DO THIS DON'T: Be Fat And Go Sleeveless

Yep, I'm talking about going sleeveless. It's a great big deal for a lot of fat women, a lot of whom will not bare their arms for any temperature.
Publish date:
August 23, 2013
fat, do this don't, sleeveless, M

The most brutal part of summer has descended on Orlando. We're about as landlocked as you can get in Florida -- either coast is an hour or so away -- which means we don't get much in the way of cooling ocean breezes. It's routinely well over 90, with a heat index into the hundreds.

And I'm not even going to talk about the humidity.

Part of me loves it. It's the coldest time of year at the office, so when I walk out to my car at lunch, the heat sinks back in and makes me feel like I can breathe again. But then, if I'm outside for more than five or ten minutes, the realization that the blazing sun wants to bake all the moisture right out of me also kicks in.

These are the days in which even I can't handle a cardigan outside. I'm a die-hard wearer of layers during the summer but right now? Sleeves are not on the sartorial menu.

Yep, I'm talking about going sleeveless. It's a great big deal for a lot of fat women, a lot of whom will not bare their arms for any temperature.

I remember working at Lane Bryant, when I was in college. We were trying to sell cute little sleeveless button-up shirts that you were meant to knot at your waist like you were Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island. It wasn't until our store manager gave us each a shirt and told us we HAD to wear them that we managed to sell any of those damn shirts. Most people were just too self-conscious to embrace it.

Understandably so! If you've been ridiculed for your body for most of your life, exposing more of it is challenging. And women of even only moderate fatness are usually told they are forbidden (forbidden!) to wear sleeveless things.

I think this is a rule, like not wearing horizontal stripes (or stripes at all), that doesn't make any sense. The size of my arms doesn't change when I've got sleeves on. In fact, they're probably visually larger given how much I love puffy sleeves. The rule isn't about actual visual size though -- it's about shame. It's about making women feel like their bodies are not acceptable or even allowable in public spaces.

It's easy to say fuck that; it can be harder to throw caution to the wind and actually wear sleeveless things out and about in public. Thus, I have tips. But you knew that, didn't you?

1. Layer

I know, I know, I just said it was too hot. But this is basically my favorite outfit right now. I've worn it six times in two months -- and since I almost never repeat an outfit, that's a big deal!

Why does this work? The layers create visual interest. It looks deliberate and pulled together (three pieces make an outfit), and I have found that always contributes to me FEELING pulled together. It's easier to take what I might consider a risk when I feel good about myself, too. I also like that this a pairing of a print and a solid -- a nice, bright red to catch the eye and a skull print that people look more closely at. No one is looking at the size of my arms, but they are extra not looking when they are mesmerized by my slightly sheer tank top.

As a bonus for those who might still feel a little doubtful, the vest feels like you have on extra coverage even though your arms are totally free balling. Metaphorically speaking. Because arms don't have balls.

2. Scale Up

Someone once asked me why all the jewelry I made was so LARGE. (I used to make a lot of jewelry, back when I had free time.) My response was that I am a large person. I like pieces that are on the same scale as I am. When I size up my accessories, they look in proportion to me.

I don't usually wear sleeveless at the office because it's hard for me to feel professional without sleeves. Wrapping a giant scarf around my neck makes me feel more outfittish (again with the multiple pieces) and keeps me from freezing, too. I wish I knew why that worked and it might not work for you, but Florida is also a land of people who wear sweatshirts with tiny shorts so we might not have the same hot/cold physics as everywhere else.

What the scarf really does is keep my outfit big. And that way I'm not sitting there contrasting the size of my arms with the size of my tiny little delicate necklace or something. (Yes, fat people can wear delicate things. But that is not really my personal jam, so someone else will have to write that How To Wear.)

3. Divert Attention

There's this idea that the person should wear the clothes, not the other way around. And I get that! But sometimes I do want clothes that are themselves noteworthy or outlandish. And when I first started dressing with deliberation, there was no better representation of that desire than dresses that mixed patterns.

This dress predates my marriage -- we are never breaking up. I can't tell you how many closet purges it has survived. I bought it second hand (maybe even from Lesley though I can't remember now) and wore it to the office and to social gatherings and wherever the hell I felt like it -- with my arms out for the world to see. I figured the mix of patterns was distracting enough that no one was going to care that my upper arms are big and fleshy.

Maybe we could also call this Distraction Dressing or something snazzy like that. I prefer to think of it as controlling your presentation in as much as anyone can control what a viewer looks at. It's a little, "Hey, look at this!" made from breezy soft cotton.

4. Just Stop Caring

There comes a point, I think, where you really do have to stop dressing for other people and wear what makes you happy. What makes you feel great? If it is something sleeveless, then -- and I say this with all kindness and love -- there comes a point where you really just have to tip the scales yourself, deliberately, from dressing safely to dressing in a way that brings you joy. (Or comfort or whatever. Everyone gets to pick these things individually.)

Yeah, we have to practice new things to get comfortable with them sometimes. But there is always that first time out, when you're hyper aware that you are breaking some sort of rule you've lived by your entire life -- anticipating the consequences (even if it's "just" whispering or staring) is incredibly stressful and realizing that, no, school children aren't going to flee in terror after sighting your bared upper arms can also be frightening in some ways.

Freedom is kind of terrifying, right? It means you get all the responsibility, all the possibility. Even when it's just some new little thing that, if the world weren't kind of screwed up, would be meaningless.

That's my favorite thing about the idea of Do This Don't -- it's all this stuff that ties us up in knots when it's CROP TOPS, for fuck's sake. Are we really spending our energy being so ashamed of our bodies that we can't wear stripes just in case we happen to look bigger? I mean, sure, the answer to that rhetorical question is often yes, but I remain ever hopeful that, by dressing in what we love and in what makes us feel good, we can send off all these rules with a big fat middle finger in the air.

On that note of earnest idealism and philosophical pondering: Do you go sleeveless? (Thank goodness this isn't the kind of website where I'd have to ask if you dare to bare.) Do you go sleeveless at the office? And WTF is up with August being the worsties?

Marianne is breaking fashion rules on Twitter: @TheRotund.