What’s up with the Lack of Body Diversity in Women’s Activewear?

While brands may talk a good game when it comes to positive body images, their offerings on the rack leave much to be desired.

Diversity and inclusion are words on everyone’s lips, whether as praise or criticism, in recent years. There is a growing call for our diverse society to be reflected in such areas as media, government, and business. A particularly visible area is the fashion world. The call for runway models to better reflect shoppers has become more dominant as each year passes. Plus-sized models, such as Ashley Graham, have given voice to a growing movement in fashion whereby clothing needs to fit all people, regardless of size.

So where do sports and activewear fit into this? 

Athletic gear has always been a niche market, tailored towards those who spend their evenings hitting the weights after work or training for various sporting events, professional or otherwise. The marketing for this area of clothing has featured fit models with visible abs and defined muscle. Until recently, there has been little call-out on this trend; society has collectively accepted that activewear represents fit people, and therefore marketing should follow suit. There is groupthink around the idea that all people want a six-pack and low body fat percentage.

The slim figures, oftentimes professional athletes themselves, reflect the sizing of the clothing offered by these brands. Until recently, Lululemon sold up to only a size 12 (they now sell up to a size 14) for women’s gear, limiting its audience. GymShark, an online brand, does offer sizes up to an XL, but the XL measurements  are consistent with a US size 12. The statistics reflect this trend as well, showing that 67% of brands ignore women above a size 14. 

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It is doubtful that someone outside of this size range would believe they belong in the store, or even the fitness world, if they struggle to find their size when shopping for some new athletic leggings. There are two messages being sent to consumers: (1) You must lose weight and go to the gym if you are outside of the socially acceptable size range, but (2) good luck finding something that fits you for the workout. Beyond this double message, why should access be limited for those who are larger than a size 12, especially when the average US woman is a size 16? Should we not be encouraging all people of all sizes to find physical activities they enjoy and have a great-looking outfit while doing it? 

Thanks to social media, public voice has been given to frustrations about the lack of size diversity in clothing, including activewear, as well as calls for brands to act and make clothes that fit a wider audience. This voice has led to some changes in the market. Nike now has sizing up to a 22 on some of their clothes, and Adidas goes up to a XXL on their women’s clothes.

However, the shift has not been large enough, with many gaps remaining in the industry. There remains an assumption that people will still walk through doors, or go to the websites of activewear lines, to at least try on apparel. But so many decide against this chance because the image of the brand, created through various marketing schemes, casts a slim net on who should be drawn in and welcomed. 

Activewear brands might take a cue from the fashion industry as a whole. Before customers even choose to walk into a store, especially one of newer, less familiar brands, many look to advertising to see if they would “fit” into the store’s aesthetic. People speak to the importance of “seeing themselves” reflected in media campaigns. I am personally more likely to shop somewhere that shows diversity in their marketing as opposed to carbon copies of the same person.

Brands are beginning to step up in this regard by showing a more diverse set of models for campaigns. Aerie, for example, is leading the way with campaigns that have shown people of all sizes and conditions, including Down syndrome. Good American, Khloe Kardashian and Emma Grede’s clothing line, was built on representing all body types and sizing, and this diversity is consistently reflected in their marketing. Many other indie brands, such as Girlfriend Collective, Superfit Hero, and Year of Ours, intentionally include women of all sizes with the understanding that all bodies belong in the fitness world. This inclusivity is reflected in their marketing, which provides a space for women to see themselves in the brand before committing to purchasing.

So why should it be different for other brands? There is a shift away from the “carbon copy” model and toward one embracing uniqueness. Victoria’s Secret has been called out frequently in the last year over the lack of size diversity in their brand, including the sport line. Lululemon is synonymous with comments that they lack body diversity, which was not helped by founder Chip Wilson’s 2013 comments on who should wear Lululemon’s clothes. Such remarks lead consumers to believe that they are being intentionally excluded, a belief reinforced by the lack of effort to have inclusive sizing.

This is an issue because the mentality of a “club”-like atmosphere is transferred into the physical locations of these stores, where customers are treated differently because they may not reflect the brand’s “look”. I have friends who have walked into Lululemon and been told that they should not bother shopping there, as their size is not carried (aside: have sales associates ever heard of gifts?). Shopping for clothing should not a stress-inducing, ready-to-pull-my-extensions-out experience. When brands consciously choose not to include a wider range of sizes in collections, they actively close the door on the majority of the population. 

All bodies are built differently; this is just fact. All athletes‘ bodies are built differently; this is just a fact. Even in the world of elite athletes, there is a broad spectrum of shapes and sizes. The body of a figure skater, like Tessa Virtue, is not going to be the same as the body of a bobsledder, like Kaillie Humphries. The body of a shot putter, like Michelle Carter, is not going to be the same as the body of a gymnast, like Simone Biles. However, despite this size difference, there is not a question of whether or not they are athletes, or if (for the most part) they belong in the space or sport. Even within a single sport there may be a broad range of body types atop the podium. For example, in figure skating, female pair skaters are very petite (usually not taller than 5’0″), yet single women’s skaters are typically a bit taller, and a little less petite – and both women are phenomenal athletes. 

While I’m not tying to compare Olympians with your next-door neighbour (unless they’re also an Olympian, in which case, cool), I’m offering a general commentary on the acceptance of different body types in different athletic spaces. Acceptance is not only possible but celebrated. In order to encourage people (especially those who statistically have a harder time getting into the gym, on the track, etc.) to get involved in physical activity and stay active, we need to provide the resources, including activewear, that is accessible to all. 

The obvious question this may leave people is “So, what am I supposed to do?” I have personally stopped supporting brands that are not size-inclusive (meaning Lululemon and I had a breakup). I have also sought out brands that are intentional about diversity: of size, of ethnicity, of people. I no longer accept poor behaviour from lines that have the means to reflect the reality of the world, the beautiful differences we have. Instead, I support brands that welcome all people, and I call on you to do the same.

This is important to sport, because outside of those who make a living off of serves, shots, or landings, there are the rest of us – those who want to participate for fun, join leagues with our friends, and simply live active, healthy lifestyles. Activewear may seem simple, but access to apparel in larger sizes will allow more people to get involved in doing things they love, or things they have always wanted to try. Maybe that is you. 



* Brand mentions do not constitute an endorsement by GrandStand Central, or their writers.

Yelena Knight
Yelena Knight
Yelena is a writer for GrandStand Central, using her experience in competitive figure skating, women’s rights advocacy, and law to inform her writing.



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