clock menu more-arrow no yes
Major brands often don’t share the love of their fat fans.
Christina Animashaun/Vox, Universal Standard

Filed under:

I Love Fashion, but Fashion Doesn’t Love Me Back

The power of dressing and self-expression is often denied to women who wear above a certain size.

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.

I love clothes. I love the magic of getting dressed and deciding who I want to be. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember.

I’m fat. So, also for as long as I can remember, it’s been hard to shop.

One of my earliest memories of shopping involved my mother combing through the racks at Sears, looking for the least cringe-worthy options in the “Pretty Plus” section. Even though I was only 7 or 8 at the time, I was already acutely aware of the fact that the “big girl” clothes were way less cute than the things my much smaller classmates showed up wearing to class.

In my early teens, the combination of puberty and a fashion desert made for emotionally explosive trips to the mall. Shopping trips during this time period were punctuated by tears and misdirected anger at my body and my mother. (I’m so sorry, Mom!) One of my most memorable outings was a back-to-school shopping trip at Lane Bryant (of course), where there was a heated disagreement. Mom, who was pushing me to buy four of the same modest button-front shirts, wouldn’t give in to my insistence on a cleavage-revealing chiffon top.

All I wanted was the chance to shop and dress like my friends, but the only options were either matronly or risqué for a 13-year-old. My wardrobe consisted of pieces scavenged from an eternally mature Lane Bryant (highlights include a deep teal faux suede jacket from a holiday collection, a Delia’s-esque holographic butterfly tee, and a purple faux satin button-front), trendy polyester pieces from “urban” stores (i.e., a pejorative description of stores that sell trendy and budget-friendly clothes in areas heavily populated by black and brown people), two pairs of inexplicable JNCO jeans, and the most prized fruits of my labor: bootcut jeans and baby tees.

Up until this point, I was certain that dressing like my peers was a reward to be withheld until I reached an acceptable size. In the early 2000s, the opening of Torrid and the advent of catalogs like Girlfriends L.A. irrevocably changed my life. Even though most of the items in the initial rockabilly and goth iteration of Torrid didn’t appeal to me, I understood the seismic shift in the way fat teens and young adults like myself were able to shop.

That first trip to the brick-and-mortar Torrid in my area was electrifying — every item on every rack was available in my size. At home, I marveled at the sight of fat models of all sizes on their website. After that, it felt as if brands popped up overnight, thrilled to take my money, and I was thrilled to ask my mother to hand it over. Can you believe that all of this took place prior to the era of the self-congratulatory press release, clickbait headline, or poorly worded and researched puff piece?

Over the next decade, I went from having almost zero age-appropriate (or otherwise) options to a veritable buffet of choice. At the same time, I stopped being the lone chubby black girl obsessed with fashion in rural Texas, and blossomed into a young fat black woman, in contact with others online who were equally fat and equally obsessed with fashion. Before I found the Fatshionista LiveJournal community and plus-size blogs, things like my body image struggles, my complaints about the inequities of shopping while fat, and the nonexistent opportunities to see trends on bodies like mine were a burden to be carried alone.

Even as a lurker, the space still means so much to me. The LJ group wasn’t perfect; nearly all online spaces deal with some sort of drama, but it was a sort of safe space before that concept was thrown around like it is now. Topics like race, shape privilege, and self-expression were discussed just as much as fashion. Fatshionista was more than just a place to share outfits and discuss fashion breakthroughs like the first Beth Ditto for Evans collection; it was also a place to connect, sell clothes, track down rare pieces, and share coupons and fit tips.

Around this time, I finally began to understand the full depth of how much fashion meant to me. I wasn’t entirely sure how to put it into words until Rihanna’s 2014 CFDA Awards acceptance speech. Her own experiences with fashion mirrored my own: a lack of access; the use of fashion as a defense mechanism; style as a way to compensate for supposed shortcomings; and the maxim, “She can beat me, but she cannot beat my outfit.”

As a size 18 at the time, I thought these highlights and so many more would solve the shopping problems for everyone. Looking back as a person who now wears anything between a size 20 and 24, my perception has changed. While the options available to me were groundbreaking, I understand now that especially for people over a size 24, nothing changed. There were categories that continued to lag behind across the board; shopping for my prom gown and wedding dress even at a size 18 or 20 were particularly harrowing experiences. While limited in sizing, the increased availability of clothes that catered to different aesthetics and different sizes were beyond what many of us had anticipated.

But at the moment, I’m not terribly optimistic about the future of plus-size fashion and shopping.

It feels like the slow acknowledgment of the plus-size fashion industry by mainstream fashion media has unintentionally had a chilling effect. Businesses wanting to court “legitimate fashion” regularly make decisions that undermine the needs of the actual plus-size shopper, especially those who are 24-plus. Way too much time is spent on a public debate with those least affected about the merits of the term “plus-size,” and it would be nice if we could focus less on terminology that I and other actual fat people need and more on fixing the negative experience tied to the term.

I wouldn’t want to be plus-size, either, if all it means is going to the mall to deal with rude store employees who don’t conceal their annoyance or pity when you ask them for directions to our designated dark corner of the store. If the discomfort of the IRL shopping experience is too much, why not consider the privilege of paying to try on clothes in your own home? Shopping while fat can already be full of complicated feelings; the logistics of plus-size shopping only add to the frustration.

Niche brands owned and operated by fat folks who openly expressed their politics along with their product have struggled to attract a fraction of the attention given to mainstream brands. If large corporations want to mine and water down the explicitly fat-positive work of people who identify as super/deathfat, queer people, people of color, people with disabilities — I would appreciate it if they could at least use it to sell me something worth a damn.

I know I am not alone in my complaints about stagnant design, poor fit, and questionable quality. I’ve joked with a friend about the endless stream of smock dresses from ASOS Curve, the constant disappointment of H&M+ or the increasingly nonsensical pricing and fit from Forever 21+. I will never judge the personal aesthetics of others, but the market has become oversaturated with skater dresses, year-round cold shoulders, peplums (still), athleisure, the perennial and totally groundbreaking floral boho-chic looks for spring, clubwear in sizes 12 to 20, and other trends long left behind in straight sizes. There’s almost a complete absence of structure or tailoring, and it feels like the chasm between straight and plus-size offerings widens even further each year.

Things get even bleaker when you narrow this conversation to focus solely on people like me, those who wear size 20 and up. It’s almost too much to bear when you read another article that is basically a copy-and-pasted press release announcing a new extended size offering or plus line in sizes 10 to 20. With no regard for the discrimination that shrinks the take-home pay of fat people (especially those who are marginalized in multiple ways), the declining quality and the increasing fat tax add a new dimension of frustration to shopping while fat.

Every now and then, I see flashes of the rebellious spirit from the early 2000s. Brands like Premme, Ashley Stewart, And Comfort, Universal Standard, and Eloquii are legitimate industry disruptors, in spite of the daily reports about other brands that are christened as such with little merit. However, I’m largely uninspired and pessimistic about the way things will go if there’s not some sort of breakthrough soon.

I hope that in 15 years, essays like this one will be historical artifacts, not commentary on current events. And while I’m appreciative of special content initiatives, I want bodies like mine, and anyone else’s that’s left out the current conversation, to be part of the norm and not an issue that demands unique attention. For many, getting dressed is one of the most basic forms of self-expression, and there’s no reason it should still be this damn hard. I want inclusiveness and diversity in design; I want representation and availability. I suggest that if you want to walk in the direction of growth, follow the person fatter than you. (Or at least talk to a fat person — sheesh!)

It has literally me taken years to curate a closet with options: blush pink bodycon looks, all-black minimalism, statement pieces rivaled only by the entrance attire of professional wrestlers like Kazuchika Okada or Ric Flair. Every day when I get dressed, not only am I choosing who I want to be, but I’m also putting on my armor to fight in a world that thinks I shouldn’t be seen or heard. I am the one in control of how visible or invisible I want to be.

We are now in the year 2018, and I’m 33 years old. I’ve gone from being a fat black young woman to a grown-ass woman who is fat and black AF. A love of fashion and shopping has helped me make connections online that I value just as much as the day I accidentally found my way to LiveJournal. I’ve slowly embraced the label of fat activist, and my love of clothes remains unwavering even when my feelings about my body aren’t quite as secure. I’ll love fashion even on the days I struggle to like who I see in the mirror, but I’m ready for fashion to love me back.

Essays

Aging, but Make It Fashion

Essays

The Death of the Plain Preppy Sneaker

Essays

Navigating the Intensely Gendered World of Hair Salons When You’re Queer

View all stories in Essays