I can’t remember the first time I broke down crying in a dressing room, but I do remember the first time that a store didn’t have my size after I failed to button up jeans. It was during back-to-school shopping after a very dramatic summer. I wanted bell bottom jeans with swallow tail butterflies embroidered on the back pockets. My dad had to tell me they didn’t have the next size up in Juniors', and when we walked into the women’s section my heart broke, because there was certainly nothing with butterflies on the pockets in there. In the Women's section, there was nothing there that didn’t make me feel ashamed. I felt too fat to have nice, fun, clothes. I felt too fat to be a normal middle schooler.
Almost every plus-size woman I’ve ever talked to has had issues like this, and it doesn’t get better with fame, or money, or power. There are many designers who won’t design for plus-size women, even when doing so would garner them prestige or attention. There are designers who refuse to market their plus-size collections so it won’t "tarnish" the whole brand, but because the market is so lucrative, they work very hard at making sure they get the money from plus-size shoppers, all while caring very little about our buying process. Retailers will often put plus-size clothing in the back of a store, or offer it online exclusively, which means that we pay extra to ship our purchases back and forth. Within the plus-size community there is a lot of fear about new shopping experiences and stepping out of the comfort zone you established, if you're lucky enough to establish one.
So walking into a dressing area — especially one without stalls — can be quite terrifying. For those of us who had the pleasure of shopping at The CurvyCon, a convention created by Chastity Garner and CeCe Olisa to bring plus size women, retailers and bloggers together, it was a bonding experience. In the changing areas, we comfortably moved around half-naked, picking up the mirror which was poorly positioned on the floor so other girls could see themselves better. When you tried something on and it didn’t quite fit, there was no cause for freaking out. Someone would pull the too small shirt from over your head while sharing a story of how it’s happened to them. All the things that were normally so traumatic — bad sizing, unflattering mirrors, shame — were suddenly funny and we laughed together.
We all laughed a lot. We stood in front of each other without fear of being judged or fear of what we looked like in that particular pair of underwear. We told each other we looked cute, that there was a weird crease in the fabric, or to try that miniskirt. We didn’t know each other, but in a space that was so often unsafe we felt safe.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media about safe spaces, and that was what the CurvyCon was: a safe space a space where some of us, for the first time in a long time, got to relax, buy clothes, and enjoy the experience. There were stylists to help you, designers were present to answer questions, and panels that gave us an understanding of what the fashion world was doing to bring this sort of feeling to brick-and-mortar stores as well as creating better online interactions.
For many of us, there was a real feeling of connection and of safety in an environment that is normally hostile and cruel. at CurvyCon, shopping became positive experience. There were people wearing bright colors, crop tops, and heels, women wearing fluorescent sneakers, women asking about how to find good fashionable clothes for church.
The diversity was astounding, in both personality and fashion, and there was something there for almost everyone. It was amazing seeing some of the boutiques that were simply pop-up as well. There were a few large retailers, including Eloqui was there and Simply Be. Dia & Co was offering stylist assistance through the weekend. Notably, there was a dressmaker from Boston with amazing punk-inspired clothes made in the USA. It was refreshing to get a chance to talk to plus-size designers about their choices for producing in the US and the challenges and rewards that go along with it.
For many of us in attendance there simply aren't opportunities to try clothing on before we buy, which was addressed in one of the panels that offered us an amazing opportunity to connect with retailers. The idea to connect consumers and retailers was brilliant, and the conference space was nearly full, not only at panels, but with plenty of brand representatives as well. It was evident more than ever in these conversations that there were so many common painful experiences and frustration with companies, but a true desire to work with them to create more and more positivity.
The impulse to create community was everywhere: people were hanging out in changing booths, excitedly talking about their favorite places to shop, and sharing Instagram handles. There was a real sense of understanding and immediate kinship. The convention goers wanted to create a positive environment where our differences were smaller than our similarities. I even ran into someone the next day on the train and we exchanged numbers to hang out when we were back in New York City.
The feeling of a created community was strong, at least until the keynote speech, when one of the speakers started talking about how she wanted to minister to souls. It quickly and abruptly severed the feeling of connection I’d been experiencing. I didn’t know how to act or how to respond to an impromptu giveaway of worship books. Previously one of the speakers had been talking about the tragedy in Orlando and how it applied to her as a queer woman. She had wanted to make the space more accessible to queer women, and in fact had offered to sponsor women who may have not gotten the chance to come for financial reasons. The organizers supported this wholeheartedly and upgraded their passes, wanting to make this a space everyone felt welcome.
Growing up fashion choices never seemed like choices. Instead, they were just ways to make the best out of a bad situation. It was something I struggled in alone, since the first time a friend tried something on of mine and it literally fell off her. Community is important, created as well as established. At places like CurvyCon, we create spaces, spaces for those of us who don’t fit in elsewhere, spaces to meet people, spaces to simply exist. Despite my few criticisms, CurvyCon did an amazing job at creating a community where we gathered about what we had in common. Towards the end of the event, a bunch of us gathered in a bathroom and something happened that really embodied the event. We were all getting ready, making sure we looked good, and as people called out what they needed, everyone dove into their purses and rummaged around finding bobby pins, safety pins, or breath mints. We didn’t know each other’s names or stories or professions, but we were community. We were a community that CuvyCon brought together.