Plus Size Revolution?

After a lot of soul-searching and introspection, I’ve come to the conclusion that being welcomed into the fashion industrial complex is not entirely the kind of progress I want to see in the fat acceptance movement.

Now, I love clothes. I mean, I LOVE clothes. But I’m also personally invested in intersectionality and the idea that all liberation movements are entwined. So when I see us desiring to buy into the mindless capitalism and consumption of clothing that’s marketed to thin folks, I get frustrated. Insisting that fat folks’ money is just as good as thin folks’ money, so therefore we should have equal access to the same sweatshop-produced clothing lines offered by multinational corporations who use their profits to subjugate marginalized folks around the world? I don’t want that kind of revolution. We’re fighting to starve the multi-billion dollar diet industry of its ill-gotten profits, but falling all over ourselves to hand cash over to these companies? Naw. I don’t feel like we’ve made any type of substantive advance in the treatment of fat folks when H&M comes out with plus-size dresses for us to conspicuously consume. I haven’t yet heard of Southwest Airlines making a fat person buy two seats but later refunding one because they found out the fat person was wearing a shirt from ASOS on the flight. And surprisingly, when a dude yelled “fatass” out his car window at me the other day, my cute Forever 21+ skirt didn’t cause him to follow that statement up with “nice skirt, though–really validates your existence!”. Or maybe I just didn’t hear that last part, what with the Doppler effect and all.

With most fashion being made by underpaid, abused workers in “developing” countries, it’s not actually that great overall when companies decide to make more of it, just in bigger sizes. Like most people, I don’t always buy sustainable, ethically-produced clothing, so I can’t get too high on my horse about it. And it’s not like I’m going to be able to only buy clothes from Etsy sellers who make custom sizes or start making my own clothes. I just feel like when you’re in a movement fighting for revolution you have to be more discriminating about what you consider progress, what you consider revolutionary. I don’t consider more of the same oppressive business practices revolutionary. I want part of this movement to be us fighting to dismantle the fashion industrial complex. I want “fatshion” to mean fashion we create as a fat community, or fashion based on inclusive, ethical business practices brought about by activists effecting change. Of course I’m excited when there are new clothing options for fat folks, and I’m not faulting anyone else who is too. Everyone likes looking “good”. But we know “good” is entirely subjective. Our society is centered on aesthetics, which is another thing we need to be working to change–because marginalization by lack of “attractiveness” or even “stylishness” is one aspect of many, many types of discrimination against underprivileged groups. If we didn’t have the cultural push to appear normative, we wouldn’t be willing to accept this kind of “progress” with a smile.

I have complained about the lack of fashionable options for plus-sized folks. But at this point, I’m done buying into corporate pacification of the fat acceptance movement via throwing us a size 20 Rachel Pally bone. And I’m not going to spend any more time and energy on “activism” to demand inclusion within an industry that continues to thrive on exclusion. Exclusion based on class, based on location, based on able-bodied-ness–and still based on size, because most “fashionable” plus size lines stop at size 24. There’s a whole lot of people above size 24. High-end designers trade on unobtainability, so I’m not really holding my breath for say, size 22 Chanel, either. It’s kind of another way to divide us, really, especially across class lines. When you can’t afford jack, it can make you feel crappy when you see your fellow activists wearing the cute new dress from ASOS that cost what your weekly food budget is. It’s hard to focus on the prize (like being treated with respect and dignity, or not being discriminated against in hiring) when you see the immediate spoils going to those with class privilege. So you take your eyes off that prize and start spending time fighting to get cheaper fashionable clothes. Meanwhile, society is fighting a war against your existence.

This is a really complicated issue; I’m not going to pretend it’s not. I’m just at a point in my activism where I have to start reconciling all the things I know to be wrong with how the world operates, all the ways I contribute to others’ oppression, and how my actions square with my internal radical politics. I want us to think about these kinds of things as a movement, just as we need to think about intersectionality, and as we need to think about rejecting the politic of desirability. When it comes to consumption, we may not need to eat less, but we definitely need to focus on buying less. At the least, we need to think about why we feel assimilation into the fashion industrial complex is a goal we’re fighting to achieve, and how that goal can end up hurting us in the long run–because by making assimilation our goal, we are implicitly accepting society’s power to enforce normative beauty standards, which is one of the main things we’ve been attempting to subvert.

[This was written in 2012 for my blog Sex and the Fat Girl, but never published for reasons.]

Fat acceptance is often associated with the redefining of beauty standards to include fatness as a representation of beauty. We fight for our bodies to be considered sexy and desirable; we challenge the dominant beauty paradigm and attempt to present an alternative. Many words have been written, by myself included, to encourage fat women to love their bodies as they are and consider themselves beautiful. Books full of nude photos of fat women are published in an attempt to confront the reader with the reality of fat bodies and at least tolerate them, if not find them attractive. In positioning thinness as the beauty standard and attempting to change it so that fat women are included, are we merely propping up the idea of an across-the-board beauty standard by placing another more inclusive standard beside it? If fat is a feminist issue, why don’t we challenge the dominant view that beauty is a viable concept instead of just accepting that unilateral standards of beauty exist and trying to shoehorn fat women into the “beautiful” category?

Beauty is fleeting, subjective and variable. Different cultures have different ideas of what beauty is, but as Westernization runs its course throughout the world, more societies are being force-fed Western beauty ideals and assimilating them into their own. Western cultures’ ideals of beauty have fluctuated throughout the centuries, with fat coming in and out of favor. With the concept of beauty being so impermanent, is it really best for fat women to attempt to be included in what is currently defined as beautiful, or should we focus on dismantling the beauty system beside our smaller sisters? Of course there are many, many thinner women who benefit from this ideal and aren’t interested in challenging it, but if they are supporters of size acceptance, their interest should be piqued. We all have a stake in challenging the nebulous idea of beauty.

This is not to say that those fat women who feel they are beautiful should stop deluding themselves and just wear a potato sack and rock bedhead. The fact is, we don’t exist in a vacuum and although we need to actively challenge the beauty industrial complex, we can still have fun with makeup and fashion as long as we’re quite aware of the need to subvert the standard. Fat women who feel beautiful and don’t feel shame about adorning their bodies are subversive. Just as fat women who feel beautiful but don’t feel the need to adorn their bodies are subversive. But as we push for inclusiveness and the right to be seen and not just seen past, we also have to keep in mind that this system is inherently flawed and unstable and is in dire need of eradication.

Although the concept of beauty is a facade, I do believe it must be subverted before it can be removed. Fighting for fat women to be considered beautiful is important work. Being a fat woman and walking outside feeling beautiful, loving how you look is subversive. Reveling in your fat is ideal. But as you celebrate your sexiness, remember that even the paragons of beauty today would have been or will be considered ugly at some point—which makes it even more imperative that all women (and men) work together to first expand the standards of beauty and then eliminate them.

It’s become general knowledge that class influences weight. Working class families often don’t have as much access to healthier foods as middle and upper class families do, and working longer hours means fast food can be an appealing option for those with little time. So if fat folks, and specifically fat women, are more likely to be working class, why does it cost so much to clothe yourself as a fat woman? Why are more fashionable clothes in larger sizes so damn expensive?

You might be tempted to think that it’s the extra fabric (ha ha), but we all know most clothes cost a great deal less to make than they sell for. Thin people have fast fashion outlets such as Forever 21 and H&M to turn to when they want fashionable clothes at low prices. But Forever 21’s plus size division, Faith 21, offers clothes of the same quality yet at higher prices. Torrid, a fat fashion mainstay, has much higher prices than their parent company Hot Topic. And stalwart fat fashion store Lane Bryant is well known for their outrageous prices in relation to quality and stylishness. I jokingly call the higher price of plus size women’s clothing the “fat tax,” but it’s a sad truth.

Working class women are already often stereotyped as slobbish and homely in the media. Add fat to the mix and you have an explosive combo of perceived unattractiveness. Some would argue that the lack of access to fashionable clothing is unimportant to working class women compared to their other struggles, which may be partly true. But feeling good about how you look is something that all women should be able to experience, not only because of societal pressure to look a certain way but also for personal self-esteem. If fashion is something that is important to you, or even if you just want to stay out of muumuus and stretch pants, this is an issue that affects your everyday life.

As a middle class fat woman, I find the prices of plus size clothing to be a barrier as well. I can afford a $50 dress or a $40 sweater here and there, but scoring several items of clothing per shopping trip is something that rarely happens unless I’m shopping at a thrift store—and thrift stores are not exactly bastions of stylish fat women’s clothing. It seems as if because there are so few fashionable options for fat women compared to thin women, we really are subject to a kind of tax, because where else are we going to go? As designers and stores are becoming more fat friendly, more options for cheaper clothing are cropping up, but mainly for women on the smaller end of the fat spectrum. You want a size above a 20, you’re pretty much limited to a few expensive stores.

Some crafty people take this as an opportunity to make their own clothes, but this option is not realistic for everyone and the choice to DIY involves some class issues as well. Unfortunately there’s no simple solution for this problem. As more and more fat women demand access to fashionable clothing and make their demands known to the fashion powers-that-be, hopefully fat fashion stores and clothing lines will lower prices to a more reasonable level. Until then, save your pennies.

As Tertullian stated long ago, and Summer’s Eve reinforces today: “Woman is a temple built over a sewer”. Thank god there’s a dizzying array of “feminine hygiene” products marketed toward female-identified folk to help conceal that awful raw sewage smell naturally emanating from our crotchal region. We’ve got several kinds of special wipes, from Monistat COOLWIPES for those days when your sewer is both diseased and stinky, to Massengill wipes that are gentle to your delicate sewer region, to, for those of us who menstruate, Always Fresh wipes for when you’re gushing blood and the smell rather than stemming the flow is your main concern. And if you want to stay odor-free while you bleed, there’s scented Tampax and Kotex pads as well.

Oh, and don’t forget pantiliners to catch that oh-so-bothersome inter-period discharge. Because sometimes underwear just doesn’t do the job. And remember to wash with those special cleansers from Summer’s Eve and Massengill. Your nether regions deserve their own kind of cleansing. Then you can finish off both the harmful and helpful bacteria with a nice douche from one of the leading douche brands. Ah, I love using the word “douche”. If that douche left you a little itchy, reach for the Vagisil and hope you don’t actually need the Monistat.

If I were to buy all the “feminine hygiene” products I apparently need, I’d go broke. Interestingly enough, unless you count Axe body spray (which I don’t), there’s no equivalent market for male-identified folk. People, if you’ve come close to a male-identified person’s junk at any point in time, you know that they are not devoid of “intimate smells”. In fact they can be quite rife with them. Which is fine, apparently, because I don’t see a lot of say, “Autumn’s Night Men’s Personal Wash” on the market. Something tells me society doesn’t care if a male-identified person’s junk stinks. Or at least, no one shames them into worrying about their junk stink.

Apparently the extreme concern over unhygienic female-identified people’s genitals goes as far back as 22 C.E. And I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories about those who menstruate being isolated in their own abode until Aunt Flo had left back in the Middle Ages (and still today in some cultures). In the ’30s, Lysol started advising through advertising that vagina-possessing individuals should douche with their product to avoid losing their (presumably) man’s interest. I’m not sure what Lysol was made out of in the ’30s, but if it’s anything like what it’s made of today that sounds like a Bad Idea. And yet the concern over “feminine odor” overshadowed any dubious feelings people may have had about shooting an industrial disinfectant up their cooters. Lysol also claimed that douching with their product would act as a contraceptive. Significantly, douching with Lysol went out of favor once the birth control pill was introduced to the market. Something tells me it was more pleasurable to simply swallow a pill than douche with a hospital-grade disinfectant.

What with all the new extraneous grooming products available to the male-identified today, I have trouble understanding why no one has entered the untapped market of “masculine hygiene”. Maybe a pre-oral wipe to make it easier on the one performing the act. Or a special wash that can be used when a wipe just isn’t cutting it. And why not add some special powders to keep the genital area dry and smelling like Old Spice. If no one gets into this business soon I think I might throw my hat in the ring. In the day and age of Axe, Tag, and Swagger, male-identified folk seem ripe for believing they need special products just for their nethers.

But enough with the wry humor and sarcasm. The fact that the female-identified alone are thought to be the bearers of such bad scents while those who are not get a pass just underscores the deeply rooted sexism and body-negativity in our society. That we wouldn’t even think twice while passing an aisle in the store SOLELY dedicated to the eradication of “feminine” odor shows how ingrained in our culture it is that when you are female-identified, you have a responsibility to God and country to keep that sewer under wraps. We get it in jokes involving a fish smell and some female-identified person needing to close her legs. Honestly, I’ve smelled fish odor emanating from all manner of junk. Basically, ALL JUNK STINKS. Period. So we really need to get over the idea that only female-identified people need to worry about it.

A common refrain among some people when a fat person laments the lack of fashionable clothing in larger sizes is “sew your own!” Which I’m sure is meant in a constructive way, and it would be great if everyone could just sew their own clothes. But simply advising people to sew their own ignores the very real class issues involved with sewing and DIY in general.

Some seamstresses are lucky enough to either have items gifted to them, or find items cheap, like at a thrift store or yard sale. To sew effectively you need a machine, which is at least $100 retail, and the good ones cost more. Sure, you could attempt to sew a wardrobe by hand, but that’s seriously unrealistic. So you need a machine, which needs notions. I’ve found notions at yard sales and thrift stores, but with a lot of them I had to buy them retail unless I wanted to count the stars until I found that magic item at a yard sale. Then you need patterns — and here’s where being fat again comes into play, because patterns also come in sizes and plus size patterns are no more fashionable than plus size clothes. I know you can resize patterns, but that does require some skill and time which a lot of people don’t have. Learning to sew requires a significant time investment in the first place, not to mention the time it takes to make the clothes once you know how. Many people working two or more jobs, or even just working one job that has long hours, don’t have the luxury of that much free time. There’s also the cost of fabric, which can get pretty pricey depending on the type of fabric needed. Then you need access to a store that sells fabric and notions. Unfortunately, outside of the “indie” community, sewing your own clothes is somewhat of a dying art. So for those who live in small towns or towns outside the reach of a major metropolitan area, there’s not always access to those kinds of stores.

As revolutionary as it would be for every fat person to reject the discriminatory mainstream fashion industry, it’s simply unrealistic. It’s also unrealistic to expect that a regular person with little free time is going to be able to develop the skill to sew themselves say, a suit for job interviews. For many people it’s not just a matter of fashionable clothing in their size, but clothing, period in their size. I would say it’s more important for us as fat people to advocate for a larger range of sizes in retail stores than simply spend a lot of time trying to make our own clothes. While sewing the occasional skirt or dress may be within one’s reach, unfortunately for most people it’s just not a viable option to sew an entire wardrobe.

This is not to dismiss those who sew for pleasure, who do have the time and resources to sew, who manage to successfully repurpose other clothes or who are lucky enough to score sewing supplies on the cheap. I personally own a sewing machine and a serger I got off eBay that I never use, and I have a ton of sewing supplies and fabric piled up from yard sales and flea markets I’ve visited over the years. I like to sew. I’m not all that good at it, but it is a fun hobby and if I had more time I’d probably learn how to do it properly. So it’s not like I’m saying “don’t sew, it’s pointless”. I’m just pointing out that responding to fat women’s problems finding clothes that fit by telling them to sew their own clothes, when done by non-fat people, is extremely dismissive and insulting. When it’s done by other fat women, it’s misguided and possibly marginalizing because of the class issues involved.

And hey, some fat women just don’t feel like sewing their own clothes and they shouldn’t have to. The proper response to a discriminatory industry that we all depend on in some form or another (because buying patterns is still supporting the fashion industry) is not to let it be and go off and do your own thing. Do your own thing if you want to, AND work to end the exclusionary nature of the fashion industry. Support fat women having choices, whether they shop at Wal-Mart, Torrid, or Joann’s.