If ever you need proof that sartorial "rules" are make-believe, you need not look any further than the so-called plus size fashion rules of the world. Within these rules, there exist two very conflicting guiding principals. On the one hand, a plus size woman must opt for "unflattering" clothes: Baggy layers, tunic tops, and boot-cut jeans that hide the body and its rolls rather than accentuate them. This rule is rooted in the belief that fat bodies should be concealed — that we as fatties should do everything we can to try to convince the world that we are not fat. On the other hand, there's the idea that plus size women should always opt for body-hugging garments: Things that highlight our waist, suck in our pooch, and somehow prove that we "have curves in all the right places." We should want clothes that make us look like oversized pinup girls, but pinups nonetheless.
I spent the first two decades of my life following the first rule, truly believing that the sight of my back boobs in a tight tee would traumatize all of Earth's inhabitants. Back then, "the baggier the better" was the only philosophy I cared to follow. But when I was introduced to body positivity in 2012 and began to love my body and see the importance in actually feeling good about myself, things shifted. I started experimenting with bold colors and loud prints. I wore my first pencil skirt, and continued to wear them. I fell in love with vintage styles — with things that showed off my curves in a way that felt comfortable to me. I ditched jeans for a while as well, maybe feeling they weren't unapologetic enough for the message of self love I hoped to help instill in fellow fat women.
And the thing is, I genuinely love these styles. I enjoy getting dolled up, putting on my favorite dress, swiping on the red lipstick, throwing on a faux fur coat, and getting ready to take on the day. These traditionally feminine styles make me feel empowered. But once in a while, I just don't feel up to it. Sometimes I long for a T-shirt or baggy jeans or a dress that doesn't cling. Yet I very rarely wear such things.
Despite the popularity of athleisure and minimalism, I think a small part of me has been guilty of feeling that "unflattering" clothes (defined: clothes that hide one's shape and cut off proportions) could be perceived as signs of laziness when worn by a fat woman. More so than this, however, I've worried that in choosing to opt for baggier silhouettes, I'd be reinforcing the idea that plus size women should only be wearing baggier silhouettes.
In an effort to reconcile some of these feelings, I figured I would ditch the pinup cuts and princess patterns for one week in exchange for baggy, totally-not-form-fitting stuff. Would I feel more or less empowered by reclaiming styles often simultaneously used to shame fat women for being "lazy" while being sold to us as sartorial gospel for minimizing fat bodies? With that main question in mind, I said goodbye to the Joan Holloway in me and hello to the Frumpy McGee.
Combining good, old fashioned flairs with a loose-fitting crop top seemed like a good starting point for Day 1. It was the "easy" kind of look I'd likely admire on any plus size blogger, but not something I would typically opt for myself.
I don't think I've worn flare jeans since the eighth grade. As something of an emo in the mid-2000s, it was Hot Topic skinny jeans all the way for me (always paired with a loose top, of course). I hate to say it, but I think the reason I ditched flares long-term has less to do with the fact that skinny jeans became the norm, and more to do with the fact that they're not as body-hugging and pinup-flattering as a tight-to-the-body pant or jean.
So the thing is, I work in an office full of women, many of whom are constantly lifting each other up via genuine complements. This is going to sound like First World Problems, and it totally is in a way. But on this first day, I heard not a single peep of sartorial praise. I noticed a couple of people staring in my direction as I walked from my desk to the bathroom or from the bathroom to the kitchen (likely because flare jeans still aren't "back" in a big enough way that you wouldn't notice their presence). But that was sort of it.
What was more interesting to note, IMO, is that I felt pretty uncomfortable — adjusting and readjusting my pants every time I left my seat. Normally, I don't consciously think about how put-together or presentable I look when I'm working, yet I couldn't help but fidget for the solid nine hours I was there... Feeling kind of like the middle school version of myself who wouldn't let anyone take a picture of her unless she first had time to make sure nothing was bulging or poking in a weird way.
This was an outfit pairing I actually loved straight from the get-go, even though I knew it was baggier than my normal comfort zone and that tying the shirt would reveal my tummy a little less subtly than a standard crop top might. When I arrived at work, my friend Emma was quick to tell me I looked "badass," and I found it incredibly funny just how much her comment influenced my feelings throughout the day.
Despite the fact that this outfit is composed of items that hide my shape and cut off its proportions, I did feel like a rule-breaking queen. This wasn't like the baggy looks that were the only things available to fat women throughout the '90s and earlier 2000s. This was something different... Baggy, but somehow still bold. Maybe it was the tummy poking out?
Throughout the day, I kept asking myself why it was that I'd become so adamant about leaving behind baggier cuts. And I sort of realized that it was tied more to the lack of options in plus size fashion than to my personal tastes. After years of only seeing plus size fashion that was baggy and anti-form-fitting, every ounce of my soul wanted to rebel against it. But now that options for fuller-figured women are slowly improving, perhaps the time has come for a little more experimentation.
ASOS Curve Gypsy Off Shoulder Dress With Embroidery, $37.62, asos.com
I've read more than one blog post in which plus size women scorn the "sack-like" dresses available to them with totally understandable rage and sadness. Although pretty, I would definitely say this piece fits into that "sack-like" genre of clothing. When I got dressed this morning, I wasn't sure how I felt about the look. I don't think I'd ever worn something that so hid my body in a long, long time. In a way, it reminded me of the dresses I'd sport in high school. But because I was digging the color and embroidery, I proceeded as planned.
Let me tell you: This was the day I got the most compliments. My co-workers loved the dress. My partner said it looked much better on my body than in the picture. Even a lady on the subway said she "adored" the Bardot shoulder. But this is where paranoia struck: Were people complementing the dress because it aligned with traditional ideals of femininity while still hiding my fat body? Or did they just genuinely like it?
Paranoia is a nasty bugger, but it seems like an inevitability when you grow up in a culture that perpetuates body shame. I chose to ignore all those feelings, though, because I knew deep down that the people making remarks (sans the stranger on the train, perhaps) wouldn't bother to comment if they didn't actually like the look. They'd just keep quiet instead.
I also kept having these flash backs to the corners of department stores when I was 16 — to all the loose dresses that really did look like someone had taken a sheet and cut a whole in it for the head. But then I would remember that this dress wasn't that. And I was no longer the girl who'd buy such dresses purely because she hated her body.
ASOS Curve Midi T-Shirt Dress In Stipe, $26.87, asos.com
Never in my life (OK: Never in my life as a body positive adult) have I worn something that has made me look quite this square-shaped. This day was the real mind f*ck, because throughout it, I couldn't help but miss the sight of my waist. Rather than sulking because my "curves were too hidden," however, I took the opportunity to remind myself how bizarre the thought of "wanting to see my waist" would've seemed to my teenage self. IMO, it shows a lot of progress in the self love department when we actively want our bodies to be visible, rather than hidden — especially when you identify with a remotely marginalized body type.
Although this dress wasn't flattering in the traditional sense of the word (oftentimes "flattering" is synonymous with "slimming" or "curve-enhancing"), it felt pretty flattering during the latter half of the day — like a tool with which to analyze my self-love journey.
This was by far the most surprising day of all. On paper, the outfit was definitely the most "me." It came in a bold print, was super funky, and evoked vintage styles without being too "I'm a '70s baby at heart!" Although the look didn't "flatter" my figure in any way (I might as well not have a waist or hips), I felt incredibly comfortable. I didn't, however, think my mama would feel the same.
I visited my mom on the Jersey Shore this day, fully expecting her to make a joke about how I looked like a poster child for flower power, and not in a good way. She's Colombian, and like most of the Colombian women I've met in my life, she prefers form-fitting cuts. I know she likes when I wear things that accentuate my hourglass-ish frame, so I thought she'd be reluctant to see anything cute about this look.
I, however, was totally wrong. My mom loved it. I don't know if it's because it reminded her of being a teenager in the '70s or if she's just opened her mind to the fact that "flattering" is a stupid concept thanks to reading my many, many articles about body positivity. Either way, she brought on the praise, and it sort of felt like progress. Heck, if I can show my mom that there is no such thing as fashion "rules," I'll consider that a job well done. For this reason, Day 5 felt rather successful.
This was probably the most challenging day for me. If ever I opt for looser-fitting jeans, I always juxtapose the look with a tight crop top or something of the like. And if ever I wear such a baggy tee, it's often in combination with a pencil skirt. I spent the majority of this day in New Jersey again, visiting with my dad's side of the family. While both my dad and step-mother have been vocal about seeing the beauty in fuller figures, I know they both subscribe to the belief that fuller figured women look "better" in tight clothes.
Though neither of them said anything positive or negative about my ensemble, this was my least favorite of the bunch. In no small part because I felt a little too much like my dad for comfort while wearing it. All my life, he's been a boot-cut and T-shirt-with-a-chest-pocket-for-cigarettes kind of man. The only time you'll get him to trade in his signature look is for weddings and funerals.
When it comes to our bodies, I sometimes think my dad and I look a bit alike. We're broad-shouldered, tall, and have visible tummy outlines that hang down. Though I love my dad, I just don't particularly want to emulate his style. All through the day, I couldn't help but feel that "this just wasn't me." But what I will say for the look is that it was comfortable as hell. Though I can't imagine frequently recreating it, I can see myself gravitating towards basics when the thought of putting on something tight is too much to bear.
So, What Does That Tell You?
If there's anything that this experiment has solidified for me, it's that the question of "flattering" versus "unflattering" is extremely tired. I totally believe that we're all entitled to our sartorial preferences. Not every fat woman is going to love skater dresses, and not every fat woman is going to enjoy flare jeans. And it's OK to feel more attractive or more yourself in certain styles over others, so long as you're not internalizing the belief that only certain body types deserve certain styles along the way.
This experiment forced me to take a look at my stylistic preferences to determine whether I was staying away from certain cuts or looks because I felt they weren't "for my body" or simply because they weren't "for me." In the end, it was a combination of both. When wearing "unflattering" clothes, the world didn't really take much notice. No one imploded at the sight of my square-ish looking body or at my revealed belly button. No one seemed to think I was being lazy (which I will admit was a fear I had going into this because the words "lazy" and "fat" have been so interconnected in this body shaming world of ours). In fact, the only person who ever seemed uncomfortable was me.
By the end of the week, I realized I'm likely never going to love flare jeans as much as I do skinnies. I'm probably always going to prefer a pencil skirt and T-shirt combo to a T-shirt and pants combo. But no longer am I worried about the grander implications of these preferences under the umbrella of body positivity. And no longer will I be disregarding whole styles because I don't think they're unapologetic or body positive enough. Instead, I hope to wear what feels right day to day — whether it's a tutu, a VBO-enhancing dress, or boot cut jeans and a crop top. IMO, "flattering" should mean "what feels right for you." Not what feels right for anyone else.
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Images: Marie Southard Ospina/Paddy McClave