Why Aren’t Fat People Allowed to Be Trendy?
Fashion is, and always has been, about thin bodies.
Recently, I saw an image of two women walking down the street. Both of them were wearing a slightly different iteration of the same outfit: high-waisted, knee-length shorts with graphic T-shirts tucked in, and a pair of chunky sneakers. The look is trendy; a perfect encapsulation of the pared down, vintage-inspired aesthetic embraced by GenZ TikTok influencers who seem to take style cues from teen movies released 25 years before they were born. It is, as the kids say, a vibe. The women’s heads are cropped from the photo, leaving them unidentifiable. Based on the trendiness of the clothing alone, I’d have mistaken them for a pair of off-duty models, were it not for one key physical characteristic: the women in the picture are fat.
“A tweet making fun of these women has 100K likes,” said writer Rayne Fisher Quann alongside a retweet of the photo. “But I swear to god if Bella Hadid wore this exact outfit it would be on a million ‘‘80s casual inspo’ Pinterest boards because, as always, fashion is judged exclusively by the bodies that wear it.”
Quann’s tweet went viral, with over a half a million people cosigning the idea that what’s considered fashionable, trendy clothing for thin people is rarely acceptable for fat people. Of course, any fat person with even a passing interest in fashion knows this has always been the case. Thin women in tight clothes are empowered for reclaiming their sexuality; fat women in tight clothing are criticized for being overly sexual. Thin women in baggy athleisure are celebrated for embracing the low key; fat women in baggy athleisure are chided for being sloppy and frumpy. Thin women in oversized blazers are adored for playing with androgyny; fat women in oversized blazers are criticized for rejecting femininity.
And, when I saw that image and that tweet, I was reminded of something else every fat fashion-loving person knows to be true: as far as we think we’ve come with regards to size inclusivity, the goalposts always move according to the whims of the thin and wealthy. What’s considered “trendy,” whether a bandage dress or high-waisted jorts, is always determined by whether or not an influential thin person is willing to opt in. Anyone else risks becoming a punchline.
Though I’ve seen this same double standard play out in fashion, time and time again, this particular aesthetic trend feels even more insidious. High-waisted denim shorts, graphic tees, and chunky sneakers used to tell the world that you were poor, or at least decidedly uncool. Now the hefty Reebok sneakers I loathed wearing as a 10-year-old fat kid from a working class family in Cleveland are sporting a vintage Gucci print, available at Bergdorf’s for $890. The voluminous high-waisted denim shorts I was forced to pull from the Misses section at Sears are the height of cool girl fashion. The wolf moon T-shirt is no longer the uniform of the kid who had to shop at a thrift store; it’s the Bushwick e-girl’s oversized shirt dress, worn for a selfie squatting next to her parents’ swimming pool.
Playing with class aesthetics isn’t new for fashion, but it’s inextricably linked with the fatphobia that pervades the industry. Clothing once associated with poorness — chunky shoes, “unflattering” cuts, T-shirts that look like they were purchased at a boardwalk gift shop, for example — can eventually receive fashion’s stamp of approval, along with a few subtle detail changes that “elevate” the look. However, the reclamation of a previously ridiculed or marginalized aesthetic only works if you put it on an aspirational body; and in fashion, aspiration equals thin. The same clothing on a fat body shatters the idea that the look could be aspirational, leaving the person wearing the clothing subject to criticism, no matter how trendy the physical clothing she’s wearing might be.
Beyond that, fat people still have a million barriers to entry when it comes to participating in a trend. Even if Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner put on the same outfit as the women in the tweet, thus deeming the look aspirational and trendy, fat people can’t recreate them without opening themselves up to ridicule. For one, there’s the implicit bias associated with what fat bodies look like in clothes versus thin ones; after all, most of us were groomed to believe that a body with curves, rolls, and contours simply doesn’t look as good in clothing as a body with none. It’s why many of the critical comments on the original tweet revolved around the women’s shirts being tucked in; god forbid their stomachs inhabit those shorts in a meaningful way.
Then there’s the matter of access. Even if bulky cargo shorts and graphic tees are trending now, there’s a good chance it will take months before any of those trending looks are updated with modern details and hit the market in sizes over 18, an issue that plus shoppers encounter on a regular basis.
“Many brands will launch ‘plus’ and create a collection that doesn’t reflect the styles of their straight size customer,” says plus fashion influencer and writer Lydia Okello. “Dull colorways, basic fits and a very small selection. If plus customers were treated with the same variation of personal style as straight size folks, we’d see those pieces start to sell. There have been trend pieces that I end up waiting a year to get in my size — at that point I feel disheartened because I wanted it from the get go, when my thin friends could buy it. ”
Finally, there’s the idea that dressing to trends and “making a statement” are something you do to be visible — a desire that many women, and fat women in particular, are told not to have. I asked a group of fat women what other trends they will not participate in for this reason, and many answered, “All of them.” It makes sense; some of us are so deeply wounded by the no-win scenarios fashion presents to us, time and time again, and would rather just avoid the feeling of failure completely. Many described the choice to avoid trendy clothing as an avoidance of the criticism they assume it will bring. One woman even said that she avoids certain styles because she’s afraid people will think she’s delusional about her weight.
Historically, size inclusion in fashion moves at a glacial pace. Even for fat women, changing the lens through which we view our bodies takes a momentous amount of unlearning and relearning. It’s hard to imagine a world in which people look at a photo like the one in that tweet and see it the same way they would if it were an ultra-thin model. Still, it’s worthwhile asking how we get there — and reminding ourselves it has absolutely nothing to do with our clothes.