As a perennially plus-sized person, I have faced numerous wardrobe-related challenges over these past 21 years. Finding clothes that fit me is a constant struggle; many a shopping trip has ended in frustrated fitting room tears, with the largest available jeans forced halfway up my thighs. It’s impossible enough to find clothes above a size 10 or 12 in many popular stores, wherein plus-size sections remain a mythical fashion unicorn (looking at you, Forever 21). It’s even more impossible to find clothes that are my size AND flatter my body, which is kind of like a halfhearted hourglass that gave up halfway down.
My struggle is not unique, but all our bodies are. Countless women experience this; our bodies are pigeonholed in mainstream media as a variety of fruits; thousands of Apples and Pears are forced to squeeze into clothes built for petite Hourglasses. If I had to give my body shape a fruit title, it might be some kind of obscure, organic Squash. Seriously, the fruit analogy is ridiculous. The depth and complexity of women’s body issues, especially as they fit into the fashion industry, are too vast to be mastered in any one article. However, they all seem to be highlighted when the days lengthen and the weather heats up.
Even before the first flower has bloomed, spring sparks concerns about the perilous “bikini body,” a toned, waxed and tanned Barbie physique that seems built for tiny triangles of fabric. Yes, summer calls for lighter clothing, which reveals pale or wrinkly or chubby skin heretofore hidden in the safety of winter layers. Reveal your body or die sweating: This appears to be the ultimatum. And then there is always the fear of the dreaded chub rub, so the go-to sundress can’t work every day without creative undergarment or hosiery choices. Summer is often an infuriating season for me, no matter how much clothing I wear. If you run into me on the street or on public transit and the thermometer has topped 80 degrees, the Natalie you’ll meet is sweating, huffing, red in the face and most likely frustrated and all around uncomfortable. These symptoms also serve as an annoying reminder that I am carrying around a lot of insulation, which keeps me cozy during winter and practically crying in summer.
Trips to the beach always used to fill me with anxiety and self-consciousness, because they are driven by a bare-all mentality that is incredibly conspicuous should it be absent from one member of the party. That would be me, cowering in old, worn-out one-pieces and layering up whenever possible. I think I may have actually prayed the maxi dress trend into existence, because it offered chic, beach-ready coverage that didn’t necessarily scream out my lack of body confidence. But covering up at the beach was never my instinct as a child, when I would run as naked as I could possibly be into the waves, returning to my towel exhausted and several shades tanner. To this day I love tanning; it’s my main vice. Growing out of the painful adolescent body-loathing phase, I began to slip back into my more carefree (and far more enjoyable) beach habits. Then I started seeing more and more bathing suits made in a variety of sizes and styles for all body types, including bikinis up to a 4X on many sites. My Internet perusal of vintage and modern-day pin-ups started to inspire a new beach style that may actually suit my body. It finally seems like the plus-size woman is back on trend, with a greater number of clothing manufacturers, magazines and modeling agencies featuring a range of options.
One day, it just clicked. I wanted to be comfortable in the summer, so I bought crop tops and shorts and sheer tops and stopped being afraid of the folds. My own overbearing need to stop suffering through the summer months overwhelmed my reservations about looking “fat.” I am proud to say that I stopped being a beach bum and purchased my first big-girl bikini at a Debenham’s in London, England on a frigid February day, oddly enough.
With full cup support, a higher waistline and a retro pattern, it was perfect. And pricy. It seems that plus-size clothing remains fairly inaccessible, because when it can be found, it’s often ludicrously expensive. Still, many of my favorite plus-sized bathing suits, bikini and otherwise, can be found at sites like Modcloth, Fables by Barrie and Swimsuits For All—and while deals are available, many options may also require a savings plan. Even if cute, well-made plus size clothes require a lofty financial contribution, at least they’re being made. This is because we fat grrrls are slowly but surely carving out a place for ourselves in mainstream fashion and in the socio-aesthetic pecking order.
It took me many, many years to unlearn a lot of the manufactured narratives about “acceptable” body types, and to grow out of the outdated beauty standards women are still subjected to. It seems these days that you can’t win as a woman: either you’re “stick skinny” or “chubby” or “flat” or “obese” or a million other things. None of these are valid comments, they come from shallow people who have no business policing your body. Body acceptance and self-love are not granted by the wave of a wand or by the best intentions of an article on the Internet. They are hard-won pursuits, and different for everyone, but they are entirely worth the effort. Some of the key mantras I repeat to myself include:
- Clothes are made to fit you, not the other way around.
- “Fat” is not an insult, a swear word, or a mood.
- How to get a bikini body: Put your body in a bikini. The end.
- Generally, do whatever the fuck you want. It’s your body and your choice.
This summer, tell the body shamers (including your critical inner voice) to fuck off. Get yourself and your babealicious friends to the beach, no matter what size the tag reads. You’ve earned it.