In the world of growing frustration with ubiquitous, unrealistic body images, being a curvy fashion blogger is already quite the statement. But Bay Area ladies Engh and Asay—neither a size 2 but both fabulous—weren't satisfied with well-styled photo shoots and empowerment talk. So they took Instagram by storm, creating an accepting, supportive community of fashion lovers who are into thrifting, sharing, and celebrating people of all shapes and sizes. As its name, @fashionpenpals, suggests, the two write founders and other fashionistas write each other—showing off their latest purchase, handing out compliments, and creating the positive, communal vibe that's much needed on the most self-involved social network of all.
Here they fill us in on how they met, launched their project, and where they're headed next.
How did you two meet?
Nina: I remember our first meeting. We had mutual friends who worked for the first Obama campaign. I ventured out to Oakland for a political event. I remember looking at her and thinking, “That girl has the best hair and style, be cool Nina, be cool.” We got along immediately. I mean how can you not love that girl!
Kat: I was going to tell some magical story where we passed each other on the street wearing matching roller skates and our wheels locked to each other, but your story is more accurate.
How was the idea of Penpals born?
Nina: It started over a conversation we had at a cocktail party. In late 2013 I came to the stark realization that all my Facebook profile photos were over two years old. I started taking notice that every time I looked in the mirror, I would say “Well this is just a hiccup; this outfit will look better when I drop the weight." I used to love getting dressed and all of the sudden it became a chore. When I would look to Instagram or Pinterest for inspiration I found very little—except in Kat. She was always so stylish and managed to do it on a budget. Flash forward to the next night—a cocktail and a Samosa later Kat and I realized we could be our own fashion role models. The original name Kat came up was “Kat to Nina”—AKA Kattonina. We started to write each other letters via Instagram, describing our outfits, who and what we were inspired by, and where we found them. As others started to write us letters we decided the pen pal circle was for all, and we all needed a place to connect and be inspired by other REAL people. And with that, Fashion PenPals was born.
Kat: I just remember feeling kind of surprised that someone like Nina actually wanted to hang out and talk about style and fashion with me. Her natural fashion sense is almost intimidating. She makes me want to go further with my own and not get lazy. She keeps me out of sweat pants, which is funny, since she has also mastered the art of the sweatpants-and-a-blazer look.
Why are Fashion Penpals important?
Nina: Fashion Penpals has been the tool in my life that has created the most change internally. When we started this I was in a pretty dark place and I didn’t even know it! I was ignoring the present-day Nina, and to be honest, that ended up being just as harmful as yelling at myself in the mirror. Having to take my picture almost every day has allowed me to NOT scour over every little detail I don’t like about myself, because, hey, I can’t do that EVERY DAY, there's no time! I stopped curating myself and started embracing myself in the moment. The more I stopped worrying, and the more I was pushing myself to have fun with my clothes, my mood changed. I stopped looking at ghosts in the mirror and started embracing myself.
Kat: Dang Fashion Penpals is my constant reminder that style isn't about being a certain size or being rich or being beautiful. Style is about personal expression and art—and you should be able to enjoy that at any size, shape or income. That's our motto. Any time I feel myself getting envious of someone I see in a magazine or on Instagram, and I do (and now we know that even Beyoncé gets jealous, sometimes) I have to re-center with that reminder; it's not a competition.
Where do you shop for clothes?
Nina: Everywhere! I’m a sucker for thrifting, Value Center in Vallejo and the Salvation Army on Geary are two of my favorites. And don’t tell anyone but I have also been known to peruse H&M on occasion. Asos.com also has some great options for when I have the bug for something shiny and new but without a crazy price tag. With thrifting I often use what I find to sew new garments. I see things in my head I want to wear so much but can never find them in reality to I often have to take to the sewing machine to make them.
Kat: I spent 2014 focused on trying to only buy used clothing, nothing new—I broke the rule a small handful of times, but only enough times to count on one hand. I live in Oakland, and within blocks of my house there's a bounty of awesome vintage shops and thrift stores. I rarely missed buying new, honestly. I also created a Threadflip account and started shopping there. Some of my favorite items in my closet came with ridiculously cheap prices from Threadflip. There are other sites like TF, including Thredup, Poshmark, etc., but I didn't have as great of an experience with these sites as I did with Threadflip, especially when it came to plus size clothing.
Was it clear to you both that the project's agenda will have a body image angle?
Nina: I don’t think we had an agenda that reached much further than ourselves really when we first started it. I think for me I just wanted to be more accepting of myself. I also wanted to see more real women in real fashion on my Instagram feed. After the first few months we noticed people that weren’t in our close circle of friends starting to follow us and show off their killer style with their own letters, regardless of the size on their tag or the price tag. It became clear that others were wanted to join in on the dialogue about self-acceptance and celebration. The spectrum of folks writing to us was inspiring; the thrifting community, the body positive community. REAL people were writing us. It was great. We are all worth celebrating and decorating, I am happy so many more of us are owning that.
Kat: I mean, how long do women have to bitch about the fashion industry ignoring any body type that isn't the typical model frame before things really start to change, right? But it's about more than just body love, because I do think the fashion world has a diversity problem that extends beyond just size and shape. Instagram has a wealth of awesome women and men of fashion representing all shapes and sizes. All ages. All income levels. All races. We just wanted to celebrate their fine style and inspiration.
What are your thoughts on being plus-sized in the Bay Area?
Nina: I think the Bay Area is a microcosm of the rest of the world. While we aren’t as blatantly obsessed with being the “perfect shape” here, the world’s judgment can still creeps in other ways. San Francisco is a health-obsessed city. While being healthy is important and should be important to everyone there are a lot of stereotypes that come along with being plus-sized. Being chubby DOESN’T mean all you do is eat fast food, and be lazy. Having said that, we are in a culturally aware and intelligent area. I don’t feel out of place and I can say I feel beautiful here. The diversity we see here across the board creates a climate of acceptance and pride.
Kat: I will say that my weight has never been a problem for my dating life for as long as I've lived in the Bay Area. I've lived here for almost eight years and I have only been single for a total of three months, and my fiancé Rob who takes most of my pictures for Fashion Penpals (he's a real photographer, how convenient is that?) loves me at every size. Let's just say that this was not my experience with dating in San Diego before I moved here . . .
What's next for you two?
Nina: As we both have taken on new roles in our lives—promotions, career changes—it is becoming harder to find the time to take care of myself, let alone take a pic. But I am going to keep writing my letters and looking forward to being inspired daily by the amazing women who write us. We have lots of ideas to extend our vision even further. Watch out, world!
Kat: Fashion Penpals gave me the monumental opportunity for a career change, and I'm now working for inclusive bridal startup Azazie.com. I love that I never have to tell a woman "I'm sorry, we don't have your size." We cater to women of every size and shape, and we do it with strong values—no sweat shops. How cool is that? There's more to come with that, too. Nina and I just designed a maternity line for Azazie. What, you didn't think I'd jump to something in fashion and not bring my Partner-in-Penpals along, did you?