it feels like my body is going "out of style" again
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to most pressing existential conundrums. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
I am a plus-sized/fat person who loves style, but being fat and loving clothes can be emotionally rough. When I was in middle school I used to study those magazine pages that suggest outfits based on your body type. Even though I've always been chubby, I found solace in the fact that I was an "hourglass" shape. I would only wear clothes that felt "flattering", AKA outfits where you couldn't tell how fat I was. I realize now that thanking the gods I wasn't "pear" or "apple"-shaped and curating outfits that expertly hid my belly were both due to my extreme internalized fatphobia.
I'm proud that I've come to a better place where I know in my heart that fat does not equal ugly. I realized I'm super hot! I've even found community online in some amazing small businesses that exclusively carry plus-size clothes. But with 2000s fashion trends coming back like low-rise jeans, all these latent feelings about my body are bubbling back up…This sick voice in my head tells me that my body is about to be out of style once again.
I feel like I've taken a huge step backward in terms of my body acceptance...Even with all the emotional work I've done, I don't know if I've ever broken out of wanting to dress in a "flattering" way. I dread the idea of a tight shirt and jeans where everyone can see my belly on display. I love the way they look on other fat people but I still feel like I could never. How do I finally unlearn “dressing for your body type”? — 2000sPhobia, she/her
Growing up I was an avid Seventeen Magazine reader, so I was thoroughly brainwashed by the concept of “flattering” by the time I began to dress myself. I’m pear-shaped and people with my same affliction were prescribed peplum tops and A-line dresses exclusively (to hide our huge thighs of course!). It took me a long time to, thankfully, stop giving a f*ck.
That doesn’t mean that the idea of “flattering” didn’t linger. In the plus-size fashion space, the old idea of what was flattering on fat bodies was replaced by a seemingly progressive idea of what is flattering on fat bodies, with a body-positive spin. It was a collective realization that wearing bigger clothes to hide your body actually makes you look bigger than you are — which seems fairly obvious but alas, that was all we had to work with. I call this movement “The Bodycon Renaissance.” At the time, this felt like fat liberation. It was powerful to see all the plus-size fashion folks embracing crop tops, figure-hugging clothing, and pretty much everything else that had been strictly advised against on the page before a cover story with a brown-haired Miley Cyrus.
So, how to unlearn the unwelcome thoughts about whether or not something is suited to your size and shape? My answer is: The process is neverending. There will always be new standards that make the fashion of yesterday feel inferior to the standards of tomorrow. The feeling of being dissatisfied by how clothes look and feel on you is woven into the very fabric of how the fashion industry operates. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to shift your perspective.
I’m 27, so I’ve seen the return of 90s fashion, 70s fashion, and I’m plus-size so there was also that fever dream where half the fat fashion bloggers dressed in 1950’s rockabilly A-line skirts or fit and flare dresses (with HUGE belts!). I feel like I’ve seen it all, but nothing is quite as scary as the return of Y2K fashion.
There are parts of Y2K style that I’ve always loved: the unabashed trashiness, the hyper-feminine makeup, the wild prints, the absolutely ridiculous manners of layering. In fact, I like to consider myself a “fat Bratz doll.” At the same time, no other era gave women so much to apologize for. The requirements were as follows: flat tummy, no butt, no hips, huge boobs (unless you’re a model, then boobs were illegal), thigh gap, no cellulite, no body hair, thin eyebrows, no double chin, no round faces, visible hip bones and clavicles… the list goes on. Why would we want to do this to ourselves again?
I had a feeling that this Y2K renaissance came from a need for the fashion and beauty industries to gain control again when I saw an article from The Cut about low-rise jeans and micro minis hitting the runways again after so many years. Everyone in the comments of the post was begging, unanimously, not to allow these styles to make their return. Despite the public uproar, the fashion industry kept serving it. And the models and thin-fluencers kept eating it up.
If you think that fashion trends never align with a social or political agenda, you’re sorely mistaken. The style in the 50s was directly correlated to the need to re-domesticate women after we had gained some independence during World War II by working and supporting ourselves while a huge population of men went off to war. The ultra-feminine aesthetic fought against the growing taste for utilitarian clothing options, and reflected the agenda to return to domesticity and center nuclear family values in the face of the Cold War. America really said, “Reel it back in!” Well, guess what? We are being reeled back in yet again.
The fashion industry has more control when it is aspirational rather than inspirational. “Diet culture and capitalism have a tendency to create a hierarchy that is essentially meaningless,” says Kayla Stansberry, a fat-positive therapist and body image coach. “The goal is to convince you that you are the problem so they can sell you something.” This explains why the fashion industry fights so hard against catering to the extremely profitable market that is plus-size fashion. “The link between fashion and fat marginalization can be connected through the lack of accessibility,” Angelina Moles, who has a master’s in critical fat studies, adds. “The fashion world pushes anti-fatness by not making clothes for fat people. This messaging suggests that fat people are not worthy or marketable enough to receive trending, fashionable pieces.”
Influencers, models, and celebrities keep “aspirational” brands relevant while simultaneously promoting diet culture. It’s a win for a variety of diabolical forces in our world. As Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth, “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women's history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
Let’s circle back to The Bodycon Renaissance. This is the era that flipped archaic ideas of how to flatter plus-size bodies on its head. This era gave us a new standard: “show your body more so you can look smaller!” The clothing that came out of this movement may have been better, but the concept wasn’t. I’ve always wanted to incorporate loose-fitting clothes into my wardrobe but I’m so conditioned to wanting to prove that I love my body by showing it off that sometimes when I reach for something oversized I think “this isn’t flattering.”
You’re always going to hear a nagging voice about what is flattering. Half of that is because of the style you’ve become accustomed to — the style of dressing in which you first began to embrace your body. It’s what makes you feel safe, proud, and comfortable. The other half is just as you said: internalized fatphobia. It’s so tricky to handle that part. Stansberry advises a 3-pronged approach to unlearning fatphobia: “focus on challenging foundational beliefs around fatness, creating a fat community, and developing a sense of self that goes beyond appearance.”
You don’t have to fight it all at once. If there is a style that you want to try and the only reason you’re not is because you’re scared you won’t look “right,” try it. How does it feel to wear it when you know that no one is watching? If it feels good, keep it! Remember that what you're wearing now may be clothes you wouldn’t be caught dead in just a couple of years ago. It’s worth it to push back against that voice, especially when it’s over styles you feel are worth fighting for!
give yourself an out
Okay, so we fight. What does that mean? The methods that help me may not work for everybody, but I will tell you my tricks nonetheless.
music. If you live in a city like I do, one of my headphones’ main functions is to make men catcalling me on the street think I can’t hear them so I can walk on by even though I can — I’ve just trained my face not to react. When I’m not feeling so confident in what I’m wearing, I need some volume. I block out my thoughts. Anxiety has taught me that not every thought or reaction is useful. It’s okay to invalidate your own opinions when you know those opinions are just negative self-talk. I drown it out with music and eventually I stop worrying about what I’m wearing. By the end of the day you’ll know you survived and you’ll live to serve looks for another day.
give yourself an out. If you’re really unsure about what you’re wearing, don’t commit to a long journey. Take it on a short spin around the block first. If you’re feeling too anxious at least you know it won’t last long and you can put your mind at ease knowing that at least you’ve tried.
mix & match. Pair something you’re nervous about with one of your favorite pieces of clothing. Maybe a mid-rise jean with your favorite t-shirt or a cropped top with a simple dress underneath. After all, isn’t that what fashion is all about? The second coming of a trend is not a prescriptive formula, it’s about making it your own. Ask yourself: Would Rihanna wear a garment the exact same way Bella Hadid did? No, yet, they’re both still fabulous.
Still, if you have no interest in a velour sweatsuit with [insert your sign here] plastered across your ass and the matching thong to go with it, you can really skip it. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t understand the logistics of wearing jeans like Hilary Duff in The Lizzie Mcguire Movie, and you don’t dream of feeling the wind against your bare belly button. Internalized fatphobia exists because the outside world is fatphobic. “The media has a responsibility to stop framing fatness as an individual failure,” says Moles. “We have to talk about how institutions have failed us by showcasing fatness as a disease or problem to [be] fixed.” You didn’t create the problem and you’re not alone in it. All the plus-size fashion girlies are fighting just the same as you. You owe it to yourself to fight in whatever way you can, but remember that you are not the enemy.