Fashion hasn’t always been an inclusive space for women who wear plus sizes. From limited clothing options to minimal representation in fashion shows and magazines, one could reasonably decide that the industry just isn’t for women who look like us. But here at Dia&Co, we believe in the power of style—and we fight every day to make the industry a more welcoming place for all of us.
With New York Fashion Week and theCURVYcon only a few days away, we reached out to plus-size blogger and model Alysse Dalessandro for her take on how fashion has impacted her own path to self-love and self-acceptance.
We’ve been sold a message for a long time that we, as plus-size women, don’t deserve to be seen. We see this message in advertisements for plus-size garments shown on thin models stretching the clothing out. We hear this message from the mouths of executives that major retailers don’t want plus-size models on their runways. And, of course, the existence of the “fat tax,” which evidences that plus-size garments are priced higher than their straight-size counterparts.
Over the years, plus-size women’s participation in fashion has been limited by access. The societal belief that plus-size women should hide their bodies contributed to the options that brands offered. As a result, you could find matronly plus-size clothing, but if you wanted to show a little leg in an evening gown, wear a crop top, or sport a bikini over a size 14, you were mostly out of luck.
This created a vicious cycle. Plus-size women were only given limited options and because that’s all that these women bought, there was no data to show brands that more fashion-forward options would sell. Growing frustrations with the lack of options aided in fashion becoming an entry point to shifting the beauty standard.
If plus-size women wanted clothing options that weren’t based on what society believed they should feel about their bodies, they were going to have to take matters into their own hands. The development of online communities was crucial in the process.
In January 2011, Jessica Luxury posted a photo on her Tumblr of herself in a low-rise bikini that she created from cutting up a tankini. She dubbed it a “fatkini.” One of today’s most well-known bloggers and influencers, Gabi Gregg of GabiFresh, credits discovering the fashion forums on LiveJournal in 2007 to opening her eyes to this idea that there were other plus-size women who liked fashion. Gregg helped to raise the profile of the fatkini when she posted a bikini photo in April 2012. She also created a gallery of plus-size women in bikinis for XOJane in May of that same year.
I met both Jessica and Gabi at a 2011 plus-size clothing swap event in Chicago called “The Gold and the Beautiful.” Much like Gabi’s aha moment of discovering online communities of fat women who liked fashion, this event was the first time I was ever around a group of women who both looked like me and also loved fashion.
Discovering fashion-loving plus-size women made a strong impression on me. But there was one distinct characteristic that many women at this event appeared to possess that I didn’t know was possible: They loved their bodies. I watched as these women stripped down in front of everyone to try on different garments. Once they found something they liked, they posed in front of a gold, shimmery background and threw confetti into the air.
I left the event that day with more than a new dress. The seed had been planted in my head that I didn’t have to hate my fat body. I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but I was witnessing fat liberation in action and I wanted in.
I grew up chubby, insecure, and felt most comfortable being invisible. But there was always one area where I felt confident: fashion. I knew how to dress. Even though my options were severely limited as a plus-size child and teen, I took pride in finding garments to express my personal style. Whether it be through sewing something myself or finding it in the men’s section at the thrift store, fashion was my distraction from the bullying that plagued my teenage years.
In middle school, I started to really take pride in not looking or dressing like anyone else. I went so far as to refuse to even ever step foot in an Abercrombie & Fitch store. Even though that store didn’t carry my size, it felt like an important protest against homogenous fashion choices.
I remember wearing red snakeskin pants and neon-orange sleeveless sweaters. I felt great about what I wore, but it still stung when I overhead my friends say things like, “I wouldn’t wear that if I looked like her.” Wearing what I wanted was my protest, but I still hated my body. I bought into the idea that my weight loss was the pathway to happiness. Once I lost weight (and gained an eating disorder), I discovered that changing my body to fit society’s standards of what was considered beautiful didn’t change how I felt on the inside.
I couldn’t quite make that connection between the fashion that made me feel good and actually feeling good about my body; that is, until I witnessed fat women love themselves one gold-filled evening in Chicago. In 2011, I was still too insecure to make myself visible online, but in my everyday life, I continued to dress in a way that shocked the people I passed by on the streets.
In one moment that is forever burned into my brain, a man actually rolled down his car window to yell, “Hey fat girl, stop trying to look skinny,” as I crossed the street in a bright-orange sweater dress. This experience led me to create my own handmade accessories brand in early 2012 called Ready to Stare. I chose this name because when you’re confident in what you’re wearing, people will stare.
Over the next few years, I created inclusive fashion imagery for my own brand, but shied away from appearing in front of the camera myself. As I shared the images I was creating, I began to take notice of the fat women I saw on platforms like Instagram and Tumblr. I followed them for fashion inspiration, but much like the clothing swap, I found myself drawn to these women for more than where to find cute clothes in my size.
As I observed these fat women take up space online, I began to realize that I didn’t have to hide my body. I cautiously started taking and sharing mirror selfies. The more I shared, the freer I felt and the more comfortable I became with my own visibility both online and in my everyday life. Eventually, I transitioned Ready to Stare from an accessory and clothing line to a personal style blog.
Fashion saved my life. I can confidently say that discovering fat women who not only loved themselves but also dressed however they wanted was truly transformative. The amount of clothing options that we see now in larger sizes is due much in part to the fat activists, plus-size bloggers, indie designers, and models who used their visibility to push the fashion industry to change.
What happened to me is not unique. There is a link between visually seeing women who look like you and being able to embrace your own body. A 2017 study from Florida State University found that women reported the greatest amount of body satisfaction and the least amount of social comparison when viewing advertisements featuring plus-size models.
The impact doesn’t stop within us as individuals either. The rise of body positivity and size acceptance shows that the actual number of dieters has fallen over the past few years.
To some, fashion may be only seen as the clothing that you put on your body, but as plus-size individuals, what we wear is political. The radical idea that we can dress our fat bodies in whatever we want and take up space can create social change. And, in fact, it already has.