Saturday, September 27, 2014

Notes on Fatshion

I have conflicting feelings about fatshion. On the one hand, it's great for us big women to show off our bodies. We get to say that we are beautiful at our current weight. We contradict stereotypes about fat women, disproving, for instance, that our weight shows a lack of self-care, that you can only be pretty, desirable, and proud of your appearance if you're thin enough. We don't have to wait for pounds to drop to look awesome. We don't have to keep ill-fitting clothes in case we're "lucky" enough to get "thin" again. We get to occupy space.

The main thing that concerns me about fatshion is its emphasis on the hyper-feminine. I'm not willing to name blogs because my goal is not to throw anyone under the bus; I'm speaking about fatshion as a whole, or you might say fatshion trends. I've looked at a lot of fatshion blogs and pretty much all of them showcase very feminine modes of attire -- flowy dresses, tight, curve-enhancing skirts, or whimsical a-line skirts, ruffles, 'skinny' (or tapered leg) jeans, jewelry, bright lipstick, etc. If you know of exceptions, please tell me in the comments or on facebook because I'd love to see them. It seems to me that quite a bit (though in this case certainly not all) of fatshion is vintage-inspired, a take on the 1950s pin-up.

You might ask, why would I be concerned about this? On an individual level, there is nothing wrong with having a feminine take on fashion, regardless of weight or gender identity. I wouldn't go up to a fellow fat woman and say, "how dare you wear a dress!" In fact, I would probably say, "nice dress, I love the color!" because I believe in supporting my fellow fatties in the world. I make a point in New York City of noticing fat women who look awesome and complimenting them on it. It's may way of saying, "we're allies in this. Maybe despite your awesome self-presentation you worry about being a fat woman in the world, but I know what you're dealing with and I support you." I often ask the woman where she got what she's wearing so I get more ideas about fat friendly stores. And it's a way for me to challenge my own internalized prejudices about what kinds of bodies are desirable and even just acceptable. Sometimes I feel self-conscious about my belly and my thighs, and if I can acknowledge to myself that other big women look great, I can accept myself more easily and move through my shyness about a tight shirt on my belly and feel proud of it.

Complimenting fellow fat women, for me, is a kind of code, a secret hand shake or belly bump. I just wish it were more successful. Usually when I compliment a woman, often on the subway, she thanks me sheepishly and returns to what she was doing. I don't tend to get the "I understand your code and send it back to you" feeling I dream about. Maybe the women in question don't want to be bothered during their train ride. Maybe the book they are reading on their iPad really is that amazing. But maybe the lukewarm reception indicates the importance of my gesture. It isn't really okay to compliment fat bodies out there, even if you have one, too. And that's why I feel the need to do it.

But as I described in my post on interpellation, there are limits to approaching fat issues only in terms of the personal. The personal is where and how we act (it's political, after all), but subjecthood is a loaded and problematic position. The personal often expresses our own unconscious participation in the oppressive systems we've been born into, to which we submit ourselves "freely." And so it is worrying to me that the personal on fatshion blogs is so overwhelmingly represented through feminine tropes. Against the wills of the bloggers involved, this trend as a whole conveys the idea that fat is only acceptable when it is framed in a particularly feminine way, when fat means big breasts and thick lips and sensual curves even though not all fat bodies have these qualities.

Many fatshion outfits show belts around the waist with a dress or skirt because fatness is most accepted when the waist is smaller than the hips and when large thighs are camouflaged by fabric. This trend -- and not any individual person -- runs the risk of communicating that fatness is inherently feminine, that the only argument to be made for fatness is that it enhances a narrow view of femininity and is actually not allowed outside of those codes. If fatness is only to be associated with the hyper feminine, it can easily slip into other feminine stereotypes, for instance, that fatness is secondary to a strong and taut masculine, that it stands for the excessively emotional, the histrionic woman who cannot control either her moods or her appetites. It is easy for fashion, fat or otherwise, to express a woman's subordination rather than her power, and not just her historical subordination to men but her economic subordination to the whims of the market, and her philosophical subordination to the Western paradigm that bodies are composed of an inner essence and an outer presentation with the latter expressing some kind of deep truth about the former.

These are the risks of fatshion. These problematic messages are in there even though the women in question do not consciously believe those messages. I would like to see a bigger variety of fatshions to dilute the sad connotations that accompany fatness and femininity. Does fatness have to be dressed up or can it rest in t-shirts that show muffin tops, jeans that don't elegantly taper at the bottom, sneakers instead of leg-lengthening heels? What if online plus size stores other than ReDress had a butch styles section? Fatshion is worth it, and that is why it is worth being critically assessed and hopefully broadened.


  1. *Insert Citizen Kane Applause Scene Here*

  2. YES. Thank you so much for this. I didn't even think about it until you said it, and now it is SO apparent! I often have thought that I'm not femme enough to truly pull off being fat, but hadn't had the thoughts behind that to articulate it. I really appreciate this article.