Let’s talk about shopping. Specifically, let’s talk about shopping for travel clothes and adventure gear. Despite the fact that more than half of women in US are considered “plus size” (over a size 14), some retailers are only beginning to open their eyes to the bizarre notion that women of all sizes hike, paddle, swim, and… do mmmmm just about anything we damn well please.
I applaud that major retailers are being more size inclusive. Some have a much farther way to go than others. I’ve given up completely on Patagonia, which is a shame because they offer a terrific discount for those like me who work in the conservation field. It was literally easier for me visit actual Patagonia than to find something that fits me by the brand that shares its name.
Slightly better is REI, which offers plus sizes online but very few stores carry it. That may be for the best because REI’s store staff haven’t gotten the message that people of all sizes deserve good gear and customer service. I had been stoked when they opened a store nearby and it was my first stop when I needed new hiking books. I’d heard how helpful they were, what a great exchange policy they had, the garage sales, the dividends! So I walked into REI, spent about 10 minutes wandering around the shoe department waiting for someone to help. Not a single employee offered to help me.
Figuring this was a fluke, I returned to the store several other times in search of other items. I once stumbled upon a jacket that was perfect for traveling, but had to order it online because the physical store didn’t carry plus sizes. Exact same jacket, different size. They somehow fit giant kayaks into the building, but a jacket above a size 14 is just too hard.
Most recently, I went to REI searching for a collapsible water bottle. I actually had the nerve to ask a sales associate where I might find them (is it a water bottle or a bladder or what?). He showed me and when I inquired about one style versus the other, he asked another sales associate her opinion. She said to me “I don’t know. I’ve never had use for a collapsible water bottle.” I can’t say for certain what was going through her mind when she said those words, but there was a righteous snark in her voice such that the sentence landed with me like this: Ugh whatever, this fat girl saw that these are the new ‘in thing’ and she’s kidding herself into thinking this is thing she needs to jumpstart her exercise routine. In any case, what kind of sales person doesn’t try to actually sell products?
So I bought the collapsible water bottle because I do in fact have use for one. Later, my mind did that thing where I thought about all the quasi insulting comebacks that I should have said. “Oh, you don’t need a collapsible water bottle? I guess you haven’t had the chance to do too much traveling outside the US then. I’m always visiting places where I can’t drink tap water. I’ll use this on my way there, and then pack it away while I’m drinking bottled water on the rest of my trip.” Or “Yeah it’s too bad you have to spend weekends working in retail. I’m on the beach every weekend and this lightweight water bottle is perfect to carry during my long morning walks on the beach.
Contrast this with Columbia, which has an outlet store near my house. The first time I walked in, I was immediately greeted by a sales associate. I asked about plus sizes and she walked me over to the modest display. It wasn’t a huge selection but enough to try things on for size and see colors in person. The salesperson felt embarrassed that the selection was so small and she gave me a discount code to shop online. I’ve been back to that store several times and am always greeted with a friendly offer for help finding something. This also happened at the Columbia store in downtown Portland, OR. Again, I was greeted at the front door and promptly shown the plus size section. The sales associate asked where I was headed and checked the weather to make sure I was buying the right stuff. As I was perusing the selection, another sales person came over to show me that there were plus sizes on the clearance rack too! Columbia is my absolutely favorite gear company. They have the wild notion that plus-size clothes can be just as stylish and colorful as regular sized clothes. They are DOING IT RIGHT.
Lands End recently opened a store near me too. I’ve gotten a couple things from them online. The store isn’t huge but I ventured inside looking for new bathing suit bottoms. I was greeted at the door and shown to a substantial selection of plus size clothes in a section that spans nearly half of the store’s back wall. Applause!!!!
Another company that I’m keeping an eye on is Sierra, a traditionally online store with amazing prices. I have purchased tons of stuff from the site and a retail store recently opened a store nearby. When the sales associate asked if she could help me (one point!), I asked whether they carried plus sizes. She got a little flustered and said “well yes, but they’re all mixed in with the other stuff, there’s not like a section.” HA! We’ve so trained people to think of plus sizes as “other” that this woman thought I’d be put out that there wasn’t a special section just for me. You mean I have to look through the items like a (gasp!) regular customer?! I’ll gladly return to a store that doesn’t single me out by hiding things that will fit me in the back corner, or in the basement (I’m talking to you, Macy’s in Cherry Hill).
Probably most surprisingly is how much I like the Tek Gear brand at Kohls. Affordable, accessible and cute. Notably, I have a pair of shorts that are surviving at least their fourth summer of chub rub from the aforementioned long walks on the beach.
What else do I love? My Tuqozy hat. Designed and hand-knitted by one of my travel buddies, it’s a staple on any trip where the temps could dip below 50. It’s adorable and warm and fits anyone! You can get yours here.
If you’ve got a favorite brand or store, share in the comments!