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`Plus-Size' Consumers Get Retailers' Attention

But Tailoring a Message to the Reluctantly Overweight Poses a Marketing Challenge

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 1998; Page A01

At 5-foot-10 and 270 pounds, Andrea Amiri, a Lake Ridge administrative assistant, is a striking woman with perfectly coiffed hair, expertly applied makeup and manicured fingernails. A natural in front of the camera, Amiri, 39, is pursuing a plus-size modeling career and recently competed in the Miss Plus USA pageant in Chicago.

Amiri also has become a clothes horse, frequenting the plus-size designer collections at department stores such as Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom and specialty shops that include Liz Claiborne's Elizabeth. Though she can't afford many of the outfits, Amiri said, she relishes the chance to browse among clothes you simply didn't see in plus-size departments just a few years ago -- like the gorgeous white suit by Jones New York she'd love to buy.

"I'm walking through Lord & Taylor and I'm saying, 'Oh, that's beautiful, and they have my size,' " Amiri said.

Overweight people have long been pitched pounds-reducing elixirs, regimens and devices dreamed up by the weight-loss industry, but now they're being targeted in a new way. As the ranks of seriously overweight Americans grow -- the latest government estimate is that 23 percent of the U.S. adult population is obese -- fashion designers, retailers and publishers are pitching them better products accompanied by messages of beauty and acceptance.

In reaching out to this market, however, they are finding an inherent challenge: selling products to people who, for the most part, would give anything not to be included in this group.

Even Amiri, with her sparkling self-confidence, feels that way. Last fall she was thrilled to be down to 220 pounds, having lost 165 pounds taking the combination of weight-loss drugs commonly known as fen/phen. She said she was "devastated" when one of the drugs was removed from the market, and she despairs at the 50 pounds she has since gained back. She wants nothing more than the chance to be a normal weight -- or at least a lower weight -- and end her struggle.

"I accept myself the way I am. Unfortunately, the pressures of society don't allow us to have that comfort," she said. "All I desperately want is to have that pressure off."

Experts said Amiri's inner conflict is typical among the seriously overweight, despite the burgeoning "fat acceptance" movement and the growing number of positive messages aimed at them.

"The public is so confused about this -- the amount of consumer ambivalence towards this whole business is pervasive," said Arthur Frank, medical director of the obesity-management program at George Washington University. "But it's a very important issue, because the market is enormous."

Marketing Successes

According to the market research firm NPD Group, consumers bought $23 billion worth of women's apparel size 16 and larger last year, accounting for more than 25 percent of all women's fashion sales and an increase of 15 percent in two years.

But marketing experts said they must be careful how they pitch large-size products, especially in women's fashion. While the market for plus-size men's clothes, typically called "big and tall" fashions, is growing, there is not as much psychology involved in marketing to men, who tend to see weight gain as more of a health issue than a self-esteem issue. Women, however, often feel they are judged by society based on their appearance, and therefore they view buying large-size clothes as a sign of failure.

Linda Cauthen, who was an editor with the now-defunct magazine Big Beautiful Woman, said that attitude is especially acute for women who are gaining weight as they age, as opposed to those who have been heavy all their lives.

"When you're larger than you're used to being, you don't want to buy clothes," she said. "You feel like you don't want to reinforce this image."

Chris Hansen, executive vice president of marketing for Lane Bryant, the nation's biggest large-size apparel chain for women, said crafting a message that will sell plus-size clothes is one of the most challenging aspects of her job.

"Historically, there's been attached to weight a tremendous amount of shame," she said. "I do think it's relaxed. I don't think it's gone."

But Hansen and other marketing experts said they are partly to blame for that attitude because, in the past, plus-size clothing has been unattractive and poorly made. Plus-size clothing departments also have typically been placed in out-of-the-way corners of mainstream department stores.

When she joined Lane Bryant three years ago, Hansen said, there was even an argument within the company about "whether we were in the fashion business or not -- and there was a faction in the company that didn't think we were."

The result, she said, was that Lane Bryant was losing market share in a growing business. The company, owned by retail giant Limited Inc., has responded by markedly improving the quality and style of its merchandise and changing the tone of its marketing. Now Lane Bryant holds glitzy publicity events such as plus-size fashion shows and talent contests.

"It's a chicken-and-egg thing, because if I can look better, I'm going to feel better, and if I'm shopping in an environment that . . . reflects me in a better light, that's going to make me feel better," Hansen said.

Though Lane Bryant's sales have improved dramatically, some customers are realistic about the motives of the companies marketing to plus-size women.

"I don't think that has anything to do with sensitivity, I think it has everything to do with 'We're gonna make this extra money,' " said Andrea Toliver-Smith of Beltsville, who is 6 feet tall and weighs about 300 pounds.

Obesity experts remain skeptical that any amount of positive-image marketing can overcome the powerful feelings of inadequacy afflicting many obese people. Obesity is defined on a scale called the body-mass index, which reflects the relationship between height and weight. In 1994, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, 55 percent of adults in the United States exceeded the healthy range and 23 percent were classified as clinically obese.

"The main ambition of many of my patients is to not have to go to Lane Bryant anymore," said Frank of George Washington University. "So even though there's the fat-acceptance movement, patients don't ever want to admit that they have given up."

Anger as an Asset

When marketing to plus-size women, some companies capitalize on the suspicion, resentment and anger about society's attitudes toward them.

Consider, for example, the latest ad campaign by Just My Size, a lingerie line for plus-size women. The text says, in stark type: "I am a sister. A daughter. A lover. I am not 100 pounds. I am not one-size-fits-all. I am a size 18. 20. SIZE 24. I am beautiful. I am over half the women in this country. I am not outside the norm. I am the norm. And I am not INVISIBLE."

In a campaign that clearly attempts to turn an overweight woman's anger about societal attitudes into a cause, buying the product becomes a protest.

"This lady feels terribly underserved and she is often very angry about it, and as a consequence we see a tremendous opportunity to market to her," said Al Shapiro, vice president of corporate marketing for Liz Claiborne Inc., among the first mainstream designers to launch a plus-size business.

Liz Claiborne is remaking its retail chain of plus-size specialty stores, called Elizabeth. A new Elizabeth store opened recently in Tysons Corner Center with hallmarks such as bigger dressing rooms, salespeople available for private appointments and an upscale environment.

"If people are unhappy about their size, their weight, obviously we can't deal with that," Shapiro said. "What we do try to do is create a shopping environment and products that can make them want to shop or cause them to be less reluctant to shop."

And it is worth the trouble. Sally Pearson, president of Liz Claiborne Retail, said the typical Elizabeth customer is more willing to pay full price, spends more per shopping trip and is more loyal than the usual Liz Claiborne customer.

Though a pioneer in the business, Liz Claiborne has plenty of company in this retail niche. Chains including Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's have added plus-size departments and expanded the size range of their private-label collections, while clothing manufacturers like Champion and Carole Little are inching further into double-digit sizes.

Glossy Pages for Plus Sizes

New vehicles for marketing to plus-size women also are emerging, most notably the magazine Mode. Mode looks just like any of the other glossy women's magazines -- focusing on beauty, health and fashion tips. The difference between this magazine and others, of course, is that articles and ads in Mode almost exclusively feature plus-size models.

Mode has gained popularity since its debut last year, with its subscription base doubling to 500,000. It also is spawning new magazine titles, such as Girl, aimed at overweight teens.

But Mode's success does not mean marketing to plus sizes is limitless, as Claiborne's Shapiro might suggest. The introduction of Mode yielded one big casualty: the 20-year-old magazine Big Beautiful Woman, which published its last issue in September. BBW, Cauthen said, lost most of its advertising to Mode, which then packaged it in a more subtle, glossy way.

"One of the problems that Big Beautiful Woman had is women don't want to admit that they're fat," Cauthen said. "Mode, they have made it more palatable by not having anything about size in the title. Also, their models are at the very lowest end of the BBW spectrum."

The success of Mode exposes another fine line that marketers must walk -- society's different attitudes about degrees of fatness. Given a choice between Mode and BBW, which dealt explicitly with all levels of obesity, advertisers and readers were more comfortable with Mode.

"I think a lot of us can kind of make peace with a [size] 12 or 14," Cauthen said. "It's when it gets beyond that that we're not happy."

Sally Smith, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance, said marketing aimed at plus-size women frequently seems targeted at customers at the lowest end of the obesity scale, which infuriates -- and alienates -- the larger plus-size population.

The response to a recent profile in People magazine on plus-size model Mia Tyler shows how sensitive the subject can be. The magazine printed several letters from readers angry with the characterization of Tyler, who is 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall and weighs 145 pounds, as "plus-size."

One reader wrote that Lane Bryant, which uses Tyler in its ads, "would do better to put their clothing on models who truly depict the large-size woman, not a model who looks as if a size 16 would fall off her body."

Said Cauthen: "There's kind of this weird message that it's okay to be fat, as long as you're not really fat."

These mixed messages worry Amiri, the administrative assistant from Lake Ridge, as much for herself as for her overweight daughter, Sarah. Yet Amiri refuses to take her 8-year-old to a nutritionist because she doesn't want to subject her to the feelings of inadequacy that Amiri said she felt as a child, when her parents monitored everything she ate.

But even as Amiri tells her daughter that she's beautiful and jokes that Barbie is evil, she knows the future will be difficult for her. She wants her daughter to have the chance to be a normal weight.

"For Sarah, I just hope they come out with something -- a miracle pill, something," Amiri said. "Because I've been there."