Visibility, transgression, and community: An exploratory study of plus-size fashion YouTubers
The purpose of this research was to investigate the lived experiences of plus-sized individuals who make fashion-related videos on YouTube. Women were the main, but not sole, focus of the study. There were two parts to this study. First, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 13 vloggers who make fat fashion videos on YouTube. A content analysis of 60 YouTube plus-size fashion videos was conducted for the second part of the research. Data were analyzed using the grounded theory method.
Findings from the interviews were organized into eight major themes: (a) past and current attitudes of plus-sized YouTubers toward their bodies, (b) manifestation of interviewees’ interests in fashion, apparel, and style in their lives, (c) changes in the apparel industry, (d) being a fat fashion social media “guru,” (e) social media as a career, (f) visibility and representation, (g) agency, and (h) fashion as barrier and transformative tool. The last three themes emerged inductively from the data. The video content analysis added no new themes but did expand upon the ones that were generated from the interviews.
Participatory media platforms are available for use by anyone who has a smart device and an internet connection; thus, some groups who may have previously been underrepresented in mass media are now more likely to find representation in participatory media. For the interviewees, finding others on social media who were similar to them in weight, size, and/or body shape was often extremely important. Many interview participants had long searched for role models in mass media without success, and they eventually found role models via social media. Typically, interviewees also desired to serve as role models for others who were like them, and they implicitly and explicitly testified to the importance of representation in media.
Social media was not the only societal development that helped enable these plus-size fashion videos. The availability of plus-size apparel in the United States has increased dramatically since the 1980s, with ecommerce offerings cited by interviewees as adding greatly to the variety of styles and brands available to them. While not perfect, the current-day retail landscape was in marked contrast to the scarcity and lack of options interview participants recalled in years past, when their shopping trips with parents or friends were often deeply frustrating, unrewarding, and embarrassing endeavors.
Concepts of agency were an especially important overarching theme in both the interviews and the content analysis. Plus-sized YouTubers discussed and were seen engaging in transgressive acts, such as deliberately breaking the unspoken rules about what plus-size women are “allowed” to wear. In addition, interviewees also discussed taking an active stance in relation to fashion – they spoke of “using” fashion for a variety of goals. This was, again, quite different from how they interacted with fashion and apparel in the past, when they felt excluded and powerless.
Finally, fashion can be both a barrier and a tool for transformation. In mainstream Western society, fat people are marginalized because of their body size. When individuals have an extremely limited set of apparel choices that does not permit them the ability to wear similar apparel styles to their peers, their marginalization is only increased. In contrast, with today’s increased availability of plus-size brands, stores, and styles, interviewees have come to realize that fashion can serve as a tool for identity exploration, self-esteem building, and transformation.