A Refusal to Be Invisible: Fatness, Fashion, Fatshion

The fashion industry is heavily loaded with anti-fat messaging, from designers who refuse to work with fat models to companies that insist adding larger sizes to their lines would make them less valuable, to firms that only sell plus size garments online, refusing to stock them in their stores less fatties darken their doorways. And cutting off ‘plus’ to such a low point that many, many customers would be forced to buy online because they can’t find anything in the store that would fit them. Refusing to provide quality, well-constructed clothes for fat people just adds salt to the wound. Fatness, fashion tells us, is bad, repeating the same old tired social messages that are already all around us.

Which is why I adore the fatshion community. Marianne Kirby wrote a great piece about seeing and being seen, and how offensive fashionable fat people appear to be to the rest of society:

When we refuse to fade quietly into the background, people have to register not only our presence but the space we take up as valid – there’s no imagining that we aren’t there, that we aren’t taking up more than one seat on the train, that we aren’t noncomforming and unashamed of it.

Specifically, she interrogated the fashion tips often provided to people with larger bodies; not just fat people, but those of medium build as well. Wear ‘slimming colors,’ don’t wear prints, don’t wear bold colors, don’t be aggressive or unusual in your fashion. These things, though, are not about making you look good. They’re about turning you invisible and making your body fade into the background, as Marianne points out. Think about it; given the huge diversity of body shapes, colouring, and size ranges, how could blanket advice like ‘wear grey’ work for every single person above a size 14? Or a size 12? It wouldn’t! Some people look fantastic in grey, it’s a colour that works for them, and others…do not look good in grey.

Some people stand out in grey like beacons, and others fade away. It’s key to note that dressing tips for fat people are about minimizing bodies, based in the assumption that fat people hate their bodies and think they are disgusting and want to cover them up and pretend they are less fat. It reinforces self-loathing, too, reminds people that they should hate their bodies, that there is something wrong with them if they do not.

And for those who like their bodies just fine, there’s the message that they need to cover them up because they offend people, which is a trend we see throughout fashion. Older women shouldn’t wear hot pants, say, because no one wants to see that. Fat people shouldn’t wear tight clothes because they’re gross. People who dress boldly, in ways they like that feel comfortable and celebrate their bodies, are punished for it by fashion rules because how dare they show themselves in public looking like that? These fashion ‘tips’ are not about feeling good in your body and looking great, they’re about hiding yourself away so you don’t offend delicate sensibilities.

I reject that. And so does the fatshion community, which celebrates fat bodies looking fabulous, whether they’re in black or hot pink, because the colours that people wear, the tightness of their clothing, the height of their hems and the depth of their necklines, should be about what makes them look and feel good, for themselves. Some people might find the sight of a fat woman in a miniskirt personally offensive, and want to lecture her about going out like that, and can do so in comfort because society says it’s ok, a social service. Maybe she feels great in it, and worked really hard to develop the confidence to be willing to go out in public dressed that way, until someone comes along to make her feel like crap for existing.

Emily at XO Jane wrote about wearing a size 14 bikini, and I loved this bit in particular:

Then, as now, I privately dug my primo curves, the way the band of flesh between tops and bottoms had the appearance and consistency of a cumulus cloud.

People with bodies like Emily’s are told to find that very feature distasteful, are ordered to cover up their muffin tops because they offend society and are a sign of everything bad and wrong in the world. That messaging is so very pervasive that of course it can start to seem like the only place you can celebrate your body is in private, where no one will judge you for, gosh, having a body. To wear a bikini when you body isn’t ‘perfect’ is to subject yourself to scrutiny and mockery. Is to refuse to be invisible, to say ‘yes, why, hello there, my body and I are both here and we are going to hang out by the pool.’

There’s a lot of talk about how ‘revealing’ garments on fat people, women in particular, are not appropriate. Yet, the standard of what seems to be ‘revealing’ changes depending on body size, apparently. People don’t have a problem with tight sweaters on slim women, but somehow they become repulsive on a size 24. Short, flippy skirts are okay on thinner bodies, but not fatter ones. This is not about ‘what looks good for your body type’ but about silencing and suppressing certain bodies, locking them away from the public eye because they are gross, and wrong, and bad.

Fashion should not be about forcing your body to conform to an impossible standard, or about making other people feel comfortable around your body. It should be about wearing what you want, and refusing to be invisible. For fat women who do refuse to be invisible, the world can become a very dangerous and nasty place. Wearing clothes that make people aware of the fact that you have a body will result in nasty comments, glares, and hostility. It takes a lot of courage to do that, and I salute fat women who insistently, defiantly, firmly, refuse to be put in the corner.