I was chatting with a coworker about rainbows today. (It’s a long story.) The end of the conversation was, essentially, me saying that sometimes I like to dress to piss people off – I like to use color and texture and certain pieces of clothing really aggressively to provoke reactions.

That falls into line with something I’ve been thinking about lately – the way that fat women are expected to dress in ways that are ostensibly minimizing but that, in reality, are really about us occupying less visual real estate. No bold colors, no stripes, nothing that would ever make us look bigger. It’s not that some of those rules are genuinely about looking slimmer – it’s that we draw less attention to ourselves when we comply with fashion rules. We occupy less space, metaphorically if not physically. We minimize ourselves for the comfort of other people.

It reinforces the sense of shame we’re supposed to feel because of our bodies, until we police ourselves.

People get angry when we deviate from these rules, not just because we AREN’T FOLLOWING THE RULES, but because it makes them take notice of us. When we refuse to fade quietly into the background, people have to register not only our presence but the space we take up as valid – there’s no imagining that we aren’t there, that we aren’t taking up more than one seat on the train, that we aren’t noncomforming and unashamed of it.

As I’ve discussed here before, I’ve always dressed funny – but when I got really into fat acceptance, I started dressing really aggressively. Not necessarily in a sexy way (though I definitely had my fair share of outfits that played into that). Rather, I dressed in a way that was a deliberate attempt to provoke response. I do that with color a lot – both by wearing bright colors and by wearing colors that don’t “match”.

I wear ugly clothes, with great deliberation. I’ll also wear stuff that is considered “tacky” with great delight – at some point I’ll finish putting together a roller skating outfit that incorporates high-waisted shorts, bright tights, and some kind of top (I’m not sure what I want this to be yet – maybe something with a bow). And when I wear it, people will be horrified.

People will be horrified by clothes.

How ridiculous is that, y’all?

I’m a nonsexy-dressing femme for the most part. Heteronormative goals of “sexy” aren’t usually part of my repetoire even when I’m wearing something low cut (which doesn’t happen all that often anymore, for some reason). But clothes that draw attention, outfits that aren’t designed to disguise my bulk? HELL YES. I have no interest in blending in. I have even less interest in catering to those who wish my body didn’t exist.

Every now and then it will hit me with a hardness just how much some people hate fat bodies. Sometimes I’ll step back and be a bit more quiet while I take care of myself. But generally, I pull out the red lipstick and the largest hair possible to wear with a tight dress. Because, while I often put the comfort of other people before my own, fuck that.

I wonder if this is why so many radical fatties dress in ways that could be described as ostentatious. My fat friends who are more conservative, not through body shame but just because they really like khakis and the like, don’t see as much representation – maybe it’s because their preferences, which are totally valid, can sometimes align with the clothes the rest of us are rejecting as a strange sort of costume.

There’s also a double standard, I suspect. Because people often comment on my outfits like they are outrageous when they’re really quite tame. The only thing remarkable about my habit of little grey dresses is that I FOUND so many little grey dresses in my size. The bar is just set a lot lower. “Oh,” people say, “that plus-sized woman is a snappy dresser” – because my clothing coordinates.

Visibility is, of course, one powerful way toward normalization – though more and more I hate the word normal these days. I just don’t think it exists for most people. And so I reassert that clothing and style can be radical acts of political rebellion. When we make people SEE US and acknowledge not only our presence but our requirement for space, we are refusing to conform in significant ways, the effects of which ripple out into the rest of society.

Being visible can be dangerous. And so I don’t think it is an obligation for anyone to become actively visible in their community or, you know, at the mall. I don’t think anyone needs to deny their own personal preferences (though it is always worth considering what motivates those preferences). But I want to say this: I NOTICE YOU. I SEE YOU. I SUPPORT YOU.

And I dress to be seen as well. Not only because I am not ashamed of my body but because I will not be ignored for the comfort of people who aren’t used to seeing fat bodies in a positive light. I don’t often directly challenge people – I think that’s kind of coercive and what works for me might not work for you. But I want to challenge y’all this time: just think about it. Think about the ways we blend, the way we accommodate those who hate us. Think about your own comfort zone and ways of making yourself safe. I think we just need to think.

And, you know, maybe wear brightly colored horizontal stripes. But that might just be me.


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36 Comments

  1. Posted May 20, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I reblogged this on tumblr (where my handle is “ecrivaine”), but I love this. This is basically exactly what I’m writing my dissertation about (also with some queer disabled stuff thrown in). Visibility. Taking up space. I wear bright colors too, and someone once called me an “accident in a crayon factory,” which I took as the highest compliment. Mostly I think I dress relatively conservatively because I don’t always have the spoons to handle the shit I get from all the body policing that happens where I live, but when I’m really wearing what I want (and it’s clean, *laugh*), it’s bright colors to the max. today it’s teal argyle and purple.

    • Jackie
      Posted May 21, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      When I was in high school I wore an entirely green outfit and became known as the ‘jolly green giant’. I wish I had the awareness of body policing then.

  2. silentbeep
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    “My fat friends who are more conservative, not through body shame but just because they really like khakis and the like, don’t see as much representation – maybe it’s because their preferences, which are totally valid, can sometimes align with the clothes the rest of us are rejecting as a strange sort of costume.”

    Yeah, that’s where I’m at in terms of my introverted personality and somewhat conservative fatshion! I mean, I don’t know I wear colors that I like. But I try and question my clothing choices too and wonder if I’m hiding, or just doing what comes natural. I don’t wear khakis and mostly stay away from oversized, baggy dark clothing but I generally don’t like being the loud center of attention in any context, let alone with my clothing. To me, that would feel like a performance, and I don’t like performing for people. FWIW, I often relate to Lesley Kinzel’s clothing, she’s got my taste lol.

    • TR
      Posted May 20, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      See, that’s funny because Lesley is not at all a person I would describe as a conservative dresser!

      • silentbeep
        Posted May 20, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

        I think of her as such – maybe that’s because I’m from Los Angeles i don’t know! ha ha!

        • JupiterPluvius
          Posted May 20, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

          I think of Lesley’s style as “rad librarian” so maybe you are responding to the “librarian” bit–the glasses and cardigans, for instance–as much as to the “rad”?

  3. Posted May 20, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    I had to laugh when I read this. My now ex-daughter-in-law had a hissy fit one day when she saw me at the mall, shopping. I was wearing lime green leggings and a matching lime green tee shirt tunic. She said “Ma, people are gawking, they can see you coming a mile away! Did you even think about what you were wearing when you left the house?” I told her “Yep, I dressed for comfort, and in a color I like and that I’m in the mood to wear today. If people don’t like looking at my fat, lime green ass and big lime green boobs, then they can just look at someone else who’s dressed “appropriately”, whatever that is!” And that’s usually always been my attitude – dress for comfort, in colors and styles I like and who cares what anyone else thinks. They don’t pay for my clothes so they don’t have any right to tell me how to dress. Now, if they want to buy me a whole new wardrobe, I’ll wear it, as long as it fits properly and is comfortable, but I’m betting none of those who object to how I’m dressed are going to do that (and I’m not holding my breath waiting for them to offer, either).

    • Ashbet
      Posted May 20, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      I wish I could click “like” on this comment!!

  4. Beth
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    I think a lot of people could take your advice about being “visible” just as a way of respecting ourselves and our bodies. I’m glad that you make the distiction between being seen in a traditionally “hetero-normal sexy” mode of dress and true clothing visibility, becase in many cases boring old “hetero-normal sexy” mode of dress is a form of invisibility unto itself, it smoothes over supposed “imperfections” and hides the more unique aspects of the self. Nontraditional and confrontational clothing ADDS elements of interest (sometimes uncomfortable interest for the veiwer, but interest none the less) it never subtracts. It makes you more, not less. Confrontational clothing almost demands self-respect in the wearer, it creates a need to own the message behind the clothes and that can be so helpful when you are struggling with self esteem.
    Don’t get me wrong- confrontational clothing does not rule out sexy- but it supports a non-traditional kind of sexy that requires more effort and thought from the beholder and the wearer in a very positive way.
    btw…I love your idea for a roller skate outfit- I think that the top needs sequins. :)

  5. Posted May 20, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    I started dressing aggressively for me before I even hit grade school. Tiny stubborn fashionista what I was, by the time I was a toddler, my mother was letting me choose my own clothes because if I didn’t pick them, I would rather go naked… which I apparently did on several occasions!

    Thing is, my taste was always out of step with most people from an early age. But while I got teased a LOT for my sartorial choices in school, I never let it bother me much because I was dressing precisely the way I wanted.

    Today I wear a lot of bright colors, wild hats, and bold combinations. I wear my Definatalie ‘Fat’ necklace nearly every day.

    My body, I get to decide how to present it. And anyone who doesn’t like it is cordially invited to STFU.

    I will not dress in order to disappear for the comfort of those who fear my body shape.

    And no, this is not to say that others cannot dress more conservatively and still be FA activists. Your body, your choice. But I can’t be me in a little black dress or a skirt that doesn’t swish. I can’t be me without purple and orange and cherry red and lime green. It’s an important part of who I am. I choose to glory in that.

  6. RachelB
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    This post is wonderful. If I had a lighter, I’d be waving it over my head right now. Thank you.

  7. Ashbet
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    You’ve outdone yourself, gorgeous — this post is AMAZING, and I’m going to spread it far and wide . . . and the first person to receive the transmission was Kira, who thoroughly approves :)

    I consciously dress confrontationally sometimes — when I feel like going to the mall in High Goth, or hitting the grocery store in a 50′s dress and rhinestones. Other times, I dress for comfort in the semi-uniform that seems to be my default style (full skirt, leggings, stripey socks, fitted shirt, cardigan, all in black but for the socks), and other OTHER times, I wear what I find that fits, as long as it doesn’t offend my taste (I have a LOT of matte-jersey dresses, some in prints that I wouldn’t have chosen on my own, but they fit and they look good even though I’m more of a solids person) . . . but I spend basically no time whatsoever worrying about whether or not someone is going to be *offended* by the way I look, or whether they’ll whisper behind my back because they don’t like my outfit. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke!

    I love the way you dress, and I love how much joy you take in it, and the creativity you bring to your personal style. And I *also* love that you have a place in your philosophy for people who don’t want to be as sartorially extroverted, because they’re just as valid as those of us who are willing to challenge viewers’ expectations of how we’re “supposed” to present ourselves.

  8. JupiterPluvius
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Something that I find interesting is that you define your style as “nonsexy”, because if someone asked me to define your style as I perceive it, one of the words I would use would be “sensual”—you so often seem to me to accent your body with lush fabrics and frills and intriguing textures and so on. Perhaps I am off base entirely, or perhaps you don’t see those concepts as particularly linked?

    And to the extent that your style has inspired me (and it has!) I often find myself feeling more confident in my own sexiness (on my terms) when I wear the lovely tights and frilly things and silky things, &c.

    Anyway, I hope that isn’t too creepy. Perhaps I was so far behind the body-shame 8-ball that body celebration of any kind has a positive impact on my own feelings of sexiness and enjoyment of same?

    • JessDR
      Posted May 24, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Sensuality and sexuality are not at all the same thing. They often go together but one is not a prerequisite for another.

      As a belly dancer, that distinction is very close to my heart.

  9. Posted May 21, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    See, this right here is why you’re one of my heroes. You put into words what I feel and it explains it in a way people who don’t live in my head might be able to understand.

    • JupiterPluvius
      Posted May 21, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Yay! You are also one of my style inspirations, but I couldn’t remember what handle you used here.

      • JupiterPluvius
        Posted May 21, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        And of course fiber inspiration.

  10. Posted May 21, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I always love the outfits you come up with! I love your sense of style :)

  11. Posted May 21, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    This is one of the funny (it’s really not) things that has come along in the last little while, or at least become very much obvious to me as both a positive and a negative, in a sense. That with the availability of sizes, fat women are expected to conform to a dress code more and more.

    My mental comparison being the ’80s and early ’90s in Australia so it may not apply cross-culturally, I’m not sure. In any event, for anyone size 18-20ish+ pretty much the only clothes you were gonna find were in blinding colours, from one designer predominantly. The local Target didn’t stock it. It wasn’t commonly accepted enough that there’d be any demand for “regular” office/casual wear and the like at that size. For women. For men, yes. Always accepted but chicks? Forget about it.

    Which in a sense, I’m glad that there is a choice available now -that isn’t just ‘make your own, and lose weight while you’re at it’. I just wish that choice was more real, and valid.

    Though having said that, women are pretty vicious about other women choosing to stand out if they don’t conform completely to the “my gawd she’s so gorgeous she could wear a brown bag and look amazing” ideal. Let alone dare to wear colours that clash.

    When you said you sometimes dress to piss people off, I had to stop and think about that. It’s something that, were a man to say it, I probably wouldn’t have – which doesn’t say such great things about my brain. But mostly because in a man, rebellion is a desirable trait but applied to a woman? All too rarely.

    • lilacsigil
      Posted May 23, 2011 at 12:09 am | Permalink

      I must be about the same age as you, and was a size 18-20 in the early 90s in Australia. I think that’s where I got my “lots of black” Melbourne aesthetic from: I wasn’t dressing to hide, I was dressing to avoid violent 80s colours that no-one else had to wear any more. It’s only recently that I’ve started to wear lots of colours again, now that there’s more variety available. I don’t think I’ll ever be a fatshionista, but I’m a fat woman wearing clothes I really like, and that’s important to me!

  12. Posted May 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Yay, fave subject!

    People get angry when we deviate from these rules, not just because we AREN’T FOLLOWING THE RULES, but because it makes them take notice of us. When we refuse to fade quietly into the background, people have to register not only our presence but the space we take up as valid – there’s no imagining that we aren’t there, that we aren’t taking up more than one seat on the train, that we aren’t noncomforming and unashamed of it.

    I also think they get peeved because dressing for visibility and with care implies we take ourselves seriously, have decent self-esteem and maybe even consider ourselves attractive – and, as you say, normal – ergo “deserving” of the right to express ourselves creatively through our clothing choices. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: they’re jealous, because they know damned well they wouldn’t look half as spiffy as we do if they had the misfortune to be us.

    On a similar note, did you see this entry on big fat blog?

    http://www.bigfatblog.com/safe-sexy-or-powerful

  13. Posted May 21, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to totally steal your words here and start identifying as “a nonsexy-dressing femme.”

  14. Bee
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    ‘People will be horrified by clothes.

    How ridiculous is that, y’all?’

    Hmmm.. am i the only one who thought that this is no more ridiculous then you purposely dressing to provoke this reaction..?

    This posts totally has a ‘Fuck you’ tone to it that i just don’t understand.

    • Posted May 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Watch and learn, Bee.

    • JessDR
      Posted May 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      There is indeed a “fuck you” tone to it. TR is saying that those who are telling her that she is less deserving of visibility than a smaller person should fuck off. And rightly so.

  15. Daisy
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    that? was the sound of the coin dropping.
    Thank you for putting this into words.
    The last decade or so, I’ve preferred bright colours, bold patterns, stripes and fitted clothes, with my mom always telling me I should wear clothes that hide me, though I didn’t think of the “why” behind any of it. I guess a piano hid by a sheet is still a piano and I just refused to hide that any longer.

  16. Natalie L.
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    What would be nice, though, would be if there were more visible support for fat folk who prefer to dress more conservatively. I see lots of support for people who dress in outrageous and unexpected ways and hardly any support for people who would prefer not to. It’s extremely frustrating sometimes.

    • JupiterPluvius
      Posted May 22, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      There are some great low-key, simple, and tailored outfits posted on the LJ fatshionista community.

      I think fashion bloggers of all sizes tend to be people who are more out-there/adventurous dressers, but I also think it would be great to make a space just for “classic fatshions” or “low-key fatshions”. I’d love to see how other fats are styling simple lines and looks.

      Alas, I am not the person to create this space, being overcommitted, lazy, and an inbetweenie myself, size-wise. Maybe someone else reading this would be?

    • lilacsigil
      Posted May 23, 2011 at 12:14 am | Permalink

      I agree there’s not as much visibility for the not-so-visibly-fabulous of us, but I think some of that is just because fatshion groups are self-selecting that way. When people are dressed up in something special, they take photos; people who like to photograph probably like to photograph exciting and fabulous things! I haven’t felt “not supported”, though, so much as incorporated some of the less dramatic elements. Someone might post a picture of an amazing silver dress with bright purple leggings and I’ll think “Oh, I could wear a dress with black leggings!”

  17. Emerald
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    When I dress up, which depends on my mood and whether I’m going anywhere where there’ll be other eccentrically dressed people, I do my grunge-goth-geek-chick look. This involves a variety of thrift store stuff (a lot of it black purely because it pulls together some of the other, pretty disparate stuff I pick up) thrown together with Chucks, loud pantyhose, costume jewelry, and more often than not, upper arm tattoos visible. I’ve gotten flak from a few stupid people in the past about showing both my arms and legs, and you know what? Easiest thing was to avoid those people.

    My off-day look is comfortable geek, which is basically jeans and T-shirts, usually with some kind of nerd slogan, and yes, I’m aware that there is apparently, according to the people in fashion who make up such things off the tops of their heads, an age limit for T-shirts with slogans, and that I’m over it by several decades, and no, I do not care. I’m actually pretty pleased if I get a reaction.

    One thing I want to go against is the pressure I’ve found seems to be placed on a lot of fat women to look Immaculate. At. All. Times. I had drummed into me when I was younger that, because I was fat, I had to take that much more trouble over my appearance, to look perfectly groomed. Sure, that kind of pressure gets put on all women to some degree, but it’s almost a cliché that news stories on obesity will feature footage of anonymous fat women in casual, unstructured clothing – which is then somehow seen as typical of our ‘lack of control’, even though any number of thin women in the same street are wearing similar garments. It’s not that we don’t dress down, but that we should have the right to dress down, and not be seen as unspeakable slobs for not wanting to spend three hours getting ready for the grocery shop.

  18. Debbie
    Posted May 23, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks for inspiring me on this yucky Monday morning. I threw on my fav scarf and purple lipstick to go out into the world today..Ready or not here I come!

  19. Mulberry
    Posted May 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    It’s curious how people growing up in the same era can come to different conclusions about what it means for fat people to “break the rules” for dressing.
    I grew up in the 60s, came of age in the 70s. Back then, there were lots of lime greens, phosphorescent oranges and purples, preferably all mixed together on uncomfortable polyester so flimsy it would just about tear at the seams as the clerk was wrapping it up. There were also some very depressing, very dark colors not at all suitable for most teenagers. In warmer weather, there were some nondescript pastels.
    And so, my version of rebellious dressing has come to include primary colors as well as jewel and earth tones, in mostly natural fabrics (cottons, silk, suede). Budget permitting of course!
    Conservative dressing needn’t be clothing to hide in. We can also shake up perceptions by dressing elegsntly as well as colorfully.
    The important thing is to have the CHOICE and FREEDOM to dress however we might like.

  20. Posted May 24, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I heart you so hard. We really need to arrange that whole living-nearer-one-another thing.
    Also, this is the comment I left on my friend Heidi’s repost of this entry on fb –
    I do like to dress sexy, but “slimming” =/= “sexy” for me. I say no to Spanx, control top pantyhose (hell, ANY pantyhose – stockings, please!) and other contraptions intended to push my body into a more socially acceptable shape. Except corsets. Cuz, well, corsets are hot.

    Oh, and? “…are really about us occupying less visual real estate.” This was such a lightbulb statement for me. Thank you for putting words to something I couldn’t quite nail down, but that has bothered me for some time.

  21. Liz E.
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    First, I love your perspective, and you express it very well.

    Second, I haven’t read the comments, and perhaps this has been addressed, but I suppose I have assumed that everyone (men included), no matter what their weight, would prefer to dress in a flattering outfit outfit rather than one that is not flattering, and typically “flattering” is typically used as synonymous with “slimming”.

    I love colorful clothing, and vibrant prints in particular. I am not fat, but every time I try something on, I assess it for how it makes my body look. Colorful clothing can be slimming – in fact, I’ve found it is often more so than black, because body contours are defined by color as opposed to neutralized by black. And conversely, there are definitely clothes that make me look like I’m carrying weight that I don’t actually have, ex., peasant blouses. And I don’t buy those clothes.

    I guess I’m taking the long way around to wondering if your comment, “that fat women are expected to dress in ways that are ostensibly minimizing”, isn’t really applicable to all women in general, and not just fat women.

  22. Carly
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    Love this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about visibility lately, too. Yesterday, I decided I was ready to make a statement about taking up the space I am entitled to in the world. My first move was to shave my head to 5mm long, bleach it white, slather on some magenta liPstick, and put my peacock Print party dress on. I will NOT be missed when I look like this, and I *love* it. I am having a blast!

  23. Kathy
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    I just so love you and your clothes sense!! I tend to go for bright colors myself, not so much the jarring mismatch that you have perfected, but definitely bright colors.
    So happy to see you being loud and proud!

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