My flight was leaving in 12 hours and I had everything packed except an outfit for the wedding at the center of the trip. I was surrounded by discarded clothing; and as my closet got sparser, there was less hiding my antagonist from me. Said antagonist was a dress — a dress I loved the minute I put it on, even though everything around me told me I should hate it.
The fact that I had exactly what I wanted to wear hanging in the back of my closet and still was still questioning it was absurd. The problem? It was plus-size. And like most larger-than-life villains, it had an origin story.
My whole life I have been curvier than most of my friends; I had hips and a very real need for a bra by fourth grade. Yet, it wasn’t until after college that I started flirting with the idea of wearing plus-size clothing, let alone considering myself plus-size. The thing is, I can fit into some “straight” sizes; in some stores I wear a size eight; in others I wear a 20. I know I have it luckier than others because I’m hourglass shaped, which is still society’s preferred body type for plus-size women — or, all women, really. Yet there are no guarantees I will find something that covers both my 34G breasts and the rest of my body when I walk into a store. Even though I love clothes and putting outfits together, shopping can be an exhausting experience.
During one recent trip at a department store, I tried on around 12 dresses with the help of a salesperson. I was looking for a couple of pieces to get me through a full season of so many wedding invites that I created a separate savings account and direct deposit labeled “wedding guest 24/7.” I ended up with three options that fit great. All three were different styles and sizes — 10, 16, and 20. The salesperson and I were particularly obsessed with the last one I tried on, a red printed number which happened to be a size 20. Let me tell you, I looked great in it.
Photo: Courtesy of Rebecca Smith.
But once the dresses were back on the hangers and the tags were fully on display, the sales person recommended I buy the first two — the size 10 and size 16. When I said, “I thought we both loved the red printed one?” she looked at me and said, “Yeah, but you probably don’t want it.” At that moment, I realized what she meant — I might not want a size 20 dress hanging in my closet. Or, to be more precise, something with a tag that says that size. But all the dresses were the same size — it’s the sizing that is all over the place, not my body.
She did have a point, though. There was part of me that was thinking, “A size 20, really?” Once she said it, speaking the shame out loud, I really didn’t want that dress. But I’m not someone who is okay being told what to feel. Out of spite, and out of pride that I didn’t really have yet but knew I wanted, I bought it.
In some cases, looking like a past-self would be horrible. But, for me, it felt like a homecoming. My wardrobe used to be full of daring pieces. In high school and college I wore multiple silhouettes, prints, and colors. But something about adding a few pounds and veering into a territory where I needed to consider perusing the plus-size options, made me pause. This pause became a three-year-long break from experimenting with my outfits, even while I worked at Refinery29, a brand devoted to celebrating self-expression and unique style. I found a few “safe” pieces of clothing and wore the heck out of them. My style basically became black T-shirts and ripped jeans, and black flowy dresses. Two things that I still wear now, but thankfully, I also wear more than that. And, of course, nothing in my uniform was plus-size. I found what I could among the “regular” clothes and made due.
After the wedding, I realized I missed feeling like I had choices. I missed having fun with clothes, and the freedom with fashion to make mistakes. I missed having a range of outfits — outfits that made me feel like a boss, outfits that made me feel sexy, outfits that made me feel silly, outfits that made me feel…anything. So, I started looking around at women of all sizes for inspiration. I made a list of items I needed in my life again, and went shopping. I ordered SO many clothes (don’t worry, mom, most of them were returned!), and I kept whatever checked off one of those boxes and made me feel great.
For some things, like the fringe, cowboy-inspired tank, the best size for me was a size 8. For others, like the elegant ‘70s-inspired maroon, velvet jumpsuit, I kept the size 20. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care if I had to shop at plus-size-only retailers or click on the plus-size tab on a website. Shopping is still stressful. There are some stores where I can’t fit into the smallest plus offering, or the largest “straight” sized piece. Somehow my body manages to be both too small and too big at the same time. Ultimately, shopping is a fun form of stress now — like a puzzle I need to solve because once again I get so much joy from my wardrobe.
It’s been almost a year since I became comfortable admitting that I’m plus-size. I no longer care about someone else seeing the tag. I’m finally where I wish I was when the salesperson told me I wouldn’t want that dress in my closet. The current me would have proudly told her “of course I want that dress; let’s get it in two colors.” In fact, after that wedding, I went back and indeed got the dress in grey and pale pink as well. That small act of defiance was the perfect start to owning my new fashion identity.
Welcome to MyIdentity. The road to owning your identity is rarely easy. In this yearlong program, we will celebrate that journey and explore how the choices we make on the outside reflect what we’re feeling on the inside — and the important role fashion and beauty play in helping people find and express who they are.
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