by Briana Hernandez
“It sucks that we can’t shop together,” a straight-sized friend confessed to me recently. “It’s not fair.” Cue the heavenly harp music. Someone gets it. Someone who has never navigated life in a fat body. Allies are real. Praise Goddess.
This particular ally even knows it’s not all that hard for me to find clothes. One, I’m a size 16. Average. What is supposed to be the new normal. If any brand has a plus size section, measly as it can be, chances are high that something will fit. Two, when you are plus size, you collect a running list of stores that offer your size. They are your go-tos and they save you from hours of fruitless hunting. So, no. It’s not that hard. Is it harder for me than someone size eight or smaller? Is it easier for me than someone size 28 or larger? Yes. Therein lies the “suck.”
So, this friend gets it. And the industry is maybe, hopefully starting to get it, too. Yet in the process of addressing this very real, very political problem (if you don’t think access to clothing falls under the umbrella of social politics, I’ll fight you right now), an old one is re-emerging and threatening to derail the progress we so desperately need. This problem is the concept of “flattering.”
You can finally hear some murmurs among celebs and designers on the insane lack of clothing options for plus-size women. High-profile allies are answering the call, from Christian Siriano dressing Leslie Jones to all the publications that put Dascha Polanco’s red carpet plight on blast.
Then the sky cracked open and the almighty Tim Gunn himself weighed in on the situation. Yas. Tim. This was going to be scathing and honest and ass-kicking. I was ready for this “make it work” moment.
But as it turns out, Gunn thinks the real disgrace is a lack of willingness or knowledge on how to design “flattering” clothes for larger women. In fact, he hates the only plus-size line that Project Runway has ever birthed because the clothes added “more volume” to the models and dared to show their fat bellies. I don’t know what is more offensive — the insinuation that looking bigger in public is more embarrassing than farting in church, or the fact that he is just so damn late to this party. Plus-size women have so moved on.
Flattering, problematic as it is, is terribly old news. We nearly forgot the tired diatribe on “how to dress your body type.” Why? Because 10 years ago, the even more severe lack of options forced us to adapt. A decade of taking what we could get from your malls and boutiques have made us DIY masters. If it fit, we wore it. We obviously had no other choice.
Now let’s talk about what “flattering” really means. It’s safe to say that people usually mean smaller, taller and hour-glass shaped. Fine. Everyone agrees on that (bullshit) standard. What “style experts” can’t seem to agree upon is how to execute this long and lean silhouette. My favorite piece of style advice I ever received was to stay away from small prints (your body will look even bigger in contrast), but also steer clear of big, bold prints as they will attract too much attention to your body. So … medium-sized prints? Magazines have told me that if someone my height (5’1”) had to choose between wearing a midi skirt or a dirty diaper to work, they should keep in mind that people DO love babies. Would you like to know what the most complimented piece of clothing in my closet is? It’s a damn midi skirt.
While flattering standards are inconsistent at best, their message is clear: Learn how to hide in plain sight. Either become a miraculous optical illusion that suddenly has a waist thanks to the perfect dress, or — here, wear this garbage bag. Just spare people from having to emotionally process the presence of your gut, please.
But what some of us have come to realize is that there is no hiding a fat body, even if we were broken down into thinking that hiding was OK. As demoralizing as it became, trying and failing to camouflage our rolls and dimples led to further adaptation. We realized the rules didn’t make sense. And then we were set free. As slam poet Kim Selling said, “When it comes to dressing myself, I live by a very simple principle. I am fat, therefore, I look fat in everything; consequently, I can wear anything.” Did you hear that? You can wear anything … if only it were made available to you.
Sixty-seven percent of women in the U.S. are plus size. Yet 16 percent of dresses on JCPenney.com are plus size, 8.5 percent on Nordstrom.com. Nike offers a whopping six “extended size” items. You get the picture. So while we are wasting time talking about how these slim pickings (pun intended) flatter us, we are losing the battle in equal representation, equal opportunities, equal dignity. That is really what makes clothing more than just fashion. We don’t have to dress larger bodies in order to make them look smaller. We just have to dress them. Now.