Breaking Open the Beauty Paradigm

Published March 31, 2011 by sleepydumpling

The only way I can describe the feeling I have had this week after publishing this post in response to Leslie Cannold’s piece suggesting that Fat Acceptance activists (or “fativists”, as Ms Cannold decided to label us) were being too harsh on Mia Freedman for her repeated offenses of fat stigmatisation, is overwhelmed.  Overwhelmed at just how many of you the post touched a chord with.  Overwhelmed at just how widely that post was linked and tweeted and shared.  And overwhelmed at the amount of frustration I felt, pouring out of me when I not only wrote that piece, but also on reading so many of your comments and feedback.   Thank you.

But I’m not done with that article.  I want to address something else Ms Cannold said.  Let’s repeat it here:

It is good that those objecting to our culture’s equation of thin and beautiful also question why older, non-white, gay and disabled folk are excluded from the beauty standard. But the sincerity of such interrogation is undercut by fat acceptance articles illustrated with photos of heavily made-up obese women posing like models. Such illustrations don’t seem to say ”no way”, but express the less radical sentiment of ”me too”.

Hmm, this really sits unpleasantly with me, no matter how long I try to digest it.  Firstly, because I have a problem with the phrase “heavily made-up obese women posing like models”.  To me it smacks of slut-shaming, and in particular fat slut-shaming.  It has undertones of “how dare obese women gussy themselves up like tarts”.  Ms Cannold may not have intended for it to sound like that, but alas, to me, that’s just how it sounds.  It also rings a little of “look at those pathetic fatties, trying to make themselves beautiful”.

But what I really want to address as a follow up post to my last, is the notion that by engaging in fashion, make-up and modelling, fat activists are somehow negating our challenge of the beauty ideal.

Au contraire Ms Cannold.  In fact, we are turning the beauty ideal on it’s head.  The beauty ideal says that you must be thin, young, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered and usually affluent, among other things, to be beautiful.  That should you wish to engage in dressing up, fashion and make-up, to represent your look in a particular way, you need to fit this ideal. Yet here we are, fat and accepting of that fact, still engaging in these activities.  With no attempt at hiding our fatness with clothing, accessories and make-up that flatters, disguises or distracts, the statement is “I am here, I wish to be seen, and I am proud of who I am.”

Being visible as a fat woman is one of the most radical acts of fat acceptance I can think of.  It is accepting myself as a fat woman, and it forces others to accept me as I am.  Suddenly I am visible, like it or lump it.   And I have experienced that first hand, after 20-odd years of trying to make myself invisible, or blend into one group or another, to be just rocking whatever makes me happy, particularly if it involves make-up, costumery or anything that others would consider outlandish, as well as allowing myself to be photographed at all, let alone posing is possibly the most radical thing I have ever done.  It draws me the most accolades and the most criticism, far more than anything else I do.  Indeed, how I look seems to be far more important to many people than anything else about me.

Ms Cannold seems to imply that women in particular, only engage in fashion, make-up and being photographed in the quest to become the beauty ideal.  But what we really are on a quest to do is change the beauty ideal.  That doesn’t mean we have to all give up shaving our legs, wearing-make up and don bland, practical clothing.  What it does mean is that we create our own beauty, in all the diversity that we are.

But you don’t need to just take my word for it.  I decided to throw out a request to fatshionistas to define what participating in fatshion (which is fashion – clothing, make-up and accessories, as well as posing for photographs as fat women) means to them.

First we have Nicola, from 2 Many Cupcakes:

 

Nicola says: I am proud of the way I look and the things that I wear. I am not blogging to make myself thin and beautiful. I don’t need too. I don’t want to be thin and I already am beautiful. I enjoy clothing. I enjoy accessories. I enjoy chronicling my outfits because I think I have a good sense of fashion.

What is wrong with ‘obese women posing like models?’ The Oxford dictionary defines model as  “a person employed to pose for an artist, photographer, or sculptor.” Nowhere in that definition does it refer to a model needing to be a certain age, figure, race or sexuality. I am a fat woman modelling for my blog because it’s my hobby and I enjoy it. I will wear what I want and pose how I want for my blog.

 

 

And then we have Anna from Bargain Fatshionista:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anna says: For me, as a fat woman, fashion means rebellion. It’s telling every person who has ever told me that I should lose some weight to screw off. It means being happy where I am now and not caring what others think. It means acceptance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up is Frances from Corpulent:

Frances says: I’m not a fashionable person. I don’t know much about designers, I don’t follow trends and I will never ever wear stilettos. That said, I do think fashion is important and can be quite political. The way we present ourselves through our clothes/accessories/hairstyles tells the world a story about us before we even open our mouths. The limited options available to fat people mean that the messages we are able to send with our fashion are, in a way, censored. By refusing to cater to us, fashion labels are controlling the way we can present ourselves. (The idea that all fat women are sexless and sloppy is that much easier to perpetuate when the clothes available are sexless and sloppy.) To send an accurate message of ourselves, fat people must try harder; we have to be adventurous, resourceful and inventive.

Though I am not a fashionable person, I do have style that’s all my own. Posting photos of my outfits, and looking at the outfits posted by others, has not only solidified my sense of style but my sense of self. My clothes make me feel more me than I ever have. Through fatshion, I am not proving my style credentials to others, but building up my own sense of value.

 

And from Bloomie, who blogs at 30 Dresses in 30 Days:

Bloomie says: Sometimes I get on the subway in the morning, look around at everyone on the train and think about how in a sea of black, I am the fat woman wearing multiple fluorescent colors and a faux fur jacket.  And then I laugh to myself and think about how far I’ve come from the days when I didn’t even know where to buy jeans that fit me.

To me fatshion is about loving my body and dressing it up and showing it off to the world.  It’s about expressing who I am through my clothing and it’s about taking risks and being unashamed and unembarrassed in my body.  It’s about challenging stereotypes of how I’m expected to dress or look or behave because of my size.  It’s about upending stereotypes.  It’s about strutting myself, highlighting my beautifully enormous ass and making people stop, turn and stare when I pass them on the street.

 

On to Sonya from Australian Fatshion:

 

 

 

 

 

Sonya says: Before discovering fatshion, there is no way I would have worn white or allowed a side-on photograph of my body to exist. I think increasing visibility of the fat body by taking outfit pictures will help to normalise those bodies and maybe make people question their prejudices and beliefs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next up is Georgina from Cupcake’s Clothes:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Georgina says: Fatshion for me means being able to embrace fashion without worrying about size.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As well as Jessica from Tangled Up In Lace:

 

 

 

 

 

Jessica says: Blogging about fatshion is one of my many tools in the fight for body acceptance because beyond the visibility aspects, it gives me a chance to help other fat bodies get inspired to decorate and proudly present themselves to a society that tells them otherwise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nor is fatshion restricted to women.  For example, Bruce from Chubstr:

Bruce says: I feel like fatshion and fashion are the same thing. The goal of Chubstr is to show big guys that they can wear the things they love and that they aren’t any different from their thinner counterparts. We spend a lot of time thinking that we don’t have options when that’s not really the case, and I want to do my best to show men of all sizes that it’s okay to be stylish no matter what your size.

 

 

These are just some of the examples of fatshion bloggers, a handful of fabulous fatshion folk who volunteered to share their definitions and pictures here to illustrate what engaging in fashion as a fat person embodies.  Over and over the message is repeated that engaging in fashion as a fat person means challenging the status quo, being both accepting and proud of oneself as a fat person, and being visible as a fat person, rather than conforming to the beauty ideal.

Fat fashion, fat visibility, fat acceptance smashes the beauty ideal doors down and invites everyone to participate, no matter who they are, even if they are not fat.  It is the veritable open house of fashion, appearance and style.  As the great Cole Porter once wrote:

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.

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31 comments on “Breaking Open the Beauty Paradigm

  • Kath, this post is brilliant and I hope it gets the attention it deserves. I too have blogged about fatshion very sparingly, but I’ve never shown myself. Well, your post inspired me to turn that on its head:

    Well, here I am, wearing a gorgeous maxi from eShakti and a corset belt from Torrid: http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5137/5576886096_d389e7a245_b.jpg

    Blogging about fatshion isn’t about some desperate attempt to conform to the mainstream, the sad fat girl trying her darndest to emulate conventional beauty (and getting it *so* wrong, amirite?!). It’s about *challenging* conventional beauty; it’s about *challenging* the assumption that beauty is some narrow field to which we must aspire but never, never reach.

    Further, doesn’t this also ring true for the vast majority of thin women, who will also never look like the airbrushed models on the covers of magazines? Heck, those MODELS don’t look the airbrushed version of themselves — the point is the standard of beauty has been resolved from a shrinkingly tiny percentage of the human population entirely to the digital.

    Fat people modeling beautiful clothing – beautiful fat people modeling beautiful clothing – *real beautiful people*, unaltered, in a state beyond the most zealous proponent of Photoshop’s liquefy tool – it’s amazing. Courageous. Powerful. Perhaps Freedman and her ilk realize how powerful it is, and feel threatened? How dare us fatties perform beauty? How DARE we? Don’t we know that’s not for us?

    Cannold’s statement is a classic attempt to undermine something she sees (or perhaps only feels on a visceral level) as powerful and threatening. How should we respond?

    Feel good about ourselves. We’re making a difference. Our courageous fatshion is shaking the foundations of their exclusive club, and they don’t like it.

    What should we do now? Cower down, strip out of our gorgeous maxis and slink back into some polyester tent?

    No. SHAKE HARDER!

    • SHAKE HARDER! I love it!

      I think you are on to something about the feeling of threat about fat women performing beauty, being visible, loving themselves, enjoying life. I’m going to mull that over a little bit more and talk about it again soon.

      And you are FINE in that green dress! FINE! Damn eShakti for not shipping to Australia BTW.

  • It’s apparent that Cannold and others like her expect us to be quivering, self-loathing mounds who wear shapeless tents and sweatpants, not leaving our homes until we’ve dieted down to what they consider an acceptable size, and then we can be seen.

    I truly believe she and Mia Freedman are threatened by us being out there and being confident and it reduces them to juvenile “mean girls” who can’t let go of the junior high mentality. It’s sad and pathetic that professional women who get paid to do what they do act like this. Time to grow up ladies, and quit the immature fat-hating and fat-shaming—now.

  • I think the problem with anti-fatshionistas is either/or thinking instead of both/and. Always, no matter what the oppression, one can change it from within or one can reject it entirely; both are ways of making statements and causing change.

    I love being around fat women with a sense of style, dressed well by conventional standards, as I did at a recent academic conference; I love being around women playing with fashion, as in some photos here; I love being around fat women who are not at all trying to fit in but exploring their outrageous selves, with Mohawks or tats and piercings or whatever. I don’t get the same positive buzz from being around fat women in sweatsuits, but choosing that for comfort rather than out of shame is a statement too.

  • “But what I really want to address as a follow up post to my last, is the notion that by engaging in fashion, make-up and modelling, fat activists are somehow negating our challenge of the beauty ideal.”

    I sort of agree with her sometimes. I see very few pictures of visibly disabled people. In mainstream “fatshion” spaces I see few women of color featured (this was worse when online fatshion spaces started, it is getting better), I see mostly conventionally attractive people, I see mostly people under the age of 40. If we’re for dismantling the dominant narratives about acceptable bodies, we’re apparently only for doing it along certain axes.

    • I agree with you on the lack of pictures of visibly disabled people, of women of colour, of trans people, of women over a certain age and so on. But that is not because Fat Acceptance shuts them out. I tried desperately to get more people to contribute to this post, to cast the net out wide to capture TRUE diversity. But I simply got no response. Had I got some, I would have been delighted to include them in this post. Nobody was “rejected” for this collaboration.

      Yes, we see so few examples of truly broad diversity. But this is not because they are not welcome in these spaces. There are no axes to follow in this space, I would have welcomed any contributors.

    • I agree godless heathen – Fatshion blogs as a whole are brilliant at challenging the sizeist aspect of the beauty ideal, but patchier when it comes to subverting other elements.

      But I think there are two important points to make here: Fatshion doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We are all subject to the pressures of Kyriarchy. To hold FA to a higher standard of inclusiveness than the mainstream
      is patently unfair. The second: FA is constantly evolving and reflecting. In my short time on Tumblr I have seen multiple discussions about this, including direct efforts to increase visibility of fat trans people, discussions of race and class, attempts to unpack and interrogate (and assert) femme identity … etc etc It seems a bit unfair to imply that we are not capable of critiquing and improving the movement from within.

      Anyway, Kath this is a rockin’ post. You are so right about the power of fat visibilty.

      • One of the things I love about the Fatshionista Flickr group is that I see such diversity in the photographs posted. And even better – the people who leave positive, encouraging comments on everyone’s photos, are as diverse too. Folks comment on each others pics regardless of the differences there may be between them. It’s supportive, encouraging and positive. I love that.

        And yes, Tumblr is another space I see lots of discussions, diversity and most importantly, learning.

  • I love how beauty is available to all races, levels of ability/disability, sexuality, gender identity, and age, according to Ms. Cannold… so long as you aren’t fat.

    Eighty year old amputee drag queens are beautiful (yes, they certainly are!), but if I dare in my fatness to put on a dress, I’m delusional. Never mind that I have most of the other hallmarks of ‘beautiful’ society gushes about (blue eyes, white skin, glossy hair without any grey in it yet, a feminine air to match my female-born body, all limbs intact and in working order) I am fat. That makes me ugly, delusional, and a bad, bad slut.

    No wonder that passage had been sticking in your craw, Kath. I’d be deeply ashamed of any FA activist who didn’t get really, really pissed off about that paragraph. Ms. Cannold is holding the beauty door open to Every. Single Person. In. The. World… who isn’t fat.

    And in my current pissed off state, I’m going to put on my reddest dress and a biiiig gorgeous hat and style my hair and go out and be fat and fabulous at people.

    If that appalls Ms. Cannold, so much the better.

  • I find the “logic” being employed by Cannold to be baffling. By posting pictures of themselves, fat activists undercut the sincerity of their desire to challenge the narrow beauty standard? How are presenting alternatives not a challenge? How would quietly accepting that only people who fit the narrow, mainstream standard should be allowed to display themselves break down that standard?

    What is more, I do not see why the sentiment “Me too,” is *not* radical. Fat, older, non-fat, gay, disabled, all of these people have been excluded from the mainstream fashion standard. I don’t think anyone is saying that the conventional bodies are not beautiful (well, some people might, but that’s really an individual preference thing), so much as saying, “There is beauty in that, but there is also beauty that has not been shown and is not being seen. These other bodies, the ones we’ve been told to hide, are worth showing as well. Those who are encouraged to display themselves may be beautiful, but so are we.”

    I think “Me, too,” can be a very radical sentiment.

  • Amazing- you are redefining beauty and fashion here- photos, words, the whole she-bang. I love what Bloomie said about being the only woman (fat) wearing neon prints getting on a subway in a sea of black clothing- for some reason that image in my head invokes a parallel visual, what it might have been like when the first punk gave the first finger, or like in Braveheart when Mel Gibson makes a battle call.
    I’d also never thought about the limitations of plus size clothing options in this way, but Frances puts it so well- “The limited options available to fat people mean that the messages we are able to send with our fashion are, in a way, censored.”

  • Oh Kath, moved to tears! You’ve done it again, brilliant! I feel most radical when I do pose for a picture or show the world my giant ass (as I did the other day on my blog & tumblr *blushes*). I think those who are “classically beautiful” are possibly more comfortable getting gussied up for a picture. I wish there was more diversity in public body types, but we’re told anything outside of this accepted norm is not okay. So those of us without hourglass figures (regardless of the size/weight of said figures) feel that we’d only get more hate for being more public. But it also sounds like yet another person who doesn’t understand body acceptance/fat acceptance as a movement at all. We’re not taking away or wrecking anything for anyone. We just want to be treated like an equal party, like a human being and not some othered monstrosity to be loathed and feared. Thank you for this and all that you do. So fabulous!

  • Yeah, I have to agree with you and with Slyjinks – why is “me, too” automatically not radical? And why is Ms Cannold assuming that none of the people she is seeing are, in fact, trans* or genderqueer or disabled? That’s a big rude assumption right there. When the societal default is for you to vanish, visibility – including visibility using the tools of the mainstream – is fucking radical.

  • I enjoy the fatshion photos because the people in them seem genuinely happy with the look they are presenting. It is so un-commercial and that is refreshing. I also enjoy the positivity.

    2 thoughts. I think conventional beauty is about appealing to the male gaze. I think fathsion beauty is about appealing to oneself. That may be the aspect that is truly threatening to fat critics.

    Also, how important is our physical appearance/beauty? I have wanted to look beautiful my entire life and have coveted thin/beauty privilege. Now I am beginning to ask myself why I want to be “beautiful”. What is in it for me? I really don’t like to dress up that much. I prefer jeans and t-shirts. Sometimes jeans are too constraining and I wear yoga pants instead. I have always wanted to be mainstream and conventional and I equated that as well as many other desirable things with being thin and beautiful. I am starting to get over the fact that I will never be mainstream because that is not how I was raised and I cannot change the past.

    When I go out in yoga pants, hair unwashed and no makeup I can be sending different messages. If I am saying fuck the world, I will go out looking like I want and do not care to make myself presentable, I will do so. OTOH – if I am only dressing that way because I think I am too ugly/fat/non-deserving of nice clothes, I am saying fuck you to myself and dressing that way because I do not think I am worthy of dressing well.

  • I love your blog, you hit the nail on the head EVERYTIME!!! I am a 44 yr old tall and fat woman living in Australia and have struggled for years to accept my fat self. Discovering FA has been lifechanging for me. I am a work in progress but reading yours and Definatalies blogs helps me stay strong and rise above the fattist shite that permeates our society. I agree that some of the women you described feel incredibly threatened by confident fat chicks – I work with some of them and I know! I just wish I could stand up to it better. I get sick of them going “oh you look NICE today” and “that is a FLATTERING outfit” – the unspoken being – you’re actually a fat cow but today you dont look as gross as usual. The boss at my work is a very fat lady and she is bitched about terribly – yes you guessed it – her body is an insult, she is a poor role model, she looks like a slob etc etc. I would like to challenge those comments but not confident to do so just yet. I just wish physical appearances didn’t matter so much.

    • Thank you Janine. It’s connecting with other women who feel the same way I have that makes all of this worth doing. Cos hey, being a fat activist draws you some slings and arrows, believe me!

      I know what it’s like to be in a work environment like that. I’m lucky these days, mostly it’s good (though I still get the occasional well meaning but insensitive comment), but it wasn’t that long ago that it was vicious and snarky and downright mean.

      Hold your head high and know that your value is not in your outward appearance, it is in who you are at your heart, mind and soul. Know that so long as you focus on those things, you are behaving like a better human being than the shallow people who think it’s ok to snark and bully.

      (I fixed your little oops for you).

  • I know I’m a bit late on this post, but I just stumbled upon your site. This post summarizes perfectly what has sparked my attention in “fatshion.” Until about a month ago, I was always wearing jeans and a solid color t-shirt. I’ve since discovered some really cute clothes, and I have “stepped up my game.” It’s not about “look at me,” but it’s about feeling better about myself and considering myself worthy of great outfits and looking good. I’ve stepped out on a ledge wearing things I never thought I would wear–clothing and make up–and it has been a lot of fun.

    I’m even considering starting a fatshion blog.

    I feel great, and I am not going to let anyone else steal my sunshine! Thanks for posting this and everything else!

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