In a scene from 2019’s Shrill, the television adaptation of author Lindy West’s feminist, fat-positive memoir, protagonist Annie (played by Aidy Bryant) has a conversation with another plus-size woman about fashion. During a moment of understanding — fat babe to fat babe — she tells her: "Everything is either, like, a big Indiana Walmart sack, or it’s, like, some cutesy shit covered in, like, Eiffel Tower postage stamps or whatever."
I knew what she meant right away, and I had to laugh. The plus-size market (which is still undeniably less diverse in price points, styles and sizing than its straight-size counterpart) often seems to funnel consumers toward matronly tent dresses or teddy bear-print circle skirts. For someone like me, however, the latter fits in perfectly with the whimsical, fairytale aesthetic that I so often want to embody.
Although I struggle to define my style, and typically mix and match sartorial genres, year after year I am drawn to clothing that makes me feel like a storybook character. Items like tutus, 'milkmaid' dresses, mushroom-printed dungarees, delicate lace and linens all call to me — transporting me, if only for the day, into a world where a fat person might be deemed worthy of their own fairy tale. Many people might suggest these styles are 'infantile' but to me they are wholly freeing — and I’m not the only plus-size person who thinks so.
As a child, illustrator Janna Morton loved stories about "beautiful princesses and girls going on adventures." The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Anastasia, Beauty and the Beast and Ever After were among her favourites. "But I knew from a very young age that I wasn’t like the girls in all those stories," she says. "All of those girls — with the notable exception of Brandy in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella — were white with porcelain skin, and all of them were thin. I, on the other hand, was fat and mixed race, with light skin that was more warm brown than cool pink, and frizzy hair."
Morton dreamed of going on her own whimsical escapades but there was not a single narrative that featured a plus-size protagonist in a tale about romance, adventure or magical wonderment. Fat characters were relegated to the roles of villain, servant, mother or dopey best friend. It’s estimated that over 50% of European women wear plus sizes yet plus-size women appear in only 2% of the imagery in fashion and lifestyle magazines. It’s not unrealistic to assume a similarly low percentage when it comes to plus-size representation in literature and film. With the help of clothing, however, Morton found she could become her own plus-size heroine.
"As a teenager, I figured if I couldn't be on trend, I would at least be over the top," she explains. "I wasn't willing to fade into the background like the chubby best friend character in a rom-com. I wore tiaras every day, fashioned a skirt out of an old dinosaur-printed curtain, and affixed googly eyes and an old troll doll over a messenger bag [...] It was imperative to me that I change the narrative I was being fed that fat people were either slovenly dullards or sassy sidekicks. I wanted to be so undeniably pretty and fashionable and unique that when people saw me they'd say, 'Look at the girl with the cute tiara' instead of 'Look at how fat that girl is!' Nine times out of 10, it worked."
Sally of wheelingalong24 is also a fan of fantastical fashion. Although she doesn’t believe that corporations like Disney keep a running list of identities to exclude from their princess tales (be it fat, disabled or gay), she does think that ingrained fatphobia is to blame for the lack of positive fat representation in fantasy. "Fatphobia is so pervasive that writers only see fat people the way society writes us: lazy, bad, greedy etc," she explains. "I think that for us to be more visible in fantasy, that (completely false) narrative of fatness needs to be broken down."
Dressing in whimsical styles is a way of breaking down those narratives for herself. "Plus-size bodies, especially disabled plus-size bodies, are outside of mainstream fashion," she says. "Once you’re outside, you can either try to mimic the mainstream or you can take the freedom and dress however you want; and honestly, who doesn’t want to dress like something out of a storybook?"
For actor and blogger Michelle Hopewell, dressing like a storybook character is also a way of embracing her theatricality. "I'm a performer and a big part of the transformation into the character you're playing comes in the form of costume," she explains. "In my career, it’s fascinating to delve into someone else's story. In my personal life, it’s an extension of play and discovery of myself, rather than someone else. I get to serve the various parts of my personality, especially the softer sides."
Hopewell also describes herself as a casualty of the manic pixie dream girl aesthetic that abounded in the early 2000s. "Though the trope was two-dimensional and reductive, they seemed to have the permission to be expressive and whimsical and free and desired, and I didn't fit those tropes," she says.
As a plus-size Black woman, Hopewell never saw the intersections of her identity represented in fantasy. "I would have lived and breathed to see a plus Black womxn in the imagery of something like the film Ever After with Drew Barrymore," she adds. "I remember hungering after the entire film and wondering if that could ever be something that existed for me [...] It’s why on social media, I am so drawn to all the amazing people of colour that create these storytelling, vintage, historical, whimsical fairytale looks. Witnessing us carving out space in that way is just everything we needed as kids, and something so gorgeous to pass on to the generations to come."
There’s no doubt that embracing all things whimsical can be a true form of self-care, particularly when you exist in a body that is still regularly treated as grotesque. For Rachel Kenny, her clothing helps her manoeuvre situations that might otherwise compromise her mental health.
"There’s a quote I like from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett: ‘Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess, so that I can try and behave like one.’ I’m actually quite a shy person, and I can get anxious about how people perceive me," she explains. "Dressing the way I do leads to a lot of people approaching me to compliment me or ask me about what I’m wearing, and it helps me to feel a bit more secure."
If storybook narratives offer us a sense of escapism, it follows that so too do storybook-appropriate ensembles. "Life isn’t a narrative, and I have a much easier time than people who are bigger than me and have less options available to them, but it is nice to feel like I could be a fairytale character," Rachel adds. "To believe that, somehow, things will turn out alright and that I can have a ‘happy ending’ and be loved."
With the recent rise of the cottagecore trend, people of all sizes are seemingly craving a similar dose of whimsy in their lives. "It makes perfect sense to me that this style has been calling out to me, especially in recent years, when technology fatigue is on the rise, the gap between the rich and poor is the highest it's been in decades, the US and many countries all over the world appear to be falling to fascism, and now COVID-19 has made so many aspects of the modern world either extremely dangerous or impossible," muses Morton. "Those things combined with experiencing personal tragedies have made me want to return to the simpler, prettier dreams of my childhood. I’m not so much trying to escape modern life as I am trying to sustain it. Doing things like wearing pretty outfits, crafting flower crowns, baking my own food, picnicking in fields and then sharing that with others gives me the joy and energy I need to keep working and fighting."
Maybe that’s what it comes down to for a lot of us fat babes who put together this kind of style and imagery. These dreamy looks breed precisely the kind of joy and energy we need in order to dream and work and fight to reclaim so many of the things we have long been told we do not deserve, be it adventure, love or a sense of beauty. In a world that still doesn’t value or centre the stories of fat people, we possess a magical tool to create for ourselves what no one else will: a fairy tale in which we are allowed to thrive.