When I’m in a group of fellow fat women, I often catch myself mesmerised by the attention to detail they have each put into creating an outfit. It is not unusual for us all to be rocking full faces of make-up. Most of our pouts will be lined in red, and atop our heads rest perfectly curled curls or sleek, straightened fringes.
Our curves will typically be highlighted through either pencil or swing dresses. The former show off the voluptuousness of our bodies. They transform us into perfect hourglasses that wouldn’t look out-of-place beside Marilyn Monroe. The latter frame our waists while hiding everything below them: the softness of our bellies and thickness of our thighs are made invisible. No one walking past us will necessarily know whether we have cellulite or stretch marks or rolls of fat lurking beneath our garments. Or at least, they’ll never know the degrees and layers of fatness that exist there.
When I’m in a group of thin women, I am instead mesmerised by how effortless their ensembles look. It’s okay for thin women to slip into stretchy jumpsuits, wear plain tees or crop tops with a trusted pair of mom jeans, or eschew makeup altogether in favour of a more ‘natural’ look. It’s okay for thin women to be emblems of the ‘lazy girl trend,’ an entire aesthetic rooted in looking like you haven’t spent more than two minutes getting ready because you’re just that chill. Nevermind that the word ‘lazy’ is one often used to shame or ridicule fat people, who are perpetually accused of being undisciplined and inactive. Both sartorial and regular, old laziness seem perfectly acceptable if delivered in thin, conventionally pretty packages.
“It’s okay for thin women to be emblems of the ‘lazy girl trend,’ an entire aesthetic rooted in looking like you haven’t spent more than two minutes getting ready because you’re just that chill”
“The level of femininity fat girls have to perform to not be seen as ugly or weird is phenomenal,” plus size style and beauty blogger Stephanie Yeboah recently tweeted, and she’s not wrong. It’s an often unspoken (once in a while, spoken) fact that fat women will be better received by society at large if they somehow make recompense for their fatness. If we post daily gym selfies, at least people will know we move about. If we share clips of the salad we’re eating for lunch, maybe they’ll recognise that we are ‘health-conscious.’ If we exude a kind of hyper-femininity at all times, at least we’ll be slightly more palatable. We’ll remind people that not only are we worthy of our womanhood, but of our basic humanity, too.
There’s a reason my doctor will tell me I’m ‘looking healthy’ when I’m dressed to the nines (as if health correlated to the amount of blusher piled on cherubim cheeks). There’s a reason he’ll ask to weigh me, to take my blood pressure, and to hand me a pamphlet on clean eating when I’ve rushed over in my sweatpants and bare face after a rough night’s sleep.
There is nothing inherently wrong with femininity, of course. In fact, the varieties of femininity that exist can be, and are, incredibly beautiful things. For many fat women, be it consciously or not, femininity can also be an incredibly useful tool. It can help us be taken seriously. It can help us be better treated in day-to-day interactions with other humans. It can, ironically, help us blend in regardless of how made-up and pruned we actually are. It can also be a genuine preference. Some of us love everything about the classic pin-up aesthetic, for instance, and it’s a love we should be allowed to explore. There’s no shame in striving to make one’s life more bearable or pleasant, whatever that means to you.
What’s shameful is the imposition of femininity onto fat women. Our bodies are never not on trial, and one way to proclaim innocence is to be as feminine and womanly as possible in every respect outside of BMI.
As writer and style blogger Ragini Nag Rao wrote for xoJane in 2013, “Pin-up is glamorous, it is ‘womanly’ in its celebration of the curves we are constantly told to play up. As a fat woman, I’ve lived through most of my life being told that I’m less of a woman because of my size, a girl who’s not really a girl. Beauty, glamour, and sexiness have all been denied me because I’m simply too big for them.”
“If we exude a kind of hyper-femininity at all times, at least we’ll be slightly more palatable. We’ll remind people that not only are we worthy of our womanhood, but of our basic humanity, too”
It is because of this predicament that pin-up and otherwise ladylike styles can grow all the more appealing. Fat women are constantly towing the line between being entirely desexualised or over-sexualised; but in either case, we are usually de-womanised. When we are denied femininity, reclaiming it can be a powerful thing. Exercising our right to pretty things can be a powerful thing.
What we need to move past are the ideologies that force us to box ourselves in. In that same essay, Nag Rao wrote, “When you restrict yourself to a ‘curve flattering aesthetic that caters to all the traditional notions of beauty, you restrict yourself to a very small part of what fashion has to offer.” This is undeniably true, and for a lot of people, it leads to a hell of a lot of restriction of the self in general. We risk limiting ourselves to someone else’s idea of beauty, or femininity, or womanhood, or worth. We risk losing the aspects of our identities that make us each interesting. We risk forgetting that we are multifaceted, and talented, and nuanced, and attractive, and worthy of respect whether we’re in leggings and a tatty band T-shirt from 2007 or a pink tweed co-ord set from that vintage-inspired boutique.
There’s nothing wrong with femininity. What we need to get rid of is the simultaneous denial and demanding of it that fat women face daily. Like ‘womanhood,’ our femininity is our own to define or to reject entirely.
Follow Marie Southard Ospina on Twitter here @mariesouthard