My dear friend Lisa (who you can find at satsumabug.com) sent me a note about a shop looking for plus-sized fit models. I emailed back and forth with the shop and decided to take myself up there and try on their clothes.
It could be a fun thing to do, but mostly I was incredibly nervous. Did these women know anything about plus sizes? Did they know anything about being fat and what clothes shopping can be like for fat folks? Was their idea of “plus-sized” really not “plus” at all (I see you, shops that have the audacity to call an 18 a 3X)? How would they address my body?
So many questions. So many things to worry about.
Clothes-shopping-while-fat can be fine. It can also be a nightmare. There are over-perky sales people who talk to you as if you’re painfully dim-witted as they try to tell you all the parts of your body you should be trying to hide, all the ways you shouldn’t show yourself in public. There are the sister-girl salespeople who think you need to be told you’re smoking hot every five seconds if you have any hope of feeling good about yourself. There are the clothes, abundant in sizes 14 to 20 … and then scarce, scarcer, scarcest the farther up the numbers you go. There are the clothes in your size that are always buried behind every other thing like undesirables that must be hidden.
There are the clothes-makers and their inability to understand body differences. There is a universal belief among manufacturers of clothes for us fatties: we all have the exact same shape. Depending on the company, the belief is that we are all shaped like Marilyn Monroe writ large, or we’re all shaped like fireplugs. Fireplugs win out most often.
Meanwhile, what is true is that none of us are shaped like fireplugs. And, even for those of us with hourglass figures, it’s not as simple as just sizing up from a thin hourglass. Also, we fat folk (hint: like all folk) come in more than two basic shapes. It is possible to be both tall and fat. It is possible to be fat and have a flat butt. It is possible to be fat and not need armholes that open to our waists. It is possible to be fat and have small breasts. It is, let me just say as plainly as I can, possible to be fat in MANY different ways. MANY. MANY.
And yet the clothes are made in basically two ways. I have no idea if non-fat people have this problem. It’s likely they do. It’s also likely, however, that it’s less pronounced because there are so many more places where non-fat people can find clothes in their size, so they have a better chance of finding things that will work for their bodies.
And then, of course, there are the prices. There is the obscenity of having to pay more – a lot more in some cases – for the same items non-fat people buy. Having to pay more for what are often poorly made clothes, for clothes that don’t fit us properly because they’re made for some version of a fat body that isn’t ours.
It’s a lot. Trust me that this is only the briefest description of what clothes shopping can be when your body doesn’t conform to society’s beauty standards.
So I set off on my adventure and rode uptown. I walked into the shop and smiled at the beautiful young woman who smiled at and greeted me. And then at the young woman who came out from the back when she heard me say my name. They were both warm, and neither did a spit take at the sight of me, so I figured that might bode well for what the experience would be like. I took off my coat.
Young Woman #1 (YW1) was working with a customer, and turned back to keep working with her. YW2 and I chatted for a moment: what size did I wear, where did I usually shop, do I have any favorite brands … And then she brought out the samples. One was green, the other red. To my great pleasure, she had me try on the red. Both were beautiful colors and patterns, but the red was just a little more stunning and fab, a little more yes-yes-a-thousand-times-yes than the green.
I slipped my arms in. I buttoned up. I turned to look in the full-wall mirror … and I loved it.
Oh, sure, there were little problems here and there. YW2 and I went through them in detail so she could understand how the pattern should be changed. We went through the flaws, but, even as I nit picked about one thing or another, all I could think was how much I loved the dress, how I could already see myself wearing it, how much I didn’t want to take it off and give it back.
We went over more details about the dress, and I kept loving everything about it. Finally we were done, and I slipped it off and handed it back to YW2.
This was definitely not a typical CSWF (clothes-shopping-while-fat) experience. I had talked easily and comfortably about my sizes and what parts of me are hardest to fit. I had let YW2 put her hands on me without tensing up or pulling away. YW2 had talked to me about the look and fit of the dress in a way that didn’t condescend or artificially inflate. No one – YW1, YW2, the other customer – behaved as if my looking good in the dress was shocking or anything other than entirely normal and expected.
That experience definitely ties for first place with the one other truly lovely CSWF experience I’ve had. Yes, that’s right: I am a middle-aged woman who’s been fat since early high school … and I’ve had exactly one great clothes-shopping experience before this fit-modelling moment. That is a true statement. That is how bad it can be out here in these sartorial streets for us fatties.
To be clear. This experience wasn’t great simply because I liked the dress and looked good in it, though that certainly helped. No. I find clothes I like and clothes that mostly fit me quite often. I’ve even had plenty of entirely wonderful clothing finds. (Do not get me started on the day I tried on my first Christian Siriano dress. Do NOT.) This experience was special because of how I was allowed to experience it, because of how I was treated, because of how I was seen and valued, because of how I was treated respectfully and not like someone’s dirty secret.
The experience was special because it was a reminder of how simple CSWF can be, of how easy it is to just treat people like people and provide quality service.
I’ve gotten good at CSWF. I can deflect unwanted sales help quickly and deftly. I am easily able to ask for whatever I need to make my shopping experience work well for me. I also do a fair amount of shopping online … for the convenience of having things I want show up at my door, and to spare myself CSWF foolishness.
While it’s true that designers of large-sized clothes need fat fit models so they can make their designs with actual women’s bodies in mind, they aren’t the only ones who would benefit from this service.
I want store staff to go through a training with a fat fit model, want them to have to work with that mock customer until they can get through a full sales process without fat-shaming, without saying one offensive or irksomely insincere, perky thing.
I would take on that fit-model job. Not because my skin is thick enough to handle the fat-phobic nonsense – although I think it is – but because I would enjoy getting to school people on all the ways they aren’t getting their pitch right.
“Let me stop you right there, Marny,” I can imagine myself saying. “You shouldn’t assume there is any part of my body that I want to hide. I’m fat, and however “slimming” or “camouflaging” you want to think this outfit is, everyone will see that I am fat. You need to talk to me about how well it fits, how comfortable and intelligently made it is, how good I look in it.”
“Hold up, Tiffany, it’s not at all helpful for you to bring me clothes that are a size too large. Wearing things that hang awkwardly off my body because they’re too big isn’t flattering, it’s annoying. You have clothes in sizes that fit me. Your job is to help me find them, not to try covering me in a tent.”
Of course, I am only one size and style of fat woman. I don’t want designers and stores to exchange one fat body idea for another. I want the idea of what is a fat body to diversify, to encompass as many types of bodies as we have. Yes, this sales training would need a whole team of willing fatties to really get the job done.
As much as I love the idea, I’m pretty sure this program wouldn’t work, however, no matter how many fat shoppers were up for the challenge, no matter how many sales staff were trained. It would be about as successful as the single-day racial bias training Starbucks is gearing up for will be. Well-meaning, but one day of real talk can’t undo a lifetime of programming. Not about race and not about fatphobia.
The almost-end of this story is that I took off the dress, YW1 and YW2 thanked me for helping them, and I left.
The real almost-end of this story is that I couldn’t stop thinking about the dress and emailed to suggest that I should be given said fabulous item, that it would be good for the store because I would get a lot of compliments and would talk up the shop every time that happened. It was a pretty brazen email. I don’t know who I was in that moment!
But it worked! I got a reply right away saying the dress was mine! As a friend said when I told her about it, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Can’t deny the truth there.
So, the actual-end to this story came yesterday, when I wore this lovely dress out in the world. The weather didn’t much cooperate before now, and then I had a big work event on my schedule, so I saved the debut for that. And here I am at the end of the day (photo cropped so you don’t see the stacks of still-unpacked boxes that are the primary décor in my apartment!), a totally happy camper:
It’s as if I’m wearing a coral reef! And yes, it has pockets! The dress is from Zuri. I don’t think the plus sizes are out yet, but the smaller sizes are there for the having. Plus sizes — up to 3X — should be available late spring/early summer.
One in a series of essays inspired by Roxane Gay’s, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. You can find all of the essays in this series under the Fat Talk tab. Thank you.
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.