Capitalizing on body positivity

Making a profit off of a social issue is no new concept. But recently it’s taken on huge proportions with brands like Aerie, Victoria Secret, Forever 21, and other fast fashion retailers.

They offer size inclusivity and marketing to a wider range of customers. Refinery29’s Ana Colon pondered, “Can body-positive branding be good for the bottom line?”

She continues, “Based on American Eagle-owned Aerie and its unretouched #AerieREAL campaign, it certainly looks like it.”

According to this article and American Eagle’s self-reported annual reports, since 2015 – when the company launched it more size inclusive marketing plan – Aerie’s “sales [are] up 20 percent.”

Jen Foyle, brand president, explains this dramatic spike in sales: “‘Our customers have been responding positively to our brand message since we launched the #AerieREAL campaign.’”

Cavan Sieczkowski, from the Huffington Post, reported on this sales growth as well.

She attributes some of the brand’s success to popular spokeswomen and business alliances. Sieczkowski, comments that “even actress Emma Roberts joined in” as a model and social media ambassador for the brand.

The brand also “partnered with the National Eating Disorder Association” and one of their social media ambassadors Iskra Lawrence. She became the brands official #AerieReal role model and is featured in many product shots.

There is no doubt that catering to this broader audience is good for business in 2017.

Melissa Stranger for Revelist.com comments on these brands and recent size inclusivity trends in marketing, “Many rely on market data to pinpoint the size range that will see the most demand.”

She reminds audiences that “the average American woman is around a size 16-18.” This recent trend makes sense.

Tim Gunn also stressed this sentiment in the Washington Post nearly four years ago when size inclusivity wasn’t as popular; “There are 100 million plus-size women in America… for the past three years, they have increased their spending on clothes faster than their straight-size counterparts. There is money to be made here ($20.4 billion, up 17 percent from 2013).” The need is prevalent, and brands are stepping up.

It isn’t just American Eagle’s Aerie either. Gina Tonic (yes, that’s her real name) for Bustle reiterates that brands are making money with plus size lines, “Boohoo revealed in a statement released on Sept. 27 that profits from extended size ranges have added up to the incredible rise in business for the British based online retailer in 2016.”

And if that doesn’t bolster the point, “River Island sales have risen by $1.2 million. Similarly…Misguided reported in 2015 that their sales went up 69 percent in one year, which they chalked up to…plus size lines.”

Unfortunately, this rise in plus-size retailers doesn’t necessarily mean the brand carries out body positive advocacy.

Tonic argues that “Regardless of whether or not a brand is body positive, it seems to make financial sense for clothing companies to tap into the plus size market.”

The societal issue isn’t being solved, but retailers are making money off of the struggle.

Ana Colon agrees. She explains that while Aerie’s branding is a “step in the right direction …  In the end…just that: a step, not a definitive solution to the greater issues we still grapple with every day in the industry.”

Caroline Thompson from Vice recently did an article about Fat-Positive activists and their struggle with the fashion industry. From the words of one of Thompson’s interviewee’s, a plus size model, she says she still gets hate for “glorify[ing] obesity when I actually glorify self-love.” She believes that “People feel like you should hide when you’re my size—that you should be ashamed for existing and therefore aren’t allowed to be stylish and happy.”

Thompson’s last words hit it on the nail: “behind every photo shoot or body positive ad … there’s an army of fat-liberation activists: women and men who’ve been working for decades to free themselves and others like them from the social stigma that comes with living in a fat body.”

How do experts, and even everyday people affected by this issue, react to it?

Laurie J. Linhart, Ph.D. a professor of sociology at DMACC had a few thoughts and historical perspectives on this issue.

Linhart recalls several instances where social movements have been monetized. She instantly thought of the Dove’s more recent body positive campaign.

She also recalls the War on Drugs, launched by First Lady Nancy Reagan. It produced things like DARE in public schools. The program launched commercials, after-school specials, brand marketing, merchandise, artwork, anything with the “just say no” slogan on it, etc.

Linhart clarifies that, “money was poured into supporting the efforts” but that it was rather unsuccessful in stimulating the social movement. Does Aerie and companies like it stack up the same way?

Another perspective comes from Shelby Opdahl, a former American Eagle employee, who saw first hand what the #AerieReal campaign did for the brand.

Opdahl informed me that American Eagle does promote this campaign with promotional images, packaging, and stickers.

However, according to this insider and American Eagle’s own store policy, the brand doesn’t carry anything over an extra large in store.

Plus, numbers of those sizes are limited depending on how the specific store orders product. Anything above an extra large can only be found in the store on the clearance rack once the product has been returned by a customer who bought it online originally.

Opdahl also said that plus-size sizing, while harder to find, is also marked up higher than straight-sized clothing (or at least in the location she worked at.)

Opdahl adds, “not exactly what you would expect from a body positive brand.”

Size inclusivity through realistic modeling and marketing is definitely a step in the right direction.

It provides exposure and realism to the masses. It generates a wave of sales and money making scenarios.

But will this trend last? It depends on the money. If there’s still a strong plus-size market out there, then the fashion industry will most likely continue to cater to it.

Will they do so with sincerity and body positivity in mind? That is another story. 

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