How Access To Plus-Size Fashion Changed (And Saved) My Life

The fashion industry told me that I was not deserving of a childhood at a very young age.

In honor of Fashion Week, Vogue's September Issue, and all the fun the comes with fall fashion, we'll be talking about plus-size fashion — otherwise known as "fatshion" — throughout this next week! Plus-size style boasts its own beautiful, unapologetic brand of contemporary fashion, and we've curated a range of writing that aims to capture both its political roots and unique aesthetic. Find the rest of the stories featured in The Fatshion Conversation here.


CN: rape, molestation, CSA

I have always been obsessed with fashion. Even as a little girl, I would watch fashion shows on cable TV. I was in pure heaven when the Style network premiered in my teens, broadcasting 24/7 fashion-related programming, including full-length fashion shows after 1 AM instead of ghastly infomercials — perfect for my ever-present night owl tendencies. As a young child, my Barbies rarely wore shoes, but they always had great clothing. My grandmother would even sew outfits for my dolls, even if similar styles were not accessible for my body at the time.

My love for fashion was contrary to the intense lack of access that I experienced as a chubby child and a fat teen. I was 5’7’’ by third grade (four inches taller than my teacher) and already wearing adult clothing. While I loved adult fashion, I wanted to be accepted and trendy by peer standards. My friends who were petite or of average height had access to an array of Lisa Frank-esque prints in dresses, shirts, leggings, and even shoes their size. Never in mine. There simply wasn't any plus-size children’s clothing — and almost no “junior plus” options at that time.

If you were fat or even just moderately chubby, you dressed as an adult, which creates a troublesome slew of identity issues.

The fashion industry told me that I was not deserving of a childhood at a very young age, and it didn’t take much longer for the world around me to reinforce that. Sadly, I had already been molested by an older brother of a friend when I was seven, so I was already feeling othered without the fashion industry telling me that I didn’t belong.

 

The fashion industry had abandoned me and it felt like no one else wanted me, either

 

By fifth grade, I was 5’10’’ and 180 pounds with what looked more like elongated or puffy nipples than breasts, which I would not really develop until I was almost sixteen. Still, the world around me treated me as though I were a teenager instead of a child who had not even had her first period. I experienced catcalls from strange men, accusatory shouts calling my mother and I “dykes” and “fucking lesbians” as we walked hand-in-hand during my pre-teen years.

The fashion industry had abandoned me and it felt like no one else wanted me, either. On my first day of middle school, new to our neighborhood in rural North Carolina, I wore very adult chinos, teva sandals, a braided brown belt, and a plum mock-turtleneck tucked into my belted middle-aged chinos, all from K-Mart. 

The next day, I wore a long-line raw silk button up tank and palazzo pants in cream with navy blue pinstripes and brown clogs. My small classmates had trendy purple and teal Charlotte Hornets-themed sportswear (even though many of them were not into sports, but easily looked the part), some sporting NASCAR shirts in lieu of basketball.

The girls wore jerseys tucked into short shorts or denim skirts with Looney Tunes or Disney-themed “baby tees” since it was the only time of the year that we wouldn’t get sent home or put in in-school suspension for showing our midriffs.

And there I was… the fat "city kid" dressed like a teacher, sticking out like a sore thumb.

As I got older, I grew larger. I recall being measured and weighed by my peers in my seventh grade science class. I wanted to go last, which was still torture, since I had to wait for that daunting moment when someone else would know the number I'd been taught to be so ashamed of. I had just put my Barbie dolls away the previous year, and I had begun to endeavor to be more social without entirely relying upon my imagination to allow me to live my fantasies of being beautiful, loved, and well-dressed through a foot of plastic and rubber weighing in at 7.35 ounces. I had a mini panic attack and told the teacher that the scale had to have been wrong and asked them to put 180 instead of 210. I did not get my wish and had to sit deep in my shame and my Walmart jeans, another one of the few stores where Size 16 and 18 jeans were plentiful but cuts were still stuck a good ten or twenty years earlier in the late '80s. I pretended to have diarrhea and sat in the bathroom for twenty minutes, sobbing.

During the summer of 1997, the year I went into eighth grade, I came home with an olive-colored shirt from Wet Seal (way before the advent of Wet Seal Plus) made of gauzy material in a baby doll cut with spaghetti straps. It was a size too small but I forced my rosebud breasts into it over and over again, regardless of the discomfort. I did my best to press my undeveloped XXL body into bohemian dresses that made me look long and interesting. I begged for oversized clothing from the Delia*s catalog that fit me snuggly. I desperately wanted JNCOs like all of my friends had, but they did not make them in my size. Even if they had, my parents would not have been able to afford them, as they were two public school teachers who had recently sunk their money into a mobile home and some land.

I rebelled by dying my hair blonde and pink, which was one of the few things that I had control of. I may not have been able to fix the shape of my body, but I could change my hair at any point. I became very enamoured with cosmetics, too, and became quite good for someone my age at the time. We didn’t have YouTube tutorials, so we figured it out through trial and a few horrible errors until we became somewhat proficient.

I tried to distract from the body I loathed with tank tops, flared pants, and the shiny men’s button-up shirts that were popular at the time. I draped my generic jeans with a smoking jacket that barely fit me and homemade slogans written in Sharpie across the chest of my plain tank tops. I wore skinny boas to distract from my lack of breasts and spoke loudly, faking confidence.

The summer just before I entered high school was when I lost my virginity. I had fallen head over heels for a handsome young rich boy with long, curly blonde hair who lived in the town next to our little hamlet. We met online and would talk for hours on AOL and the phone. We agreed to meet up. I lied and told him I was not a virgin. I lied to so many friends about it to make up for being molested and try to rewrite the story of what happened that I had begun to believe those lies — so much so that it was second nature to tell them.

He and I kissed for hours, but in the end he was too afraid to have sex. We made plans, and then he met another girl. A thinner, prettier girl who made fun of both of us — especially me in my “poser” jeans — for liking one another. I was devastated. I had watched my best friend S and my thin, stylish cousin J have a series of boyfriends by that time, and I was just the butt of jokes except for the lustful eyes of men in their 20’s.

At fourteen, I hated myself. I felt like no one wanted me and I was lonely and tired of being made fun of, so I threw my virginity at a friend’s older brother who had been doggedly and very creepily flirting with me for a couple of years. He was a second-year junior and almost eighteen years old, never making it to senior year before he dropped out to sell dope and help out on his grandparents’ farm.

I finally went out with him, but something felt horribly wrong when I got into his old pickup truck that smelled of stale cigarette smoke and cheap old beer. He took me to play air hockey and put his hands on my cheap denim-clad thighs as many times as he could, no matter how many times I’d swat him and say, “Fuck off.” He never took no for an answer. I eventually just got so tired of telling him no and worrying if I could get home — since I had lied about a sleepover — that I finally let him put his hand up my pale yellow tank top. I just wanted it to be over, so I let him have me laying in the dirt, right behind his truck in a field.

He told everyone what he did with me, a fourteen year old girl, a “slut.”

I was devastated. I shredded the pale yellow tank top that I wouldn’t take off during the two minutes of shame and sweating that I spent with him on top of me in his grandfather’s tobacco field. I “lost” the vintage purple cardigan that I'd worn over the tank and threw my panties in the garbage, hiding them carefully beneath a layer of dry dog food so that my parents wouldn’t see them in the trash and ask questions. Later that year, feeling useless and lonely, I let another nineteen year old guy who was my “boyfriend” at the time and a twenty-one-year old who crossed state lines do the same things to me. I threw out those clothes, too.

We moved back to Florida not long after my parents found out that I was sexually active and that my best friend was pregnant and keeping the baby. They claimed that it was merely to be closer to their aging parents, but I knew they were terrified of my future being swallowed by that small town. I was fifteen at the time and I was devastated to be pulled away from the friends that I had developed and the college radio DJ that I had secretly begun to see.

When we got to Florida, I learned quickly that my Wal-Mart clothes were not going to be accepted in any way. They had slipped through the radar in North Carolina because we were all broke and Wal-Mart had aligned itself with the conservative Christian right as the family-friendly store, which made it acceptable to many of my rural neighbors. This rule did not apply in Florida.
 

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We began buying my jeans at Lane Bryant. I was still dressed about fifteen years too old for my age, but I was beginning to learn how to make it work — or at least how I thought I could make it work. I could get away with frilly pussy bow blouses if I wore them with skirts and smelly Payless neon pink slides, but I could rarely wear skirts because I had never learned to conquer chubrub as a child unless I was wearing a pair of bulky shorts beneath them.

I mainly stuck to my flared jeans and began thrifting “old man” cardigans and t-shirts from the men’s section of the Goodwill. I started wearing plaid shirts over my tank tops. I found Hot Topic, which fed my need for Nine Inch Nails and Tori Amos T-shirts, as well as ugly, sparkly men’s button-up shirts to go over them.

My tastes were galvanizing; I knew what looked good on other people and frequently dressed my friends when we would go to the mall, but I had no idea how to make myself look a way that made me hate my body less.

I was midway through my junior year when I realized that what I had experienced in North Carolina was rape. I had a meltdown and had my friend skip class and cut my rib-length, bleach-damaged hair off in the bathroom. I had just recently watched Elizabeth and was inspired when the Queen lopped off her fiery red locks and declared “I am a virgin again.” I had read that certain cultures believed energy and trauma to be locked into your hair, and that the only way to shed yourself of it was the cut it all off. While I wasn’t ready to Bic the entire thing, a modified chelsea-meets-shag haircut did the job. I took the public bus home and bought the cheapest box of Balsam brand black dye (which is terrifyingly still under $5 in many places today).

When I was done, I looked in the mirror and for the first time I saw a young woman who was really taking control by way of shedding her skin.

I began dressing in thrifted skirts, cardigans, and always wearing cherry motifs with red lipstick and a flick of black eyeliner. I had decided that I was “indie rockabilly” and wore bandanas in my hair like the hardcore kids and rockabilly girls, only I was singing along to Elliott Smith, Bikini Kill, and Wilco while alternating between long bouts of Patsy Cline and Etta James. I would roll my eyes at guys my age and make uncomfortably long eye contact with men in their twenties, thinking that somehow the prey could become the hunter, never understanding the power dynamics that would always end up with me on the losing side.

I persisted, and my style became sharper and more refined as my confidence began building on a foundation of “fake-it-til-you-make-it” that had truly begun to work. Not long after that, I learned that Hot Topic had a sister store called Torrid opening online that would serve a plus-size clientele. While I still couldn’t afford anything, I was absolutely over the moon to begin to see women who looked like me and dressed the way I had been longing to dress. I would spend hours on the website, longing for the clothing. It was the first time I had seen women resembling a slightly more commercially-beautiful version of me in my life.

When Torrid opened up their first Florida location in Clearwater, I literally cried because I had never been in a space in which all of the clothes fit me and were age appropriate. I had never in my life, not even one time, known what literally every single one of my straight-sized friends experienced every time they walked into a store. The three dominant styles were cut and dry versions of fat girl punk, goth, and rockabilly but fairly easily mixed as many of us dabbled in each other’s scenes and created style hybrids like “gothabilly/psychobilly” and “horror-punk.” We all looked like we were going to see Reverend Horton Heat, The Cure, or were at least in line for the Warped Tour circa 2000.

The women at the store were all cool, chubby subculture babes who were sweet as can be but didn’t take shit from any fat shamers that might walk by shouting nasty things as they confusingly realized that it was a plus-size store.

For one of the first times in my life, I felt seen and validated, at home with a tribe of beautiful, fat, painted women — even if they were paid to be there.

Over a decade and a half later, I still remember the A-line, V-neck retro circle dress that I walked out of there holding. Along with my block-heel maryjanes, grandmother’s pearls, and her bottle of Chanel No. 5, I helped redefine my life through that beautiful simple piece and many more to come. By finding my identity through fashion, I finally started to build the confidence that I did not know what missing because I didn’t know it was possible that this feeling could ever exist within me.

Beautiful, fat, colorful women have been saving my life over and over ever since. 


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