I love fashion, but—as a fat woman—it doesn’t always love me back
Fashion has a long way to go to being more inclusive and kind to bodies like mine.
by Kamilah Bush
I love clothes. I love fashion and style. I love all kinds of clothes from the big fashion houses to things I’ve fished out of thrift store bins. I watch the major award shows just for the gowns. My favorite holiday is The First Monday in May, also known as the Met Gala. I am even a religious listener of Glamour Magazine’s What I Wore When podcast. Seeing a person in a great outfit literally takes my breath away.
For me, fashion is art—just as transcendent as anything in a museum. Fashion is storytelling, it’s expression, it’s a map of human existence. Because of fashion’s ability to be functional, personal, cultural and political, it is, to me, one of the most valuable forms of expression we have. But as much as I love it, I know that I am in love with an industry and artform that is not in love with me.
In most brands, I am a size 26—meaning most brands do not even carry my size. While “plus size” fashion has come a long way from bad floral prints and 1000 iterations of the same knock off Diane Von Furstenburg wrap dress, building a personal style as a fat woman that not only accurately reflects my sensibilities, allows me to express myself and is “flattering”, but is also appropriate for my life is still more difficult than it is for people living in smaller bodies.
Plus size clothes cost more, are made less and with less variety (and often less quality). Finding clothes is labor intensive and mostly consists of online shopping and hoping that things fit, or spending more time in dressing rooms—because sizes are not consistent across stores and brands.
Because of this, it is also an emotional experience. Nothing is quite as disheartening as finding a great piece and then realizing it doesn’t even exist in your size—especially in the cases where you’ve chosen what is typically your size and it’s still too small. Still, nothing feels quite like putting on an outfit that makes you feel confident, beautiful—and the goal I’m always shooting for—like a bad bitch.
Even though I enjoy it deeply, enjoy the excitement of finding a great piece or standing in front of a full body mirror, twisting and spinning in place—hyping myself up—even though I enjoy this, styling myself on a normal day is difficult. It takes a lot of care and consideration because while I celebrate my body, this place where I live, this thing which carries me through the world and is home to everything I know and experience—I know that when other people encounter my body, they are inevitably going to place their own judgements on it.
Not just about my body, but also about their own; about society and about just about anything else they can hang on me. Studies have shown that fat people are seen as “lazy” and “incompetent”. It has been proven that fat people—particularly fat women—are hired less, paid less and are less likely to be promoted.
Clothing a fat body is different because there are so many other things that come with it. Clothing my fat, Black, female body is sometimes a Herculean feat. Even more so, because of my job. I am a theater artist working at a professional regional theater. My everyday office wear is more casual than the average job. I basically get to show up however I feel comfortable, which most days consists of Chucks and jeans.
However, anywhere from six to eight times a year, I have to attend an opening night. These are not always black tie events, but sometimes are. Invariably, theater artists, especially those involved in the production are expected to mingle with donors, producers, other industry professionals and wealthy patrons of the theater. There’s almost always a champagne reception following the performance, with professional photographers around. This naturally requires a certain dress code, because in addition to celebrating our accomplishments, we are necessarily advertising ourselves, our work, and the theater.
I live for the glamour of these events. Getting a chance to see my colleagues, actors who typically wear yoga pants and t-shirts to rehearsal, stage managers in their uniform blacks or technicians who are usually covered in paint and sawdust, in suit and tie and fancy dresses is always delightful. Transforming from my Hillman sweatshirt and white low top Converse to an outfit that will stop traffic—as is always my aim—is a major part of the fun for me. However knowing that images of me on opening night will be shared not only by the organization for which I am working, but also by other people who happen to be connected to the production, carefully crafting my appearance becomes a matter of careful selection and attention.
At my most recent opening, I found a dress that I felt amazing in. I loved it. I looked gorgeous, I felt professional and celebratory, glamorous and striking—all of the things any woman hopes to be at a cocktail party. I paired the dress—a midi length, golden yellow piece with a surplice neckline, gathered sleeve and a cinched waist tie—with black tights and black military heeled boots, tortoise shell earrings, gold accessories and a deep purple lip. My hair, which is natural, I pinned into a Hair Love (shout out to Matthew Cherry) inspired mohawk. I felt like a goddess. And it was indeed a showstopper—especially when the lead actress in the play, a 6 foot tall, thin bodied, naturally stunning woman, emerged from her dressing room in this exact same dress.
For the first few seconds I saw her striding across the theater lobby, her heels higher, her jewelry more colorful, her lipstick a bright pink and her hair styled in a loose beach curl bob, and her dress pulled down off the shoulder—I thought I might die. For all the care I had put into my look, I knew that because she was “standard sized”, people would perceive her differently, more favorably.
I am self aware enough to admit that there was a little bit of jealousy there and more than a little bit of fear. As much as opening night is for all the artists working on a production, it was also her night. And here we were looking like the funhouse mirror versions of each other. This feeling, though full bodied and real, lasted a split second because I called back on the feeling I’d had before I left my house—the feeling I found standing in front of my mirror in my bedroom.
That Beyoncé, Sasha Fierce, Bad Bitch, DAYYYUMMM GIRL feeling I had when all eyes snapped to me as I walked into the theater and I realized that she was probably feeling exactly the same. And sure, she probably had infinitely more choices than I had, but still somehow by some magic from the Fashion Gods (when I picture them, they always look like Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley), we ended up settling on the same dress. And more important than our different body types, the more defining factor for each of our looks, was our styling choices.
That is why I love clothes. Two women with two different bodies and two totally different styles walked into the same event wearing the same dress and both were able to feel like they’d just headlined Coachella. Fashion has a long way to go to being more inclusive and kind to bodies like mine but because no matter where the industry is on its journey, I am able to conjure that same breathtaking, show stopping feeling when I look in a mirror. I’m always going to love clothes. And I’m going to love myself as I work the hallways like a runway, whether I’m wearing Converse or couture.
Kamilah Bush, a homegrown North Carolinian and the Co-Artistic Director of Paper Lantern Theatre for Our Tomorrow, is a playwright and dramaturge who is committed to telling the varied and complex stories of Black women. James Baldwin said that an artist’s responsibility to their society is to “never cease warring with it” and she takes this responsibility very seriously. Follow her on Twitter as the battle wages on @writingthewrong