When I walked into a New York City Express store on May 2 to get styled by Queer Eye's Tan France, I was ready for anything. And I mean truly anything. I am such a massive fan of the show and Tan that if he had instructed me to wrap myself in tin foil or wear a full-body dinosaur costume, I truly would have done so gladly. Still, though, I was nervous going into the appointment, in which I would be styled by Tan with items from Express that could transition from morning until night — something the brand has named "nine-to-night style." Trying on clothes in front of just yourself can be emotionally taxing as it is. Trying on clothes in front of strangers is downright terrifying. When that stranger is a stylish, famous person you admire... yeah, it's pretty scary. But as soon as I met Tan, all of my anxieties melted away — well, for the most part.
After greeting me with a hug, Tan and I walked back to the dressing room together. The person you see on Queer Eye is exactly him. He is as vibrant, bubbly, and bright as you would expect — and yes, his hair is that good in real life. I immediately became more comfortable as Tan complimented me on the outfit I came in wearing (a white shirt dress buttoned halfway, cropped mom jeans, and an embellished pair of mules). When we arrived at the fitting room area, Tan had already lined up shoes and outfits for me. When he asked me to describe my style I nervously answered, "My style is pretty eclectic. I like everything!" Throughout the whole process, but especially as we started out, I knew how much Tan wanted to make me feel confident and happy with the outfits. But as comfortable as I felt with Tan and as excited as I was to be there, there was still so much going on in my head that made me feel the opposite.
As of May 7, Express has officially rolled out sizes up to 18 in store — a win for someone like me, who as a size 14/16 often has trouble finding items in store. Even knowing that, though, I was still anxious. I was panicking as my eyes scanned the rack and an old, familiar, nagging voice popped up in the back of my head. What if none of it fits me? What if I end up in pieces I secretly hate? That emphasize the parts of my body I'm the least comfortable with? What if I have to ask from bigger sizes from the dressing room? Questions were zipping through my head, all while I smiled and nodded and gladly accepted the first set of pieces from Tan — a white, striped pencil skirt, blue camisole, and checked wool jacket.
Even though I've been telling myself for a couple years now that size is just a number and that any body (including my body) can wear anything, I entered the dressing room and could feel the anxiety to the tips of my toes. A body conscious white pencil skirt was definitely not in my comfort zone. But this was Tan, and as I listened to his reassuring voice coming from just outside the dressing room ("If you don't like it, we'll just pick something else! No problem at all!"), I was determined to push through my anxieties.
I stepped out in the first look, and it was as if I was instantly on the set of Queer Eye. Tan and I stood in front of the mirror and he asked me what I liked about the look, if I would wear pieces like this usually, how I felt about it all.
"Wow, this is really like we're on an episode right now," Tan joked.
"Should I start telling you about my childhood now? Should I start crying?" I said, laughing.
Tan is an easy person to joke with. But looking back on the experience, I know that I was just deflecting how I really felt with humor, something I often do when I feel uncomfortable, and the truth is that I did feel uncomfortable in the form-fitting pencil skirt and a spaghetti strap tank top. So, when Tan asked me if I would usually wear this style of skirt, I was honest and said no, explaining that I usually gravitate toward A-line skirts, which I've always felt are more proportional for my body. Without even pausing, Tan questioned me, "Why? Why do you think that?" And as I responded, I was honest then, too, instantly feeling a knot form in the back of my throat ("Oh, my God, it is like the show," I thought silently to myself).
I stepped out in the first look and it was as if I was instantly on the set of Queer Eye.
I explained that it probably went back to old makeover shows of the past — shows that were based on dressing your body in a way that molded it into something more proportional, something more acceptable. And always, more than anything, something smaller. Tan told me that he wanted me to wear pencil skirts more often. That I looked great. That I could wear whatever I wanted. I started to believe it, but I wasn't quite there. Not yet, anyway.
To transition the look to night, I threw on a leather jacket and gray mules. This styling was more me, and I felt it instantly. But also, something had shifted a little bit that had nothing to do with the new items. Something in me felt a little bit different. And it wasn't that standing in front of a mirror with a style icon I admire, wearing clothes that they picked out for me. It was that for the first time it occurred to me that I was still holding myself to fashion standards that I would never dare to hold other people to.
"Do you feel sexy?" Tan asked me next, as he adjusted bits and pieces of my outfit in the mirror. "I want you to feel sexy! You look sexy!" I realized that this is never even a question I ask myself. But I did feel sexy. And I felt joyful. Having Tan standing with me in the mirror was great, but I realized that everything he was saying to me — all the ways he was making me question my own thought patterns were all things I could do for myself. All things I deserve to do for myself.
When Tan and I sat down after my styling session to talk about his partnership with Express, fashion, and Queer Eye, we came back to those makeover shows of the past again. He called them "archaic," and explained exactly how Queer Eye is so different from those shows.
"I like to say it's not a makeover show, it's a make better show," Tan says.
But Tan is quick to explain that making better doesn't have to mean adhering to rules about what your body can and can't pull off or wearing every single trend; it's about feeling good.
Truthfully, I loved these old shows the same way I love Queer Eye now. It was television like What Not to Wear that sparked my love of fashion all those years ago. But it was also these shows that ultimately cemented a way of thinking about dressing my body that has never fully gone away. Unlearning those fashion "rules" has been a process — and in moments like this, where I'm standing under a spotlight, in front of a mirror, while a stranger styles clothing on me, the fact that I still have quite a long way to go is there, reminding me that there is work to be done, still. I still have ways of thinking that deserve to be questioned in real time.
"Something that [the old makeover shows] did in the old days is hide the parts of your body you don't love. I want to highlight those parts of your body," Tan tells me. "Why wouldn't you wear a figure-hugging pencil skirt?"
And when he asked me this last question, I found that I didn't have an answer at all. Why wouldn't I wear the pencil skirt? The spaghetti strap top? Anything at all, if it could make me feel good?
When Tan picked out one last item for me to try on at home, a polka dot jumpsuit (photographed above), I felt that same instinct inside me to pull back. I thought it would be too form-fitting, too bold, too much pattern for my body. But then I felt another thought rise to the top of my mind — a nagging question, sure, but this time in a good way. Why wouldn't I wear it? I was asking myself. And so I did.