I’m fat. This is an obvious fact when I go to buy clothes, not when I look in the mirror. My desire to wear responsible clothing carries through in my fashion choices but it is difficult for a fat woman to look cute, dress responsibly and allow her wallet to breathe. Here's why I want designers to give fat women more than crumbs.
I was taught to dress for success. As a Haitian-American teenager, one who became more and more American each year, my mother nagged me about the state of my appearance. I wasn’t feminine enough. I was too casual. I didn’t respect her sensibilities as a Haitian woman. She wanted me to care about how I looked. This meant entreating me to diet, buying loudly patterned and outdated clothes she found flattering on my bigger body. She was disillusioned that I wasn’t becoming a “young lady.” My tastes, in reality, moved far away from the respectable or acceptable but my mother’s behavior reflected the reality of culture. A fat body doesn’t measure up because it measures over. My mother felt that having a fat daughter was a social shame. She believed that fatness was a marker of physical, emotional and psychological sickness. Working as a nurse’s assistant, she would remind me that fatness was also a marker of death. If fatness is death, then surely thinness must be life!
Fat women are the invisible shoppers. Some days, here in NYC, I am astounded by how many people bump into me by accident. I have always been promised that my bigness and blackness make me ultra-visible to the world. My mother believed that this reality could be mitigated through clothes. If I wore the right stuff-maybe something white or a long skirt or was more feminine and modest-the world would see me and give me the respect she knew that I deserved! I'm still waiting for it. Clothes can validate a woman, though. They can make your boss respect you more and give you the validity you never received from your peers as a teen. They can even provide us with pined-after sexual attention. They can give us a way to voice our politics. Clothes are powerful but designers are afraid that that power will be muted on a fat body. This is why in public images of various groups and movements, fat bodies tend to remain absent. In some ways, the relationship between the plus sized woman and the designer/retailer is constantly abusive. The prices are always high—even as some people will say, “but fat women are poor, there’s only so much they can afford.” The cycle continues: we want recognized bodies (legitimate bodies) but we get crumbs. We’re duped while only asking to be recognized. There are always scant racks for me in department stores that are picked over bare by the time I approach them. Whether it be timidity or poverty, I always seem to miss the mark on great plus size fashion. We have the lethal equation of a 'bad' body looking for good clothes. A month or so ago, a plus size retailer had a coupon leaked to the public. It gave about 75% off the retail price of items, if customers spent more than $90. Of course, their customers started taking full advantage of the coupon. A few hours later, said retailer canceled everyone’s orders after charging their bank accounts. They proceeded to tell these people that their refund would be processed in a month. Did they apologize? Of course not. They blamed the customers for being greedy when the only sin of the fat woman is the desire to dress well.
So here's some food for thought....can you care for the ethical treatment of garment workers when your big body makes them work harder? After all, fatness is fabric greediness. These are some of the unspoken questions that arise when I look through a catalog and find no fat people-or people of color (but that's for another day). Some of us have bodies that pollute social concepts of perfection while we struggle to maintain fashion acceptance. We walk around and all people see is that everything we touch is eroded by our 'flaws'. We either accept it or seek reparations that hurt others in the process. The fat responsible shopper can be a victim and a perpetrator in the fashion cycle as she seeks to find cute clothes that are ethical in the creation process and are reasonably priced.
At 26, the world has finally stopped sounding like my mother. Weight loss programs, celebrities, commenters on social media and random passersby have various opinions about fat bodies that they swear are biblically scientific. Underneath my social reality is the burden of proving everyone wrong. This anxiety is seen in the way fat women in fashion communities have rallied around mainstream brands to clamor for attention. They reject us in little ways by speaking of acceptable and unacceptable modes of fatness and in bigger ways by outright choosing not to cater to our needs. Still, we want to participate in an industry that has completely ostracized us and has built an image diametrically opposed to the meanings foisted unto fat bodies. Where does the fat woman that enjoys responsible fashion fit into this continuum? She is only knocking for acceptance and waiting to be seen.
Fat women need responsible fashion more than we know. We need retailers that respect our bodies—including the difficulties of making clothes that appeals to us. We need designers dedicated to stopping the cycle of industrial abuses in the creation of plus-sized garments. We need to know that we can make a difference and that the desire to do good and dress good is sustainable and can co-exist with our bodies, no matter the weight.