A few months ago, I was invited to attend the annual Ubuntu Awards gala in New Jersey, a fundraiser put on by Them Cloud Kids, a Newark-based non-profit that promotes anti-bullying practices, community engagement, and wellness for youth. As a long-time volunteer with the organization, this wasn't my first time attending the black tie event. But this year, I wanted to make my friends' heads spin when I walked through the door in my formal gown. After all, most of the people I know through the group usually only see me in my go-to casual weekend attire: camo pants and Ugg boots.
Over the years, I've found that sticking to a $100 budget and buying clearance dresses in bulk when I have free time — instead of rushing at the last minute to find an outfit — has made my life a lot easier. But after looking through my closet, there was nothing at home that would give me the wow factor I was looking for. So, I decided I'd treat myself to a new dress — perhaps even a higher-end garment, since I had a little extra cash on hand.
Still, in the back of my mind, I knew that as a size 26, shopping for a gown at the mall was not necessarily going to be easy. Not only is it hard to find something comfortable, but also, as a plus size shopper, I've rarely ever been treated well by slender sales associates.
A few weeks before the event, I pulled up to the mall near my house in New Jersey to see what a few of the department stores had in stock. I didn't walk in with any particular style in mind, but I did come armed with smoothing undergarments, a full-length slip, and $600 — much more than my usual budget for a formal dress — in hopes of making my shopping experience as painless as possible.
In the past, I've tried calling stores ahead of time to give my name and size to the salesperson on duty to see if they have my fit in stock. While there's never any guarantee I'll be helped by the same person at the store, doing this not only helps me with my own search, but it also gives me a general sense of what the shopping experience will be like by how I'm spoken to over the phone. For this particular excursion, though, I wasn't able to give any of the stores a call beforehand to inquire about any dresses. But that shouldn't excuse the awful treatment I dealt with every time I reached the isolated sections where plus women are permitted to shop. Each time I tried to ask a sales associate a question, I got a snide look — the kind that I've long endured, the kind that tries to make it clear I didn't belong.
It all started at the first store: Before I could even part my lips to share what I had come for, I was told by a salesperson that I was in the wrong place. At the next retailer, an associate said they didn’t have a lot of dresses that people my size could try on. When I arrived at the the final shop, I was immediately told, “Um, I think we only have your size online,” by a worker who promptly turned around and left me standing next to a rack of Eileen Fisher separates. I suppose it never occurred to her, or any of the other associates, that someone who looked like me not only deserved the same respect as straight size shoppers, but was also prepared to spend half their paycheck on a dress each store likely had in stock.
Yet again, it seemed as though neither my enthusiasm nor my enhanced budget could save me from the microaggressions I sadly was so used to experiencing while shopping. I truly entered these stores thinking that by being prepared, I could have avoided sales floor mayhem, but it didn't seem like any of that changed the attitudes of these associates.
And the funny part was, it's not even like I was expecting special treatment. I just wanted the opportunity to shop higher-end clothes the same way straight size customers can. Instead, I left feeling very disappointed as I made my way back to the car.
The next day, as frustrated and exhausted as I was, I knew I couldn't let that bad experience stop me from finding my dream dress. But instead of giving the department stores another shot, I decided to go to a place that I've long trusted to provide me with last-minute wardrobe solutions: Torrid.
As soon as I entered the store, I was welcomed by the staff, and they asked what I was looking for. I felt like the sales associates actually cared about giving me a positive shopping experience and were willing to offer me all the help I needed, instead of dismissing me because of my size.
Once I picked out a few dresses to try on and went into the changing room, the employees helping me out — who were all plus size women — even told me how they could relate to my experiences at the mall.
After I had tried on the first dress, a merlot infinity frock, I wasn't initially too keen on the design. But the women working at Torrid were compassionate and patient, and they helped me transform the style into something that made me feel beautiful and glamorous by showing me different ways to wear it. The best part of the whole experience was that I only ended up paying $79 for the dress, but I still walked out the door feeling fancier than I ever had before.
And even though this Torrid store was located in a strip mall — meaning the shopping experience may not have included classical music playing in the background or the chance to browse through designer labels — I was treated with respect and consideration. And that’s something that should qualify as a luxury all on its own.
As someone who works as a full-time fashion and beauty freelance writer, I'm well aware that size inclusivity has become a pressing topic across the industry. But when that message doesn’t translate to all sales floors, seeing inclusive ads and limited-edition collaborations can feel like nothing more than lip service. The celebration of size diversity needs to happen at the face-to-face level, not just for clicky hashtags or campaigns. But until the industry decides to do a complete 180, I'll opt to use my tried-and-true shopping hacks and spend my money at my go-to shops, rather than visiting a fancy department store — because that's what works for me.