The Uphill Climb: Bringing Body Inclusivity to the Ski Industry
In 2010, however, she was forced to quit after her fifth contact sport concussion. After being rendered inactive for 12 months, she discovered she could no longer do the thing that once brought her so much bliss.
It wasn’t because she was injured, however. Marielle’s arms and legs still worked fine and her body boasted a full range of motion. According to the former ski racer, it was something else—something unexpected—that made her give up the sport she loved so much.
In her own words: she’d become too fat.
A year without exercise, combined with the standard changes of a 20-something’s body, had caused her to gain weight. Quite simply, she could no longer fit into ski clothes—although it wasn’t for lack of trying. She’d scoured apparel racks at all the major outdoor retailers. She’d combed through smaller boutiques. She’d looked online.
But at size 16—approximately two sizes smaller than the average American woman—she was too large to find clothing that could keep her warm and protected on the mountain. Basic snow gear was out of her reach and, on top of that, it was emotionally draining. At one point, she remembers crying in a dressing room.
“It is deeply shameful to have friends that you used to ski with say, ‘Hey, we should go skiing’ and for you to not know how to tell them, ‘I physically can't find the apparel to do this activity anymore.’
“When it’s your body that’s the reason you can’t participate, it is inherently personal. It feels and cuts deeper.”
A common narrative
Like Marielle, she grew up skiing practically every weekend. She strapped her first pair of ski boots on at age three and met a long-term boyfriend on a chairlift. At age 30, Christina fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming the director of marketing for a Pennsylvania ski resort.
But while skiing has continued to be a huge part of her life, it’s also been a source of ongoing anguish.
Speaking to Columbia Sportswear, she explained how she’s often had to stretch men’s ski jackets down below her waist so she could ski with her pants unbuttoned—fully open and strung together with a belt. At size 18/20 (slightly smaller than the average American woman), she’s constantly struggling to find ski gear that fits.
“My pants are literally unzipped in the lodge,” she said. “I look insane. Or I'll have a T-shirt on too and I (have to) pull it out.”
“The way my genetics are set up, I am a very shapely woman,” she said. “I always get men’s pants—matter of fact, I think I only own men’s ski pants. Because they don't make them in my size or in my shape. But the problem is that the men’s pants will fit, but I’m also 4’11”.”
Sharifa explained that due to her height, her snow pants bunch up to the point that they practically create a safety hazard.
“They start to fall down,” she said. “Thank God they have this Velcro on the side. But sometimes if the Velcro isn’t long enough, then it pulls.”
The crotch is always too big as well, she added.
Christina noted that since her ski jackets are typically made for men, the chest is constantly too tight, which restricts her movement. Base layers are even worse. She’s learned over the years that if she wants to be active in the wintertime, she will be making a decision between comfort and warmth.
The all too familiar trade-off
“When fat people want to be outside and in the outdoors, we basically have the choice of being underdressed or not going,” she said. “I reached a threshold where I’m like, I’ll just be cold.”
In an article she wrote for The Cut titled “Apparently, I’m Too Fat to Ski,” Marielle explained that roughly 68 percent of American women wear clothes that are larger than a size 14 (which is accurate, according to a 2018 report). However, most outdoor gear brands stop at an XL or XXL, she said.
“Patagonia, Arc'teryx, North Face, Fjällräven—none of them make snow pants in my size,” she wrote.
“I wore a cardigan and got very wet and cold,” she said. “I’m just cold all the time. I do try. I have a polar fleece shirt that my friend gave me. In Banff, I had hiking pants, fleece-lined tights, and a long-sleeve shirt. But it was very cold. I wasn’t appropriately dressed.”
For folks in colder climates, winter gear isn’t dispensable apparel, Marielle said.
“Ski clothing is something that when you live in a northern community, it’s a necessity,” she said. “It’s like owning jeans. I need layers if I’m going to be outside and not freeze and get frostbite immediately. I want to have really nice warm gloves. I want to have thermal underwear and a polar fleece setup. These things are commonly associated with ski culture but to me they’re the fundamental building blocks of a wardrobe that I just don’t have access to.”
She used to shop for these items at a plus-size retail chain in Canada called Addition Elle, but they shut their doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Since (they closed), I genuinely have no idea where I would go and buy snow pants,” she said. “(Or) where I would be able to go and buy long johns, polar fleece layers, Merino wool layers. Rain pants is an item that I covet in a way that’s unreasonable.”
A long list of obstacles
“Ski coats are higher-priced items,” Marielle said. “Am I going to spend $1,000 to order it in two sizes so I can see which one I’m going to keep?”
It often takes a month or more to buy an item of clothing. Between researching plus-size brands, finding something you like, and waiting for it to be shipped (special orders usually take longer), last-minute shopping is off the table.
The result is always having to say “no” to last-minute ski trip invites. If you forget to pack something, you can’t buy it on the road. There’s no window shopping with friends or enjoying time browsing ski boutique racks when you travel.
“I dream of being in Banff and being able to go, ‘Oh no, I didn't bring a rain shell. I’ll go buy one,’” Marielle said. “That’s my wildest fantasy.”
Another issue is that things sell out very fast. According to Christina, if she doesn’t buy all of her gear early in the season—often before skiing even starts—she’ll be out of luck all winter. If she wants a particular color, it’s even harder.
“That’s a big thing too,” she said. “Some stores will have the size you need, but instead of five different colors, they only offer it in one color for plus sizing. And then it sells out by the middle of November.”
According to Marielle, there’s an attitude that plus-size people should be happy with what they get and shouldn’t care about what they look like or be able to express their style or personality.
“Finding something that fits—that’s the bar for a plus-sized person,” she said.
Christina said there have been times when she’s wanted to peel her jacket off at lunch, for example, and relax in the lodge. But instead she’s remained in her wet jacket because her base layers made her too uncomfortable.
She’s also experienced embarrassment walking to the chairlift and having to tug at her waist. Although she’s been skiing for 30 years, she often looks like it’s her first day on the slopes.
“Even though I know I can ski really well, (I’m) still pulling up my pants and buckling my belt buckle and messing around with my clothes ’cause they don’t fit.” Marielle agreed, noting that when you work hard to be a good skier, you should get to look like one too.
“Instead (you) look like someone that borrowed their friend’s equipment to give it a go for the first time,” she said.
Barriers to entry
“When you’re new, especially as adults, you’re scared,” Christina said. “It’s intimidating. You feel like you can’t do it. If you’re in leggings and sweatpants, you are going to be miserable your first time.
“There’s so many barriers—you add sizing to the mix and they’re not gonna do it.”
Marielle said this is part of why lots of plus-size people quit before they get started. She added that ski brands are missing an opportunity by not offering clothes that would help them stick with it.
“Brands are just going, ‘Well, I just don’t see fat people skiing. Therefore, why would we make clothing for them?’” she said. “Then they can keep going back to it and saying, ‘Well, there’s just not a fat audience that is interested in being outdoors.’ But it’s like, there’s nothing for us to wear.”
Not only that, she said, there’s an added discouragement seeing so few plus-size people in outdoor catalogs and ski magazines. Between clothing advertisements and social media feeds, it can create a vicious cycle.
“When you don't see people that look like you in these spaces, you just assume you’re not supposed to be in them,” she said.
A slow and steady climb
“It’s better than it was last year,” Marielle said. “And last year was better than it was the year before. I’ve been fat and interested in clothing for the last decade and it is getting so much better.”
Christina agreed: “It’s going to take a while. I understand that perspective as a business person. Change is scary. But you know, it’s slowly happening.”
In the last few years, several major brands have launched extended-size ski lines. And although they’re not widely advertised, at least they’re beginning to exist. Columbia Sportswear’s ski line currently goes up to 3XL. (The brand has been making plus-size women’s products for 15 years.) According to Columbia’s Senior Merchandiser of Extended Sizes, Andrea Kelly, this is largely due to the company’s founder, Gert Boyle.
She herself was a plus-size woman and the brand's first plus-size fit model. She often advocated for size inclusion, a big reason the company began providing plus-size options earlier than most.
As a plus-size woman and avid snowboarder, she said the subject is personal to her. “Every woman, regardless of size, shape, race, or age, should get to feel like a million bucks,” she said. “The plus-size consumer has been waiting for the apparel industry to see her.”
Andrea has been working hard within the brand to add more extended-size options and make the available styles even better.
“If we keep avoiding having these conversations until we reach this invisible threshold that doesn't exist, we’ll never have these conversations,” she said.
“So many companies say, ‘We can’t talk about it until we're the most size-inclusive.’ And it’s like, well then, you’re just never going to talk about it.”
“Once I put my mind to something, I’m in it to win it,” Sharifa said. “I’m not going to stop my life. I want to experience everything. We only get a certain amount of time on this planet.”
Snowboarding has a special place in her heart, she added, in part because of her dad, who always encouraged her to try new things. Although she lived in a big city growing up, he always urged her to get outside and explore.
“He always encouraged us to do things that were outside of the Bronx—and outside of our expectations. … Every time I tell someone that I snowboard they're like ‘Snowboard? Oh, I hate the cold.’ But I find it to be freeing. … It’s just you and the mountain.”
“There’s this argument that fat people just aren’t interested in hiking or outdoor activities or skiing. And it’s like, no, we want to do it so badly we’re willing to loosely risk our health. That’s how much we want to be there.
“(We’re) willing to dress in whatever makeshift, nonsense, pretend, ‘almost-kind-of’ outdoor clothing—because we don’t want that barrier to be the reason we don’t get to be outside. I think there’s something so beautiful about that. We don’t have the clothing, but we’re still going. We’re not going to wait.”
This article is the first in Tough Mother’s “Body Positivity in the Outdoors” series. Stay tuned for more.
Have you had a hard time finding plus-size outdoor gear? Check out some of Columbia Sportswear’s options below.