That all-too-familiar time of year has once again arrived, when every influencer, blogger, and fortunate person on your social media feed is snapping photos and videos from one of the many major music festivals happening nationwide. The recently concluded Coachella is of course the most popular. But other well-known festivals like Firefly, Lightning in a Bottle, and Lollapalooza draw large crowds as well. Brands take full advantage of festival season, launching campaigns to promote the latest trends that will make for the most trendworthy photos on Instagram. But there happens to be a common pattern: In all the promotions, every attendee seems to look the same.
Thin, toned, tan—based on the ads that brands run in the lead-up to festival season, those seem to be the three qualifications to attend. Photos of size-00 women in boho-glam outfits (think cutout dresses, oversize sunglasses, patterned crop tops) dominate the “festival” pages of popular brands’ websites, promoting the laid-back, careless vibe of the music-filled weekends. No matter what’s “on trend” at a given moment, these outfits tend to look the same. (There’s not much evolution when it comes to the Coachella aesthetic, unless you’re James Charles.) But it’s not just the clothes. It’s also the models.
“Almost all media representation I see of Coachella centers on thin white women,” says Sarah Chiwaya of Curvily, a plus-size style blog. Chiwaya had been reluctant to attend the festival for that reason, but when Coachella announced that Beyoncé would headline in 2018, she decided to chance it. To her surprise, attendees at the festival were highly diverse: “As a blogger who is all about rejecting garbage outdated ‘fashion rules’ about what fat people can wear, it was so damn heartwarming to see fat girls rocking sheer looks, bold colors, crop tops, and all the attention-getting looks we’ve been told are not for us.”
Popular plus influencer, Kelly Augustine, echoes Chiwaya. “I have never been shamed at a festival,” she says, adding, “Everyone is just there to enjoy the music and have a good time.”
However, fashion and photo director of Dia & Co, a digital styling service for plus-size women, Rosaliz Jimenez, believes that improvements can still be made for the events and compares such campaigns for festivals like Coachella to Fashion Week. Apparently, the ads seem to imply that being thin is more “aesthetic” or “aspirational.” It’s no secret that plus-size people are there. It just seems to be acceptable to take them (and their business) for granted.
“No one thinks about how to market to us despite that fact that…a majority of American women are plus-size,” as Jimenez explains it. And heavier men tend to be left out of the equation as well. The campaigns send a signal to those who aren’t thin: You are not a demographic we feel the need to appeal to.
For fashion influencer Natalie Drue, the message was received loud and clear. She points out that it’s not just the ads that are the problem, which set bizarre expectations for who festivals are for, but the trends themselves: “I get chub rub! My thighs rub together like wild, so if I’m wearing a dress, I have to wear a second layer of antichafe shorts underneath and, boom, now it’s even hotter! I’d love to see more effort and thought into the plus-size festival wear sector. I want to see more breathable fabrics with less sleeves and rad touches like sequins or loud patterns.”
Chiwaya adds that she’s seen countless “festival-style” collections with literally zero plus-size options even on sites that have extended sizes. But, she points out, the demand is there. “When I wore a full sequined look last year, I had so many plus women coming up to me, saying they wish they knew where to shop something like that. That’s a missed business opportunity, brands!”
And then there are the problems that the events themselves pose. Much like the rest of the world, these events are designed for straight-size, able-bodied people. Venues are far apart. There are few places to sit and little shade under the hot sun. And then there are the bathrooms, which are cramped and hard to access. Earlier this month, as Drue packed for Coachella for the first time, she was wracked with nerves. She’d decided to go with an “an open mind, plenty of hydration, and the willingness to stand up for myself if I need to.” Still, when she arrived, Drue felt ill-equipped to handle some of what the festival threw at her. The events were farther apart than she’d expected, and while there’s endless ground to sit on, people who have trouble getting up from a seated position are bound to feel uncomfortable.
Unless you’ve done it before, you won’t be prepared,” Drue says.
As blogger Shamika George notes, there are some humiliations that are hard to anticipate. At festivals like Coachella, amusement park rides feature in hundreds of thousands of Instagram posts. But George observes that not all attendees can partake in the photo op. “It’s never a good feeling to be escorted off a ride because the restraint won’t lock in place or you can’t fit in it at all,” she says.
So how can brands help make music festivals more welcoming to plus-size people? It’s much easier than you’d think. You simply start with the basics: Show diverse bodies in promotional materials. Many brands that feature festival collections—such as Forever 21 and Asos—also sell plus collections. Make it a point to use plus models when a festival fashion campaign launches. Show consumers that there are indeed unique options available to them. “I did a quick search of my go-to brands for clothing, and if they do have a page dedicated to festival fashions, the options for plus-size women are scant at best,” George explains. “It ends up feeling like plus-size women were an afterthought in the marketing strategy.”
Chiwaya also adds that whenever she has posted about Coachella on Instagram, she’s flooded with DMs from plus-size women who want to know if they’d feel out of place at the festival or if they’d even be welcomed at all. She applauds the festivals who show more diversity by booking performers who aren’t all thin and white; the lineup is crucial because it is still how one festival differentiates itself from another. Earlier this month Coachella did showcase Lizzo, an artist who is a vocal champion for diverse bodies, but of course a headliner or two does not an inclusive festival make. For all the lip service that fashion designers and media have paid plus-size women, there’s still too little action. Plus people with disposable incomes are treated like dispensable customers. So the choice for brands is clear: Include them and cash in, or miss out on the hard-earned dollars of most American women.