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The “Fat Tax” Is Everywhere, From Retail to the Nail Salon

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Clothing stores and salons keep charging plus-size customers more.

Pedicure
Salons have been accused of charging plus-size customers a “fat tax.
Photo: Getty Images

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The British retailer New Look just sparked an international backlash for charging more for plus-size clothes than it does for straight-size options. But the controversy wasn’t the first time New Look has made headlines for upcharging plus-size patrons. In September, the retailer was accused of charging these customers three times the amount it charged straight-size customers.

New Look is hardly the first retailer to hike prices in the plus category. H&M, Missguided, Pretty Little Thing, River Island, Boohoo, and Asos have all charged what’s known as the “fat tax,” according to British newspaper the Sun. In 2014, Old Navy was the target of a petition that netted 95,000 signatures for upcharging plus-size women for larger clothes but not men. It charged up to $15 more for women’s plus jeans than it did for women’s straight-size jeans. While Old Navy agreed to make changes related to its plus offerings, it did not immediately agree to stop upcharging.

Some retailers argue that they charge more for plus because it costs more to make larger garments. But that argument ignores the fact that fast-fashion retailers notoriously make clothing for mere pennies. For example, the minimum wage for a garment worker in Bangladesh, where many fast-fashion items are made, isn’t more than $70 per month.

The fact that these retailers pay garment workers egregiously low wages would seem to more than compensate for any cost differential between plus-size and straight-size clothes. (Although retailers really should pay garment workers fair wages.)

Upcharging most likely isn’t about fair pricing but about fat-shaming women, especially considering Old Navy’s gender double standard. If larger clothes cost substantially more to make, then why doesn’t the retailer also charge more for big-and-tall men’s apparel?

The indignities plus-size consumers face don’t stop in retail. Salons and spas charge fat taxes as well. In 2010, a customer named Michelle Fonville revealed that Natural Nails, a Georgia salon, overcharged her because she was overweight. At first, she thought the salon had made an error, but when she pointed it out, the manager told Fonville that the additional $5 charge was due to her size.

Hair salon
Plus-size shoppers say they never know if a salon will have robes in their size or chairs to accommodate them.
Photo: Getty Images/fStop

While the manager, Kim Tan, refunded the money, she told Fonville not to return to the salon because the chairs had a weight capacity of 200 pounds and would cost $2,500 to repair.

“Do you think that’s fair when we take $24 and we have to pay $2,500 [in repairs]?” Tan told ABC News. “I said to her, ‘I’m sorry, but next time I cannot take you.’”

The average American woman wears a size 16 to 18. Moreover, women who weigh about 200 pounds are not uncommon. Add in the fact that men occasionally visit salons as well, and it’s doubtful that the chairs have such a low weight capacity.

But what happened at Natural Nails wasn’t an isolated incident. Just last year, a woman accused a Tennessee salon called Rose Nails of posting a handwritten sign on the wall stating that overweight patrons would have to pay more. She posted a picture of the sign on Facebook, where it was shared hundreds of times. The sign said, “Sorry, but if you are overweight, pedicures will be $45 due to service fees for pedicurists.”

In this case, the fat tax was more than double the standard pedicure fee of $20. Rose Nails salon owner Son Nguyen denied putting up such a sign, even though the floors and chairs in the photo matched his. But he didn’t deny thinking that overweight customers posed a problem. He told a local news station that it was “difficult for technicians to give them pedicures” and, like Tan, used the broken chair excuse. He said overweight patrons had broken two salon chairs that ranged in price from $2,000 to $2,500 apiece.

massage table
Plus-size patrons of spas say they’re unsure if sturdy enough tables will be on hand to accommodate them.
Photo: Getty Images/EyeEm

If he and Tan really have had salon chairs break, wouldn’t it make sense for them to invest in chairs that can hold everyone? It is quite possible to find salon chairs in the $2,000 range that accommodate people well over 200 pounds. A cursory internet search on the subject turned up a range of AGS salon equipment with a weight capacity of up to 800 pounds.

Being inclusive is not just morally right — it also pays more in the long run. It broadens one’s clientele and staves off bad press related to upcharging that hurts business. When an establishment tells plus-sized people they’re unwanted, it risks losing the business of all customers who oppose fat shaming.

Unfortunately, upcharging is just one of many ways businesses slight plus-size consumers. In January, Ravishly interviewed patrons who said that when they book hair or waxing appointments, salons often don’t supply robes that will fit them. Moreover, when these patrons make an appointment for a massage, they’re unclear if the table will be sturdy enough to accommodate them. Businesses can be more size-inclusive simply by asking what size clients are before they show up and making the appropriate gear available.

Plus-size customers encounter discrimination in far too many places — the workplace, the doctor’s office, and on airlines — to name just a few. But clothing stores, salons, and spas stand out because they’re places people go to be pampered and unwind. People of all sizes deserve to get a massage, a pedicure, or new clothes without being slighted or financially penalized.