I couldn’t imagine myself wearing the beautiful pieces that I cut out of magazines and filled with scrapbooks. Versace dresses and Jil Sander suits were aimed at models and Hollywood starlets, people with the right genes and the diligence to maintain a size zero physique. In sophomore year, when I shrunk to a size 10, I looked at the pictures of Cameron Diaz and Naomi Campbell taped to the door of my mini-fridge as I chewed on my carrot sticks and thought: someday.
But if I had every intention of one day wearing beautiful clothes, I had no real plans to work in fashion. From what I saw online, on sites like The Fashion Spot and new street style blogs of the time, everyone who worked in fashion was impeccably dressed, slim and independently wealthy. Fashion was Carine Roitfeld who walked the Tuileries in Azzedine Alaïa from head to toe, it was not Janelle from Long Island in patched Levi’s.
Still, when I was heading into my dreary post-college nine-to-five, fashion images were one of the few things that kept my spirits up. I was stuck dressing older than my age in Banana Republic bomber jackets and Calvin Klein broadcast label little black dresses, but in my spare time I escaped into the endless scroll of Style.com. Fashion didn’t want me, but I did – and like any unrequited love affair, I put it on a pedestal, giving my favorite brands a pass on plus sizes because they were manufacturing art. I should have stapled two looks to wear anything from Nicolas Ghesquière’s Balenciaga or Dries Van Noten; instead, I simply pushed away my desire to touch and feel – to experience fashion as a participant, not a spectator.
My defense crumbled as soon as I started my first real foray into fashion working as an intern at a modeling agency. The glamor of being surrounded by the faces I had watched in magazines evaporated after hearing an agent gossip histrionics over a model gaining an inch on her hips ahead of casting season. Once you hear a grown man yell at a teenage girl in an attempt to dissect her body, you understand the consequences of all that artistry. When clothes exist as an accessory to be admired, which depends on an almost impossible set of physical standards, people hurt themselves.
Over the years, my faith in fashion’s treatment of women’s bodies has continued to erode, even as things were meant to change. Ad campaigns featured more plus-size models, while former colleagues sent me emails full of “thinspo” diet tips. Celebrities have made big statements about inclusion – one of them is a girl of rock royalty who, upon seeing me backstage at the hot ticket of the season, loudly remarked that she couldn’t believe they “let the trolls in”. Brands expanded their size ranges for capsule collections, designed special pieces for the likes of Lizzo and Naomi Watanabe, then went back to business as usual.
If you’ve visited any e-commerce platform in the past decade, you’ve seen how a lofty concept like body positivity can be diluted into slogans and platitudes about accepting your cellulite, because what has started as an attempt for those with stigmatized bodies to assert their worth has been repackaged into a commodity. Yes, challenging cultural beauty standards may be universal, but only a select few have to deal with obesity-related discrimination.
This is where someone – and there always is someone – will step in to suggest a trip to the gym, a weight loss operation, or hiring a trainer. And although bodies change all the time, as well as our relationship to them, large-scale physical transformation should not be a prerequisite for personality. How I feel about my body changes almost daily, but the reactions of others are constant: fat is the first thing they see and the only measure by which I am first judged. The limited shopping options are just one of many slights – I’ve had doctors suggest gastric bypass surgery when I had a fever, and parents who thought diet books were giveaways. Appropriate Christmas. What I would like is what most others take for granted: walking into a store without wondering whether or not I can shop there – and meeting new people without worrying that they will perceive me as like a number on a scale.
For decades, fashion has mocked fat women, expecting gratitude for giving them the bare minimum. Today, with the retail crisis and the financial viability of the plus size population newly evident, more and more brands are taking the plunge. Of course, if the challenge was only about the clothes, women like me could have continued to subsist on Lane Bryant’s ill-fitting mix. But the real goal is that everyone can create a wardrobe that allows them to flourish both personally and professionally.
For my first interview at vogue, in 2014, I walked into the Times Square offices of Condé Nast in a bright blue Calvin Klein shirt dress worn under a black blazer. At the time, it was the best look I could do in the short term, the one that allowed me to show that I had a point of view on fashion, even if it was imperfect. By the time I passed through security, however, I noticed that everyone else I passed was slightly dressier—their heels higher, their jewelry more flashy, their accessories more exclusive. I was overqualified for the job slightly above the intern level I was there to interview for, but found myself nervous and doubting myself.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job.
I was (almost) relieved – after all, if I had succeeded, I wouldn’t have been able to dress the part. At the time, my shopping habits were limited to online retailers like Eloquii, a fast fashion staple, and a few brick-and-mortar haunts. I was browsing the women’s department of Macy’s on 34th Street, passing tourists having fun laughing at size 3X dresses or seeing if two people could fit in one coat. While I was happy to be able to walk into a store knowing that Something would be salvageable, most of what was available was still designed with someone else in mind. Either it was older (square blazers with shoulder pads, palazzo pants, matronly robes), juvenile (T-shirts covered in cartoon kittens, plaid pajama pants), or downright hideous.