The bathing suit is nothing risqué: a black and white one-piece in a 50’s inspired-style with horizontal stripes and thick straps, a sweetheart neckline and a modest keyhole back. It dangles on a hanger extended by a salesgirl who coos, “It’s so cute” with a high-pitched zeal. She’s not wrong. And it would, as she points out (repeatedly) show off my tattoos — just like the two swing dresses she’s holding for me as I sweep through Torrid, a plus-size boutique. These dresses are sleeveless, and covered in bold rockabilly patterns (prints of American style tattoo sparrows and anchors, and sugar skulls and roses, respectively) — looks that have been, for too long a time, verboten to me as a fat girl. But, after years of binging and purging and popping pills, starving myself and wrecking my knees on the treadmill, I have gotten off the merry-go-down of neurotic dieting. And yet, as I stare at this swimsuit, my heart beats its sad old song: I can’t.
That song starts during my girlhood at the suburban pools where I first learn to (love to) swim, but also to “know better”: I’m taught by the taunts of the other kids comparing me, in my black-and-white bathing suit (or, in any other color, really), to a killer whale; by the mothers-of-classmates who will pull me aside, and, in voices suited to soothe dying animals, ask me if maybe I’d feel more comfortable in a cover-up. Cover-up becomes my refrain — when I sit on the deck chairs watching the thinner girls sun themselves, sun throbbing through the fabric of the baggy T-shirt that shields frolicking pool-goers from my dimpled thighs and heavy belly; when I stop swimming altogether, settling for cold baths and when, years later, I tell myself (and the friends I’ve traveled with) that I’m totally okay with wearing knee-length skirts to the beach, I didn’t want to go into the water, anyway.
The salesgirl — who rocks her amplitude in tight jeans, a slit-sleeve shirt, and Buddy Holly glasses — reads my face instantly. Her voice drops an octave, and she says, in the sweetest tone of conciliation, “Oh, honey, you’ll get there.” There: a headspace of full embodiment, empowerment. Where I wear what I want, when I want, and I always feel at ease. Hell, more than at ease, but good, really good. I thought I’d arrived at this Promised Land by writing about how I got off the broken road of diet culture, calling out destructive portrayals of fat women in the media, and even debating “concern trolls” (a special breed of anti-fat bigotry) on the radio. As I make up an excuse for demurring, I wonder now if I’ve only been inching along, closer every day, but never quite touching the border.
Perhaps I’d have crossed to the other side, already, if, as a young girl, I’d seen Tess Holliday on the cover of People magazine, her full-body photograph (none of that cropped-at-the face bullshit) beside a caption breathlessly proclaiming her “The World’s First Size 22 Supermodel;” featured in Buzzfeed as the Venus on-the-half-shell and starring in her own look book for Torrid. And her body, like all fat women’s bodies, is a living metaphor. As activist Virgie Tovar writes, “‘Fat’ is just the current catchall word for all the things that we as a culture are afraid of: women’s rights, people refusing to acquiesce to cultural pressures of conformity, fear of mortality.”
Many of the profiles written on Holliday feature at least one cursory mention of being “healthy” and happy (and the People write-up has her expressly talking about diet and exercise after she cracks a joke about needing a cheeseburger and a whiskey). Even laudatory articles still harbor a “you go, girl” condescension, a kindly wonderment that anyone her size could have the moxie to pursue a modeling career — or, more baldly, to think herself pretty enough to pursue a modeling career. But Holliday — clad in a lacy black bodysuit and designer heels — has also become something more powerful than a metaphor for our culture’s reactions to fatness; she is a symbol of hope.
When I first saw Holliday’s campaign in Torrid, I sat at my desk and cried. Her body is my body: Wide, uncompromising hips and dimpled thighs, a voluptuous belly and thick, soft arms. And she is wearing the clothes my mother always told me that I “couldn’t get away with.” Including bathing suits (even — gasp! — bikinis). And she is living the kind of life fat women are told we can’t live because we are too lazy, too crazed, too unlovable — including success in a notoriously tricky industry, doing the work she’s always wanted to and a happy engagement to a supportive partner (who just happens to look like he belongs on the cover of a romance novel).
But there is a fault line between seeing and believing, and, from where I’m still standing, dead in the center, the plates shift so slowly that they don’t seem to move at all. Since I’ve been a teenager who’d already hadn’t worn a bathing suit in years, a young twenty-something who believed the best she could hope to be was a fairly enlightened guy’s purely platonic gal pal (and the worst, an itch scratched only in the dark) and a fed-the-fuck-up thirty-something who tries to adopt a kind of Popeye Zen (I am what I am, and that’s all that I am and what I am is fabulous), the standard-bearers of plus-sized beauty (like Whitney Thompson, the first plus-sized woman to win America’s Top Model) have been as taut and toned as any other model — only they wear a larger dress size.
Telling a woman like me, who has hips that strain movie theater seats, a belly that drips and sways when she walks and an ass that rolls merrily behind her, to close her eyes and think of Marilyn Monroe is more than foolish, it’s damaging. It insists that there is only one kind of fatness the culture can endure: a body that harkens back to the pin-up look, where it was kosher to be curvy as long as those curves were relatively flat. When the models in the catalogues for “plus-size clothing” — which has been the madwoman banging her fists on the walls of fashion’s dark attic for years (relegated out of the sunlight of the shopping mall and onto the internet, exclusively; stocked with peasant blouses and empire-waist dresses, nothing youthful or chic) — are almost as unattainable as the waifs who mock me from the supermarket check-out line, believing that certain joys of femininity would always be beyond me became like toughening a muscle. It calcified into a truth over time.
It’s not, of course, a truth, only a narrative that is countered by the work of the activists and artists who saved me. One of the first times I’d ever seen another fat woman, naked and splendid, was scrolling through the website for Substantia Jones’ Adiopositivity Project: Her body unabashedly round, pocked and puckered; and she was not alone — surrounded by women in various states of dress and undress. Each of them photographed with grace and wit. Each of them radiating, through a smile or a look, an “ah” and an “oh yes,” an “I am at home here.” So I got (a little) bolder: started showing a little belly, a lot of my arms. The world as we know it didn’t end. And the clenched little bud of my world began to unfurl, inch-by-inch, sun on skin, breeze along flesh. I want to be a righteous fat-ass and wear that bathing suit with love and abandon. But I’m not quite there yet. I am relaxing and retraining that muscle in the center of my chest.
One could argue that yoking the experiences of having a body — the tactile pleasure of freshly shaved legs on freshly laundered sheets, the slow, savory aches and the pains that can barely be endured — to anything as capricious as fashion or beauty is wrong-minded. Of course, “so cute” should never be the end-all and be-all of anything — women’s sense of self and autonomy, in particular. But, like the “bad feminist” who mainlines romantic comedies (the cheesier the better), my heart wants what it wants, and it wants swing dresses and leather vests and lingerie. It wants me to know I’m beautiful. My bones house the memory of a little girl auditioning her grandmother’s lipsticks, marveling at the way that dusky rose makes her face bloom in the mirror. And feeling — because she doesn’t yet have the words — connected to the women in her grandmother’s old movie posters, to her grandmother, when she still put on a skirt-suit just to go to market, and catching herself in the mirror, smiles. And that smile holds something elemental, something completely self-contained. An “ah,” and an “oh, yes,” a poise and a power that can’t be touched.
I wish I could’ve remained that little girl blowing kisses into smudged glass. Stayed in those moments before one of those mothers at the pool tapped my sunburnt shoulder and asked if I wouldn’t feel “more comfortable” in a cover-up. I wish that little girl could’ve picked up a mainstream magazine and seen Tess Holliday looking so comfortable in a lacy black cat suit. Visibility lends legitimacy, it celebrates and normalizes — and, in doing so, it doesn’t just bring a wild and immaculate array of new bodies into the fold of “standards of beauty,” it blasts open the very concept of a standard, a whole and distinct way to be beautiful.
A friend of mine asked me if I see Tess Holliday as the strike that sparks a lasting change. My answer is a yes and a wait-and-see. Holliday’s fame is transformative precisely because it defies the typical “plus-size model,” and though it’s infuriating to think that she’s radical for posing in ads for a retailer catering to women like her, like me, honest-to-goodness, there-is-no-hiding-it-with-words-like-curvy fat women, she is here now, and with her (and after her), hopefully, there will be others. But I will believe in that truly lasting change when we see Tess Holliday, and other models who look like her, take the stage at Victoria’s Secret, become the faces — and the bodies — of designer houses and JC Penney’s ads; when the magazine headlines don’t scream out their dress sizes; when they represent just another way to be beautiful. And until then, all I can do is go sleeveless, wear that big, brassy print and sit naked in my apartment wearing Chanel No. 5 and drinking champagne like Marilyn. And I know that someday soon, I will feel the ocean move between my thighs and the cold water caress my ample hips.