When I first started my move from sofa to regular exercise I hardly thought about the clothes I wore. As an obese woman exercising in public for the first time I wanted to disappear, for people not to notice me. Basically I was looking for Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak but moisture wicking. I settled for whatever fitted, mostly in greys and blacks.
Since I started running I’ve gradually built up a small supply of specialist running kit. I have a limited budget so have to prioritise and seek out bargains. It didn’t take me long to realise that the slapdash, inconsistent attitudes to clothing sizes and availability of plus sizes are as prevalent in sports gear as they are on the high street. Even after losing a lot of weight my size, approximately an 18, ranges from just not stocked at all through XL to XXXL in running kit. And this really affects how I feel about exercising.
Let me share two stories with you to illustrate:
1. The tale of the reflective jacket.
Once nights started drawing in I realised I needed something reflective to keep me safe on my run commutes and dry in the rain. I spotted a jacket online that I loved. It was out of my usual price range so I had to save up.
Eventually I was able to order it. At this stage I wasn’t fully aware of the variations in sizes between brands, but I ordered it in the biggest size available. When it arrived it was great, lightweight, perfectly designed for running in, reflective, a bit unusual… It made me feel like I was a proper runner, if that makes sense.
Then I tried it on. It didn’t even meet across my chest and could only just get around my shoulders. I was gutted. I felt big and clumsy and stupid for expecting that I could have anything nice.
I’m not going to name and shame the brand that didn’t fit me, because it could have been almost any brand. Even the brands that go up to my size only do so on a small selection of their range. I investigated and couldn’t find a single brand that does women’s reflective rainproof jackets that would fit me. 18 is not exceptionally large. I know many runners my size or larger.
I imagine a discussion among the buyers, designers and decision makers at the running brands…
“What about plus sizes?”
“We don’t need to bother about them. Fair weather runners, they’ll stay indoors in the winter. They’re not going to be serious enough about running to pay our prices and invest in decent kit. We only sell to proper runners.”
It makes me, as a plus size runner, feel excluded and overlooked. I run in all weathers, but when it’s dark I’m in danger and when it rains I get wet, because no one thinks women like me deserve decent kit.
If this had happened earlier in my fitness journey I might have given up, but I was already in the habit of running by then. I had goals and things to prove. I have supportive communities of other runners around me and I’m too stubborn to stop!
Today’s parkrun was cold and wet. I was able to borrow a men’s waterproof and get a PB despite the conditions. And I guess I could buy myself a men’s jacket. But why should I? I could buy a plain jacket with a couple of reflective details, but I really wanted a jazzier one! Why can’t I have a decent, fitted, reflective running jacket designed for my shape?
2. The tale of the sports bra.
After consulting with many other runners I heard many good things about Shock Absorber sports bras, and was able to bag a bargain in the January sales. This was a challenge to the invisible black and grey palette that I, as a plus size woman, am used to. To call its orange and green bright is to miss the perfect opportunity to use the word garish. It is ultra supportive, although challenging to get into! But that’s not why I’m telling this story.
My Shock Absorber bra is reflective! Despite being a large size, and I checked and they do go much larger, no one at that brand has considered that plus size women might not be comfortable in public in just a bra. Imagine another conversation between buyers, designers and decision makers…
“What about plus sizes?”
“What about them? We make a quality product with features to safeguard the runners who wear it. Why wouldn’t we include those same features for larger women? They have just as much right to be safe, and to remove layers if they’re hot as anyone else. The reflective details stay.”
My Shock Absorber bra assumes that I am confident enough to wear what’s best to run in, rather than what covers me up the most. I wish I was that confident.
I’ve been running several months now, and I still tie my jacket around my waist because I feel uncomfortable running in public in leggings. Even when it’s below freezing. Although I own a few “proper” running tops I’m likely to revert to oversized cotton Ts once the weather’s warmer, because I’d rather people see the sweaty patches from the effort I’m putting in than the shape of my body.
Society generally makes people my size feel bad about their shape. We’re vilified for “letting ourselves go” but when we try to get more active we’re unable to get the kit we need to stick to it. When you’ve faced that for years it’s hard to get over it. I’m in the ridiculous situation where my bra is the most reflective item of running kit I own!
The first sports manufacturer to recognise the number of plus size runners out there and offer them a full range of kit is going to make a fortune. I wish more of them thought like the people at Shock Absorber!
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Disclaimer – this is a personal blog, I make no money from it, and any brands I mention are purely because of my experience of them.
Disclaimer part 2. The picture of the bra is copyright of Shock Absorber, and used to prevent me having to even consider taking a photo of me in the one I own!