Fashion is for skinny people.
This is what I believed for most of my young adult life. I was an early bloomer, a little on the chubby side, and pretty down on myself because of it. Even into my first year of college I kept telling myself that I wouldn’t buy the pretty clothes until I became pretty. From an early age I equated thinness with beauty, but when we’re surrounded by media that almost exclusively consists of skinny, white people, can you really blame me?
It wasn’t until after some very memorable experiences with some very beautiful women that I came to my senses. One woman in particular, who loved wearing lacy lingerie and other pretty things, helped me understand that fashion is a tool to help you feel confident, not a weapon for others to use against you. She would wear whatever made her feel good, and in doing she took the power away from people who would use her fatness against her. I followed suit and soon enough started feeling pretty good about myself, too. I learned something I wish I had figured out much, much sooner: that “fat” and “beautiful” are not mutually exclusive.
I began experimenting: stylish dresses, cute sweaters, skirts, tights, shorts, and an increasing variety of shoes infiltrated my wardrobe of jeans and t-shirts. Colors were mixed, matched, and splattered across my dull closet. I discovered that I loved dressing up, and that wearing what I wanted, whether it was sweats or skirts, made me feel beautiful and confident.
But as I journeyed further into the world of fashion, I noticed an unsettling trend. It seemed that everyone had an opinion about what women should really be wearing, especially fat women. Fashion experts from every corner of the internet informed me that, as a curvy woman, I should stay away from clothes that were too skinny, too flared, too form-fitting, too loose, high-rise, low-rise, too loud, too simple—oh, and good luck finding them in your size.
It seemed clear that fashion was indeed crafted for the thin and the conventionally beautiful, and that a dangerous double-standard existed for women. I learned that sweats and hoodies meant different things for different women, and that whether a woman was perceived as comfortable or sloppy was a direct result of her weight.
This bothered me for a long time, and it wasn’t until recently that I began to wonder if it wasn’t an issue of fashion at all, but a construct of our own narrow definitions of gender and femininity. The binary construct of gender works like a point system: each characteristic is coded as either “masculine” or “feminine.” These earn us points that add up to either “male” or “female” with no room for “both” or “neither.”
One consequence of this ridiculously inefficient system is a multitude of double standards like those I encountered in the fashion industry. It’s the reason why Kate Upton can scarf down a burger on the hood of a car and become a nationwide sex symbol, while women like Gabourey Sidibe are reviled simply for existing in a public space.
The unfortunate truth is that we have created very narrow standards of beauty for women with little room for anyone over a size six. Somewhere along the line, we coded thinness as feminine, making everything else masculine by default. In the binary checkbox system, this sets fat women behind from the start, requiring that we have fewer masculine-coded characteristics and actively perform more behaviors that are coded feminine to offset the masculinity of fatness.
It wasn’t until I started listening to the people around me that I became fully aware of this phenomenon. In dealing with my own sexuality and gender identity, I became more sensitive to the way people talked about it. In particular, I noticed that the word “butch” means something very different to the LGBTQ community than it does to the rest of the world. For the queer community, “butch” is a self-ascribed part of a person’s gender or sexual identity. Elsewhere, I have heard it used as a label for people who appear to be more masculine, whether they identify as such or not.
In this usage, I almost never hear the term “butch” applied to thin women. I began to wonder what a thin woman would have to do, how she would have to dress, in order to come off as butch to those around her. But, as all the media around us makes clear, a thin, white woman can do whatever she pleases and still fit our cultural beauty standard. Because she fits within these parameters, she avoids labels like “butch,” and the negative connotation it carries for those outside the queer community, as if those who throw around this word are offended by women who dare defy their feminine ideal.
Not only does this binary system reinforce stereotypes and traditional gender roles, it also limits women to a very specific set of characteristics that they can possess and entirely erases those who identify as genderqueer and gender non-conforming. What this means for young women is that they are left wondering where they fit on the gender spectrum and worrying about what they are and are not allowed to do rather than what makes them happy and comfortable.
I have always comfortably identified as a woman, though I have not always been comfortable with traditional femininity. When I stopped worrying about fitting into these standards, I figured out that I was no more or less of a woman in jeans and a t-shirt than I was in dresses and heels. But it’s rarely that simple. Even on good days I can see a difference in the way people treat me and other women around me for defying what they see as suitable femininity. Words like “butch” are taken out of their original context and thrown around carelessly. Fat women are called “slobs” and described as “sloppy” for dressing and acting in the same ways that our thinner peers do.
Many people blame women for having yet to accept their bodies and identities, but any woman can tell you how difficult that is when everyone around her is showing her all the ways in which she is unacceptable. And while we certainly can’t change perceptions of gender and femininity overnight, we can at least consider the way we talk about fatness, gender, sexuality, and race and ask ourselves why we talk about these issue the way that we do.