During my third year of university, I spent a semester abroad in Madrid. It was there that I first saw Daniela, an older woman who lived in one of the flats around the corner from mine. Like me, she was a tall and broad fat babe with an interest in fashion. Unlike me, she wore whatever the heck she wanted, whenever she wanted to wear it.
Daniela's love for loud, garish garments and makeup always seemed to triumph over any socio-cultural expectations that she should do whatever possible to draw attention away from her mass. I'm sure she must have known that her looks would have precisely the opposite effect on passersby. I'm also sure this was intentional: a way to feel more in control of being seen. Fat people are always looked at, after all, and relentlessly dissected, criticised, mocked. Through her outfits and makeup, it was as though she had more of a say in why people turned to stare.
The first time I saw Daniela, she was in red, high-waisted, bell-bottomed trousers. Her top, which may have actually been a bodysuit, was skintight and similarly cherry-coloured. She topped off the look with a faux fur leopard print coat, even though it was 26 degrees Celsius outside. Her eyelids sparkled, her lips were lined in a slightly mismatched shade to her gloss, her foundation was caked on (so much so that there was a discernible line between her chin and neck) and her nails were false and cutting. This, I soon learned, was Daniela's everyday look — the kind of thing she threw on to buy a loaf of bread or a €3 bottle of wine at Eroski.
From that day forward, I always hoped to spot her on my way to class. We spoke only once (long enough to exchange names while she welcomed me to the neighbourhood). Still, Daniela defied everything I'd long been told about fat bodies and beauty; about tackiness versus glamour; about being "too much". It was because of her that I began to cultivate a deep appreciation for the fat women and femmes of the world who are intentionally tacky with their beauty looks. In the face of the ever-present narrative that we must always strive to minimise ourselves, their determination to stand out feels radical.
As a trans woman, I am acutely aware that I'm expected to dress down and fit a quiet model of femininity. Tackiness is a rejection of that.
Of course, the word "tacky" itself has many connotations. A simple Google Dictionary search suggests "showing poor taste and quality". Such a definition implies that there must be a purveyor of taste out there. For a long time, it could be argued that it was the wealthiest among us who dictated such a thing: the couture style houses, the celebrities sitting front row at various global fashion weeks, the people for whom spending thousands of collars on a ready-to-wear Chanel dress holds the same economic weight as buying a dress on sale from ASOS might for others.
There can be an inescapable sense of classism at play when some folks talk about tackiness. This feels especially uncomfortable when we reflect on how fat people are statistically likely to earn less and have a harder time finding work than thin folks, or that the fatter someone is, the less likely they are to have access to clothing at all — including professional or conventionally chic garments.
There is a notion that fat women and femmes are typically expected to look either as dull as possible in order to pretend we do not exist, or conventionally dolled up in order to be seen as acceptable. This makes the radicalness of fat babes actively embracing tacky beauty looks day-to-day all the more striking. As culture journalist and tacky icon Gina Tonic astutely wrote for Bustle in 2015, "We're decidedly not fitting in: We're doing it in our own way and we're looking fabulous while we do it. My costume jewellery and fried blonde hair are a sign that I don't want to (and don't need to) fit into other people's ideals of beauty."
"Tacky for me deeply relates to the issue of taste, and taste is such a political idea," explains Manchester-based drag queen Marilyn Misandry, who believes tackiness can intersect with issues of size, gender identity, sexuality, class and more. "Tacky is the embrace and celebration of too-muchness; it's about taking an aesthetic idea to the extreme. As a trans woman, I'm acutely aware that I'm expected to dress down and fit a quiet model of femininity. Tackiness is a rejection of that."
There is also an undeniable relationship between tackiness and campiness within the queer community — the latter of which is irrevocably queer. As Jo Weldon wrote for Literary Hub, "To be campy is, among other things, to be tacky on purpose [...] Campy embraces the detestable with affection, as an actual aesthetic." The iconic actress and drag queen Divine, who rose to the spotlight in the '70s, arguably personifies the radicalness of a fat femme who is intentionally tacky with her beauty aesthetic.
When femininity remains shockingly controversial — a thing to be belittled, or assumed to exist solely to cater to the male gaze — tackiness as an exaggerated form of femininity will always be powerful.
By and large, plus-size blogger and model Stacey Louidor believes that "tacky" remains a pejorative. "It is reserved for a certain type of look and anyone who does not fall into certain brackets," Stacey says. "Traditionally, to be fashionable is to be a minimalist with costly items, but when I take the '90s dancehall scene, for instance — the patterned, metallic and see-through clothing, partnered with asymmetric, colourful hair, curved XXL nails with fun makeup and the highest of heels — I see the height of fashion and I am forever inspired."
Although Stacey says her own makeup and style looks are forever evolving, she considers her primary aesthetic to be Afrofuturistic beauty. "I have always loved taking concepts and colours that are not considered wearable, especially as a dark-skinned Black woman, and creating unusual or atypical looks," she tells Refinery29. "In a society that is still driven by an abundance of misogyny, I have been called a 'clown' before and stared at if I happened to be out in public after playing in some makeup. Implicit biases make it so that being conventional leads to a breadth of opportunities, but much of what I do involves some level of tackiness and I would rather be tacky than conform, any day."
Marilyn also notes that when femininity remains shockingly controversial — a thing to be belittled, or assumed to exist solely to cater to the male gaze — tackiness as an exaggerated form of femininity will always be powerful. "I think any conscious and deliberately thought-out expression of femininity holds rebellious power because we still assume femininity to be for the consumption of others," she explains. "I think especially when one is part of a marginalised femininity, it becomes far more rebellious."
Stacey muses, "I still embrace the word 'tacky' because though I constantly redefine myself, I remain loud. Fatphobia and classism have labelled anything fat people do with our bodies 'tacky' and I feared being associated with the word for a while. But what is 'tacky' if not another manifestation of the corruption of capitalism?"
Ultimately, there is so much pressure put on fat women and femmes to look a certain way — be it conventionally pretty through our beauty aesthetics or entirely dulled down and muted. Navigating this can be a minefield, which is precisely what makes those who actively step outside the boxes we've been prescribed such a joyful, life-changing sight to behold.
For Stacey, it's about deflecting assumptions. "In rejecting the constant performative femininity that is expected of me as a fat Black woman, I am showing every day that I am going against undisclosed expectations." Of course, this can be challenging and discouraging. "Fat women in online spaces are made to fall into specific roles and aesthetics, and are not allowed to be creative or different," she says. "We have to serve glam, acceptable and provocative outfits." But to eschew these expectations is notable, as Stacey concludes. "There is so much emphasis placed on making fat women 'appealing' that to be visible, fat and authentically alternative in any way is a bold move."