Fashion and I have a bit of a strained relationship.
I honestly can’t remember a time before I was the ‘fat friend’, dressed unfashionably, looking miserable. I spent my teens looking like an extra from the Addams Family; black sloganned t-shirts, black trousers or jeans, dark make-up, and a self-loathing grimace. I was a huge toyboy, in part because femininity didn’t appeal to me, but in part because I felt like femininity didn’t want me. It’s funny how looking back I can see I wasn’t that big at all, I just felt huge because I was surrounded by thinner people – and the fat people around me were ridiculed and treated disdainfully, whether on TV or physically in front of me.
Shopping was always a trial of endurance, spending hours wandering around through the shops knowing that I wouldn’t fit into anything. I would try clothes on only to end up in tears in the changing room. All the clothes that were ‘on trend’ were too small. Fat people didn’t deserve nice clothes, was the message that was repeatedly drummed into me every time I ventured out to buy clothes. And as a fat person, who would even want to see me in their clothes anyway? Fat people are disgusting.
It’s taken me more than 20 years to finally‘get’ fashion, mainly because fashion imagery was wholly focused on thin people. I grew up in the 90s during the infamous ‘heroin chic’ era, when, if fashion was your religion, Kate Moss was your idol, with her waifish frame, gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes. You worshipped at the altar of Topshop, whose sizes were ever-shrinking, making their shops even more alienating (I haven’t set foot in a Topshop for about 6 years). I didn’t read women’s magazines in my mid-teens and lust after anything they advertised, because it was always draped on a body so unfamiliar to my own. I felt like I wasn’t really a girl or a woman in some ways.
Growing up, I actually developed my fashion‘style’ in a different way, by using things that didn’t come in sizes. I started buying bags that were really quirky. At one point, I owned a ridiculous amount of limited edition Converse. I have more rings – from all over the world- than anyone else I know. I just love accessories, because these aren’t size-exclusive. Anyone can have them, and I really love that – though I suspect if fashion houses had their way, they would find some other way to make them more exclusive, beyond price.
Dipping my toe into the fashion world via accessories gave me the confidence to persevere and widen my net to look at different shops that cater for bigger women. I eventually found what worked for my shape, and managed to figure out what I like. I like bold patterns and prints, I love leggings, and I still use accessories to jazz up outfits, all the time. Online shopping has helped a lot, as has the emergence of an almost-underground network of what I like to call ‘fat people shops’.
Part of my problem with the fashion industry is not just the promotion of specific images, like heroin chic photo-shoots – but the limited range of sizes that most high-street shops have. People talk about ‘the media’ affecting people as if this is the be-all and end-all, but it’s not – lacking in certain sizes gives off a vibe that bigger people really aren’t welcome, and it’s extremely alienating and disheartening. The average size in the UK is 16-18. Loads of shops don’t even go up to a size 16. When they do have bigger sizes, they simply make clothes that look good on a size 10 woman, bigger. I have tried on things before that are supposedly my size, but they have kept the arm holes the same. My arms aren’t massive, but it stands to reason that they may be bigger than someone who is a size 8.
You can’t just make bits of the clothes bigger and forget about it. That’s not how it works – different shapes and sizes need different patterns, different dress cuts. For example, on me, A-line dresses and dropped waist cuts are a nightmare, but the empire line cut nicely skims my wobbly bits and emphasises the good stuff – so my wardrobe is full of empire line dresses and longline tops. The reason most designers cater for thinner people is because a bigger body is much more difficult to dress. You actually have to think about where to place pockets, how to make the dress or t shirt flattering for a bigger shape. This is too much hassle for them, evidently – and I salute the designers who actually put time and effort into doing this.
It’s really easy as a young woman to come to the conclusion that you don’t exist in designers’ worlds, or that they would rather you didn’t, because you ruin their idea of perfection. It affects your confidence a lot – I should know, having spent most of my life feeling inadequate because of this sort of bullshit – but there are some really great alternatives out there. I think more and more, people are realizing that this ideal of ‘thinness’ is ridiculous; that healthy, beautiful women come in many sizes and quite honestly, there’s no reason bigger women should look any less amazing than their smaller counterparts.