I can’t remember the last time I bought a fitted piece of clothing in a brick and mortar shop. Even living very near a major city, my real-life shopping opportunities are slim (heh), and none of them really meet my style needs.
See, as much as I rail against universal fashion laws like “no horizontal stripes” or “don’t be fat,” my own personal style rules are incredibly rigid and unyielding -- I don’t wear pants unless I’m in the gym, for example, nor do I wear separates much at all, instead preferring a predictable and comfortable uniform of dresses and cardigans. The dresses, aside from a sweaterdress here and there, must be made of a woven fabric and are ideally fitted through the waist, but full in the hips; no knits need apply, and it takes a very special dress to get me to sidestep my no-synthetic-fabrics rule.
This sounds exhausting, right? Add to it that I typically wear a US women’s 26, putting me close to the top of the typical plus size range offered by many clothing manufacturers, and it seems impossible. But don’t relax yet, there’s more! As a special bonus, I am not shaped the way the preponderance of plus-sized women are shaped -- or, at the very least, not the way clothing manufacturers seem to expecttheir plus-size-wearing customers to be shaped.
I have a small bust, for one -- like, WAY SMALL. I wear a 44B bra, barely; if 44A bras were more readily available and didn’t mostly come in purely efficient designs of institutional beige I’d probably do pretty well in them too. My waist, at 48 inches, is substantial. Recently in the gym, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror turned sideways and suddenly felt a wave of sympathy for those occasional women who assume I am pregnant. (“Nope, just fat!” SMILE.)
Some of us like to compare our bodies to fruit, most often apples and pears. I’m not especially fond of this practice. I would be an apple, if my hips didn’t leap to an impressive 60 inches around. And I’d be a pear if not for my Atlasian shoulders (thanks, mom!). I’m really more of a butternut squash.
It’s enough of a challenge to get to a place where you feel relatively at peace with a plus-size-wearin' body, but confronting all the little differences and quirks that make each body individual can be a tougher climb. I mean, if you’re trying to accept yourself at whatever size you are now, there’s still a longing to be somewhat normal. So much of what’s written about being fat and fashionable is about making fat bodies normal, just simple everyday realities, and that is a worthy effort when we’re facing massive social obstacles opposing any fat person finding happiness where they are.
Still, the truth is that there is no normal. Bodies are different -- bodies of all sizes can be vastly different, they have different shapes and different proportions and different abilities. The only thing that is "normal" about bodies is their naturally-occurring diversity. Bodies are powerfully interesting structures and perpetuating the idea that there is a “normal” fat body is just as unhelpful as asserting that thinner bodies are more “normal” than fat ones.
Cultural analysis aside, I still have to dress myself, which means I still have to live with the notion that some fat bodies are more normal than others, and mine does not meet the usual standards. It’s true my life would probably be easier if I just gave less of a shit about what I wear, but I’m not built that way, and so over my many years of shopping I’ve developed a few points I rely on when I’m online shopping.
Know your unique personal preferences.
Pull out all your best-fitting articles of clothing, even if you don’t particularly like them, style-wise. Try them on and make note of their design characteristics. In my case, I know I’m probably going to like how a fitted-on-top, full-skirted dress both feels and looks.
However, the vast majority of off-the-rack sheath dresses and I are not meant to be together, no matter how badly I want this not to be true. I could get a sheath dress made for me specifically that looked and felt great, no doubt, but if I’m buying a premade garment, odds are overwhelmingly against me being happy with the result. No amount of sighing and longing will change this fact, so I just don’t buy them anymore.
Well, okay, every once in awhile I will try one on just to see if anything's changed -- and it's not a bad idea in general to try stuff periodically even if you're not sure about it. The worst that can happen is it doesn't fit or looks bad, and you aren't going to let some arbitrary garment influence how you feel about your awesome real-life body, are you? THAT DRESS DOESN'T KNOW YOU.
Please note that I’m not being prescriptive here -- you might have my same exact measurements and love the shit out of all sheath dresses. That’s fine, too. You like what you like. There are no hard and fast rules, my point is that you have to figure this stuff out for yourself by trying things on. Don’t rely on anyone else to tell you exactly how to dress your own damn body.
Disregard size tags.
Obvious tip is obvious, but a lot of people still seem to resist this idea. Truth is, fat as I am, I get a startling number of cardigans from the straight-size section -- this is the up side of having that aforementioned small bust. Even if you’re fond of knits in a non-cardigan-specific way, the range of sizes you can wear is probably much broader than you might think. Things stretch.
A size is just a number, after all, and being overly invested in associating yourself with a certain number at the expense of other numbers is kind of a limiting thing to do. It’s a total cliche, but the fit of the garment is so much more important than what the tag -- which only you are going to see anyway -- says.
Also, remember fit isn’t just about a cookie-cutter size -- I routinely buy “oversized” garments in straight sizes that fit me like a regular thing. Or I’ll buy a tunic a couple sizes too big because I want it to be a flowy dress. CREATIVE THINKING! It’s a powerful tool in the battle against boring fat clothes.
Make shopping a hobby.
There's no getting around this; shopping to dress a nonstandard body is time-consuming. It means kissing a lot of frogs before you find one that will fit your fat ass, and making peace with the idea that you're probably going to try a lot of stuff that won't work. But if it's something you really care about, get in the habit of idly browsing for clothing on a regular basis, even if you're not actively looking to buy anything, just so you know what's out there.
Admittedly, you kind of have to love clothes to do this, and if you don't love clothes then I have no advice for you because WHAT IS THAT EVEN LIKE?
Be honest with yourself.
In other words, get a measuring tape and use it. This is what size charts are about. You don’t necessarily have to publish your results under your real name for millions of people to read, like I’ve done above. But knowing them can make online shopping much easier -- and pretending your actual dimensions are different, whether bigger or smaller, than what they actually are is a hindrance. In my case, the challenge of finding stuff big enough though the waist and hips is matched by the difficulty in finding stuff that isn’t hugenormous in the bust.
And honestly? Your measurements exist whether you are aware of them or not. Just own that shit. And don’t be afraid to email websites to ask them to measure specific garments -- not everyone will do this for you, but shops with good customer service departments will do their best to get you the information you need. (Also! You can always get stuff that's not quite perfect tailored locally. We need to bring tailoring back as a regular thing people do.)
Some places are making this sort of fitting conundrum a little more painless. eShakti, one of my longtime favorites and the source of at least half of my wardrobe, offers custom fitting to your measurements for an additional $7.50, and will also do custom adjustments to various items -- if you like a dress but wish it didn’t have cap sleeves, for example, they’ll alter that for you. (BONUS: they put pockets in pretty much everything.)
Also, ModCloth is doing something really cool right now -- if you download their app, you’ll find a feature called “Fit For Me,” where you can enter your measurements and sort their products based on how other people with similar measurements have reviewed them. I’ll be honest, when ModCloth first unveiled their expanded plus-size section, I was dubious. I am sort of knee-jerkily suspicious anytime a big announcement like this gets made, because I am usually sized out of it. Coupled with the fact that I’d heard disappointed tales from a few people who tried items from the new range, and I was really holding the site at arm’s length.
So I was pretty shocked when the Fit For Me thingy found a bunch of stuff that would ostensibly fit me -- stuff that had been worn and reviewed by other people with measurements similar to my own. And when ModCloth was kind enough to send me a couple things to try, I was even more shocked that they really did fit. (And now I have a new problem: I ordered a bunch of stuff from their Black Friday sale assuming half of it wouldn't work and would get returned, but as it happens, everything fits. Um. Shit.)
This nifty feature depends on ModCloth’s unusually invested community of customers, many of whom are super-meticulous in their reviews. In order for it to really work, though, people need to be candid -- and entirely truthful -- about their measurements, and I was so happy to see people with measurements close to mine putting them out there in public on ModCloth’s site for other customers to use as a reference. Part of me still expects that a 48” waist will automatically be a source of shame for most people.
Weirdly, seeing those familiar numbers made me want to add my own info, and I am generally not a person who does product reviews, at least not with any promptness (sorry, Etsy sellers I’ve bought from in the past year, I’ll get around to leaving you feedback eventually).
To bring this full circle, I think if we’re looking to build a world more accepting of a diversity of body shapes and sizes, one of the more important things we can do for ourselves is to be forthright about the things that make each of our bodies unique -- not in a special-snowflake way, but in a way that underscores the fact that there is no such thing as “normal.” One way we can do this is by being more open and candid about the fact that our bodies are all different, and there’s no reason to feel embarrassed or ashamed of having hips that seem too wide for pants or a bust that seems impossible to contain in any button-up shirt.
Something doesn’t work on you? Eh, shrug and move on. Don’t waste time feeling bad over the styles that you don’t like -- keep looking to find the ones you do. They exist. I promise.
Do you have any online shopping/fitting tips you rely on that I missed? Is this all super obvious? Share your own advice in comments. Let’s crowdsource this thing.