ of obesity with health and fitness, or promotes weight loss...but chooses not to make ‘the problem’ actually visible. Why tell me to eat healthier supermarket food and lose weight when all the ‘thinny people’ pushing Sainsbury’s carts may not have ever been shamed into healthy eating to begin with?

So, what’s my problem? Well, many health and fitness advertising campaigns aim to communicate an ethos that may specifically target plus-size bodies to be proactive about their physical well being, but don’t actively invest in hiring plus-size bodies to model and partake in said ethos. I don’t just mean the one fat person in a group product photo or a specific post dedicated to showing off plus-size bodies, I mean fully integrating big bodies into brand modelling to signify that health and fitness is not exclusive to smaller body sizes.

I already have rock-bottom expectations because I’m not confident that my needs and wants are going to be solved, brands fueled by profit aren’t wish-granting lamp genies (although similarly dusty sometimes). However, I want to go into detail as to why health and fitness advertising are part of the problem they aim to ‘solve’ – such advertising can range from school meal campaigns to adult athleisure wear.

Biting Back

Ever since I taught my mum how to use Instagram, I have had the displeasure of her calling me regularly on the phone just to see her DM message. One of the things she has sent me was a video Jamie Oliver posted on his feed to support the @BiteBack2030 campaign with #BorisKeepYourPromise. I am biased towards celebrity chefs because their cooking shows were a staple of my upbringing; I even have a Gorden Ramsay Royal Doulton pasta dish that I may or may not had decided to claim four years ago when I was moving out of a shared house and it was left behind (no one will know...).

With that being said, Jamie’s video aimed to remind Prime Minister Boris Johnson “to keep his promise to protect their health and make sure that all young people have access to nutritious food, no matter where they live” (Oliver). This video consisted of portrait shots cutting from different school kids that have been affected by the pandemic and its lockdowns, acting as a collated message to Boris Johnson so he keeps his ‘promise’ to ensure young people have access to nutritional food (Oliver).

I understood the sentiment behind the campaign and also wanted healthy eating to be far more accessible for children, especially for those in low socio-economic households; however, I found one flaw with the video – and no, it wasn’t the young white boy saying he was deeply affected by the pandemic because he missed football. Where are the fat kids?

“It’s probably to show that the kids want to stay healthy,” my mum tries to reason. I reply, arguing that yes, the kids may want to maintain a ‘healthy’ weight. But for a public figure to emphasise how child obesity is a ‘problem’ to ‘solve’, and then refuse to make the ‘problem’ visible is short-sighted. Society has frequently criticised fat people for being fat and commented that they should stop being fat through means such as good health and fitness – so why put all this effort into making plus-sized bodies visible to criticism when they are invisible in advertising and campaigns that are dedicated to ‘good health’ in the first place? All this health and fitness rhetoric directed to plus-sized bodies as a target audience – and then not even representing that target market in the campaigns – seems counterproductive to me.

Jamie Oliver is known for using his access to television, book deals, and social media, to campaign for access to healthy meals in schools – to make sure that childhood obesity is halved by 2030 in the UK (Oliver). However, if Jamie Oliver cares so much about stopping child obesity, then for me it would be logical to illustrate how the pandemic made it less accessible for families with plus-sized kids to start or maintain healthy meal plans. This short-sightedness isn’t just from one video Mr. Oliver posted on this Instagram, it is also visible how invisible fat bodies are in the “Bite Back 2030” Instagram account.

An example of this ongoing invisibility was a photo posted by “Bite Back 2030” that addressed how the British Government voted against an amendment to put their food standards into law and how the campaign for universally healthier eating standards is ongoing. Once again, I have no particular issue with this photo highlighting a diverse community of people that want Britain’s health standards to improve without putting a dent in shopping budgets, especially with how much the pandemic has significantly affected individual and family incomes.

This photo aims to communicate that young people are also demanding change from the government, because youth is a powerful force for change when taken seriously. However, the absence of faces with double chins and bodies that are visibly bigger accompanied by the slogan #SaveOurStandards leaves a stale aftertaste when viewed through a plus-size lens. Arguably, the invisibility of fat bodies implicitly signifies that the ‘standard’ “Bite Back 2030” wants to ‘save’ is exclusively thinner – that the standard is thinner. Although this may not be intentional, the idea that big bodies aren’t present in the ‘standard’ highlights the greater discourse about fat people being visibly critiqued for their fatness. Arguably, this perpetuates the idea that fat people do not take healthy eating as seriously as thinner people.

Why would we take good health seriously? We’re fat. Why would we express autonomy to improve ourselves on our own terms, despite the continual shame we may experience? We’re fat. We’re fat therefore we are not a concern to campaigns that want to label our fatness as a societal issue. With this whole example trying to illustrate the importance of youth and their wellbeing, what does it say to plus-size youth when their wellbeing isn’t part of the picture?

How can a plus-size kid even think about healthy eating without the connotations of ‘fat = bad’ and ‘losing weight means social acceptance’, if public figures like Jamie Oliver don’t amplify the voices of plus-sized kids the same way he specifically chose to amplify non-plus-sized voices? He wants obese kids to not be obese, so where are the fatter body types when these campaigns are most likely designed to ‘solve’ fatness?

Discourse about representing body diversity in various media continues like ageing cheese – the longer it exists, the stronger it will be. It is important to keep this topic going to recognise that plus-size bodies aren’t one type of shape, width proportion, height, or ability. However, I want to continue addressing (ranting) about the decisions most western media decides to make about health and fitness advertising, in which target fat people are visibly shamed into idolising athleticism, but make accessible solutions and invisible for campaigns such as athleisure wear.

‘Plus-size’ in retail athleisure

It is possible for brands and retailers to carry plus-size options, but what becomes limiting for those that want to wear athleisure is how accessible and visible these options are. JD Sports, a UK sports fashion retailer, exemplifies these limitations.

Although JD Sports does provide a ‘plus-size’ category for online shopping, it is only an option to click under the ‘womens’ category** ("Plus Size"). There are two issues with this. The first is the implication that either ‘menswear’ does not need a plus-size category, or that ‘womenswear’ requires a plus-size category to signify that plus-sizing is exclusively marketed as a ‘womens’ concern; let’s not forget how clothes have no inherent gender but are gendered to reinforce insecurity-driven status quos, ones that sustain patriarchal systems and marginalised the LGBTQIA+ community. The second issue is that the idea of a ‘plus-size’ category in the first place suggests that JD Sports acknowledges the need for clothes that fit larger body sizes, but separate it from smaller sizes to implicitly segregate plus-size bodies as ‘other’ in retail shopping.

The decision to have a ‘plus-size’ category for online shopping is pointless if JD Sports does not take the initiative to actively advertise that their shopping experience is not exclusive to visibly fit-looking and ‘thinny’ people. Why bother having such a category if you don’t plan on making the option visible in product photos?

Even though a ‘plus-size’ category is a back-handed step towards body inclusivity, the amount of specific sizes highlights the fact that a ‘plus-size’ category does not inherently solve the fact that the brands a retailer stocks can carry a limited variety of sizes. These are three charts with data I extrapolated from the ‘Men’s Clothing’, ‘Women’s Clothing’ and ‘Women’s Clothing Plus Size’ pages:

Based on the data extracted from two of the major sports retailers in the UK, this further illustrates that potentially possibly perhaps maybe brands and retailers supply largely to a specific ‘mid-range’, meanwhile plus-sizes dwindle the higher the waistline. The fact that there can be a a huge jump from 1042 items for those size 18 to a measly 192 for size 20 in comparison under ‘JD Sports Women’s’ exemplifies how a ‘plus-size’ category in athleisure shopping is as performative as golfers shuffling their feet for alignment – a way to show off but easy for viewers to miss. Good luck to anyone a size 44, there is one item for you in Sports Direct