In keeping anything over a size 14 off its shelves, H&M is sending a strange message to plus-size shoppers, especially considering its other headline of the day: Ashley Graham, among the most famous plus-size models working today, stars in the lookbook for H&M’s Studio collection, the more expensive, Paris Fashion Week-approved line.
H&M Studio is not a plus-size line, so the casting is a notable one. The Fall 2016 campaign in which Graham stars is refreshingly matter-of-fact, free of the annoying, self-congratulatory tone often employed by brands that dare to deem plus-size women beautiful. And it’s another big get for the 28-year-old Graham, who is already enjoying quite the banner year: In February, she became the first plus-size model to make the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
But in storing all its plus-size offerings online, H&M is part of a widespread failing in retail. Women who fall outside the “straight size” spectrum are consistently marginalized by the very brands that should be courting them. The lion’s share of stores you can probably find at your nearest mall have been criticized for reluctance, or flat-out refusal, to stock plus-size clothes: Lululemon, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret, Old Navy. Teen retailer Brandy Meville only sells clothing in one size, and that one size roughly translates to the sweet spot between a small and a medium.
A 2013 survey by ModCloth of over 5,000 American women (of mixed sizes, aged 15–65) found that those who “primarily wear plus-size clothing” are twice as likely as women who wear standard sizes to shop online every day. And American women who generally wear a size 16 and above reported buying at least 50 percent more of their clothing online than women who wear standard sizes. There are more women in the U.S. wearing a size 16 than there are women wearing a zero or two, combined.
The market for plus-size women is worth an estimated $9 billion. Nine-freaking-billion. And the average American woman is a size 14 — the exact point at which H&M sends shoppers out of the stores and onto the website.