(Note: a shorter version of this post originally appeared in SLiNK magazine)
As plus-size women, things have never been better for us when it comes to fashion. Gone are the days when the only things that fit were dark-coloured tent-like smocks hidden in the dusty back corners of BHS. Now, designers are starting to cater to us, the high street is finally taking us seriously, and magazines like this one are proving that style and flair do not cease to exist above a size 14. But while more and more zaftig babes are strutting their stuff with va va va voom, some of us are only just tentatively venturing out of our all-black, long-sleeved, pattern-free, camouflage closets. What, you mean I can wear colours?
I’ve come to realise that I don’t owe anybody else a duty to dress flatteringly for their benefit, and I’m learning to express my personal style, such as it is. I’ve experimented with everything from horizontal stripes to sleeveless tops. People saw me dressed like this. No one ran screaming in terror. It was a revelation. But even if I am only dressing to please myself, I still want to wear things that make me feel good about myself. So while I’ve learned to see the beauty in this body that I have now, the one that I’ve been blessed with, the one that cares for me and does what I ask of it, the one my husband loves to cuddle, even though all that, there are still certain lines that I’ve yet to cross.
One is the mini skirt. I cannot look at myself in a short skirt and think anything other than ‘fat knees’. I know intellectually that fat knees are no less worthy of knee-dom than are thin knees, and have as much right to see the light of day. I even truly believe that. But I just can’t see this as being an attractive feature. I no longer really care what other people think of my knees – but what about what I think? I know, intellectually, that this view is one that I have been taught, and that it is not inherently true, but I still can’t seem to get past it. But anyway, my reluctance to don a short skirt is unlikely to have much of an impact on my daily life.
My other dilemma, though, is one that seems to come up again and again, and has been the topic of much late-night philosophical debate amongst members of the size acceptance community, who really should get out more, whatever they’re wearing. Namely, should a liberated, body-loving plus-size woman ever be caught dead wearing magic knickers?
For the uninitiated (can there be any of you out there?) these are pieces of underwear, or ‘support garments’ made up of special restricting fabrics. They have more fancy-schmancy technology built in than your average smart phone, and are designed to lift, firm, cinch, and smooth in all the right places.
Perhaps this seems like something of a no-brainer: what on earth could be wrong with looking sleek and sculpted if that makes you feel better about yourself? Many women wouldn’t give the decision a second thought. But what if you are a size-acceptance advocate and believe that diversity exists in body shape along with everything else in nature, and that that’s a good thing. Can I encourage other women to love their bodies if I feel the need to squeeze, mould, and manipulate my own into an industrial-strength Lycra body suit in order to increase how attractive I feel?
Isn’t my perception of beauty influenced by the very culture that has spent the last three decades telling me that my body type, and by extension me, is unacceptable? Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing that I’ve been fighting back against? In choosing to artificially compress my lumpy bumpy body into a sartorial chastity belt that cuts of my ability to breathe, all for the benefit of having curves in the ‘right’ places, am I just buying into my own oppression? In fact, is shapewear any better than a modern-day equivalent of the foot binding practiced by the ancient Chinese? Don’t scoff – in achieving a silhouette to die for, we are risking nerve damage, urinary tract infections, digestive problems, and difficulty breathing. Women are literally risking injury and even death to fit into the cultural ideal of beauty. But that’s nothing new – just look at stilettos!
Even so, shapewear is one of the fastest growing segment of the lingerie market worldwide and around 40% of women are thought to own a piece. And it’s no longer a dirty secret, with everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Julia Roberts to Queen Latifah proudly admitting to wearing the stuff under their red-carpet ensembles. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer wore three at a time to get that pap-perfect pose. And nowadays, it’s no longer just about function: the styles are getting sexier and the colours less beige, so much so that you can even style them as outer wear, if you’re that way inclined.
Opinions seem to be split on whether ‘support garments’ are really supporting women (and men, and adolescents – the fastest growing market for shapewear). Psychologists warn that they can foster body dissatisfaction, and may lead to increases in eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviours. But for some, the objections are more practical. Says belly dancer Jaene Castrillon, “I guess if the outfit calls for it, but in reality I would just buy something that fit nicely in the first place…I’m all about comfort at my age.”
Comfort does seem to be an issue for a lot of women. Perhaps there is a sense of self-acceptance that comes with maturity – one of the reasons that manufacturers are targeting the tween market. At that age, you’re prepared to put up with just about anything to fit in. But having looked at a few of the websites of the companies that make this stuff, everything from the cutesy names of the products to the blurb that goes with them really brought home to me that the underlying philosophy is simply that our bodies are not acceptable unless they look like a teenage boy’s wet dream. And it’s not just plus-size women that are being told they’re not good enough. If you’re already thin, you need to give yourself extra curves; if your cleavage doesn’t jump up and shout ‘Hey boys, look at me’, then they can help with that too. Give yourself a waist, a pert bum, sleek thighs. Then you’ll look great. And I’m just not willing to accept that message. Making them more comfortable won’t change that.
When I started writing this piece, I was still undecided on the Magic Knickers Dilemma. The more I thought about it, though, the more I riled. Shapewear shouldn’t be necessary. My back fat and my tummy roll are no less beautiful than another woman’s toned abs and tight butt. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all. But those beholding eyes are still viewing my beauty through the lenses of media-frosted sunglasses. Can we ever see ourselves as truly beautiful in a world that has taught us to devalue any body that does not fit into the cultural ideal? To be honest, I don’t know if I will ever truly get to that point, but I hope so.
In the end, it was those company websites that finally brought me down off the fence. While I may still have some ideological struggles with my tummy toners, as a piece of underwear, they’re not in themselves inherently offensive. But I refuse to pay my hard-earned cash to a company who profits from telling me my body is ugly. Whose entire raison d’être is to sell inadequacy. I will never buy another pair.
I haven’t yet gone the whole hog with a pair of pinking shears and cut the ones I already own into confetti. For now, they remain in my closet for special occasions only, a reminder of how far I’ve come, and how far I have yet to travel. But I’ll leave you with the words of Anna Sansom, founder of Sexy At Any Size: “When we try to make bodies conform to one ideal shape, we disrespect individuality. We could alternatively celebrate and enjoy body shapes in all their diversity.” Amen to that.
Update: I wanted to post this as I originally wrote it, but in the year since it was first penned, I have indeed consigned my shapewear to the bin. I didn’t waste any energy cutting them into little pieces, and I will never waste another moment trying to wrestle myself into one, no matter what the occasion.