“I love her, she’s so great—but I’m really worried about her. She needs to lose weight.”
These are the typical comments I read on any article or post featuring an overweight woman. And those are the kind ones. When Bridgett Everett comically hopped onto Jimmy Fallon’s desk earlier this month, every second comment was about the apparent sturdiness of the desk.
And of course, when bigger women are shown modeling clothes (they’re just like people!) there is the usual outcry about promoting obesity and unhealthy lifestyles, and how gross they look.
Certainly, there are positive comments as well. But as a woman who has been overweight my entire life, the comments about big bodies sting. And they have staying power. As a teenager, right through to my 30s, “plus size models” were average sized people. They had bodies I wished I could slim down to, and they were being hailed as overweight models. Designers were given kudos for giving “big women” work. If they were big, what was I?
When there was an actual overweight woman shown, the emphasis was on hiding her body and minimizing her size. I read tons of articles about what not to wear if you have wide hips or a bigger belly. How to lengthen your legs, and draw attention away from your problems areas. When you are an overweight teenager, everywhere is a problem area. The message was clear: Your body is gross, here is how to hide it.
This attitude still runs rampant, but I am noticing a shift. Popping up on my Facebook feed are more and more actual plus size women. Women with bodies bigger than a size 14. Women who are sometimes over 300 pounds. Women who have generally been ignored by the public world unless they were the butt of a joke. And not only are these women there, on my screen for everyone to see, but they are wearing whatever they want to because they like it, not because it is slimming or covers their body. I see women in size 26 tutus and tank tops. I see leggings, and high heels, and mini skirts. I see the most adorable vintage dresses ever. They are wearing real, fashionable clothing, and they are doing it confidently and unapologetically. And the comments on the posts don’t even mention their weight–just how lovely they look or how much someone likes the outfit.
I underestimated the effect that seeing women who look like me—showcased as normal and not tied to their size—would have on me. I am so used to seeing big women complimented with qualifications. “I love her, but—,” “That outfit is cute, but not for her body type,” “She’s so funny, I just wish—” that I have internalized it deeply. I don’t ever wear leggings or shorter skirts or form fitting anything because I feel like showing what my body really looks like is shameful. I feel undeserving of cute clothing. And I have felt this way since childhood.
Seeing the models for places like Cherry Velvet and Society+ representing not just plus size women, but the variety of body types within that category has been transformative. For once, it doesn’t feel like the world sees regular women, plus size but not that big, and too big to show at all. Everyone is included. We are individuals and we are worthy of honest representation.
For the first time in my life, I feel like I want to choose my wardrobe based on how much I like the clothing, not on how socially acceptable it is for me to wear it. These women are doing just that, and they are killing it. It shouldn’t be an act of courage to just be yourself and act accordingly, but for women who are so frequently portrayed as jokes or disgusting, it takes a lot of bravery to do so.
I commend these models for doing it, but more so, I thank them for showing me I don’t need to hide who I am or how I look. I deserve to wear what I want to and go where I want to. I deserve compliments without qualifications. Every woman does. It’s time to end fat shaming. It’s time to end skinny shaming. It’s time to stop categorizing models by size and just call them models. Every shape is valid, and real, and worthy. We’re not there yet, but I finally feel that we can be.