Aug 4 • 13M

"We Couldn't Have a Campaign That Was Just For Fat People."

What happened with Old Navy and plus size clothing whiplash, with Mia O'Malley

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Weekly conversations about how we dismantle diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting, health and fashion. (But non-parents like it too!) Hosted by Virginia Sole-Smith, journalist and author of THE EATING INSTINCT and the forthcoming FAT KID PHOBIA.
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They're dealing with a consumer that they've never marketed to before and they don't really have the tools to do that. They don't know what's going to speak to that consumer. And it's also fatphobia, right? Because the brand doesn't want to center fat people as their customer. So they have to put everybody together in order for it to be okay. 

You're listening to Burnt Toast. This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I'm Virginia Sole-Smith and I also write the Burnt Toast newsletter.

Today I am chatting once again with the fantastic Mia O'Malley. Mia is content creator on Instagram and Tiktok (@MiaOMalley and @plussizebabywearing). Mia has been on the show before, so you’re probably already a big fan. I asked her back today because we needed to have a deep dive conversation about everything happening at Old Navy with plus size clothing.

Also! Substack has asked us to try out a new format for this episode. Paid subscribers, you’re getting the full audio and full transcript, below. (So nothing has changed, just consider this your July bonus episode!)

Free list folks: You’re getting the first chunk of my conversation with Mia (both audio and transcript), but if you would like the full version, you’ll need to become a paid Burnt Toast subscriber.

Reader subscriptions enable me to pay guests like Mia for their time and labor, so please, consider investing in these conversations if this is work you care about. 

When you get full access to my conversation with Mia, you’ll get way more juicy details on the whole Old Navy situation. And you’ll find out the two brands we think are doing a surprisingly GOOD job on plus size clothes right now. I bet it’s not who you think! 

PS. You voted and the results are in: We’ll be reading ESSENTIAL LABOR by Angela Garbes for the August Burnt Toast Book Club! Mark your calendars for Wednesday, August 31 at 12pm Eastern.


Mia O’Malley

Episode 55 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Mia. So we'll start by reminding listeners who you are and what you do.

Mia

I'm Mia O'Malley. I'm a content creator on Instagram. I have my account @MiaOMalley where I share a lot of resources for fat and plus sized people and some of my own style and life. And then I have an account called @plussizebabywearing on Instagram and I'm @plussizebabywearing on TikTok.

Virginia

Last time, we had a pretty wide-ranging conversation where we talked about the intersection of fat activism and momfluencing, about finding a fat-friendly health care provider—all sorts of stuff. But this time, we have a very specific mission. When this news story broke, I was in the middle of writing my book, and I had no time to think about it, but you were on it. Your Instagram is this amazing resource. And I was like, Thank God, Mia will come on and explain to us what is happening with Old Navy and plus size clothing. I mean, it's a mess. How did this all start? 

Mia

So in August of 2021, old Navy launched what they called BODEQUALITY, and it was like, “the democracy of style.” They were going to offer sizes 0 to 30 and XS to 4x at the same price and then they would have it in 1200 stores. And they would be rolling out sizes 0 to 28 with no special plus size section. They also wanted us to know that there were going to be mannequins size 12 and 18. The CEO of Old Navy said, “It's not a one time campaign. It's a full transformation of our business and service to our customers, based on years of working closely with them to research their needs.” The marketing campaign included a TV commercial with Aidy Bryant from SNL and Shrill.

Virginia

So, none of this was subtle. This was a very full-throated, “We are here for plus sizes.”

Mia

Well, yes and no. The campaign was not subtle, but the campaign was also confusing. So many people did not even realize what BODEQUALITY meant.

Virginia

Well, they made up that word. 

Mia

And they made sure to include all diverse body types which, in general, is great. But it's part of a watered down body positivity, where we're not really getting to the heart of the matter and helping the people that are marginalized, that need to be helped and need to be lifted up. A lot of people did not recognize that this campaign meant that plus sizes were being carried in stores. It included people of “diverse body types,” it said “democracy of fashion.” But what does this really mean to someone? Does this mean that I can get my size in your store? It's not really clear.

This is me editorializing, but I just think: We couldn't have a campaign that was just for fat people. We have to do it adjacent to thin people.

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Virginia

It gives them this cover, because they're using this aspirational rhetoric, instead of saying explicitly, “We have screwed over fat customers.”

Mia

Exactly. It just was not clear enough to the fat consumer that they were going to be able to access their clothes in store. It was muddled in the same way that body positivity gets muddled when we don't talk about the people that really should be centered in the movement.

But as someone who has been critical of Old Navy in the past, even I wanted BODEQUALITY to work. We wanted it to be an example for other retailers and brands, that that this could be something they could do. Even though I had messages in my DMs talking about issues folks were seeing, I didn't really want to talk about it at first, because I wanted to see how far it would go.

Well, less than a year later the Wall Street Journal reported that Old Navy would be pulling extended sizes from their stores. That article is a whole other thing that we can get into, too, because it's its own beast. 

Virginia

Yeah, so that's what just happened, which blew this all up. It looked like they were blaming their sales dropping on the fact that they had added more plus sizes to the stores. That was the story out there, right?

Mia

Yes, that's right. Suzanne Kapner—she wrote the article called “Old Navy Made Clothing Sizes for Everyone. It Backfired.” 

Virginia

I will say quickly, as a journalist, the headline is not Suzanne's fault. We never get to pick our headlines. However, the article itself is also problematic as you can now explain.

Mia

There are a few issues with the article. Most specifically, it doesn't include comments from anyone in Old Navy corporate. They took quotes from other interviews that they had done, but Old Navy didn't comment on this article itself. So a lot of what they had was attributions to someone who worked in the store, a PR person, a city analyst—different things. They also have this quote from Diane Von Furstenberg, who spoke at the the Future of Everything Festival and they put that front and center.

Virginia

So all we really know is that Old Navy sales dropped, right? We don't really know why, or whether it is reasonable to blame that on plus sizes.

Mia

Correct. First of all, they did not give this even a year to work. The CEO, Sonya Syngal, said on an earnings call that they “overestimated demand in stores” and they launched too broadly. They "over-planned larger sizes, with customer demand under-pacing supply. Someone else in Old Navy corporate said it was “a realigning of store inventory.” Which is not at all what the article says but sort of points to, they had an inventory problem.

Virginia

Which, it's been a pandemic! Everyone shifted to online shopping. They haven't yet gotten the customers back in the stores, period. Getting inventory right, regardless of sizing, is sort of a moving target right now.

Mia

What we're hearing from customers at Old Navy though, is they weren't even aware that plus sizes were in stores. That’s possibly because of the way that these stores are laid out. They took away or they didn't have a plus size section for a long time. But the plus size shopper is used to going to a specific section for their clothing. In this “democratizing of fashion,” Old Navy put everything together. And in some cases that made it harder for people to actually find their size. You had a lot of packed racks. You've had people struggling to find their sizes across the board.

I'm also hearing that although Old Navy says that they went to great lengths to look at their fit when they did this inclusive sizing, that the fits are completely off for many, many items. So, Old Navy denim that people were used to buying for years, totally changed. People's sizes completely changed. Rockstar jeans, which they had been buying for over a decade, are now a completely different size. And in many cases, people were having to size up two or three sizes thinking that their body has changed in some drastic way, when really Old Navy sizing, completely changed in many items. 

Virginia

That makes me wonder how inclusive they really intended to be.

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