Going to a spa or having a treatment should be a relaxing, enjoyable experience – but for Stylist’s beauty editor Lucy Partington, it is anything but. She explains why.
“Do you want to slip into something a bit more comfortable?” the beauty therapist asks me. I politely decline, saying I’d rather keep my own clothes on. She insists I change so I reluctantly agree and I’m led to a changing room. “There’s a dressing gown in the locker, pop that on and I’ll wait outside for you.”
I lock the door and let out a huge sigh. I know exactly how this is going to go but I play along anyway. I take the dressing gown and unfold it, hoping that for once, I might be wrong. I take one look and know it’s not going to fit. It’s so small that it’s barely going to cover one of my arms.
I’m fat, you see. Plus size. Curvy. Overweight. Whatever you want to label it, that’s what I am. And so now I have to go back out, my face hot and red with embarrassment, my heart beating out of my chest, and have the same awkward conversation that I’ve had so many times before. I have to admit that, actually, the robe doesn’t fit me. My confession is as mortifying for me as it is for her – mostly because there aren’t any other sizes available, so it’s only then, after all that, that the therapist allows me to keep my own clothes on.
This isn’t an isolated incident. It’s something that happens every time I book in for a treatment, a massage or a spa break. The anxiety I feel, the dread that rises up through my stomach at the thought of having to confess a one-size-fits-all dressing gown doesn’t fit me, is something that never gets easier.
The fear isn’t because I’m ashamed of who I am or what I look like. If you see me, you’ll know I’m not a size eight. It’s obvious. It’s also worth knowing that I’ve never allowed my weight, or what I look like, to hold me back or stop me doing anything. Yet for some reason this kind of exchange has the ability to whittle me down to virtually nothing. It makes me want to curl up into a ball and never go out in public again (and, coincidentally, so does the thought of thousands of people reading this feature).
I’m not sure why I feel that way. I’ve always assumed it was an internal struggle and my own personal paranoia that comes with being forced to admit to a stranger, that yes, I am fat, and that ultimately it boils down to how that admission affects somebody’s opinion of me. Especially if the conversation is happening with a person who’s a vision of health and radiance. Somebody who never has, and never will, be able to relate. After all, if you don’t have this problem then it’s likely it would never cross your mind; that you would never think about how hard it can be. Why would you?
It’s also the thought of being judged, of being laughed at, of being bitched about, of being known as the girl who’s too fat to fit into an XL dressing gown. But it doesn’t stop there. I always have a distinct feeling of looking different when I’m in a changing room. In a place where some women walk around naked with complete ease, I probably couldn’t feel more vulnerable as I’m busy trying to cover myself with a towel barely big enough to dry my hands on.
I realise I’m not alone in my thoughts when I speak to other plus-size women about their experiences. In fact, it seems like we’re all living the same nightmare. Most of them – me included – now choose to take a dressing gown of our own to save the embarrassment, and some even avoid certain body treatments and opt for a manicure instead. “When I have a massage I’m so conscious of my arms falling off the table that I end up lying on my hands, which inevitably leaves them numb,” says Billie Bhatia, Stylist’s fashion news editor.
Plus-size blogger Chloe Elliott echoes that feeling of being uncomfortable. “I have big boobs so I always need a towel under my chin on a massage bed because my head won’t reach the hole,” she says. And Bethany Rutter, author and social media manager at a plus-size fashion brand, tells me spa dressing gowns never fit her either. “It’s so ridiculous to think that all women are one size and all men are another, slightly bigger size. It’s like they hadn’t even thought people like me would want to be there,” she says.
Another person I speak to who wants to stay anonymous summed it up when she said to me: “As a bigger person I spend my life trying not to cause offence, and it’s a shame I have to keep that attitude up in a place that’s designed to be the ultimate pampering, relaxing experience.”
Realising I’m not alone simultaneously makes me feel better and worse. These conversations and confessions break my heart. I can just about handle being made to feel this way, but when I know it’s making other people feel the way I do, it makes me angry and it’s not OK. It’s these sort of micro-aggressions that have the ability to make women feel inadequate and diminish their confidence. I’m a prime example of that. But – in true Carrie Bradshaw style – I can’t help but wonder why this is still happening in a new-age world that’s seemingly bursting with body positivity.
Left out of luxury
There’s no denying that spas have always fallen into the realm of being a luxury experience. And the word luxury isn’t one that’s ever associated with plus-size people. Instead it conjures up images of thin, beautiful, wealthy women walking around with perfectly blow-dried, shiny hair. And the fact that’s not an image that reflects plus-size people like me, that spa dressing gowns don’t fit us, that the massage beds aren’t quite wide enough to be comfortable, or that we’re stared at and made to feel out of place, makes me – us – feel excluded.
But that’s a common theme when it comes to luxury brands – whether it’s a fashion house, a Michelin-starred restaurant or a five-star hotel – we often end up feeling left out. In the same way that make-up brands haven’t always satisfied every skintone (and there are some that still don’t), spas – and, actually, the wellness industry as a whole – aren’t inclusive and they certainly aren’t au fait with the body positivity movement. Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s an inadvertent way of saying we don’t belong because our bodies aren’t being catered for.
“Spas are tied into health and wellbeing, yet the general consensus is that somebody who’s overweight couldn’t possibly be interested in either of those things,” says plus-size influencer Callie Thorpe. “That’s why I started an Instagram page called Wellness Our Way (@wellness.our.way). It’s about inclusive wellness experiences and having these kinds of conversations. A lot of the time people talk about how we should be healthy – and going to spas, swimming and relaxing in general are all great for stress management, for anxiety, for general wellbeing – but it’s only for people up to a certain size and that’s counterproductive.”
In fact, in a Cancer Research-funded study by University College London, it was found that, contrary to popular belief, discrimination and fat-shaming doesn’t actually encourage weight loss. Instead it has the opposite effect. So, it should come as no surprise that plus-size people can’t embark on their own personal wellbeing journey when they’re excluded from the narrative. It’s the most obvious – and avoidable – catch 22 situation.
In theory it wouldn’t be hard for spas up and down the country – around the world, even – to invest in a wider selection of dressing gown sizes or to get bigger massage tables. Anyone who isn’t plus-size would never notice, yet for anybody who is, it would make a major difference.
Catering for all bodies
With that thought in mind, I decide to do some investigative beauty journalism. I spend an afternoon ringing up spas across the country. I want to know what size their dressing gowns go up to and whether they have facilities that will accommodate everybody. It’s not long before I’m annoyed and steadily getting more angry and short-tempered. Most receptionists repeat my questions back to me in confusion, others put me on hold for longer than necessary because they don’t know the answer.
Only one spa out of the 18 I called said they had a size 26 dressing gown. Another told me they just had one size and insisted it wasn’t possible for somebody not to fit in it (“I don’t know what size it is but that’s never happened before”). Then I was told by a different spa that a ‘standard size’ was available – it turned out to be an XL, which apparently translates as an 18-20. Yes, that’s slightly bigger than most, but still not fully inclusive.
The general consensus seemed to be that if you require a bigger robe, you have to ask a member of staff to find you one suitable, or call up before you’re due to arrive so a note can be made on your booking. Given that there are no real measurements associated with different robe sizes (no spa that I rang could confidently attribute a dress size to an XL dressing gown), that still means there’s no guarantee of it fitting. I reached out to the press offices of a couple of spas that I rang and – at the time of writing – still hadn’t heard back from them, which is disheartening to say the least.
After all, it’s only when people talk about issues openly that they start being acknowledged, and this is a problem that isn’t spoken about enough – especially considering we’re living in a supposedly inclusive, body positive era. So by using this feature as a platform to bare my soul, I’m hoping this will be the start of a much-needed conversation that will begin paving the way for change. Here goes nothing…