A slap in the face to fat girls

Beth Ditto may be a hip plus-size icon, but her new clothing line feels like an insulting throwback to a 1985 Kmart

Published July 10, 2009 8:11PM (EDT)

I recognize that pretty much everyone old enough to remember '80s fashion is at least mildly horrified by its return (however inevitable), but for fat women, the memories of getting dressed in that decade are especially cruel. I was a kid at the time, but just listening to my mother and sisters complain about the misery of plus-size shopping was plenty traumatizing. Even if one wanted to follow the eye-stabbing trends, it was impossible; every woman of size was rocking the exact same look, the "This was all I could find to fit my fat ass" look. The clothes were usually shapeless and often bizarrely juvenile. If you asked any of the very few companies making clothing for the plus market, they would have told you that fat women could not get enough of oversized tunics bearing images of fuzzy animals and cartoon characters. Those things sold like hotcakes! Which couldn't possibly be because the choices for those who couldn't sew were pretty much that or cutting armholes in a burlap sack.

"Fatshion" has come a long way since then, so far that big girls even have our own celebrity style icons, like Beth Ditto. And... Beth Ditto. OK, we basically have a celebrity style icon -- but that's one more than we used to have. And lucky for us, she signed on with UK plus retailer Evans to design a line of clothing, which launched Thursday.

I'm not a huge fan of Ditto's look, but I was intensely curious to see what she'd come up with -- if not for me, then for my younger fat sisters (figurative ones, in this case), who might actually be interested in clubwear. Then I saw the line and, well, I've got to go with a blogger at Big Fat Deal, who said, "My first, gut, basic reaction is that as a fashion designer, Beth Ditto is a very good singer."

The line is so intensely '80s that it not only includes brightly colored geometric designs and acid-washed denim, but a shapeless sweater dress with a vaguely Patrick Nagel-ish face on it and, the pièce de résistance, an oversized cat T-shirt. With rhinestone eyes. Seriously.

With that particular item, Ditto has managed to evoke not only the fashion spirit of the 1980s, but the sheer panic felt by fat girls trying to clothe themselves back then. Says Colleen at plus-size fashion blog The Pretty Pear, "I guess what turns me off most is that I was a fat kid in the '80s and I wore a lot of long, baggy tops with leggings. I've always thought of that look as the 'fat girl uniform' so it just doesn't appeal to me. In fact, it borders on insulting, in a weird way. I think the cat face t-shirt kind of pushed me over the edge there. I've spent a lot of time trying not to dress like a streotypical frumpy fat girl and now that look is trendy?" Exactly. Perhaps Ditto's aiming for a bold reclamation of the "fat girl uniform," but I'm afraid there's not enough hipster irony in the world to make it work.

As it is, what was supposed to be one more tiny bulwark against that scarcity mentality that once taught us all to buy anything that fit, no matter how ugly, turned out to be a dizzying flashback to Kmart circa 1985. What was supposed to be cutting-edge fashion for young women who, 20 years ago, were stuck with nothing but tent-like tunics and leggings turned out to be... almost nothing but tent-like tunics and leggings. As a friend snarked when I posted a link to the cat shirt on Facebook, "Where are the overpriced muumuus? How about a nice caftan? A rock and roll caftan."

However frivolous a topic fashion might seem, it's a major marker of in-group status in our culture -- and a locus of shame for many women who can't rock the latest trends the way models and celebs do, whether because we can't fit into them, can't afford them, or never get invited to anywhere they'd be appropriate. For decades, the plus-size fashion desert was one more inescapable message to larger women that we were other, less than, undeserving of the nice things made widely available to women who were closer to the cultural beauty standard -- that we were supposed to shut up and take whatever they gave us, because it wasn't like we could ever look pretty anyway. Recently, more and more designers have been catching on to our buying power and desire for nice, normal, grown-up clothes, but finding things you'd actually want to wear is still an uphill battle. As Lesley at Fatshionista put it, "Whenever a not-fat person compliments my clothing, I get that they're saying, 'You have great taste!' I appreciate it. I dig it. I do. But I also occasionally feel like explaining, 'You're complimenting me based on the idea that I just walked into a store one day and bought this because it appealed to me, like you do, and that it is my taste which is the impressive and compliment-worthy thing. No. In fact, it is my persistence in the dogged pursuit of decent fucking clothing that fits me that you should be complimenting.'" That's why that stupid cat T-shirt (and related atrocities) feels like such a slap in the face to many of us, after we dared to hope for something different and better. Meet the new fat clothes, same as the old fat clothes.

Granted, Ditto's line might read differently to people who don't remember the '80s. It got lots of positive responses on the fashion blog Young, Fat, and Fabulous, of which I am, admittedly, only the last two. Evans is apparently starting to sell out of some items already. And there's something to be said for my friend The Rotund's take: "If everyone else gets the chance to make questionable fashion choices, well, I appreciate having that opportunity myself." Today, unlike the '80s, there are at least a number of places to get items besides rhinestone-eyed cat tunics in a 3X, even if our options are still far fewer than those afforded to smaller women. Having real choices when it comes to expressing ourselves through clothing does feel a bit luxurious, even if domino-print leggings don't.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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