When I was a kid, I wanted to design clothes. I kept a dollar-store sketchbook and a case full of pencils. At first, I used them to trace and color in the clothes I liked in magazines. Eventually, I learned to sketch them on my own, from memory. They were bad drawings, but I was too excited to care much about that. I knew where the buttons and ruffles were supposed to go, and that was all I needed. One of my friends, a girl who had been heavy for as long as I’d known her, who was often cruelly picked on in classes, asked if I’d design something for her. I told her yes. My clothes would be made to fit everybody.
I began my freshman year of college double-majoring in fashion merchandising and apparel design. At the end of my first semester, a professor told me I would be better off changing my major. I had earned an A in her course — for the first time in my life, I was a perfect student. But I was already a size 12, inching closer and closer to 14 each day. My professor was also big, and she told me there was no place for a body like mine in the fashion world unless I was a man or a genius, so I was wasting my money and my time. I don’t believe she meant me harm. I believe she meant to save me: Her experience working in fashion as a fat woman had been abysmal. I wasn’t even comfortable enough to go into some stores at my size, so how was I going to design for them? I changed my major to psychology.
Over the past several years, there have been many times I wished I’d stuck with that childhood dream. A 2012 market-research study estimated that 67 percent of American women wore a size 14-plus; last year, the data inspired the launch of Refinery29’s 67 Percent Project, a national campaign that included showing plus-size women in 67 percent of the imagery on its site.The number has only grown, and the market for plus-size clothing is valued at $20.4 billion. Revenue in the category increased by 17 percent between 2013 and 2016 (compared with growth of just 7 percent in apparel overall). There is, to put it crudely, an insane amount of money just sitting on the table, and it seems, finally, that there are some savvy entrepreneurs out there ready to shrug off fashion’s inherent snobbery and claim a piece of it.
What happened? Part of it is that the market has been growing, but, perhaps more important, the community that makes up that market — which for so long had to make do with oversize, colorless, or matronly looking options — began to see itself differently, because it could now see itself more easily. Before, images of bigger women in culture tended to be put out there to get a laugh, to inspire pity or a makeover. Now the images were being transmitted by us, for us. I discovered the body-positivity movement by accident. I was looking for a place to keep a personal blog when I stumbled on Big Girl Tumblr. Here, suddenly, was a world of beautiful, stylish fat women talking about clothes, looking great, and refusing to apologize or to put off buying things until they lost some weight. By eliminating the disinterested middleman — the designer, the editor — these women had created a whole world of trendy and classic looks for plus-size women who love to dress up. Women like me.The fat girls on Tumblr all looked fantastic. My friends and I started passing around photos of well-dressed fat women like playing cards.
The queen of this movement is a blogger named aid. She, too, grew up hearing that bigger women were not welcome in the fashion industry, but she didn’t give up. She went on to Parsons, and she dug in. I saw Nicolette in form-fitting midi dresses, her best friend Gabi Gregg in crop tops, and so many other women wearing the bright colors and patterns I’d been taught to skip. The fat girls on Tumblr wore whatever they wanted, and they didn’t do it to hide the fact that they were fat. They did it to look good. And they did. They all looked fantastic. My friends and I started passing around photos of well-dressed fat women and teens like they were playing cards.
ith the body-acceptance movement comes a new breed of stars, stars with bodies that don’t fit the old mold. Take Aidy Bryant, for example, the Saturday Night Live cast member who got a romantic subplot on the last season of Girls. When magazines come to take her pictures, she has a fraction of the options available to her peers. “I often wonder if I would be able to write a movie in the time I spend trying to put together these clothes,” she says. “But I know representation matters. If I was still a 14-year-old girl in Arizona, it would hurt my feelings to see the only fat young woman on TV constantly dressed head to toe in all black. I’m young, I’m cool. I want to be able to dress that way.”
If the world of online sharing and community building has been a boon to the body-acceptance movement, it’s only logical that the online, direct-to-consumer fashion market should come next. Recently, I was featured on a popular blog describing my style. But when the owner of that blog invited me to choose a gift for participation from the online fashion brand Everlane, I had to go with a backpack and a pair of shoes: Not a single piece of clothing available on the site came in my size. So it was thrilling to discover Universal Standard. “I was constantly compromising,” says Alexandra Waldman, the brand’s co-founder and chief creative officer. “We started this company with the idea that I wasn’t going to compromise anymore.” It’s shocking when you see it at first, and then you realize that the shock is coming from seeing sophisticated, minimalist fashion in larger sizes, which is almost impossible to find elsewhere. The response has been fantastic. Waldman and her co-founder, Polina Veksler, began the company modestly in 2015, using their own savings, but they recently closed a $1.5 million round of funding. Universal Standard has seen sales increases in the triple digits every quarter since launching in 2015. Part of the process has been reeducating customers. So many bigger women are “addicted to fast fashion because that’s all [they’ve] had access to,” Waldman says. “People ask why it’s so expensive, why a T-shirt has to cost $50, but a T-shirt shouldn’t cost the same as a sandwich. There are a lot of reasons why a T-shirt could cost the same as a sandwich, and all of them are bad reasons.”