Fat Is a Feminist Issue: Concert Tee Shirts

06/02/2015 04:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

This post first appeared at Shakesville as a guest post.

I'm not a big fan of live music so my collection of concert shirts is pretty limited. My partner, Ledcat, on the other hand, loves both -- she has a closet filled with shirts and an impressive collection of ticket stubs.

The shirt is a tangible reminder to her of the live music experience -- a memento, a souvenir, and an opportunity to immerse herself in the actual experience each time she pulls the shirt out of the drawer. It is more than a memory; it is a reflection of her very real bond with the music and the artist.

I like tee shirts quite a bit, but there's one significant difference -- Ledcat is a size medium and I am between an XL and a 2x. And even allowing for the "fit" difference in tee shirt styles, she always finds a shirt that fits. That's not even a question -- for her it is more about selecting a style or design. As a larger sized fan, I am not so fortunate.

When we went to our first Sleater-Kinney show in March, I was pretty excited to have a real feminist music experience. Ledcat bought herself a medium shirt and I thought it was sort of cool, so she tried to find a 2x for me (it looked like slim cut). No dice -- just a XL in tee shirts. They did have a 2x hoodie for $60, but that's far more than I'll pay for any hoodie. So I opted for an XL and hoped for the best.

I took a closer look at the shirt later in the week. It was made in a sweatshop free factory which is great. It wasn't terribly expensive ($25) which is also great. But when I put the shirt on my body, I hated it. It was clingy and uncomfortable. I immediately consigned it to the "wear around the house or under something" pile. I was bummed.

I looked at the Sleater-Kinney website and still saw nothing bigger than an XL. That seems very odd for a feminist rock group. After all, isn't fat a feminist issue? Wouldn't a feminist group be conscious of the fans who wear larger sizes?

Why does it matter?

Two reasons. First, I expect feminist bands to be conscious of the inclusion of all of their fans in the fan experience. The graphic designers and printers I asked about sizing told me that bands requesting 2X or larger usually do so because of an actual person that they know -- a fan, a band member, family, etc. In other words, they have a personal awareness of the need for larger sizes. That makes sense, but I would expect feminist groups to have that heightened awareness on a systemic level -- much like buying shirts that are sweatshop free. It isn't just a personal favor; it is a conscious choice by the artists to invite all of us into the full-fan experience, not just those in typical sizes.

Second, the merch is a way to engage the community. If I walk around with a Sleater-Kinney shirt, the world knows that people like me are fans and listen to the music. People whose bodies that look like mine. I'm not just a listener; I'm a fan. It is a message that transcends my personal engagement. The XL shirt that I bought is cute, but not comfortable so it will never see the world. Or be seen by the world. It will be a sleep shirt or a shirt used for layering during cool weather. I won't put it on because I want to be a fan that afternoon; I'll put it on without any real conscious thought. Or worse I'll just cram it into the back of my closet because it annoys me to think that I dropped $25 on a shirt I don't really like until a few years down the road when I finally think to donate it to Goodwill.

After first posing this question to the Shakesville community in comments, I started doing some digging to see what sizes are available online. I could identify only three artists who profess feminist ideals offering shirts in size 3x--Mary Lambert, Nicki Minaj, and Beth Ditto (of Gossip). Several have a few options in size 2x, including Ani DiFranco, Beyonce, The Indigo Girls, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, and Taylor Swift. Janelle Monáe had extra smalls, but no XL or above on her website. Queen Latifah has an entire clothing line devoted to plus-sized women, but I can't find any licensed official merch items.

A few things to keep in mind: First, online stores don't necessarily reflect merch options on the road. Second, I limited my search to artists who have the financial resources to spend extra funds on printing multiple sizes. I realize many feminist artists are touring out of suitcases and have more limited means to invest in merchandise. Third, this is a limited sample based on my own perspective of feminism and musicians. I visited the merchandise stores a few times to confirm sizes. I did reach out to Mary Lambert, Beth Ditto, and to Sleater Kinney for comment, but had no responses.

And, finally, what about fans who wear sizes larger than a 3x who are seemingly shut out of the entire realm of tee shirt fandom? Should they just buy a CD and an embossed baseball cap?

There's no reason a website store cannot offer a variety of sizes, even if they may have to take backorders. The per-shirt cost of larger sizes can be absorbed into overall prices of all shirts--I did the math with several graphic printers. On the road? Yes, you run out of certain sizes. But if you tell me I can order online through your website, I personally probably would do so to get the shirt that I want.

And rest assured I want to get that shirt, enough that I did all of this research around the issue. The end goal is to convince more artists to invest in all of their fans, across all of our body sizes.

And I can't emphasize enough -- fat is a feminist issue. I expect groups like Sleater-Kinney to already have these principles as driving forces in their fan engagement.

My next step is to review music while wearing the largest sized merch shirt available. Please hit me up with suggestions on whom I should cover at pghlesbian at gmail dot com.