One of the mothers who volunteered at my high school costume shop tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a plastic bag. “Let’s go try this on,” she said, looking me up and down, “I bought opaque tights so you’ll still be covered. It was hard to find something in your size that wasn’t going to look vulgar.”
We stepped backstage and I opened the bag. Inside was a black mesh babydoll dress with jewel-toned flowers embroidered on the bust. I slid it over my head, the elastic cinching at my waist, and the panels falling down around my hips. I looked down and saw something completely new. I was in tenth grade, performing in my high school production of Cabaret, and I was going to dance on stage in lingerie. I was thrilled.
Now, as an adult — and a fat, radical body liberationist — I would love to tell you that my self-image was solely formed by internal processes, but that wouldn’t be true. I owe some of it to clothes. Clothes are a way of telling stories about who we are, and the stories most clothes tell about fat women are vile, ranging from I don’t have a body at all under this burial shroud, to please be distracted by this Magic Eye print, to, I’m half amorphous-ruffle-cloud and half fun-mom. Shopping for plus-size clothing is an affront to human dignity. I’m always on the lookout for the rare pieces that work.
Every now and then, a garment can unlock parts of myself that I keep hidden, that change how I feel about my body, that allow me to achieve a kind of equilibrium between the outside world and the way I exist in my own head.
The first and only holiday bonus I ever received was my first year in sex-posi #girlboss retail: a check for $250. I spent the whole thing on a Bordelle bra, a black balconette with a strap that framed the top of my breasts like a cartoonist’s outline. It was the most expensive piece of clothing I’d ever bought myself. The bra became my protective carapace that year. It was the base layer for the outfit I wore to my first-ever sex party. Months later, in the midst of a bewildering breakup, I took a break from grief-vomiting for a promotional photoshoot. I paired the bra with strappy high-waisted panties and fringed opera-length gloves, and posed in a downtown boutique hotel like a fat Bond Girl. As I braced myself against the floor-to-ceiling glass window, I felt every stereotypical thing that people say about lingerie: that it’s for you, not for them, that you get dressed from the inside out, like the French. I was a ripe, juicy fruit and the bra was my peel, containing me — but just barely.
Then there were the clothes I was wearing the night people wonder about what I was wearing but (most) are too polite to ask. I was in a brown jersey tank dress that was gifted to me by my friend Ali before she died. It was taken off me against my will that night, and I haven’t worn it since, but I also haven’t thrown it away. That’s how the assault has felt, too; some shit that’s in my house that I don’t like to look at and I don’t know what to do with.
I dubbed the summer of 2015 Crop Top Summer because that’s all I wore, a patterned stretchy top from Forever 21 with skinny jeans and pencil skirts, with a vintage gold belt encircling my waist, drawing attention to the inches of exposed skin. I loved every other part of my body before I loved my belly, that unruly shapeshifter. But I dared myself to show off the thing about myself I hated the most, to see if I could do so and still live. Sun shone against the silvery-pink bolts of my stretch marks. Other fat women passing me on the street broke into grins and amplified my joy. I did not die.
Nowadays, the clothing that feels right is the clothing I wear when I hit personal records in my deadlifts and while I bench press; obnoxiously loud tropical print leggings and full coverage sports bras. Plus-size activewear is scarce, which is absurd given how many people yell at fat folks to go to the gym. The leggings tell a story about where my body is allowed to go and how it is allowed to move, to inhabit space without apology, to exercise without shame, to move.
Finding meaning in certain garments might sound shallow if infinite options have always been available to you. In college, a straight-size friend told me that I could never be as selfless as she, because I was “too attached” to my clothing. She had just returned from a service trip to Central America and had given away most of her clothes to people in need along the way, picking up replacements at a mall once she was in a nearby city. Of course, she’d always been able to shop at stores that stocked infinite options that fit her, and never needed to worry that she might be somewhere without access to clothes that fit her body. My body is abundant, but the experience of finding clothing that matches my size, budget, and taste is one of scarcity. When I find something that really works, I hold onto it for dear life.
I know that clothing cannot liberate me. Although the choices I make in what I wear help me negotiate perceptions of respectability and relative safety, there’s nothing I can wear that guarantees that I won’t be discriminated against because of my size. There is no outfit cool enough to replace a living wage, nor is there a fabulous-enough ensemble to exempt me from a broken, discriminatory medical system. Audre Lorde famously wrote that “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” Capitalism does not offer a way out of itself, and the sanitizing and monetizing of the body positive movement is proof enough of that. Finding beautiful, well-made clothing in my size is not the same as dismantling fatphobia. Even so, I am grateful for the clothes that I wore when I became who I am, and I hope I will look chic at the barricades.