Plus-Size Designer Ashley Nell Tipton: “Fucking enjoy the life that you have right now.”
“I wish there was no size limit anymore, that this world allowed us to show how powerful and amazing we are and for us not to be defined by our size.”
I recently sat down with with plus-size designer and Project Runway Season 14 winner Ashley Nell Tipton. We talked about fashion, of course, but I also wanted to learn more about her life. Turns out she was up for whatever questions I had, and soon we launched into discussing family, romance, mental health, self-care and fat activism, as well as her tips for anyone who’s afraid to wear a crop top.
Virgie Tovar: Can you talk a little about growing up and the moments that shaped your relationship to your body and to fashion?
Ashley Nell Tipton: My mother is Hispanic; my dad is American. Both of my parents were plus-sized. All of my brother and sisters were skinny. Everyone in my family was skinny. It was very, very difficult to feel equal to everyone, to feel like I was like them.
I always felt like the third wheel. I always felt like no one wanted to hang out with me. I didn’t feel comfortable in my clothing because my mother would pick my clothing and had to get it from the older women’s section.
It just got so … exhausting, just tiring trying to find clothing that would actually fit me and that I could have fun with — that I could actually look like a kid and not like an older person.
My grandmother on my father’s side played a big role in my life. I always went to her house and she taught me how to sew and she would spoil me and she would take me out shopping and buy the clothes that I wanted. And then when I would go home, my mom would be like, ”No you can’t wear that sleeveless top. No, your arms are too big.” It was really hard to try to find myself as a kid, as a teenager when I was in this bubble where my mom wanted to protect me but didn’t allow me to express myself. I feel like fashion was that thing I got to grow up in. I made my own money and bought my own clothes and that make me express myself.
As a kid I never thought I would be in this industry. I always fantasized about it. I was like “how awesome would it to be able to design, to style or wear this kind of clothing.” It was just all a dream for me. To be able to turn that dream into reality has been a journey.
Virgie: What were those moments that transitioned you from feeling like a third wheel into who you are now?
Ashley: The insecurity has stayed with me for a long time. Even going through Project Runway, I still have the same feelings. I still have the same insecurities. But because I knew I was going to be on a reality show I felt like I had to present myself in a different way and not show that I was insecure. I want to call it my poker face.
I had to put this different face on like “I can do this. I am confident,” because no one else was going to believe that I could do this.
After the show, I was able to go out on a retreat where I was able to learn why I think certain things and how I need to stop self-sabotaging. And just love myself because this is the life that I have. This is the body that I have. I don’t need no one else to love my body but me.
Virgie: I think there’s this cultural belief that as fat people, we shouldn’t buy clothes because we are about to be thin any minute now, you know what I mean?
Ashley: It’s just self-sabotage to tell yourself, “I’m gonna be skinny. I’m gonna be skinny.” No.
Fucking enjoy the life that you have right now. Enjoy the life you have in your body.
If you’re not enjoying it, then do something to change. You don’t have to change your body. You can change the energy you have about your body. If you keep living in this lifestyle, you’re only going to self-sabotage. You’re never gonna find your happiness. You’re never gonna find clothes. You’re never gonna find love. We need to take all those negative thoughts about ourselves and take all the fear away because otherwise we’re not going to be able to live our lives.
Virgie: I want to talk about fat activism. I saw Keenah Buttah on your Instagram feed the other day and know that San Diego has a fat-activist community. Do you feel influenced by the fat-positive people in SD?
Ashley: This community has played a huge role in my life. Keenah has welcomed me into this community with her and her friends. It was such an eye opener to me, recognizing that I’m not the only one who’s by myself. All these women have the same questions, thoughts, all the things I have in my head that have to do with politics, fat fashion, or love, or just anything.
We used to put these groups together called Fat Salons in people’s homes and we just allowed the floor to be open, no judgment. Where people can just ask questions and we can answer them and we can all give each other advice. So much life was there and so much uplifting there. We were like a family.
Being part of (fat activism) community just opened my eyes to how important we are and how much more I want to fight for our voices to be heard.
Virgie: I imagine there are many challenging and hurtful moments that you would deal with as a public figure regardless of size, race or gender, but the fact that you are an unapologetic fat woman of color, I’m wondering about the place of vulnerability. How do you deal with vulnerability — the moments when you really feel that don’t have the tools to deal with a challenge?
Ashley: There’s a lot of challenges I’ve been dealing with ever since coming off Project Runway, or even before I think. I’ve been dealing with depression. This is something that’s completely new to me. I don’t know what caused it. I don’t know if it was my grandmother’s death or going on Project Runway and dealing with a new life. Not that I’m not happy with it.
It’s a change from me being this private person to now being the voice of a plus-size community.
It’s something I’ve always wanted but I never thought it would happen. The transition has been very, very hard for me — not feeling like I’m doing enough. Just feeling like I’m not enough to everybody. I’m a people pleaser. So I’m always trying to please people, but what I’ve just found is that I need to make myself happy before I can make anyone else happy.
Virgie: I think a lot of plus-size women of color struggle with taking ourselves seriously or being taken seriously professionally or romantically because of some real ass oppression. I’m wondering how you navigate those moments and what you do for self-care.
Ashley: Making sure I surround myself with good and positive people that make me laugh, that make me enjoy life. I just got out of a five-month relationship and I really felt like I really found love for the first time.
And once I got into this relationship I didn’t feel like I was myself anymore and I kind of had to give it a break to really remember: Ok, this is who I am. Why did I neglect things for the past five months? I can’t do this. This isn’t me. What made this relationship make me neglect what I’m doing and what I love? Just going through all that I have to remember that myself comes first and I take care of myself.
For self-care I see a personal trainer twice a week. I go to therapy too and that makes me feel good. Being able to talk and express, and for my therapist to be able to organize my thoughts and help me to my next step. Those are my things I do for self-care, like getting my nails done and doing my hair but making sure my body and my mind get taken care of are the most important to me.
Virgie: I just got out of a relationship myself that I feel I lost myself in as well. How did you end up deciding that you needed to leave?
Ashley: My partner made me feel like I was doing something wrong, and every time I would think about the situation I would realize that I know that I hadn’t done anything wrong so why is this person manipulating me. And it came with a lot of that person not trusting me. It was a very interesting relationship. It was a long-distance relationship.
I was hoping it was going to work but I knew in the back of my head it wasn’t going to work out.
It was harder to be in the relationship than it is to be out of it. Being out of it, I thought it was going to be way harder, but I feel a sense of relief and that I can get back to what’s important to me. I thought I found love. I thought I found the first person I ever loved.
Virgie: Maybe you did find love, but it was just kinda fucked up.
Ashley: I don’t think that person was in the right state of mind. I think there was a lot this person needed to fix and find in themselves. Maybe my career or my career path was too intimidating to make this person feel like they weren’t doing enough. Their actions showed me this isn’t the type of person I need to be with.
On the other side, he loved my body. He loved who I was. He never wanted me to change anything about me.
Just finding someone who loves your body more than you do was the most amazing feeling ever, and that was the hardest to lose.
But at the end of the day, I didn’t sign this person up for a job. I didn’t give him the job to love my body. So I know that the next relationship I go into, the person is going to love me for the same things. And I just have to trust myself that I will get that again and not think about “What if this is the last time? How long is it gonna take?”
Because I’ve been single my whole life and then to be in a relationship and find the thing I’ve always wanted was amazing, but I can’t live in the fear that I will never find that again.
Virgie: This brings us to the scarcity mentality that plus size women have around clothes, around love. We’ve just been taught that there’s nothing for us. So we get hella anxious whenever we get something.
Ashley: It’s so important to let plus size women know that just because you can’t find it right now doesn’t mean you’re not ever going to find it.
We can’t give up the first time that there’s a road block because then we’ll never be able to get over that.
Virgie: What is your wish for plus-size fashion?
Ashley: For us to have a world just how the straight size community has. I just wish there was no size limit anymore, that this world allowed us to show how powerful and amazing we are and for us not to be defined by our size.
Virgie: What would you say to the person who’s scared to wear a crop top?
Ashley: Why are you scared? (laughs) Once they find the crop top that works for them, it’s gonna be a sense of relief. They’re gonna be so excited and want to wear it every day. I remember the time I found my first crop top, I was like, ”I can wear this?! Ok we’re cutting all of my shirts. We’re making them all crop tops. That’s all I’m wearing!” They just have to take that risk. You can wear a crop top with jeans, or a skirt, or over a dress. They have to play around with it. Not everybody has the same style. Just be unique with it.
And if it isn’t for you, then don’t feel forced to do it, because then you’re just going to make it harder on yourself.