Merch is trending. And while everyone from podcast hosts to niche astrology meme accounts is selling something wearable, the highest-profile drops are from fast food and “junk” food brands. There’s a huge amount of ’90s nostalgia at play — AriZona iced tea’s jackets with the brand’s classic patterns and Pizza Hut’s plastic red cups are meant to hearken back to the decade that’s just so trendy right now. This holiday season, consumers can buy McDonald’s tees, Chick-Fil-A crewnecks, and Stouffer’s sweatsuits, giving those brands both their money and free advertising. But one group has been almost completely excluded from the fast-food merch bonanza — fat people.
Nearly every major fast-food merch drop has topped out at XL or 2XL since the trend started back in 2016 when Taco Bell opened a physical merch store. Fast-food merch took off at the end of 2019, when Dunkin’ and McDonald’s launched stores just in time for the holiday season. Now, KFC has Colonel Sanders basketball jerseys that stop at a size XL, while a Cheez-It onesie is “one size fits most.” Fat people have been mocked with Twinkies for decades, yet a fat person over a size 2XL cannot purchase a Twinkies shirt (and size 2XL is two dollars extra). Anyone can wear a “This Bride Runs On Dunkin’” robe on their wedding day, except a fat person. Popeyes and Megan Thee Stallion released lots of merch to support their Hottie Sauce release — flame bikinis, anime-style graphic tees, and denim jackets — and none of it goes above a size XL. And McDonald’s collaboration with Saweetie features pastel shirts and sweatpants that top out at 2XL.
Now, influencers might post their late-night Taco Bell on Instagram, and then buy a Taco Bell mild hot sauce onesie to take funny photos in. But these companies know that fast food can’t keep its cool-kid clout if fat people are part of the image. Fat acceptance is about more than just access to fashion or clothes, but as a fat person that writes about pop culture for a living, it’s impossible to not notice when a major clothing trend is excluding bodies like mine.
With their merch, these companies signal that they won’t make room for fat people in the food world, even if it costs them sales. It’s estimated that 68 percent of American women wear plus sizes; the “average” woman wears a size 16 to 18. The value of the men’s plus-size market is estimated at $1 billion. It’s not a niche market; this is a huge group of Americans who are being ignored and marginalized. Being fat makes you hypervisible — literally, people are more likely to notice my body — and also serves as an excuse for people to keep ignoring you.
When a brand releases merch, they get an onslaught of positive press, but it’s hard to imagine these happy fast-food merch moments happening even 10 years ago. Fast food has been an American villain for a long time. It was implicitly and explicitly blamed for rising rates of “obesity,” especially “childhood obesity,” beginning at the turn of the century. Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Super Size Me, in which he ate McDonald’s three times a day for a month and gained weight, was used as proof that fast food was dangerously unhealthy. Meanwhile, magazines featured sensationalized covers about the obesity epidemic. In 2008, Time magazine lamented “our super-sized kids,” while a Newsweek cover in May 2012 featured a baby holding a pack of french fries with the headline: “When I Grow Up, I’m Going to Weigh 300 Lbs. Help!” The connection between fast food and fat people was clear: Even the proudly liberal and aggressively friendly sitcom Parks and Recreation featured fatphobic jokes about how fat Pawnee residents couldn’t resist the siren call of Paunch Burger. (Even so, it’s worth noting that while it might not have been fashionable, fast food remained popular, with the industry bringing in around $170 billion a year throughout the aughts.)
Part of what helped change the narrative for fast-food companies were connections to thin celebrities. Chrissy Teigen and Jennifer Lawrence both used fast food to burnish their “cool girl” reputations. J. Law once even ordered McDonald’s in the middle of a red carpet interview. The Kardashian-Jenner squad has Instagrammed their love of every fast food joint from Chipotle to Popeyes, and McDonald’s has collabs with Travis Scott, BTS, and, most recently, Mariah Carey.
The fat acceptance movement has also shifted American culture’s understanding of fast food. Fat activists and eating disorder educators have been trying to get Americans to give up diet culture for a long time. Diet culture preaches that some foods are “good,” while others are “bad.” Fat acceptance teaches that all food is good food, because it nourishes us and we enjoy it. Listening to your body and what it wants is better than judging yourself for craving a McFlurry — or judging others for the same. There’s now growing acceptance that junk food hasn’t caused the “obesity epidemic,” which has certainly helped these brands. (In fact, many a Reddit commenter has wondered if the fast-food lobby isn’t actively funding fat activists.) The same thing has happened in food media, where thin cooks and chefs embrace fat and carbohydrates in ways that would have been verboten a decade or two ago.
But, as often happens in fat acceptance spaces, this radical, anti-diet message has been watered down. Just as fat acceptance turned into “body positive” influencers posting Instagram photos where they have one tiny roll of belly fat, this call to end diet culture has turned into acceptance of wanting fast food or junk food — as long as the person desiring it is thin. There’s nothing progressive about thin people enjoying this food. Allowing fat people the same opportunity would be. Fast food companies are benefiting from diluted fat politics, all while further stigmatizing fat people through erasure.
Broader food media is no better about sizing. When Condé Nast launched Bon Appétit merch in August 2019, sizes stopped at XL (I tweeted about it at the time). They’ve since expanded to 3XL. Apron maker Hedley & Bennett lists 50 aprons on their website; only three of them come in their “big apron” size. NYT Cooking merch tops out at 2XL, as does food personality Alison Roman’s shirt line. Molly Baz’s merch goes one size bigger. Claire Saffitz sold Dessert Person shirts that stopped at XL.
The message from the food world is clear: It’s okay to love food, to use full-fat milk and delicious oil and real sugar to make something tasty; it’s okay to love Big Macs and animal-style fries and Crunchwrap Supremes — as long as you’re not fat. For a food brand to be associated with fat people would be anywhere from inconvenient to disastrous. But when fat people are excluded from food spaces, it shows how vapid the food world can be. The focus isn’t on food, but on aesthetics. In this ecosystem, only thin people have earned the right to enjoy a juicy cheeseburger or a decadent cake; to exclude fat people, to make them invisible within the food world, is to reinforce that they deserve invisibility.
I have such warm memories around eating my mom’s cookies on Christmas, of going through the Wendy’s drive-thru with my dad, of getting Dunkin’ iced coffees with my best friends. To marry my love of food and my passion for fashion at once would be great. And then I wonder if I, as a fat person, would be safe wearing a McDonald’s shirt anyway. Would I want to be seen in public in a Krispy Kreme hoodie? Could I wear a Panera “Soup” bathing suit to the beach and not fear that someone would harass me for it? Or would loudly claiming a love of fast food just put a target on my back? I can’t really find out.
Victoria Edel is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. Daniel Fishel is Brooklyn-based illustrator, animator, educator, and writer.