Pearls & Swine Designer "Comes Out" As Plus Size

by Lani Irving

It may not be something you'd choose for everyday wear, but if you want to turn heads, a piece of madcap millinery by Pearls & Swine should certainly do the trick. Bold, beautiful and most definitely distinctive, you name it and designer-maker Bink will find a way for you to wear it on your head. Operating mostly online, Pearls & Swine has been steadily gathering momentum since 2008, accumulating a loyal and varied fan base of lovers of “elegant but odd” headwear.

“It's fair to say I have never been conservative in my taste… I need to express what I am feeling though my work. I am telling my story, the things that make me happy like colors, flowers, cats and the things that scare me like religion.”

With a vast choice of adornments from an orchid to an octopus, Pearls & Swine headwear is certainly a great way to stand out from the crowd and, with custom items available too, a way to express your own unique style and interests. It’s not just headwear — it’s wearable pop surrealist art. In an email interview, Bink (who chooses to only go by this name) explained to me that she feels, and always has felt, a strong need to stay true to her own inspirations rather than targeting work towards a particular market, declaring, “I only want make what I feel. It needs to be my truth.”

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that, despite making her living from such fiercely attention-grabbing accessories without compromising herself and her ideas, Bink recently opened up about her struggles with her own body image and confidence. In a recent post on her brand's Facebook and Instagram pages, Bink "came out of the closet" — but not in the sense that we usually interpret the phrase. Bink's "coming out" involved sharing a selfie in a swimsuit — and a rather fabulous polka dot one, I might add — "coming out" about her body type, her real self and finally feeling comfortable in her own skin. The accompanying caption shows that this was a big moment for Bink:

"My new costume and my 1st ever selfie in a costume :) I am a (UK) size 18, 40 years old, I am finally learning to be ok with myself inside and out. I am sick of living with self hatred over my imperfections, one of the joys of getting older is caring less about the judgement of others and judging yourself less.... ^.^ I wish I could go back in time to tell my younger self to just stop putting a number on happiness... Age and scales should not hold you back from happiness! I feel like I have just come out of the closet and announced to the world I AM FAT AND OK WITH THAT!!! #bodypositive #effyourbeautystandards"

Even a quick glimpse through the comments shows what an inspiring move this was for her fans and customers, too — the overwhelming message is of support, pride and empathy, illustrating how much body positive statements and images like these can impact upon their audience. Something that really struck me about Bink’s statement was her phrasing that she had “just come out of the closet” — a phrase we often hear used in the context of LGBTQ individuals who "come out" about sexuality or gender.

The idea of "coming out" is, in itself, problematic — why are we assuming that everyone is straight to begin with? It implies owning up, confessing, admitting to something, suggesting that their identity is some shameful secret. Which it isn’t. I like to think that as a society we’ve come much further than that. To me, it almost seems like an "innocent until proven guilty" concept. But what does this mean in terms of Bink’s "coming out" as plus-size? Did people make assumptions about the body behind the business?

“I have pretty much been a head for most of the time I have been in business. There are hardly any images of me which include my body because I hated the way I looked. So I would only allow images of my head to be shown,” said Bink, adding, “I have social anxiety, so I could go for long periods of time avoiding leaving the house (brilliant for making hats and selling online!); then on the rare occasions when people would meet me, I would be mortified that they could see the person behind Pearls & Swine was a piglet!” This is the trouble in running your own business — your personal problems can become tied in to your business problems.

However, having issues with her body image hasn’t necessarily always been a problem for Bink's business and passion for making hats. She proclaims that “accessories are a big girl’s best friend,” and that her love for accessories and therefore millinery has only been furthered by “going into fashion clothing shops for slim ladies only, where the aisles are so small that you can barely squeeze though.”

“I would wander over to the jewelry, hair accessories and shoes because no matter what your size those always fit and make you feel fabulous! I don't think I would be as passionate about accessories and millinery as I am if I wasn't a big girl... I think that size should not be a reason to be less than fabulous!"

Contrary to what you might expect, Bink’s battles with her body image and self esteem have far from turned her into a drab wallflower, avoiding drawing attention to herself, and she describes how “even at my biggest and most self-loathing, I would dress up wildly.” Dressing up, for her, has been a way to try and overcome these issues, opting to “dress up in way that draws attention and [to] look like someone who is confident,” claiming that this ensures that “people treat you like a confident person, so you feel confident,” and explaining how wearing an unusual hat can be a great conversation starter. Her social anxiety has at times been so severe that it has prevented her leaving the house, so outing her real self online was something she did in order to ensure that she “can’t hide anymore.” “In admitting it publicly,” she said, “I feel I have empowered myself, as hiding my 'failure' has only resulted in misery.”

“I 'came out.' It was TERRIFYING, I was shaking with fear. I have seen some truly horrible responses to women putting images of themselves out there, not even in a swimsuit. People can be very cruel so I had NO idea what to expect.”

Luckily for Bink, the response was “IN…CRED…I…BLE!” Bink has always been a believer in “talking like a person, not a business,” in order to build genuine connections with fans and customers, having learned over time “that being honest and making yourself vulnerable means we can connect.” Bink’s swimsuit selfie was another step in strengthening her genuine connection with her social media followers and something she did not just do for herself but “for others who are under-confident.”

In the age of social media, the selfie can be a powerful tool — the more images of the body we put out there, the more we become accustomed to seeing different types of actual, real, un-airbrushed bodies, and the more we as a society can broaden our definition of "beauty." However, wherever women are sharing images of themselves online, there can be negativity as well as support; the "trolls" are out there, so in this sense social media can be a double-edged sword. So is social media a help or a hindrance for the body positivity of women outside of the "beauty standard?"

“I think we need to take responsibility for what we are teaching young people about body image. In many ways social media can be an amazing support for women outside the 'norms.' I am alone in my studio the majority of my time but I have an incredible support network of people from all over the world at my fingertips at all times. I don't engage with negativity, I don't read articles which are horrible about women or their bodies, I don't remain online friends with people who are unkind.”

Female empowerment and body positivity are issues Bink feels passionate about, declaring, “I am pro-women, I am pro-women's rights and the empowerment of women. I don't think being being big is where it's at, I think being healthy and happy is.” Being healthy and happy can take many shapes and forms, and if accessories really are “a big girl’s best friend,” Bink’s creations can be seen as empowering to their wearers too. “I have had customers burst into tears upon receiving my headwear,” Bink says. Pearls & Swine is about much more than just wearing headwear. “There is something wonderful about hat wearers,” Bink muses, “They are a bit magical.”

I am, rightly or wrongly, cautious throughout this interview about using the term "plus-size," being mindful of the Drop the Plus campaign, which has been gaining momentum as of late, with some women now proclaiming that the phrase itself can be harmful. So, what does Bink actually think of the term? “Personally I think you can describe yourself with any words you feel comfortable with as long as you feel empowered,” she states, even offering up some suggestions such as “curvy, voluptuous, plump-tious, chubby, chunky, plus-size. But, really, does it matter? We are who we are in our skin; this skin is the vehicle that we drive though this life.”

After years of struggling with low confidence, Bink is finally starting to feel happy in her own skin, realizing that body image issues tend to be more about the way we see our bodies, rather than the bodies themselves. “I regret all the time I have wasted on being miserable about my body. I am so over it all now,” she explained. “I have been bigger and smaller and I still felt the same in my head. I think for the majority weight is a head issue, not a body issue.” Being beyond the remit of the mainstream beauty standard can be a good thing — a filter, perhaps, for people who aren’t worth wasting your sweet time on. “I have just hit 40 and I seriously don't care if anyone judges me on my size,” Bink announced. “Those who do don't deserve to know the person who lives in this skin!”

“If our happiness is wrapped in the way we look, we are seriously doomed to be miserable.”

Photos: Ellie Victoria Gale/Courtesy Pearls & Swine; pearlsandswine/Instagram