Frustrated Fatshionistas

In market driven economies, we typically assume that consumers will seldom experience a prolonged scarce supply of goods they are willing to pay for. Yet some groups of consumers – particularly those who have historically been socially stigmatized – often find that the marketers fail to meet their needs. For example, prior studies found that African American consumers living in or near impoverished neighborhoods routinely experience attenuated access to a variety of goods and services they both wanted and could afford. Four years ago, I started a research project with Eileen Fischer in which we look at one particular group that perceives that the market does not provide options that are adequate to their needs: consumers of plus-sized fashion. The article that reports our findings has recently been accepted for publication at the Journal of Consumer Research. You can read the full paper here, but let me tell you a bit more about the Fatshionistas (fashion lovers who wear plus-sized clothing) and their quest for more choice in the fashion market. The following quote from a blogger who routinely writes on this topic illustrates the frustrations these consumers experience:
When I [damage] my clothes in some way, I tend to panic about it a little bit… This, my friends, is a side effect of living with style scarcity. Because I really don’t have any reason to believe I’d find something like the dress [that is torn] ever again. Now, no longer being in possession of a particular dress is not exactly a hardship; certainly not on the level of not having a place to live or enough to eat. But the panic bubbles up anyway, because I can’t just run to Anthropologie or H&M or where-ever the ladies several sizes down from me do their shopping and pick up another. Fat style is a scarce resource. (Lesley Kinzel, Two Whole Cakes, January 21, 2009)
In thousands of online posts like this, bloggers who are self-styled “Fatshionistas” indicate their view that the mainstream market provides them with too few fashionable clothing options. In principle, such behavior is consistent with pursuit of the right to consumer choice that is enshrined by law in many market-based economies. In practice, consumers frequently remain relatively disengaged from seeking greater inclusion in markets where they feel under-served. Consumer researchers have previously noted that even when they believe their marketplace choices are unduly restricted, consumers often fail to take action. So in our study we ask: When will marginalized consumers mobilize to seek greater satisfaction in mainstream markets? And how will they do so once they become mobilized? We develop answers to these questions studying Fatshionista bloggers and their followers who desire a greater range of fashionable plus-sized clothing choices. We find that mobilization is triggered by three factors:
• The first is the emergence of a collective consumer identity among members of a market segment; we observe plus-sized consumer embracing and identifying with the Fatshionista identity. • The second is the identification by that collective of “institutional entrepreneurs” (people who appear to be able to change the system) from whom they draw inspiration; in our context, the singer Beth Ditto who is both plus-sized and a fashion icon is one such inspiring institutional entrepreneur. • The third is the appropriation by consumers’ of logics from other fields that legitimate their desire for greater market inclusion, such as the logic of human rights, which Fatshionistas borrow from the Fat Acceptance Movement.
We also identify three strategies that consumers may employ to attempt to gain greater inclusion in a market, and more offerings from mainstream marketers:
• One is appealing to institutional logics within the market; Fatshionistas invoke the logics of art and of commerce that prevail in the fashion when trying to persuade established actors to serve them better. • A second is publicizing desirable institutional innovations and persistent institutional impediments; Fatshionistas help publicize the offerings of marketers who do try and meet their needs, and they call out marketers who make feeble attempts to offer plus size clothing and retreat without giving their experiments time to succeed. • A third strategy is allying with more powerful institutional actors; Fatshionistas take every opportunity to interact with influential designers and retailers in order to persuade them to do more to serve their needs.
Our theoretical contributions include a framework that can help us better understand how consumer (il)legitimacy affects market dynamics. When we consider how consumers are perceived in, and what consumers want from, the mainstream market in conjunction, we can anticipate four different kinds of dynamics.
Consider the case of Stigmatized Seekers, consumers like the Fatshionistas we studied who lack legitimacy in mainstream markets, yet who want more or better offerings from them. In such cases, the pace of change in markets may be slow and uneven, as institutionalized practices in the market and in the wider society have allowed marketers to ignore the aspiring segment. Though upstart marketers may try to meet these consumers’ needs, the mainstream will be slower to do so, and will find reasons to retreat from serving the segment even when tentative forays have been made. In contrast, Comfortable Collaborators (consumers who like mainstream offerings and who are courted by major competitors) can trust that marketers are ever vigilant to their wants and needs. In markets like these we can expect steady, if incremental, evolution as corporations endeavor to keep consumers contented, and to profit from that contentment by increasing sales within the segment. Consumers will have little need to be pro-active agents of market change, except in cases where they form attachments to offerings that marketers deem unprofitable. In contexts where consumers are Mainstream Malcontents who are legitimate in the mainstream market but who intensely dislike marketers’ practices, we expect that those whose profitability is threatened by the desired market changes will resist the institutional reforms desired by consumers. As part of this resistance, they may attempt to partially undermine the legitimacy of consumers. Nonetheless, in such contexts, compromises between past practice by marketers and changes desired by consumers may be part of the unfolding market dynamic. In contexts where consumers are Resistant Rebels who lack legitimacy in an institutionalized market setting, and who seek fundamental changes to the market logic, we expect very limited market change. Mainstream marketers either ignore their critics, or make minimal gestures in acknowledgement of their concerns. In general, we believe that unless Resistant Rebels can mobilize consumers regarded as legitimate by mainstream producers, or become legitimate themselves, then market dynamics will entail at most minor and/or temporary modifications to practices.
There are considerably fewer bloggers discussing plus-size fashion in South America, but consumers are not less dissatisfied here with the available offers in mainstream fashion markets than in North America and the UK. Poderosas Gordinhas (Powerful Fatties) and Grandes Mulheres (Big/Great Women)are two examples of blogs discussing the lack of options in plus-size clothing in Brazil, while La Pesada de la Moda (Fashion Heavy) is a hub for Spanish-speaker Fatshionistas. In Argentina, laws have been approved to apply heavy fines on local clothing manufacturers and stored that do not expand the numbers and sizes available to meet standards defined by legislation, which includes sizes from 36-50. However, media reports have pointed that business still provide skewed measures to avoid fines, and consumers who need larger sizes are still unable to find ready-to-wear clothes on the market.