Question: Fashion rules are done, right? These days, the only time I hear that term is if the word “fuck” comes first, so I’m pretty sure they’re officially dead. Over. Gone for good. Mixing prints, white after Labor Day — nobody’s fighting to keep these traditions alive, right? Okay, I’m calling it. R.I.P., break out the horizontal stripes.
As a plus-size woman, I’ve had ample opportunity over the last few years to join in the fun of slaughtering those stale and arbitrary style prescriptions. I embraced the fatkini, and I walked around Manhattan in a pencil skirt, my Visible Belly Outline neither minimized nor obscured. Crossing those boundaries erased so much of the needless, energy sapping fear I had about getting dressed each day. From then on, swimsuits involved a lot less panic and strategic towel-placement, and a lot more swimming. I felt free to choose clothing based on preference — mine, not that of the great and powerful They who wrote the bylaws on acceptable cuts and patterns for women of a certain size. At least, I thought I did.
Only recently did I realize there was a whole side of style, and myself, that I was still shying away from: the backside.
Not butts. Butts have beauty standards to overcome too, of course, though it must be said that they get more attention than most body parts. But, that vast expanse above them, between the head and the hips — that doesn’t get much visibility, literally or figuratively. Neither the fashion traditionalists nor the radical rule-breakers talk much about the fact that plus-size women generally don’t (or “can’t”) show their backs. Why, after we’ve exposed our bellies and turned thick thighs into a summer anthem, are our backs still kept under loose, non-form-fitting wraps?
In my own experience, there were two reasons. First, I rarely saw backs in a fashion context. Photos, you see, are mostly taken from the front. So when browsing a clothing website or scrolling through style accounts on Instagram, I wasn’t noticing backs, or their absence, either. I’d gotten used to avoiding the sight of my own back, too (again, looking in the mirror usually means looking at your front). The second reason is just as simultaneously obvious and invisible: No one likes to talk about “back fat.” True, it’s not entirely unacknowledged; there is a small but outspoken group of activists, artists, and style influencers who call bullshit on the back’s absence from the mainstream body positive movement. For whatever reason, that term just seems harder to embrace and less hashtaggable, even less than things like “chub rub.” And so, that body part has yet to shake off its stigma.
Earlier this year, we all applauded Chrissy Teigen for daring to acknowledge her armpit fat (after she got it removed, yes, but I guess we have to start somewhere). But back fat has no celebrity spokesperson as of yet. I’ll give Iskra Lawrence kudos for acknowledging its existence when she talks about general fat rolls, and I’ll give her further kudos for pointing out the poses models use to make it disappear on camera. I will also point out that most of us, myself included, are neither Chrissy Teigen nor Iskra Lawrence. Without diminishing their personal struggles with these body parts, the world is much more forgiving of your armpit and back fat when the rest of your body is considered universally and irrefutably hot as hell. And, I’d venture to guess that if either of these women kept talking about armpit and back fat, it would eventually make a dent in their image — not the other way around. Really, it would take several generations of supermodels saying the words “back fat” in order for it to become something less than totally gross in the general public’s opinion. Forget about the rest of us non-supermodels: We’re just supposed to shut up and cover up, and that’s what I did for most of my life. I don’t remember the day I realized my fitted tank top didn’t look the way it did on the Delia*s model, but I do know I stopped wearing those tank tops, STAT. For as long as I’ve been shopping for my own clothes, I’ve instinctively skimmed over the low-scooped dresses, the sheer-back tops, and stretchy, snug fabrics like jersey. It wasn’t even a conscious thought. I just looked right passed them for the items with more structure or coverage, because that’s what I was supposed to wear.
It was the same thing I’d done with fitted pencil skirts for years. But, even after my grand declaration of belly acceptance, it simply never occurred to me to stop hiding my back. It’s embarrassing to admit that, given what a big to-do I’d made about breaking the plus-size fashion rules. Looking through my closet at all the high-backed dresses and structured blouses (I’d even learned to embrace tank tops again, but none of those loose, wide-open arm holes that could easily reveal a little toros) it was clear that I was still following at least one fashion rule to the letter.
So, I did what I always do in these situations: I tried on a bunch of scary outfits and wore them until they weren’t scary anymore. I chose clothing which highlighted my back, folds and rolls and all. I walked around the farmer’s market in a dress with a keyhole cut-out in the back, revealing the crease beneath my shoulder blades, feeling incredibly self-conscious at first. I took pictures of myself in the clothes, and looked at them, letting the screechy voices in my head say all sorts of nasty things about my body: Egads, a bulge! No one wants to see that! Cover up, woman, lest ye frighten the children! And I learned the same thing I learned each time before: This fashion rule is just as silly as all the others. The self-consciousness eventually burns out, and once I'd let those puritanical voices have their say, they lost all power. The clothes were just clothes. Some of them were clothes I really liked and never would have tried before: A swingy black sleeveless top; that keyhole cut-out dress, which was both cute and, holy hell, so much more comfortable on a sticky summer day that any of my high-backed ones; a misty blue maxi dress with cross-straps and a halter top — so I also got the chance to confront and get over my own little pouch of armpit fat too. Bonus! And some of the clothes just weren’t for me.
I loved the feel of the sheer, gauzy tops, and I loved the way I’d seen them styled. It just wasn’t my look. But that’s fine! The point of taking these risks isn’t to force myself into every style and trend. The point is to remind myself that there is no style or trend I “can’t” or “shouldn’t” wear. The point is to quit being afraid of my own body parts and to stop letting shame choose my outfits.
The point is also to put my money where my mouth is, frankly. I’m not a supermodel, and I’m not one of those pioneering activists who’ve already pointed out the hypocrisy of loving only certain curves. It took me a while to come to this realization myself, but now that I’m here, I know it’s because others got here before me. I’m well aware, as well, that even as a non-model, I have privilege aplenty (including access to a variety of clothing styles in my size — something not every plus woman has). This little adventure in self-acceptance is easier for me than it is for many, and I’m a firm believer in those who can do, doing.
If you can, I’d recommend doing, too. Worst case scenario: You feel some momentary discomfort and awkwardness — the kind of feeling that comes with trying something new. Best case scenario (and far more likely): You conquer limiting belief and useless insecurity, your sense of style and self-expression opens up, and you become a living, breathing example to others who may need one. That’s how an outdated rule — fashion-related or otherwise — is actually changed. One person breaks it, then another, then another, until one day, it’s broken for good. On to the next one.