Who Got Left Behind When "Body Positivity" Went Mainstream?

My first introduction to body positivity was online through a LiveJournal community called “Fatshionista.” There, we talked about fashion DIY, shared pictures of our favorite outfits, and gave the scoop on the actually trendy pieces popping up in plus-size departments (because lord knows they were hard to find). Beyond that, I was also introduced to radical body politics and intersectional feminism, and found solidarity with other fashion-minded people who existed beyond the “straight-size” world.

As a college student who grew up in image-conscious Los Angeles, this was completely revolutionary for me. I began to realize that I didn't have to look at my body as a work-in-progress on its way to a thinner version of itself. It’s where I first connected with other writers like Gabi Gregg and Lesley Kinzel, who would go on to pioneer major changes in the fashion industry and shape body politics.

But as body positivity has made its way into the mainstream, I’ve seen so many of the ideas and values about diversity rewritten and diluted. Here’s what I mean: I love the message behind campaigns like “Plus is Equal,” and give major props to brands like Lane Bryant for their incredible investment in promoting plus-size fashion. But...why then were all the models on the smallest-end of the plus size spectrum? Why not a size 22? Why not a single model who wasn't an hourglass figure?

I know that being white-passing and straight-passing has helped me leverage my niche notoriety into an actual career, and there are days when I feel guilty about my complicity. This is especially painful because much of the politics, organizing, and business-investment in the plus-size world has happened as a result of the hard work of women of color like Monif Clarke, who launched her eponymous line a decade ago; Maddy Figueroa-Jones who founded Plus Model Magazine the same year; blogger Gabi Gregg who launched the first plus-size blog in the U.S in 2008; and Gwen DeVoe, who founded Full Figured Fashion Week in 2009. Without their hard work, personal and financial investment, and emotional labor, body positivity wouldn't be the big-business buzzword that it is today.

It’s undeniable that there are significantly more options for plus-size individuals today than there were even five years ago, but we’re still constantly reminded of how much work there's yet to do. Even when dressing Ashley Graham for her British Vogue cover, brands flatly refused to send clothes; if a size-12, white, cisgender, able-bodied, highly celebrated supermodel with multi-million dollar deals is not meeting the litmus test of acceptable aesthetics for capital-F-fashion brands, where do the rest of us living further outside the margins of “normative” beauty standards land?

After all, visibility is really, really important. Oftentimes, it takes something as simple as seeing a reflection of yourself in a place of influence to realize that you can do the same. In fashion, that means an image can give you the confidence to wear incredible clothes, empower you to self-express, and realize that you as you — your body, the varying unique facets of your identity — are worthy and beautiful.

I gathered eight subjects from various identities, backgrounds, and sizes who the fashion industry has largely ignored, who generously shared their own experiences with clothing and style. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and while they represent incredibly diverse perspectives— from ethnic and religious diversity to varying levels of ability, immigration status, and age — it’s important to remember that each person is sharing their own story and should not be seen as a spokesperson for their respective identity groups.

Fashion is only a small piece of our cultural landscape, especially as we move into an era where marginalized people are more at risk. But I believe that the democratization of fashion can, and should, be a bridge to a more egalitarian and pluralistic society. It's all the more important now to see the multitude of individuals who exist outside of the mainstream.
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Here are some of them.
1 of 8
Jessica
"As a Latina, even within my family, it was important for me to have a perfect shape — a tiny waist, a big booty. But things didn’t work out for me that way. There was this pressure for me to fit in, not just within my family but at school — and there I was with people from all different ethnicities and backgrounds. The biggest part of my body was my belly — and I never felt like I was pretty enough or had the right natural body. There’s this idea that Latinas only come in this hourglass, Sofia Vergara body, and we all come in amazing, different, beautiful bodies.

"I know that having lighter skin and naturally straight hair has made it easier to navigate the fashion world, both as a Latina and a plus-size woman. Sometimes I feel like I’m the token Latina because I’m viewed like a “pretty white girl,” but I’m still Latina. I know I’m invited into certain situations because I’m white-passing. I really try to advocate for other Latina women and center them in conversations and in the spotlight. As a petite person, you’re always told to wear things that elongate your legs, that make your neck look longer; all of the fashion rules geared towards petite people are about turning you into a “longer, more beautiful person.” Meanwhile, I have to get everything hemmed and altered when I go shopping, it makes me feel like a little T-Rex. I always have to make sure that I get things tailored for my body. Culottes were something I’ve always been told to shy away from, but I’m like fuck that shit. I’m going to wear what I want, and I’m going to rock it, and I’m going to make it my own. I don’t think anyone should limit themselves. There should be greater diversity in our clothing brands to make sure we cater to all body types."
2 of 8
Aly
"I think representation is extremely important. I can remember the first time I saw someone with my body shape, but I can’t think of a single Native American model off the top of my head who is out and known for their heritage. We’ve got comedians, we’ve got politicians, we’ve got so many people to be proud of — I’m sure there are models, but there’s just not representation in mainstream media at all. If you can’t really see something, how can you know? It’s important to see people to know that their career or role is an option for you.

"We're such a small percentage of the population that I've never expected indigenous visibility. Ideally, the spotlight would be on the value of our creations. Culture is preserved and passed down through art, but most of what receives media attention is stolen. We see "native" inspired work appear, brands are called out for cultural appropriation, and the cycle continues. I want to see indigenous people being appreciated for continuing their own traditions and spreading them to the world. Our expression matters even if it can’t be used for profit. Diversity in fashion would be the power to spread our creations and form our own narratives."
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3 of 8
Jamal
"Power [is not just the freedom to] be represented, but also to create one’s own image. Media, in that way, really changes things especially for someone who might not have access to the diversity we see in New York City. If they see an ad at a bus stop in their hometown, or in a poster at their school, or in a billboard in their small town, it would tell them that there’s space for them to exist in this world.

"Shopping is hard. It’s a very daunting experience for me. Walking into a store makes me feel dizzy. And that dizziness comes from walking around and never being able to find joy and pleasure that other people get when they’re in a store. As you try to escape traditional gender notions, you’re reminded everywhere you go and feel caged by it. Being in a store, seeing the things I wish I could have [but that don't come in my size] just feels upsetting. I don’t ask for much, but I think everyone deserves to have that experience of seeing something they love and saying, 'Oh my gosh!' That’s what clothing does. Beyond fashion, beyond consumerism. People who want to cultivate themselves in the world deserve to go into stores that speak to them and speak to their style. When I go into plus-size women's stores, everything is pretty gendered. There’s no such thing as a genderqueer plus-size space.

"As one of my good friends, Ashleigh Shackelford says, 'Loving yourself is not required.' A lot of times when we come into body-positive spaces the first thing people say is that we have to love ourselves. Loving ourselves is not always as simple as it seems. I shouldn’t have to love myself for the world to respect my body and to be seen as deserving of simple, human things. I think my journey towards self-love has been a journey that I’m still on."
4 of 8
Amani
"My butt has been an issue of contention in regards to modesty and my body image. I’ve been told that my butt is too huge, and it’s something I’m supposed to make smaller or hide But at the same time — and this is true for a lot of larger women — it's something that’s assumed will make them more sexy or more sexualized. From the modesty side of things, I was always told to cover my butt and wear long shirts. It’s just always been a source of anxiety.

"The reason I wear a headscarf is because it’s my rejection of the male gaze and my reclamation of my body’s autonomy from this hyper-sexualization in society. I choose to reclaim a part of my body that I’ve been conditioned to shun because it doesn’t fit the social standard. That seems like something I’m entitled to. This was the first year I started wearing high-waisted skirts that showed off my hips or tummy, and it really made me feel more confident. I think what matters is whether that’s a personal decision or if it’s a decision that’s imposed on you. I’ve been trying to navigate both roads at the intersection of celebrating my body and being modest. For instance, a high-waisted skirt accentuates my hips; I still tie it with my hijab and wear it with a long shirt on top that covers my back and makes me feel modest.

"I definitely noticed a change in the way people treated me after I lost the weight. I started getting more positive attention, people started complimenting my appearance, and [men] started treating me differently. I felt like of course people like me more now that I’m smaller, because I’m taking up less space. As a woman, it’s my job to be as small and unintimidating as possible. That felt really disempowering. Not to say that women who are smaller are less powerful, but to make a woman that is large feel pressured to become smaller is wrong. I always felt like my body was an inconvenience, and that I was in people’s way. Even after I lost weight, I’m still really curvy and technically not at the 'ideal weight' for a person my height, but I’ve grown really content with the person I am. Exploring clothing has been a process of taking the parts of me that always felt like they were in the way — and turning them into something I’m proud of, like my big butt and huge hips. I’m stunting!"
5 of 8
Tangerine
"The older I get, the less I shop. I feel like the older I am, the more centered I am in my identity. I’ve always made my own clothes; I made the outfit I’m wearing today! It came out of two things — expression and necessity. I was an in-betweenie when I was younger [neither straight-size nor plus-size], and there wasn’t anything that was remotely fashion forward. Not to be all, 'Back in my day, we had to walk through the snow,' but I think that the younger generation has such wonderful opportunities compared to what it was. It’s still not where it needs to be, but fashion is at a really interesting point.

"I feel a little less frustrated than I did when I was younger because I can find things I like in stores now, but I also understand that that’s not a privilege that's offered to everyone. I get mad when it happens to me, and I also get mad that there are people who can’t even walk into a store and find anything that is remotely okay. It makes you understand why some people feel the need to shift their bodies — not because they’re unhappy with their bodies, but because they’re unhappy with the way people treat their bodies. It’s funny how your anger ends up being intersectional. Once you start thinking about how something isn’t working for you, and you start seeing where it’s not working for other people, it’s hard not to be furious across the board. That’s something that's been empowering in a lot of my personal activism. I look around and wonder who’s in the room, and how they’re being taken care of.

"I started off in the body-positive space because I was an actor first. I’ve been a professional actor since I was 15, and I stopped auditioning because I was tired of walking into spaces and being asked to do things that didn’t feel connected to me. What pushed me further away was people making arbitrary comments. Once, I nailed an audition on the reading level, and then got cut because the casting director didn’t like my eyebrows. Like, really? I didn’t want to keep doing something that wasn’t feeding my spirit. I wanted to be visible — both for myself and for other people. I made a promise to myself to be naked once a year for art’s sake. That’s actually what led me to burlesque — I started posing and art modeling, and then I moved and did a documentary called The 50 Nude Women Project that was meant to be an instructional tool for women, that showed a wide range of ages and sizes, colors, and abilities."
6 of 8
Charlie
"I was always a fat kid. Growing up as a female assigned person, my sister was the pretty one, and I was the fat one, and that’s just the way it was. That has been part of my understanding of the world. Even at times when I don’t feel like I take up a lot of space, there’s still that internalized feeling. Now that I move through the world as a man, I’m allowed more space, and [my body is] forgiven a little bit more. But, I still have that feeling of having to shrink myself. I remember this really pronounced feeling when I started to be seen as a man more and more where [I realized,] 'Oh, suddenly I’m not as fat as I was as a girl.' I’m still the same size, roughly, but as a girl, [I was considered] super-fat and as a guy, I’m just average.

"I really have an issue with finding things that are just the right fit for my hips. Granted, after being on T for the last 10 years, my body has pretty much settled to a more masculine shape, but I find that I pretty much always have to hem my pants, just because I’m a short dude. I’m 5’1”. The biggest problem I usually have is how pockets can flare out in an unflattering way on my hips. I have this pile of shirts that I’ve always intended to tailor — but it’s not something I’ve actually gotten around to. One of my biggest goals is to get a bespoke suit. It’s this ultimate-masculinity bullshit to want a finely tailored suit, but I know I’ll get around to it at some point. I’m not very well off. I work in a free clinic and my salary is not huge. In this city, I’m barely getting by. I don’t buy new clothes very often. This shirt that I’m wearing is my splurge shirt. I’m a sucker for a nice print, and I was like, 'Butterflies! Butterflies on a button-down shirt!' I think it was even on clearance for $45, and I struggled with that, but I just had to do it."
7 of 8
Molly
"Identity is always such a hard and weird thing because there are so many things we identify as — whether they’re our background, how we’ve created ourselves, or what we do, especially in this capitalist society where what we put out there is equivalent to who we are. I’m a Mizrahi Jew, I’m queer, mostly a dyke, and very much a femme. I’m a sex worker, I’m a harm reduction outreach worker, I'm an organizer for sex worker and addicts rights, and other identities that tend to be marginalized by our culture. For me, I came to a lot of my activism through fat activism. This idea that we can radicalize our identities by being totally unapologetic and completely upfront about who we are is really exciting to me. It really started me on this path of wanting to destigmatize everything. I just feel like there should be no stigma to any of the things that we have to do to live our lives anymore. [Stigma] can be so destructive. Fat activism and body positive activism is what I have to thank for bringing me to all these other forms of activism that have become such a big part of my life.

"These days, I’m really into the fact that I’m a de-gentrifier on the Upper East Side, where I live. I’m all these things that are kind of frowned upon, and I like being the grit in the gear — and my style is a reflection of that. I love the fact that I put on earrings that I buy at the beauty supply store for $1.50, and my outfits are things that I get at clothing swaps or free bins, or are given to me by friends who are cleaning out their closets. That’s not because I want to take advantage of a free economy, but because this is how I’m surviving. These things are genuine.

"I would love to see fashion do new stuff, celebrate new forms, celebrate bodies that are different — especially fat bodies, disabled bodies, differently shaped and formed bodies. I love that there’s a designer [Izzy Camilleri] who’s creating clothes specifically for people in wheelchairs. And, I loved the stuff from Ava & Viv that’s at Target. Even as an anti-capitalist, I think it’s a wonderful thing that some women and feminine people are afforded new styles that were previously unavailable because of the body positivity movement."
8 of 8
Ushshi
"There’s a lot here [in America] that’s similar to Bangladesh. 'Fat' is reviled across the board. Part of that is the post-colonial legacy, and the other part is that the modern ideal is the Western ideal, so a lot of the attitudes around weight have shifted [around the world]. In my mother’s generation, everyone told her she needed to gain weight. When I was growing up, it was quite the opposite. In Bangladesh, part of the hostility that you get if you're fat is that you have a famine-ridden country where the first generation after the war had very little wealth and people were literally starving. So being larger — even though there are lots of large women in the village who aren’t necessarily rich — was very Marie Antoinette. Like, 'how dare you.' It’s this representation of gluttony. Here, it’s sort of the opposite; there’s this assumption that you don’t eat well, or you can’t eat well, and that you couldn’t possibly be educated enough to know your body and still be fat. The classism perspective is interesting, but it’s still people regulating and trying to control fat women.

"I really thought I would come to the United States and all of a sudden things would be cool, but it was interesting to see how the microaggressions shifted. Being a brown, fat woman is also very different, whereas over there, I’m just a fat woman. I had fat women in my family that were ashamed and would never show their bodies, and had such intense hate towards themselves. The idea of having positive or even neutral images [of plus bodies] was a bit mind-blowing. I remember when Instagram first launched, and I started following a bunch of fat babes, I thought, 'If I only had this when I was 10, or 12, I wouldn’t have dealt with years of eating disorders, or years of feeling like I was unlovable or less-than because I had never felt represented anywhere except for in a negative context.' I think it does a lot to reinforce your own self-image via other people who look like you.

"Fashion was one of the many constructs through which I navigated both my identity and transgressions against the values of a world I was at odds with. I have vivid sensory memories of bruised fingers from studding and patching vests, the weight of that metal on my shoulders, feeling rooted by the heaviness of it in a mosh pit. I remember the first time I dyed my hair at thirteen, and tasted what it was like to push what could and could not be 'natural,' and the years I spent fighting with my school principal to keep it. I remember the joyous liberation of the warm sun on my belly the first time I wore a bikini and swam in the ocean. I spent a lot of years trying on outfits and styles I was told I could not wear just to prove folks wrong, and often the pendulum swung back to overcorrect. These days, I think less about my personal fashion on a day-to-day basis, because after years of experimenting, my choices are on autopilot. The older I get, the deeper I feel connected to myself. Instinctively, I know what I want and how I want to feel on a particular day, so there's a lot less internal negotiation. For a long time, style is how I pieced together my confidence as a fat, brown weirdo — back then, expressing my creativity and thrifting on no budget gave me a sense of mastery and skill that I could literally wear on me to present to the world. Fashion feels much more like a seamless integration and extension of myself, rather than the armor I used to wear to face and conquer the day."
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