Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
As far as I can tell, the internet is primarily made for three things: shopping, complaining, and porn. It’s only socially acceptable to tweet about two of those things, but two is more than enough, because anyone who ever went to the mall with their friends as a teen knows deep in their soul that shopping and complaining are meant to be done together.
Not only is shopping an inherently judgmental activity, requiring you to quickly sort everything into mental piles of worthy and not, but then you have to go about the ignoble business of trying to match visually flat garments to your three-dimensional body. Now that a huge proportion of that task has migrated out of malls and onto the internet, the wishing for the perfect piece has gone with it, onto social media. And with that migration has come a task I didn’t expect to have: constantly reminding friends, acquaintances, and well-intentioned Twitter strangers that I’m fat.
Until social media became a significant part of my life, I never had to remind anyone I was fat, ostensibly because my body did a good enough job doing that for me, but also because the social side of offline shopping is just fundamentally different than its online counterpart. In the regular world, the airing of a grievance can be an act unto itself, one that doesn’t necessarily ask anyone to spring into action. But the internet makes all problems seem potentially solvable, if you can organize exactly the right words in the right order in a Google search box, which makes those who see a wish or complaint feel conscripted into service for their friends. It’s a kind impulse, but when you live in a different kind of body than those friends, it’s also a stark reminder that most of them have never given a passing thought to the kinds of problems it causes that can’t be solved with a search engine.
If I were a size 8, finding a bathing suit or a dress to wear to a friend’s wedding would be, at most, merely annoying. Being a size 18 makes it occasionally impossible, in spite of the fact that I’m on the smaller end of the plus-size spectrum. That’s a reality I’ve lived with my entire life, so for me, “I’m plus-size, and…” is always the implied beginning of all of my throwaway irritations, because if I weren’t, a leather motorcycle jacket wouldn’t elude me. Not only am I a literate person who knows how to use the internet, but online shopping is a big part of the job I’ve held for nearly a decade. If I can’t find something, it’s not because I forgot Zara existed, but rather because Zara has made it clear it thinks my patronage would damage how thin people see the brand.
Every time a friend asks if I’ve checked Shopbop when looking for a new coat or Gchats me a link to a dress they think is just so me but that tops out at a size 10, I wonder whether the cause is a failure of empathy, misplaced politeness in not wanting to assume I’m too fat for Rag and Bone, or a mixture of both. For most of them, I’m sure, it functions like any other privilege: In day-to-day actions, a person blithely assumes that the options and experiences open to them are open to everyone else, even if, when intellectually pressed, they know that probably isn’t true.
At first, I tried to keep my reactions to this unsolicited help as vague and polite as possible; I didn’t want to embarrass anyone who was obviously well-intentioned, but I also didn’t want to spend time managing the emotions that bubble up when you embarrass someone who thinks they’re doing a good deed. Talking about my body doesn’t bother me because I’ve lived in it for my whole life and, at this point, appreciate its unruliness. For people who have never been fat, though, it’s deeply uncomfortable for them to feel like they’ve forced someone to broach what they assume must be a humiliating topic.
Over time, I’ve started to embrace the discomfort these interactions inspire in others. Instead of offering a placatingly vague “Oh, looks like they’re out of my size,” while conveniently omitting that the store in question never carried it in the first place, I say what I mean: “I appreciate the thought, but this brand doesn’t make anything anywhere near my size. There are very few places I can buy clothes, and I’ve checked them all. I’m just out of luck.” Once the embarrassment dissipates, the would-be helpers are usually irritated on my behalf, indignant that so many women have such meager options for the basic human necessity of getting dressed. And that’s all I wanted all along, why I aired any of my frustrations in the first place. With clothes, as with plenty of life’s problems great and small, maybe your friends don’t want to be helped. Maybe they just want to be heard.