The Fat Femme Fashion series is a 4-part series of roundtables, where four Autostraddle writers talk about how being fat affects the clothes we wore in the past — and the clothes we wear today.
For a few months now, I’ve been trying my hand at creating lookbooks for Autostraddle, with an express interest in making them plus size or fat focused. Through this, I’ve noticed how much fashion has come to bring me joy and comfort throughout the years. As my body has changed, finding clothes that fit me has been the best thing for my self-esteem, no matter the size of the clothes.
I created this series to revisit the ways that being fat has affected me and to create a dialogue on fatness and fashion that isn’t centered around shaming. From dressing in black hoodies and sweatpants in 70-degree weather to being the fierce femme I am today. I wanted to discuss with a couple of people whose opinions I trust, and whose stories I wasn’t familiar with. Most anti-fat rhetoric was embedded into me when I was a kid and because of that, I wanted to center this first conversation around our childhoods. There will be talk of the diets, self-harm, and weight loss a few of us were subjected to as children so please read with care.
Dani Janae: So, if you were a fat kid, what was it like for you as you were learning to dress yourself and shop for clothes? If you weren’t a fat kid I’d still like to hear what clothing shopping was like for you.
Vanessa: Looking back, I wasn’t actually fat as a child, but I definitely felt fat in comparison to all the very very thin girls in my grade, so I think that’s interesting to reflect on. I know that fat is not a feeling, and yet, as a 10-year-old who hit puberty and got boobs and a period in 5th grade, my feelings were of being bigger, not being as pretty, not being as cute, etc. Also, logistically, I could not share clothes with my friends—I remember specifically everyone at summer camp had those cute mix-and-match Old Navy bikinis and the whole cabin would trade different triangle tops and I simply couldn’t participate. I also remember having a very strong desire to hide my stomach at all times. In 5th grade my family moved to a new town, and I remember crying because my denim overalls were dirty so I couldn’t wear them on the first day at my new school. I told my mom the other kids wouldn’t like me if I couldn’t wear overalls to hide my stomach, lol sob, etc.
Valerie: Similar to Vanessa, looking back now I realize I wasn’t a fat kid, but after puberty I was made to believe I was. There were family pressures (I was a dancer), and I was no longer the stick-thin kid I was now when the influx of hormones made me curvier. Since I was the first of my friends to go through puberty, I also couldn’t share clothes with my friends. I always hated wearing anything too revealing. Especially in high school—I loved a baggy sweatshirt or a zip-up fleece, anything I could do to make myself feel smaller.
For example, once I had a peer tell me I had “thick thighs”…and so I exclusively wore sweatshirts down to my knees the rest of the summer.
Shelli Nicole: When I was younger, like in elementary school, I was quite thin actually. Everyone always assumed I was going to play volleyball or basketball because I was a wee bit taller than the other girls, but towards the end I started gaining weight. My family called me “fat-fat”—it was my nickname when I was like a toddler and then it went away, then they bought it back for good time’s sake when I started gaining weight. Middle school is where I def was bigger than the other girls. Like Vanessa and Valerie, sharing clothes with friends was out of the question for me.
I LOUDLY AGREE that after puberty I was certainly made to believe that I was fat. When in all honesty, yeah I developed curves quicker than the other girls, but was I as huge as I thought I was or that others told me I was? Probably not—but you couldn’t tell me that at the time.
Dani Janae: Ooo, I feel that totally. I was “average” for a while but I did start putting on weight around 8-9 and realized that I was bigger than the other kids in school. I also grew very fast so I was also taller, I remember towering above boys and also just being wider than them. It wasn’t until like 5th grade that I really felt fat, and I talked about it in Names I Have Been Called, but there was this exercise we did where if you were over 130 lbs you got put in a certain group during gym class and if you were under you got put in a separate group. I knew that I was well over and they called out my weight in front of everyone, I was SO embarrassed and practically ran out of the building. I was bigger than my friends but my mom would often dress me in matching clothes with my niece but I was always the bigger size.
Shelli Nicole: WAIT – WHAT?! They separated you in gym class based on weight in primary school?!
Vanessa: AND CALLED OUT YOUR WEIGHT?!?!?
Valerie: By weight is INSANITY.
Dani Janae: Lol yes—we were separated by gender and then by weight for this one year it was the wildest thing.
Valerie: In dance class, they use to measure us for our costumes just…in front of everyone. If a child could make themselves spontaneously disappear I would have done it every single time.
Vanessa: Valerie, I was also measured in front of everyone in dance class for costumes! Sometimes the teacher would pat our bellies or our butts and be like “I can see your dinner! Tuck it in!”
Very normal completely appropriate behavior.
Dani Janae: omg!
Valerie: Yup!! Or reminding us to “skip dessert” so our costumes still fit by the recital, etc.
Shelli Nicole: That is so fucked. Gym class was always the bane of my existence in school for so many reasons. We didn’t have the type of school where we switched out into gym clothes or anything, so I would run around wearing one of the many giant fleeces and oversized cargo pants I had on. Trying to hide my body while also attempting to show off my fitness capabilities because I didn’t want to give anyone another reason to make fun of me. Of course, they did anyway lol.
Vanessa: This is obviously very Body Positivity 101, but it does sound like all of us were told by others that we were too big as children, rather than actually internally feeling that ourselves?
Dani Janae: Yes! like I was an active kid, I ran around and did all the things kids do, but adults were always telling me I was too big and needed to lose weight despite the fact that I felt…fine? I was happy until other people started telling me I should be ashamed.
Valerie: “Do you really need that [insert snack food here]” was a common question in my household, so I would agree with that. Mind you, just to me, not to my brother who constantly had a pop-tart in his mouth—but he was thin so he could eat whatever he wanted.
Shelli Nicole: I think you’re right Vanessa, people were always telling me I was bigger than I actually thought I was. Then I internalized all of it and when my pants size got bigger because I was obviously just growing up, I thought everyone was right, and then my mindset kept getting worse.
Vanessa: Yes, when I look at photos of myself as a child, I am thin and then when I turned 10 I got boobs, but I’m still objectively thin. But because I was larger than the other kids I was around—and because of puberty—I internalized that I was fat.
Valerie: Yes exactly! I was so active and strong and loved vegetables, but was made to feel fat. So I over-exercised and under-ate all through high school and was miserable and tired all the time.
Shelli Nicole: My mom was also ALWAYS dieting, even though she is a naturally petite woman. But tbh, although she did have a part to play in how I view my body (still to this day), it was mostly the men in my life that commented on my body and weight.
Vanessa: To be honest the culture of my town was extremely focused on thinness, dieting, etc. I remember at dinner one night my brother was like “Why do calories kill you?” And like… calories keep you alive! My parents actually never pushed weight loss on either of us (me or my brother), but they were both pretty fixated on their own diets and bodies, and obviously, kids soak that all up. That was the norm in my middle school and high school—lots of girls on diets, just like their moms.
Shelli, I hated being visible to men who commented on my body. Once I got boobs a lot of older men treated me like I was much older than I was and it made me so uncomfortable and made me hate my boobs and my body.
Valerie: Yeah, my uncle always used to yell at me if I had skin exposed (gods forbid I wear shorts). I think he thought it was endearing/protective, but I always hated it because I didn’t like thinking about what he thought he was “protecting” me from.
Shelli Nicole: Very that. VERY VERY that. Also at that point in my life, I was being assaulted which also played into how I viewed my body. It was also a secret and I was internalizing all of that, and just layers on layers you know?
Dani Janae: What kind of clothes did y’all default to wearing when you started hearing stuff about your weight? Especially after hitting puberty and hearing adults make comments about your body.
I know I was always in a hoodie and pants. I never wanted to wear a dress or a skirt because I had chunky legs and ankles, still do lol. I remember wistfully looking at the Junior’s section at clothing stories while I shopped in Women’s, or the time they almost didn’t let me “graduate” from 5th grade because I refused to wear a dress and wore a pink suit instead. Such a little dyke!
Vanessa: A pink suit!! Dani!!
Shelli Nicole: Everyday school wear was oversized Old Navy zip-up fleeces and cargo pants….every….single…day. No matter how hot it was, no matter how humid it was, that is what I wore and bought in bulk.
Valerie: Yeah, I never wore skirts, except for that brief period where Britney made little skirts over jeans popular. But I was really into bellbottoms when they became a brief thing, loved a sweatshirt, loved a fleece vest.
Vanessa: Dani, I had all sorts of little rules for myself. Like I said, I loved overalls because they covered my stomach. I would test every tank top I bought to make sure it didn’t hang too loose in the front and show my boobs—I’d literally like, lie down on dressing room floors to give it the “boob test”.
I definitely remember sweating in warm weather because I didn’t want to wear weather-appropriate clothes and sacrifice covering up my arms/thighs/whatever. This makes me so sad to think about tbh!
Dani Janae: Omg, Vanessa! I often got described as a tomboy and I wonder if that was because I really was one or if I was just trying to hide my body. Loose-fitting, t-shirts, and pants were the best way to do that.
Shelli Nicole: I had clothes that I thought were cute that I wore with my one friend in our rooms when we were hanging out but other than that, nothing. BUT for church, I had to get dressed up and I would wear dresses—but wear a fleece on top until I was told to take it off.
Valerie: Whenever I was forced to wear a dress for a family or church occasion, I’d always have a little sweater to wear over it to hide my arms. Or heaven forbid anyone see my “wide” shoulders. Again, I’m pretty sure I have regular shoulders, also who cares if they’re wide? but I think probably the problem was I didn’t feel feminine in dresses and assumed it had to do with my body because I wasn’t ready to look at the queerness inside I was desperately running from.
Vanessa: I also always wanted to look like the cool girls but often the clothes they wore tapped out at sizes that didn’t fit me. Like my fucking DREAM in college was to own a pair of Seven jeans which are soooo expensive… all I wanted was the jeans all the “hot skinny girls” (my perception, I’m sure they didn’t necessarily see themselves that way) in high school wore.
Shelli Nicole: Oh yeah, and also my arms? Would hide AT ALL COSTS.
Valerie: NO ARMS!
Vanessa: NO ARMS.
Dani Janae: Arms were like, my biggest insecurity. I remember when I got that little roll of fat over my elbow and had a breakdown.
Shelli Nicole: I would do the pinch test when it came to my arms, or do the shake and be like “NOPE COVER THEM UP”
Valerie: THE SHAKE. Yes, I was constantly doing the shake.
Vanessa: I actually dropped a class in grad school because on the first day THE PROFESSOR DID THE SHAKE!
Shelli Nicole: TBH, I just stopped doing the shake maybe about like 7 years ago….
Vanessa: Oh, listen. I still have a hard time with my arms. I’ve gained a lot of weight during the pandemic and I want to get married next year, when I think about my wedding dress and I envision sleeves. But that is my own shit. That is work I have to keep doing. That is not something I would ever bring to students!!
Shelli Nicole: I remember circling clothes that I wanted in the catalogs—like Delias, Girlfriends LA, etc—but none of them went up to my size. Also, all the cool girls in my middle school were shopping at like, Aeropostale and then 5.7.9 or Bebe for fancy occasions. I remember being SO UPSET and going on one of the worst diet binges I’d ever done in my whole life because I was desperately trying to get down to a size 9.
Vanessa: That is deeply relatable, Shelli.
Dani Janae: Aeropostale was my enemy lol, especially hearing rumors that if you weren’t attractive enough they’d turn you away in the store!
Shelli Nicole: I starved myself so much that I got down to a 10. On one of my mall trips, I went to the store and tried on a shirt and it was a woven, not a knit, so it wouldn’t go over my boobs and I fucking sobbed in the food court.
Dani Janae: Shelli that breaks my heart!
Valerie: Oh Shelli :( Once I had a tiny friend who gave me a size 4 pair of jeans because “they are…CLEARLY mislabeled”. They did fit me so they were definitely mislabeled but I still was obsessed with them because it made me feel so cool that I could fit in a size 4?? Even though it definitely wasn’t a size 4???? It seems insane saying it out loud now.
Shelli Nicole: I wouldn’t try on clothes on mall trips with my friend. I would ask my mom or dad to drop me off by myself if I wanted to try on clothes. I knew there was a chance I would cry if things didn’t fit, and I wanted to have time to not look like I was crying before they picked me back up.
Vanessa: Shelli! and Valerie!
Shelli Nicole: Valerie: :(
Vanessa: My mom was really sweet and supportive but she like, also really hated her body, so she just would let us diet together which I know she regrets now. But like we’d often be on diets together, shopping for smaller sizes to “celebrate,” going to buy bigger sizes as sort of like, an admission of defeat…
Shelli Nicole: I would cut the size out of my clothes immediately, I did that up until college actually.
Vanessa: Dani to think about your original question, I think if there was just some cute shit in my size, I might have felt happier, but it really felt like choosing “clothes that fit me and are ugly” or “diet to try to wear cute shit”
Shelli Nicole: Hell Yeah, exactly and very that.
Valerie: Yeah, a lot of the bigger sizes were always so frilly and flowery and I wasn’t into that but also wasn’t interested in examining why I wasn’t into that.
Shelli Nicole: If I didn’t always have to go to “the other side of the store” where all the drabby clothes were and there was no marketing, I would have been happier.
Dani Janae: Vanessa that’s so spot on! I remember the show What Not To Wear and when they would dress fat people they’d be like “Here are all the things to avoid” —but that was what was available for fat people!
Vanessa: Right! It’s not like cute clothes will fix fatphobia, but since we’re thinking about fatness and fashion, it’s just like, why did children of the 90s have to wear “ugly old woman clothes” in order to… have pants that fit?
Valerie: I STILL can’t wear stripes because of how often I was told someone my shape shouldn’t.
Shelli Nicole: It always felt like I would be on that side of the store and looking literally across the aisle at all the cool marketing campaigns with smiling white girls happy in their cool outfits—and I would be holding what was basically a tent with stripes on it in my hand.
Valerie: Why were they always separated by a whole aisle :sob: Not even just the next rack! A whole different section, further back in the store!
Shelli Nicole: FURTHER BACK IN THE STORE!!! It would damn near be in the break room!! Lol yikes….oh the memories.