Like most high school girls heading to prom, Hope Henry was excited.
Until she went shopping for a prom dress, that is.
Turns out that Henry, a junior at Gordon Lee High School, couldn't find one she liked. In fact, she found only a few that were available in her size. Henry, who wears a size 18, learned that prom dresses in plus sizes are hard to come by - especially ones that offer a flattering and trendy style.
"Shopping for a prom dress was a pain in the butt," says the 17-year-old Henry, who lives in Rossville.
"My mom and I went to the big department stores - the same stores where she had found her own prom dresses when she was in high school," she says.
They went to J.C. Penney and Sears, as well as Ross Dress for Less, Marshalls and other stores. "Not only did they not have a selection of plus-size dresses (size 14 was the largest, she says), they didn't have more than six or seven prom dresses total, and they were not at all attractive.
"I find it so frustrating. If I go to the popular 'teen' stores like Rue 21, Forever 21, Aeropostale, Hollister, for example, I wouldn't be able to buy one piece of clothing," she says. "The extra-large size is like a medium. They size really small, and it makes me feel bigger than I actually am. Eventually I just give up. Finding new clothes that people at school think are cool is hard. The fashion world says you've got to be small and you've got to be pretty to be cool."
Kim Goins of Chattanooga, who co-founded Rescue Prom, an organization originally started to help girls whose families were affected by the devastating tornadoes in the spring of 2011, says plus-size prom dresses were hard to come by even back then. For the next two years, the organization continued to distribute the dresses to girls whose families couldn't afford to purchase them.
Goins, 51, a graduate of Dade County High School, in Trenton, Ga., an area hit hard by the tornadoes, wanted to help teens in her hometown and surrounding areas to find dresses to wear to the prom. But, despite the incredible feedback and around 4,000 dresses donated to the organization from across the country, they were mostly sizes 14 and under.
"After size 14, it was very slim pickings," Goins says. "Sizes 18 or larger were almost impossible to find."
Similarly, Operation Prom, an organization that also donates free prom dresses to girls in need in seven states - including Tennessee, according to its website - has also had difficulties getting plus-size dresses. Noel D'Allacco, founder of Operation Prom, told The Associated Press that the decade-old project received about 7,000 gently used dresses and new ones from corporate partners last year, but only about 700 were size 18 and up. The shortage of donated plus-size garments forced her to buy some.
"We are going crazy trying to get plus-size dresses," D'Allacco, who lives in Bronxville, N.Y., told the AP. "We have this problem, unfortunately, every year. A lot of times we get plus-size donations and they're not appropriate for a 17-year-old. They're for your grandmother to wear. It's difficult."
A 2012 study released by The NPD Group, a leading market research company, shows that two-thirds of females ages 13 and over in America say they wear clothing that is "special sized." One-third of these females classify themselves as plus-size females. Sixty-three percent of plus-size women report that shopping for plus-sized clothing is more stressful than shopping for regular clothing.
"The issues that plus-size women face in store translate into the biggest opportunity for brands and retailers to grow their businesses today," Marshal Cohen, NPD Group chief industry analyst, told the AP. "There are so many consumers who wear at least one item that is plus size, and yet the market is dramatically undeserved."
Henry, who says she's fluctuates between sizes 18 and 20, was about to give up when she decided to wear a hand-me-down gown.
"I ended up getting a gown from a cousin," Henry says. "She's older than me and she hadn't worn it in three years, but it still stylish. It's a rich red, has a corset-style (lace-up) back that makes it easier to adjust to my body.
"My cousin and I are slightly different in size but she's taller. And it's even harder for plus-size girls to find dresses that fit because designers think that, if you're bigger around, you're also taller. And that's not true."
Contact Karen Nazor Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6396.