The first Beth Ditto for Evans collection appeared in 2009, and seemed to be a slow-burning phenomenon. There was that domino dress, of course, but it took a few weeks for fats in the US to catch on, to realize they could indeed get things shipped from the UK-based Evans, that this was a gamble maybe worth taking.
There was a lot of reluctance to join Ditto out on that faraway limb, not least because while the collection was super affordable by normal fashion standards, fat women were understandably wary of spending $100US on a dress that might turn out to be a poorly-made sack, as so many plus size clothes have historically been. “Too expensive” is a common refrain among fashion-minded fats not because they are unwilling to spend money on clothes, but because so much of plus sized clothing has always been simultaneously overpriced and of incredibly low quality. It’s a difficult message to take, this idea that being a certain size means that the clothes you buy are necessarily temporary and disposable, because a) nobody wants to see your body dressed in cool shit and b) you should be trying to lose weight and negate your present need for plus size garments in the first place. In that world, a fat body is temporary and disposable by definition.
That first collection slowly sold out over several weeks. The second Beth Ditto collection the following year was a different story. On the night it was due to launch, dozens of fat fashion bloggers worldwide gathered on Twitter to await the items’ appearance on the Evans website, which made for a late night for many of us on the east coast. @curvesmart gave our vigil a hashtag: #dittowatch. And the joyful frenzy of purchasing that erupted when we realized that the links were now live was intense (I still have my spot dress; how about you?). It’s strange to think of buying things as a revolutionary moment, but it sort of was, as it created a communal shopping experience that so many fat women never experienced before. In the aftermath, folks blogged about it, Jezebel made note of it, and Marianne Kirby and I dedicated a whole podcast to it.
Yesterday, Beth Ditto launched her first independent plus-size collection on her own site, BethDitto.com. There are clear similarities with the Evans collections, mainly in Ditto’s persistent love for bright quirky prints and for silhouettes — both oversized and body-conscious — that confront outmoded thinking about what fat women are allowed to wear. But this new collection is also a far more grown-up approach, and the prices reflect that. Ditto addresses the cost question head on in her surprisingly delightful background story on how the collection came together, and cites her desire to create clothing meant to last for years, and which is also ethically created in the US.
A few years ago, I would have been all over this collection: both buying it and talking about it. Today, I think it’s great that it exists, and I love that fashion has evolved enough that someone like Beth Ditto is able to strike out on her own in this way, with no corporate overlords looming. In many ways, her collection is extraordinarily radical, in that it presumes that fat women want and will pay for clothing made to much higher standards than what they’re accustomed to; it tells fat women they are justified in investing in the clothes they wear, because their bodies are not temporary and disposable, but can be stylish and attention-grabbing and worth showing off.
That’s grand. I feel like I should be saying more about this. But I’m also just… tired.
Plus size fashion is a thing now, more than ever. Once upon a time, most of what fat women talked about on this subject was the lack of resources available to us, and the ways we could improvise. As a maintainer on LiveJournal’s Fatshionista community during its heyday, I witnessed months of seething rage over Old Navy’s 2007 decision to pull its plus size line out of stores and offer it exclusively online. It was incredibly depressing, because, I mean, it was Old Navy. These were not great clothes. These were mostly affordable basics, jeans, sweaters, t-shirts, the occasional surplice dress. But it was infuriating to see a retailer put plus sizes in stores only to yank them out again; our brick-and-mortar options were so limited that this was actually worth getting angry about.
In the years since, plus sizes (at least up to a 24/26 or so) have become a lot easier to find. Torrid, once a quirky upstart, is now in its 15th year and has become nearly as ubiquitous as stalwarts like Lane Bryant. Even inexpensive junior shops like Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe carry plus sizes in store, making space for girls of different sizes to shop together. Women of prior generations know what it’s like to fixate on shoes and accessories while your smaller friends shop in stores that don’t carry your size, hoping that no one notices you can’t fit into anything there; today’s mall-going tweener fats may have to confine their attentions to a different rack of clothes, but at least they can shop in the same place.
Elsewhere, idiosyncratic online clothing retailer ModCloth can do away with its separate plus-size section altogether, lump all sizes together on their site, and declare it a victory for equality — even though only part of their inventory is actually available to anyone over a size 14. Plus-size modeling has become so ubiquitous that many plus size models feel entitled to shrug off the label. And I mean, they’re right in the sense that most plus-size models are not plus-sized in real life, at least not by any rational standard. But it’s another symptom of the dissolution of a movement that was once loudly confrontational and is now just another consumer group to be attended to.
“Fatshion” was a radicalized cause, comprised mainly of unapologetically fat women of a variety of shapes who refused to be invisible and were outspoken and political about it. It’s a lot easier to be political when you’re facing a total lack of representation, or representation that pegs you in inaccurate and offensive ways. It’s tough to be galvanized when even mainstream media like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue are giving a cover nod to those reluctantly “plus-size” models, and when clothing retailers have wised up to the fact that your money spends as well as anyone else’s, and you are just as susceptible to aspirational sales techniques as women wearing a smaller size. Essentially, the normalization of a certain type of plus-size body takes the teeth out of the battle to have representation at all. In our eagerness to be included, perhaps we failed to consider that winning the fight to be sold things on the same level as thinner consumers would mean losing the war to control how we are seen.
When I started as an editor at xoJane in 2011, there was very little writing being done in mainstream media outlets by unapologetic fat women talking about their bodies and their lives. Jezebel, which could always be trusted to push boundaries, published pieces on the subject now and then. Occasionally a big-name outlet would run an article by a fat activist, or about fatshion blogging in general, as an oddity (and a traffic grab) — hell, I wrote a couple of these myself. But the self-accepting fat woman was still a curious outlier even in much of women’s media. I took advantage of my newfound editorial power and started publishing fat women I knew on xoJane right away, as well as writing myself, and avoiding pitches that discussed dieting or weight loss in ways that were already commonly covered by more traditional women’s media. Soon the volume of essays by fat women on xoJane grew and grew, and the joke became that literally everyone writing for the site was fat and unbearably obnoxious about it.
But while that was happening, similar essays were popping up on other women’s websites, even those more traditional outlets. I never thought that I’d see Cosmopolitan publish something positive and uplifting about fat women, but it has happened, and more than once. On a visual level, movements against photo retouching have overtaken the policies of entire publications, and even some clothing lines’ advertising campaigns. This is astounding. But it’s also complicated.
Don’t misunderstand: in general I think it’s good that plus size clothes are becoming more widely available, and that fat women’s personal stories are being heard (and validated) more often. But the downside to this development is that while the boundaries of what is culturally acceptable and “normal” are being slightly broadened, we’re usually trading one restrictive standard for another, and no culturally acceptable standard can accommodate the natural diversity of human bodies and experience. As much as we want to believe we are expanding the universe, we may only be adopting a new set of limitations.
Fat women (and it’s mostly white women, which is itself a problem) are speaking up more about their self-acceptance, but are always under pressure to also demonstrate that they are “good” fat people, who eat the correct foods, who exercise regularly, and who achieve perfect bloodwork numbers at their annual physical. Fat people who eat at Burger King and have health problems are not afforded the same tolerance, because we prefer our positive representations to stand in opposition to the negative cultural assumptions about fat people — to prove the exception to the rule — rather than spend effort dismantling those negative cultural assumptions altogether.
This is the comfortable approach, as it doesn’t actually require anyone to question the stereotype of most fat people as lazy, gluttonous, disgusting slobs. Instead, it allows that stereotype to remain intact, with a handful of well-behaved fatties standing as evidence that fat people don’t have to be gross and unpleasant, if only they work hard enough, and stop making the wrong choices. How is the pressure to be a “good” fat person any different from the pressure to diet and lose weight? It’s not. It’s no different at all.
Meanwhile, Lane Bryant can triumphantly proclaim that “#PlusIsEqual,” and co-opt some aspects of fat positive activism to sell clothes, but their campaign only shows models of remarkably similar size and body shape. Non-hourglass-shaped fat women are still invisible in most media, and they’re also one of few groups where you can still find the energetic anger and activism that once pervaded all of fat positivity. That’s not a coincidence.
In recent years, fat positivity has largely been subsumed into “body positivity,” a toothless shadow of the overtly politicized embodiment the former once embraced. Body positivity applies to everyone, it treats all bodies the same, and it places the insecurities of a slender, conventionally-attractive young woman in her early 20s on the same level as the psychological gauntlet run by a middle-aged woman wearing a size 28 who dares to go to the beach in a bikini. It’s wonderful to tell all women that all bodies are good bodies, no matter what they look like, but in the process we’ve lost the acknowledgement that women who are visibly, inarguably fat have very different experiences. Their problems are not limited to feeling unsure about whether this skirt is too short, or whether they feel comfortable showing their arms, although these may be issues too; many of these women will also face overt and powerful discrimination when seeking healthcare and at their jobs, discrimination for which there is no legal recourse in most of the US. Many will face unjust economic consequences that can affect every aspect of their lives. And there is a world of difference between worrying about whether your cellulite is showing in a pair of size 6 shorts, and worrying about whether you can physically fit in a seat on an airplane, or whether a hospital will have equipment that can accommodate you during a health scare.
Unrealistic and oppressive beauty standards are toxic to everyone. That is clear. And today’s body positivity itself is not a bad thing; the bad thing is the way that it has largely eclipsed the radical and far-reaching movement that precipitated it. I get it: it’s much easier to use a body positivity framework. It’s more appealing to agree that all women face the same issues, and that we’re all in this together, to look for our common ground and to erase or ignore the gaps between. It’s difficult to publicly acknowledge that being markedly fat comes with additional barriers and issues that smaller bodies don’t face; it’s hard to say out loud that our experiences are materially different, and it’s not fun to point out when intersectional factors are being overlooked. Some of us don’t want to be different. Some of us don’t want to be the outliers, the weird ones, the ones with special circumstances and needs. Many fat women have spent their whole lives trying not to stand out. Body positivity sidesteps all that by pretending we’re all the same, one unified Democratic Republic of Women With Body Issues, and the appeal of that camaraderie is hard to ignore.
I understand it. I understand it because I too am exhausted with writing and talking about being fat, with being specific about it. I find myself repeating the same things I wrote ten, fifteen years ago; I see the same ideas cropping up again and again. These days, it’s easy to cheer for the smashing of beauty standards when most of the people getting credit for doing the smashing are themselves beautiful. It’s nice to just give it up and say yes, we are all carrying this same burden, because that burden is so heavy when you’re trying to lift it alone. Many hands make light work. And I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired.
Maybe age is blunting my anger, something everyone always said would happen, but I never believed it would. Radical fat activism isn’t dead, by any means; I still see vivid flashes of it in the work of many brilliant people who inspire me even now. And I won’t promise I’m done talking about this. I’ll probably never stop. Still, the fire I once had for it is duller now. I feel guilty as hell admitting that. But I’m worn out from beating the same drum to a parade that’s only half hearing it. I’ll buy the nice clothes I can now access; I’ll appreciate the growing visibility of even a limited form of body diversity. Culture is changing, which is what we always wanted; maybe it’s just happening too slowly for me. Maybe I burned out without even realizing it. I just hope the more radical voices are still being recognized and heard, pushing for more, more, more. Even if mine isn’t one of them.