Is Spandex Making Americans Fat?

Spandex. Estimates suggest that it is found in 80% of the clothing sold in America. Which means that almost every single American owns at least one piece of clothing that has at some amount of Spandex in it. And apparently, some people think that it’s making us fat.

The stretchy fabric emerged in 1959, and was first used in underwear and workout gear. It rose to popularity during disco mania in the 1970s, and from then on began to be used in more and more clothing. Spandex is unique because it can stretch up to twice its original size, and then snap back into shape. And it’s in everything – check the tags on your clothes and you are sure to find at least some amount of Spandex in the majority of them.

A recent NPR story, part of a series about obesity in America, traces the history of Spandex. The story completely assumes that the rise in popularity of spandex is due to the rise of obesity in America, and repeatedly suggests that spandex may be some kind of an enabler. Back in the 1960s, “fabrics were rigid and people were thin,” but Americans now are looking for clothes to accommodate their expanding waistlines. People who are overweight are able to find clothes that fit them (gasp!), so they are encouraged to remain overweight instead of dieting out of shame.

Margaret Hartmann of Jezebel took issue with the NPR piece, pointing out some of its particularly nasty parts. First of all, the women who are interviewed for the article are all identified by their dress sizes. And Brett Godwin, a size four who is shopping at Bloomingdale’s, has a thing or two to say about fat people and Spandex:

“I think that spandex is made to accommodate people who are overweight. I’ve seen some terrible sights. They are overweight, and they would put on the tightest spandex things they can find, and they just look absolutely awful.”

Martha Paschal, who is described as a “youthful-looking 50-year-old financial consultant,” talks about finding Spandex clothes that help camouflage her “muffin top.” In case you didn’t know, NPR tells us that a muffin top consists of “extra rolls of waistline flab.” Nice. Even though she feels good in her Spandex pencil skirt, Paschal says that she thinks Spandex is “dishonest” because “it lets you get away with wearing things that you probably shouldn’t just because it expands to fit.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Hartmann points it out exactly:

“Paschal’s comments are just sad because it’s clear that she’s just echoing back an awful societal message: That you’re only allowed to look attractive and feel good about yourself if you’re thin. If you find a flattering outfit in a plus-size, it doesn’t mean you look great, you’ve just created the illusion of a beautiful body through trickery.”

Paschal’s observations also make it pretty obvious to me that Spandex isn’t an enabler at all. People are very aware of their size. We’re constantly bombarded with images of stick thin models and commercials for magic, fix-it-all diet pills. We get the message that we should be thinner. Just because people of all sizes are able to buy clothes that fit them doesn’t mean that they’re being encouraged to get fat.

What do you think? Is Spandex really making Americans fat?

Garnet is a student at Columbia University in New York City. When she’s not dancing or writing, she can be found exploring the city, and let’s be honest, spending way too much time on the internet. Follow her @garnethenderson.

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