Healing the Plus-Size Customer and Employee Journey with Author and GORGEous Agency Founder Kara Richardson Whitely

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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This episode features an interview with author and GORGEous agency founder Kara Richardson Whitely. Kara discusses the importance of body inclusivity in business and the work that her agency does to help brands attain growth and profitability in the plus-size market. She also discusses details about her memoir Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, which will soon be a motion picture. She also shares examples of what allyship looks like when it comes to body inclusivity.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Allyship in the body inclusive conversation is ever-changing and growing. But for me personally, what that looks like is allowing people to show up authentically. Allyship is being a restaurant owner who has seating where everybody can sit.

Allyship is speaking up behind the scenes and making sure that folks aren't being judged because of their body size and their ability, that there isn't a joke being made and speaking up and questioning like, why would you say that out loud?

It's celebrating voices like Kate Winslet who really just came out and talked about how harmful some of the comments about her body has been over time, sharing those messages again and again. And so really amplifying the conversation of body inclusivity, but also questioning how are we acting and how are we responding based on somebody's shape and size.


 The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, best-selling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality.

She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results.

Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now on the episode.


DOUG FORESTA: Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta. This episode features a conversation with author and GORGEous Agency founder Kara Richardson Whitely. Kara discusses the importance of body inclusivity in business and the work that her agency does to help brands attain growth and profitability in the plus size market.

She also discusses details about her memoir Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, which will soon be a motion picture, all this and more. And now onto the conversation.

JENNIFER BROWN: Kara, welcome to The Will to Change.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

JENNIFER BROWN: I was thrilled to make your acquaintance through a friend and learn about your work and then read this incredible book from 2015, which I recommend for everybody and many dogeared pieces and underlines and highlights. But this is about your third trip up Kilimanjaro at 300 pounds.

From there I learned and subsequently getting to know you a bit, learned about your work in body inclusivity and feel so inspired to give you a platform here to share about what I think is a huge missing piece in our understanding of all the kinds of biases that exist.

Also for workplaces and for employers and for anyone who makes things for anyone and anyone who is selling to customers and this huge untapped market. I understand untapped markets because I'm a member of the LGBTQ community. I remember years ago the buying power of that community reaching something like a trillion dollars and this was years ago.

All of the sort of companies waking up and saying, oh my goodness, we're not serving this community and our marketing needs to be better and we need to understand them. We need to monetize them yes, but that can't be done without a ton of respect and cultural competence as well and it's nuanced, right?

It is helped along by consultants like yourself and myself. People from a community who can say, this doesn't look quite right, or this is something you might want to include or this is an opportunity that you're missing and that's a wonderful and powerful seat to inhabit with these institutions that really inform so much of our life.

The decisions they make, the merchandise they create, their pricing, their sizes, their availability, all the stuff I've begun to really pay attention to through learning about your journey is poignant and I think is urgent. I mean, not just urgent from a [inaudible 00:04:12], I mean for so many reasons. Anyway, so...


JENNIFER BROWN: ... welcome.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Thank you. I mean, we are in the same position now. The extended sizes market, which is part of body inclusivity, is poised to be a trillion-dollar industry in the next decade. We are in this renaissance or emerging into the idea that like, hey, wait a minute. We should be talking to folks in larger bodies who have been left out and have deep pockets and long memories.

JENNIFER BROWN: Deep pockets and long memories.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: That's right. Whether that's you're talking from a company internally or externally, it's really important to come from a point of authenticity and just authentic connection.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. I just heard you use extended size inclusivity versus plus and we're going to talk about language on this podcast. I think there's a lot of language is always changing and people within our community are cutting edge in terms of how that's changing.

Can you just elaborate on a couple... What could be microaggressions without us intending to use the wording that we might have thought was the wording, et cetera? Can you elaborate a little bit on that just to give us that baseline?

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Sure. In my world, because I often speak to folks in retail, and this may be the language that they understand is plus sizes or extended sizes. I've heard them used interchangeably. It just depends on the company that you're talking to.

But there are also plus sizes and extended plus sizes, which might include up to 6X. Those are some of the terms that people might be using in the retail space. Also, language is ever evolving and changing. Fat is a word that folks are trying to take less power from and just be a descriptor. I have fat, I'm not necessarily fat, it's not a negative thing.


KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Even I stumble over that. I remember when I first wrote my self-published book, Fat Woman on the Mountain, and that was the name of my company. I just recently changed it to The GORGEous Agency, but it was Fat Woman on the Mountain Enterprise and everybody would be like, Ooh.

But it's just a descriptive word. It doesn't have any power. Me being in a larger body, me being fat, it doesn't mean I am less than, it just is. I think there's an effort and an emphasis to take the power away from that and have it be a negative when it just is.

JENNIFER BROWN: It just is. That's wonderful. Fat Woman on the Mountain. Do you still have that website by the way? Is it something that you've retired?

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: I did retire the actual website. Like I said, I'm going through the process of changing my business name from Fat Woman on the Mountain Enterprises to The GORGEous Agency.

Gorge, of course is a play on the word, my book title Gorge and so it made a lot of sense to... When creating an agency that helps brands connect internally and externally on the terms of body inclusion, I felt gorgeous is a perfect name for that.

JENNIFER BROWN: And perfect for a hiker girl too. As you say, a hiker girl lurking inside you. The beginning of the book I just wrote down. You're a journalist and you write in such an elegant way. You say, I am lighthearted and heavy footed.

I wanted you to have a chance to describe your physicality as you do in the book with the audience, for those of us who haven't read the book. This was chronically your third trip of Kilimanjaro at different weights and in different phases of your life as well.

What would you tell us about yourself? I know our time is limited, but you go through a lot about your childhood in the book, which is beautiful and heartbreaking as so many childhoods are. And yet picturing you, you're so evocative and you're so honest about the daily struggles.

You gave us a window into the things again, just like with any identity, which we are not tuned in to the microaggressions, the lack of available sizes, the discomfort, the extra struggle, and yet, you really make it come alive in an unforgettable way. Tell us about being lighthearted and heavy footed.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Well, actually I didn't realize this until many years after I wrote Gorge that I happen to have a condition called Lipedema. Lipedema is a soft tissue disorder. It's a fat disease really where the majority of my weight is between my navel and my knees.

I've undergone the process of three different surgeries this past year, just to help to remove some of that tissues. But the fact remains that my body is very bottom heavy. With that comes the challenge of going to a restaurant and having to try to find a chair that doesn't have arms.

Flying is really challenging for me. In fact, it's been excruciating at times. Sometimes I wondered if I was going to have some kind of medical emergency just because I was squeezed into a bulkhead seat.

There is this whole challenge of whether I'm dressed well enough for an adventure, especially in the early days before the outdoor industry started to have snow pants and things like that, that would actually fit me. I was always cobbling together things.

There was an image of me on a trip to Switzerland. I'm really on a mountaintop with a perfect view of Eiger Jungfrau. I'm way up in the mountains, way up in Switzerland, and I'm wearing jeans and I'm wearing a men's jacket with uber long sleeves like this two totally boxy cut and not warm enough.

I mean, I'm grinning ear to ear because it's such a beautiful sight, but I know and I remember feeling so uncomfortable and so out of place. I think that that's one of the more important things to remember when you're offering extended sizes.

When you're welcoming teammates with larger bodies, the most important thing is to not make people feel so out of place. Welcome them, welcome their talent, welcome their enthusiasm, welcome their joy, and it will be a really powerful process.

JENNIFER BROWN: I mean, remembering, there's a whole story in the book about pants. Not having packed the right pants and having to find a local tailor as if you should have been thinking about that instead of preparing for Kilimanjaro. You literally are wrestling precisely with the need for the right size pants or brought the wrong ones.

Or finding somebody who could amend the ones you had so that you know would have the proper gear or the sleeping bag questions. I mean, I would imagine what you've discovered and probably led a whole conversation with camping gear providers.

To say, here's the way you can provide extended sizes and why you need to, and here are the problem areas, here's what can be developed. You must be really proud of that legacy, but you have such firsthand experience of the biases in the design process for those providers that you encountered when you first became the hiker woman, but it was inside you.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: What I'm grateful for this journey whether... I'm not the only plus size hiker out there. In fact, the whole point of this is that 67% of women are size 14 and above. A large portion of the United States are in larger bodies.

There's such opportunity, there's such unmet need, there's such just a place for companies to look at their product offerings and think, gosh, could we do something that fits more bodies? Could we welcome more people to our brand?

There's an example of a camping chair, and I want to say it's GCI Outdoor, I think it was. I'll get it to you, I'm sorry. But basically, they designed a camping chair that could accommodate somebody who was up to 400 pounds, had a wider base so that somebody who's a little bigger could fit in.

This chair ended up making up 50% of their sales because it was so well received. People in larger bodies like to sit around a campfire and be comfortable. As you may remember in Gorge, I couldn't fit in these tiny little camp chairs that they provided for the other hikers.

I had to sit on a bucket, I had to sit on a rock. I had to find my way to be... I was incredibly uncomfortable. At a time when I should have been resting, I was stressed about where I would sit. Would I be comfortable? Would I break what they brought along with them? And so that's a really hard thing to go through.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. You also went through the skepticism the second you stepped out of the transportation even. Whatever base camp, and let alone the skepticism that you overheard the porters talking and you actually confronted Kennedy is his name in the book, the Lead Guide.

And it's so risky. I was imagining how risky that must have felt to tell the truth and confront. I know what you were talking about. I know that you don't think I can do this, and yet be so reliant on those people to get you where you need to go. It's a really poignant moment and you took a big risk and it actually turns out well.

I think that was such a teachable moment, but I want to highlight that skepticism and how like you just said, should I have to be dealing with all of this in addition to the difficulty of the mission that you had chosen? It's really not fair, but tell us about that moment when you were...

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Yeah, climbing Kilimanjaro is not for everybody. It's five and a half days up the mountain and one and a half days down. You're fighting altitude sickness, you're fighting just general exhaustion. When the porters and guides started betting against me, it added this extra layer, this extra weight in my mind, this extra thing to be worried about.

What I've learned over the years of not only being in a larger body but struggling with binge-eating disorder and all of the things that I've had to work with to be well and to move forward, and then to be in the place where I'm challenging myself in ways that I had.

Of course, I've climbed Kilimanjaro three times, but this third time it was really about being present and it was about taking on the mountain no matter what size I was and just moving forward. But then to be confronted by this judgment made it so much more difficult.

One of the greatest lessons about Kilimanjaro, and I think a lesson in all of body inclusivity is the power of speaking up and the power of doing what you need to do in the moment. The greatest lesson of Kilimanjaro was that if I was hungry, I needed to eat. If I was thirsty, I was dehydrated, I needed to drink.

If it started to rain, I needed to put on a jacket. If something was bothering me, I needed to deal with it in that moment. Whether it's a blister or people fat shaming you on the trail, you need to take time and deal with it and speak your peace and set your boundaries and move forward.

It was a big risk of what if these people just left us on the mountain? What if they were jerks to us for the rest of the way? Well, it was a risk I was willing to take because I couldn't bear the burden of them constantly judging me, constantly making jokes about me.

Like if I sat down on a rock, be careful you're going to break it. Or making jokes and bets about whether I'm going to make it to the top and laughing at me, just absolutely inappropriate stuff when we're paying and we're asking these folks to help us make it to the top.

JENNIFER BROWN: How do you think you changed, I'm curious, the impact? I don't know if it was instantaneous or over the rest of the trip. I wonder, did they take that in? Were they changed by knowing you and making that trip with you? How do you think about that?

I'm not saying that that's anywhere near as important as the transformation for you, but I'm curious how you witnessing and being true to yourself in those moments and courageous had a ripple effect there and left that whole process better than you found it.

Because inevitably, you changed hearts and minds. You may never know, but I wonder if you were ever told before you left the mountain or even subsequently.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: I don't know how that changed them, if it did. I mean, maybe it was just, I put my foot down and this is how people interacted with me for that moment, and maybe they talked about me the moment I left. What's more important is how I was changed by that moment.

Because you only have the power to change yourself sometimes. I know that from that moment forward, I've been more willing and more able and more practiced at asking for what I need. Sometimes my knees are really cranky.

I mean, it's occupational hazard of somebody who climbs a mountains in a larger body. If I'm at the pool and they have this staircase that they can put in to make it more accessible, I know I can ask for it. If I feel like I need something when I'm flying from a seatbelt extender, I can ask for it.

All of this practice helps me allow myself to take up space in the world and also interact with the world as I am. There's such a emphasis and the schooling that we need to act smaller, but it's important for all of us to take up space to be as we are.

Because we're really confronted with diet culture and this idea that we're worthy when we're like the after picture. You know what I mean? But we are living now, in the present. It is important for folks no matter where they are on the scale to understand this is your body in this very moment. You are worthy of respect.

You are worthy of the things that bring you joy. You are worthy of taking steps towards wellness, whatever that means for you in this very moment. I'm not climbing Kilimanjaro to lose a hundred pounds or whatever. I'm climbing because I love being surrounded by nature and I'm worth that experience.

JENNIFER BROWN: Beautifully said. The time for you and this message and this work and change, I think your book was ahead of its time. But is there some unlock that has happened on this topic over the course of last year and this year? It's 2023, are the circumstances and the ground has been laid for real progress on this?

Why or why not? I know you believe in this year as the timing and the world is responding to you because your book is going to be made into a show, a movie, something. You've got a really famous actress, enlisted and involved, and so I'm so excited for you.

But why now? What has happened in the media with role models, with people embracing everything you just talked about more publicly? These things happen where public opinion or an awareness grows and you reach this tipping point where you can actually get some things done and really make some institutional change, right?



KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: 2023 is the year of the rise of the body inclusive economy. Companies are starting to recognize that this is the majority of the market. If the majority of people are in extended sizes and they're not marketing to that, they're not providing offerings for that, then they're missing this opportunity for new growth.

In the economic times that we're in, companies really do need to find that. Also, there's a real emphasis to change from this aspirational marketing to authentic marketing. Companies like Erie have found it's really more effective to connect with people as they are instead of always showing the greatest of all times, all the goats out there.

That we all aren't that vision of fitness, that six-pack abs and such, that people want to see themselves reflected in the brand. Whether that's in external marketing or internal marketing. Also people are really speaking up about equity.

When we look at people in larger bodies are often paid less and looked over when it comes to promotions. This conversation of equity expands over to people in larger bodies and body inclusion. Just how do you look at your team members? Do you judge them because of their bodies?

Is there a different kind of conversations, a different way of joking with somebody that's inappropriate? Then idea of equity is slowly shifting over to this conversation about body inclusivity because it's important that people feel like they're being treated equitably in the workplace and in the marketplace.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's a huge opportunity. What does allyship, true allyship look like for the community? If you could embody that in an individual and then also in an institution who's really doing its work, not just performatively, but really in that robust, thorough, respectful and forward-looking way, what does that look like, both for the individual and the institution?

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: I think allyship in the body inclusive conversation is ever-changing and growing, but for me personally, what that looks like is allowing people to show up authentically, is providing options for folks. Allyship is being a restaurant owner who has seating where everybody can sit.

Allyship is being a team member and calling out workplace efforts like weight loss challenges and calling out diet culture. Allyship is speaking up behind the scenes and making sure that folks aren't being judged because of their body size and their ability.

That there isn't a joke being made and speaking up and questioning, why would you say that out loud about someone else? Allyship is looking on social media too because that can be a place where a lot of discrimination happens in festers and speaking up when you start to see comments coming about someone's body.

It's celebrating voices like Kate Winslet who really just came out and talked about how harmful some of the comments about her body has been over time, sharing those messages again and again. Really amplifying the conversation of body inclusivity, but also questioning how are we acting and how are we responding based on somebody's shape and size.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. I mean, tell me a little bit about the actress that would play you. Can you tell us how that happened and how it feels? Just any precursor you can give us to what's going on behind the scenes with your story?

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Right. Chrissy Metz, who played Kate in This Is Us. She was coming to New York City for a book signing for her book, which is called, This Is Me. It's an incredible book if you haven't read it yet. I was going to this book signing and I had to get a bracelet in the morning of, and to do that, I needed to buy a book.

I spent the whole day reading her book, and on the back of it, there was this invitation. Just so random, it said, "When I meet you, I want you to tell me. You can do anything, so tell me what you want to do in life." That night since I was going to her book signing, I had a copy of Gorge with me and I slid it across the table and I said, "I want to make this into a movie."

I had written my contact information inside and a note about how meaningful her work was to me, because when I saw Kate in This Is Us, the character reflected back so much of who I was. My journey with food and body, and how people looked at me and my efforts to lose weight, but recognizing this may be just who I am.

Anyway, it really touched me the way that she played it, and she was the first character who wasn't a punchline of a joke, and that's really common when it comes to portraying people in larger bodies on screen. Anyway, so that was in March several years ago, and in August I get this email and it was the most beautiful email I have ever received about Gorge.

She shared about how she highlighted every page and that maybe we could work together on this project. She later told me that it took her a month to write this email, and I also reminded her that she would've had me at Hello.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, right.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Together we've taken the book into the process of making into movie. We have incredible production company behind it, Di Novi Pictures, Margaret French being the lead producer on it.

I couldn't be more proud of the team and the efforts that we're making. We have some incredible partners that we can't share yet, but there's a lot of things that have to happen still, but it's in the works and it's really exciting.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my goodness. Do you think you'll be back on the mountain filming literally there? Do you think you'll intersect with the folks that helped you up?

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Yeah, I mean, I don't know. It's a question of logistics, right?


KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: When it comes to... The thing I would worry most about bringing an entire film crew up Kilimanjaro, there's two things I'd worry about most. One is that altitude, you could be an incredible athlete, but then not do well in altitude. And so imagine if your director of photography suddenly had to be rushed down the mountain. And second, this isn't a documentary and it could be filmed anywhere really with much safer conditions for all involved. I think logistically parts of it might be in Africa, which would be wonderful, but realistically differing everybody up on the mountain is maybe impractical.

Also, I think about other people's experience on the mountain too, how disruptive that would be to other people climbing and having their journeys. I just can't imagine how awful that would be.

I did a Havasupai Canyon before the pandemic in 2019.I learned maybe a couple of months later, Beyonce came in to film her music video and they didn't allow access to this amazing Havasu Waterfall, and I would be so upset.

Anyway, maybe I'm overthinking it and getting in the way of it, but I wouldn't want to disrupt someone else's experience on the mountain that they've trained for months to do. But again, that's always a question of budgeting and logistics and things like that so we'll just see.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's so beautiful, that respect and the honoring of other people's very important journeys to even get there, let alone to achieve that, and not wanting to ever interrupt that. This is...

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Right. And also just worrying about the safety of the crew.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, absolutely.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: When I climbed that third time, there was somebody who was a triathlete.

JENNIFER BROWN: Your friend, right?

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Yeah, and she didn't make it. You would think that she was the most, I don't know, bulldog is the wrong word, but just she was so strong emotionally, physically, and yet the altitude just did her over. She had to turn back. It's heartbreaking and it's awful. To be filming a movie in under those conditions, it may not be the best.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. It was really a cliffhanger as we were reading about you and your crew and the friends and your relative, I think a cousin, right? I'm not sure, who was someone going to not be able to go the distance. Part of the beauty of the metaphor of not being able to predict this.

There seems to be a wisdom in that strength comes from places that you would never think and that the particular combination of us is resilient and that some that we assume are the most resilient don't make the journey.

As a reader, you are of course, cheering you all on, but also mindful that there were surprises coming as the writer laid it out and let us along this path, so to speak. I was aware, I was like, this is completely unpredictable, and there's something really beautiful to check our biases in that. Like you just said triathlete, right?


JENNIFER BROWN: And who's going to make it up the mountain?

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: When people meet me, like I said, I'm much larger in my bottom half. They're like, "You did what? You climbed Kilimanjaro?" I'm like, "Yeah, three times." And they're like, "Huh?" It doesn't compute simply because we have this idea of what someone is capable of by looking at their bodies.

I did a hundred miles of The Long Trail in the summer of 2020, and yet I'm sitting on the rock and some guy's making a joke about my body fat. I'm like, what? There are so many assumptions about that, about what is possible for people just by first glance.

You don't know somebody's story just by looking at them. You don't know what they're capable of. It's time to start checking those assumptions. It's time to start questioning the narratives that we're making up for other people.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. It reminds me, I don't know if you've seen it. There's a new documentary called Deconstructing Karen, and everybody that's listening to The Will to Change, if you haven't seen it, you should go see it. It's online, it's streaming. It's a white women's dinner held by two women of color and it's a conversation about racism.

I bring it up because one of the mechanisms of the dinner is for the women of color who've convened this to share their experience. And they say, joking, not joking, because there's nothing really funny about this dinner. It's hard. But they say at one point, don't act shocked.

You being shocked and surprised is a part of what wears us down. Because when we share our experience, well, first of all, you should know. You should just know that everybody's having a different experience in their body, in their skin color.

But what you just mentioned felt to me like a really important point for anyone in relationship with anyone. Is the, what do you mean? Like that immediate skepticism and doubt. I don't know if it's a microaggression, I mean, it's a strong word. It is cluelessness for sure.

But what I wish is we would notice that and in the moment, be able to calibrate and not be shocked and not just whatever. Manage your own biases privately and not inflict them on someone. Because for you and for me, and anybody else who has an identity that, being LGBTQ is mainly invisible when it comes to me so I can straight pass all day long.

But what? I wouldn't have thought that. After a while, it definitely wears on you, and you just wish that people would do their work a bit more so that you don't have to then react and educate and do that, what we call that emotional labor of managing somebody's feelings about something which really shouldn't be your job.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: I would go one layer deeper in that. The other thing that often happens with people in larger bodies is that they're instantly offered advice.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yes. Splaining.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Yeah. Let me tell you about this cleanse I'm doing.


KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Have you tried skinny pasta? All these different ideas and mentions. Without going into too many details, even on the eve of my own Lipedema surgery, my first one, I was offered diet advice about skinny pasta, that it's the solution of weight.

I've got a condition which is proven to not be responsive to diet and exercise. I've climbed Kilimanjaro three times. I've done a hundred miles of The Long Trail. I am a Peloton fanatic, and yet my weight stays the same. It doesn't move, it doesn't budge. It never does.

And yet, I can't tell you the number of times people are casually dropping intermittent fasting and this and that and all of these different suggestions. And so there's that shock and surprise like, oh, I would never. I'm so surprised that you've climbed Kilimanjaro.

But then it's also, there's this judgment about people's bodies that you clearly are not working hard enough. You haven't tried this and that I can change you. I can change you just by hooking you up with my trainer or...


KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: ... whatever your Instagram guru, who has a completely different body type, might have been always historically in a thin body and probably could eat until the cows come home and just happens to share lifestyle advice that doesn't work for anybody but that person.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yep. Thank you. You just elaborated and deepened that. Yeah, thank you so much for that. We need to check that advice giving, I call it splaining, and normally we think of it as mansplaining, but splaining can happen in a lot of different ways. You know best.


JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. Tell us a bit about your then consulting for organizations. I'm so intrigued on, you've mentioned some kinds of industries where the experience needs to be expanded. You call it healing the customer journey.

I think that's so profound that the customer journey is broken, that it's harmful, it's causing harm, it is biased, it is missing an opportunity to include and make comfortable people of all different identities.

It's thread that runs, I would imagine, through product and design and marketing. It's like so many of these things very systemic in nature, but you are now, thank goodness, have some clients that you're working with and advising them.

I wondered, whatever you might want to share about clients that you are at liberty to share, and also maybe brands that you really admire for what they've done and what they've shifted in their approach and you think are doing a really good job.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Yeah, great. Thanks for asking about The GORGEous Agency. I created The GORGEous Agency so that we could help brands connect internally and externally with this extended sizes market. What we do is we give a 360 view of what are the gaps and opportunities in the rise of the body inclusive economy.

In fact, I'm working on a white paper, which will be out next month on the topic of this massive opportunity. But what really my special sauce is is somebody who's has a ton of lived experience and has a team of people who can research and provide data content and such is healing that customer journey.

That means that you could play the numbers game. You could say, oh, there's a lot of people who are in larger sizes, so we'll just make the clothes. Old Navy is the biggest cautionary tale about that and how you unveil it to your customers who are not used to shopping in your stores and have it be a massive fail because you're not seeing what the spread of sizes should be.

What's the quality of the clothing. I went in to support the Body Equality initiative and then found that I couldn't find my size and the things that I liked and the quality wasn't terrific. I started out so optimistic and just left the store very deflated.

Remember that for this population, think about a shopping mall. There's so many stores there, but there's so little for us as shoppers. To go into a store or a brand that's boasting that they have plus sizes and you're all excited.

You've got money to spend, you've got a date night on Friday, or you're going on a trip to Paris or something and you need something now. You're like, great, because this brand said that they now have plus sizes too. You go to the store and then you're told immediately, oh, you have to shop online.

It's such a like, expectations are rising and then just deflated. You have to really remember that there's been so much trauma in the retail journey for people in larger bodies where they've gone into a store, they've either been told physically by somebody in a sales position that this store is not for you.

Or they see, they experience the marketing on the wall so it shows that this is not for you or there isn't their size in the store, even though the store carries it. A great example of how this experience can completely change is my experience with J. Jill.

  1. Jill just started offering up to 2X in all of their stores, which means I can shop there now. They do have up to 4X online so it's a work in progress. But it was fascinating to me as a shopper of J. Jill. I've shopped and looked at their stuff for many years between the catalog and online and such.

Before I went, I looked online to see what I might want and the things that I would've ordered online are completely different than the things that I picked out in the store. I ended up spending way more money just by going into the store and being able to feel the fabrics.

I tried on the things that I would've ordered online. They didn't feel right. They were funky on me. I mean, I'm sure they look great on someone else, but for me, they just didn't work. It was just such an example of how with online shopping, it's just not the same experience.

I loved how the people in the J. Jill store were so welcoming. I also loved that the majority of people who were shopping that day were in larger bodies. It just felt so welcoming, warm, I was taken care of as a customer.

The way things were folded and presented and cared for was something that I just wasn't used to experiencing. I ended up shopping and spending probably three times as much as I intended to spend that day. But it just was rewarding experience instead of one that was just so pivotably bad.

JENNIFER BROWN: They were not created for that express purpose as a store. They were, what are their peer stores basically for J.Jill.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Yeah, they're a store that has had extended sizes, but always online and always in the catalog. They're not like a Lane Bryant or a Torrid that started out in that space initially, really catering to that space, but they haven't reinvented the wheel.

I know there's a tremendous amount of thought that has to go into the sizing and which products you can offer in extended sizes because it's a complicated equation. But beyond that point, you're not done once you create the clothing. The really important step is how are you going to get customers to trust you again?

How are you going to get customers excited about your brand? Most importantly, I think that the special sauce in working with the extended sizes is market is how to just spread the message in that community because there is so little trust. It takes the work of influencers and an authentic connection to really rebuild that and to bring people to your brand.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. Finish up with that Old Navy experience. Subsequently, has anything been improved or was that very recently?

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: It was very recently, and they pulled the plug on it. They ended up moving... I think the majority of their extended sizes clothes is online. It was a big heartbreak for people because suddenly you realized you had a store in a mall or in a strip mall that you could finally go to.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. I mean it's affordable because there is such a thing also as a pricing inequity with some clothes. Is that still a thing as well that you see?

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: It still is a thing for some companies but L.L.Bean recently... I'm an influencer for L.L.Bean but I'm really proud that they just took away that price inequity for extended sizes. But it's also a barrier question.

I recently went to Alaska, thanks to a partnership with Alaska Airlines to highlight how amazing their first class is for people in larger bodies. But if I had forgotten my snow pants, it would be game over.

Because I wouldn't be able to get someone to mail order me something in time for my adventures. It's like negative 20 degrees up there. I wouldn't have been able to experience and enjoy the time that I was there because it's not like I can just run off to the store and get it.

Companies like REI are making huge shifts in what they're offering and what they're expanding to their clientele. L.L.Bean is another one. So there's a lot of shifts and changes in these past few years of what people are offering first online and then they're slowly trickling into stores.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. You said even exercise companies like you're a Peloton junkie. How have they done in terms of being inclusive in your opinion?

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: I was recently on a body inclusivity panel for Peloton, and what I wish the company would shout from the rooftops is how body inclusive they are as a company, because it's one of the few fitness and wellness companies that I feel has this ability to message in a way that meets people where they are on their journey fitness-wise.

So much in the fitness world is so broken. It's all about that before and after picture. You are not worthy until we beat you to a pulp and you come out the other side skinny or with a six-pack or flat belly. But I love Peloton and what they're doing, their messaging, their emphasis.

I mean, it would've been so easy for them to drink the diet culture Kool-Aid, so to speak, and come up with all these weird things and products and challenges that was all about putting people down but instead, they're really focused on lifting people up.

So I couldn't say more wonderful things about what Peloton has meant to me as somebody in a larger body using their products and speaking with their instructors and team members because it's been a wonderful journey.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is such a shining example. I'm so glad to hear that and hopefully more will follow. Just to wrap up, what do you hope you see in this year that we haven't talked about? What would be a big revolution in this conversation, in our awareness, in our biases, in corporate strategy, consumer understanding and insights?

Your white paper's going to add a lot to the conversation. I know, and I'm look really looking forward to sharing it in... Everybody, it's coming out in February. By the time we're going to be listening to this, I hope sometime during that month, we'll make sure we share it out in our social media.

So keep an eye out for it. But just share with us some inspirational hopes that you have for this year or expectations you have for this year. Who's going to get involved? Who's going to make big strides? Who's going to do the right thing? Give us something exciting.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: That's a great question. I have so many hopes and aspirations. But I think most importantly is that they engage The GORGEous Agency or an agency or someone who has authentic experience working with people in larger bodies to help reframe that customer journey for them.

Whether it's doing an audit, but most importantly doing in-house trainings for team members on body inclusion and what that means. And then how to come out with an incredible forward facing policy and almost like a roadmap of how do we work with the extended sizes market?

How do we become more body inclusive as a company? That's something that you really do need assistance in doing because it can be really... Like any topic on DEI right, it's terrifying to take those first steps. How do we start this conversation? What are the right words?

What are the wrong words? What are the words that we need to start using? What are the policies we need to start making? An agency or somebody who has both lived experience, business acumen and a team to help support you is the way to move forward.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's Right. I would add everybody that's listening, we've got a lot of affinity group members and leaders that listen to this podcast and thinking about the intersectionality that impacts this dimension of diversity.

I think there's a huge opportunity to be inclusive of body positivity role models, also lifting up the voices of employees that identify as part of this community or in that identity. But then taking an intersectional lens and talking about the overlay of the isms.

Because I know we haven't talked about that too much this hour, but I think that's where there's a lot of really important learning where when we talk about different stigmas that we carry because of visible and invisible differences and how those overlap and how those combine to be many times a crushing burden for people.

And then how a workplace can uplift that and counter that through education, through lifting up our voices and real stories and lived experiences, and then educating everyone about that. But also the courage, I suppose, that can be ignited to talk about your lived experience.

It needs to be nurtured and encouraged, and we can debate all day long. Does change come from the top or is it ground up? I think we can have simultaneous the best efforts. I think the most lasting efforts are simultaneous rising up of finding the voice and some people voicing something that they've never voiced and doing so knowing they're not alone.

Knowing that this is a conversation that needs to be had and a exclusionary thing that we've sort of let go unchecked, I think, right? But then from the top down, it's an acknowledgement and a support and a championing of that.

And then the affinity groups exist, I think, to educate about these intersectional issues. Everybody listening, my task for you, and now I'm giving everybody homework, is to think about body inclusivity as a diversity dimension. How would this show up in our strategies?

How would we engage your agency to do an audit to better understand our baseline and then understand what are the beliefs and behaviors and what are the microaggressions that are happening in our culture every day? How do those feel? What is the impact of them?

How can we elevate new storytellers, expanded storytellers? And then how can we then address and acknowledge that this is something that runs through all different kinds of communities? So in all ethnicities, all sexual orientations and gender identities, all generations.

And that this lands differently too, depending on those other identities that we carry as well. That's everybody's homework. To put that in your head at 2023, because we do know the definition of diversity always needs to be expanded. I mean, there's always new identities we have not talked about.

That we don't understand, that we are not inclusive of, that we're not aware of the common microaggressions around that. We don't know what allyship looks like so thank you for describing that. There's always more, and I think that's not a chore. That is one of the most beautiful things about this work is it is endless.

And that's a sad fact, but it's also really exciting to illuminate something, really exciting to bring something and shine light on something that could be embraced, loved, supported, valued, acknowledged, named, educated on, resourced, baked into products.

You are literally... The way I see you, this is the beginning of a huge arc ahead of you and for all of us of understanding. So Kara, just wonderful work and anyway, I'll let you give final thoughts.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Yeah, absolutely. I really think that companies, brands, organizations, really need to see this as the growth of their companies. In that you're making talent feel more welcome. You are able to retain talent that feels welcome and appreciated as they are, but also you're reaching new customers.

You're reaching new people who really are appreciative for companies that care and accept people as they are in their bodies. And so that's a wonderful feeling. If you need more information about all of this, if you want to read the white paper or you want to connect with me, I'm at thegorgeousagency.com.

I'm Kara Richardson Whitely. You can follow me on Instagram. I'm a plus size adventurer, so in addition to my business work, I'm always looking for the next greatest place to visit and such so lots of inspiration on that channel as well. But of course, LinkedIn has more of the business stuff as well.

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, congratulations, Kara, and the world needs you. I'm just looking forward to having your thought leadership out on the world and having your story be told on screen, because we all know that changes hearts and minds in an instant sometimes, and just keep on living your truth and helping us be better. I appreciate it.

KARA RICHARDSON WHITELY: Thank you for the time. I really appreciate all that you do. Thank you.


JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live.

Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

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