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Plus-Size Women

The Trigger Warning: Where my issues with my body image began

***TW: numbers associated with weight loss are mentioned

One of the hardest choices I’ve ever made was the decision to leave my small town in Delaware and my family and friends to go to university and pursue my dreams in New York City. The distance may not have been too great but the differences were abounding.

Adjusting to my new life was rough for many reasons: being away from home for the first time, missing my close friends and feeling the pressure to make new ones, and, of course, the new pace and attitude of the city.

All those reasons I predicted and expected; it didn’t make them easier to deal with but at least I knew what I was up against. However, other issues arose that I am only now starting to fully comprehend. At that point I was attending Parsons at the New School for Design and anyone who has ever been there knows that the students attending that school are largely Asian and White. I was one of only four black people that I met during my short time there which, besides being surrounded by so much talent that I felt I didn’t measure up to, made me feel like I didn’t belong there. I felt as if they were just trying to level out the demographics or something, like there was a quota they had to meet for some reason even though it is a private school. I later learned is called Impostor Syndrome, but I still to this day do not doubt that my accusations could be true.

Another representation issue I encountered was the overall lack of fat people. Every time I walked into a classroom, I felt like the complete embodiment of the proverbial elephant in the room.

Body image has been something I have struggled with since as long as I can remember, as is true for many of us I believe. My struggle traces back to puberty when my body was stripped of all neutrality. I started to develop noticeable curves and gain weight in some areas where there wasn’t as much fat before (i.e. my thighs and my ass) and before I even noticed these things myself, everyone else around me did. On one hand I was sexualized by male family members and classmates and on the other hand I was socially demonized by female members of society, including my mother. All of a sudden life went from being a carefree and oblivious child to becoming a woman whose main responsibilities were achieving thinness and becoming a woman that a man would want to marry one day while simultaneously doing nothing to attract male attention or stir up impure thoughts in the men around me, all before I even turned 12.

The unwanted attention from boys and men was the first issue concerning my body that I really had to face head on. As a 5th grader, I dealt with not only unwanted attention but unwanted physical contact from some of my male peers. Boys that I had considered friends just a year before, all of a sudden, became fixated on staring at my ass whenever I turned around, walked by, or bent over. Even worse than that was when they began to make a game out of copping a feel whenever they could. Not only did I feel unsafe to the point that I stopped going to recess, only went to the bathroom between classes when there were a large amount of people in the hallways, and tied a sweater around my waist every single day, I also blamed myself heavily. I thought that if I was thin and had a different shape, I wouldn’t have had to go through the harassment that continued for the entire school year and followed me until I moved to a new town and school district.

I want to note that my family and parents are African, specifically Zimbabwean immigrants and first generation Americans. Knowing this may also raise the question about the pressure I started to feel to become thin, outside of the sexual harassment. Typically Black people embrace thicker body types as the standard of beauty, especially Africans, but my immediate family did not see things this way, unfortunately for me.

Thus began my self-esteem’s downward spiral. Sometimes I thought I would try to diet but whenever I thought about dieting and how the only way I thought I could be deemed acceptable to the world was if I lost weight and became skinny, I would become really upset and do the opposite, which was to consult sugary snacks for consolation. At this point though, I started to become occupied by time-consuming school activities and countless crushes that prevented me from dwelling on too many internal issues. I was also, thankfully, surrounded by a positive group of friends that helped counteract many negative thoughts I had about my body so I was able to suppress them for the time being.

Graduation was bittersweet. I was glad to be out of the purgatorial hell-hole that was high school, but I knew that in 3 months, I was going to be leaving behind everything comfortable and familiar in my life. On top of being anxious awaiting the impending transition, I was mostly isolated from my friends the summer before starting college. Everyone was taking vacations, getting together their college dorm needs, working summer jobs, and otherwise occupying themselves with menial things just because we knew that this was the last time we could. The problem for me was that I hadn’t realized how toxic my home environment could be until then.

Within a month of being home I remembered exactly what I used extra-curricular activities to escape from. Being with my mother day after day constituted constant harassment about my weight and size. Every time I picked up a fork my motives and habits were verbally questioned. “Are you still eating?” “Do you really think you should eat that?” “You’re still hungry?” “Why is all the food gone already?” “I put food in your plate for you. No more eating tonight” These are but a few of the many quotes that began to perpetually circle around in my head.

It got to the point where I could not eat in front of her, or anyone really. I also reintroduced the concept of dieting into my life and it was the first time I really took it seriously. What got me was when I was told that I’m limiting my chances of succeeding in my career because I didn’t look the way a designer should supposedly look. Even though I knew the comment didn’t necessarily hold any merit, considering the wide range of outrageous appearances I know many successful fashion designers to have, I didn’t want to make my life any harder for myself than I already knew it was. So I went on a diet.

This diet consisted of a calorie counting app that I referred to like the Bible, taking multiple daily walks/runs, drinking about six bottles of water a day, getting on to the treadmill when I could, and sleeping constantly, fearing that being awake might make me think of how hungry I was. Using the app I programmed my goal to be to lose 30 pounds before school started in a month and a half. According to my weight and the goal I programmed, the app dictated how many calories I could intake and how many I had to burn each day. Many days I would eat under the amount of calories I was allotted in hopes of speeding up the weight loss process.

The first couple days were the most successful. I lost about 4 pounds in a week. I didn’t realize then that it was mostly, if not all, water weight. More days went by and the loss was less rapid. Then weeks went by and there was little to no change. I didn’t know how to deal with plateauing so far away from my goal. I still persevered anyway, telling myself that one day I’ll just wake and notice the transformation as if it were overnight as long as I stopped obsessing and kept persevering, so I decided to only look at the scale every other day.

By the time school started, I had only lost 10 pounds. I didn’t feel like I looked any different and the only difference I felt was utter emotional and physical exhaustion. In the last days before I started school I had made a tumblr account, for no reason in particular, but shortly after, discovered *thinspo (tw on link). It wasn’t long before I fell completely down the rabbit hole, lusting after thigh gaps, visible rib cages, and defined collar bones the way I used to lust after cute boys in high school.

Starting college, deprivation and self-loathing had already conquered my entire being, which made facing the other elements of my transition that much harder.

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Don’t F**k With Big Belly Women

In the most recent issue of Oprah Magazine, there was a Q&A portion of an article where a reader asked “Can I pull off a crop top?” The reader was then given a response by one of the magazine’s writer’s which stated “If (and only if!) you have a flat stomach, feel free to try one.”

We crop top wearing big bellied women immediately proceeded to look down at our exposed stomachs and ask, “bishwet?”

This is definitely not the first time media, especially magazines, and society in general have tried to police the specific garment choices of fat women and it will not be the last time either. We’re repeatedly told to “Wear all black — it’s slimming!” or to “Never wear horizontal stripes!” or “Just don’t wear prints or bright colors in general!” Basically, we’re told to wear a burlap sack because there’s nothing worse that a fat woman can do than be seen, or worse, have her fat be seen, hence the emphasis on the “and only if!” part. It’s been made abundantly clear to us that many people would rather fat women just disappear. Well guess what? Not only are we here, but there is a new generation of fat women who are ready with guns blazing when our right to visibility is attacked by statements such as these.

Upon seeing the snapshot of the atrocious article, I immediately clicked where @oprahmagazine was tagged in the picture to see if there were any more responses to it. This is just a glimpse of what I found:

Screenshot_2015-07-08-21-15-22

20150709_084705 (1)
TL: Tess Holliday (@tessholliday), #effyourbeautystandards TR: Lalaa Misaki (@lalaamisaki) BL: Courtney Noelle (@courtneynoelleinc), #deathtothemumu BR: Cynthia Ramsay Noel (@flightofthefatgirl), #flightofthefatgirl

Everyone from famous plus-size models like Tess Holliday (@tessholliday), the founder of #effyourbeautystandards, plus-size bloggers like Essie Golden (@essiegolden), the founder of #goldenconfidence, Roxy of @rrrstylings and Jolene of @boardroomblonde, featured by Plus Model Magazine (@plusmodelmag), to body-positive IG advocates, curvy tummy women, and even some women with flat tummies, geared up with their selfies to dispute the lies being printed about them (all via instagram). Even a new body-positive tag, which I can’t wait to use all day every day, came out of the outrage: #pullingoffacroptop (created by Sarah Chiwaya of curvilyfashion.com (@curvily)). And so I was inspired to join in on all the excitement:

IMG_20150708_210103

***

What many don’t realize is that when you say a fat woman can’t wear a crop top, you’re saying much more than just that. What you’re actually saying is that a fat woman doesn’t get to make the same choices about her body that a thin woman could. You’re saying that fat women don’t deserve to love themselves and their bodies and you’re saying that fat women don’t deserve to have their choices respected. Whether or not you find fat and rolls aesthetically pleasing to look at is irrelevant. Fat women’s tummies are not killing people, fat women’s tummies are not disturbing the peace, fat women’s tummies are not hurting anyone, but ignorance, bigotry, and bullying are. So the next time you feel entitled to comment on a stranger’s body and tell them what they can and can’t wear – don’t. And ladies, and everyone else too, if you feel good about yourself in what you’re wearing, which I know is so hard for most of us to do no matter what our size, you are f**king pulling it off!

I would also like to call this a HUGE win for tummy love. Even in the plus-size community, big-belly women are often slighted. There is not a lot of appreciation yet for giggly bellies anywhere, but this gives me hope that one day there will be.

Screenshot_2015-07-08-21-43-18-1

Has Africa Fallen Out of Love With Plus-Size Women?

Zion Tribe by Maelle Andre
motel-magazine.com Photography by Maelle Andre

It’s quite possible that I was raised by the only African mother who doesn’t believe that voluptuous body types are beautiful, but if I’m not, I blame colonization (as I do for pretty much everything).

Growing up, it was always hard to find the strength inside me to shut out the thousands of reasons both she and the media gave me to hate my chubby tummy, thick thighs, and round face, but from time to time I found comfort in knowing that the being tall, thin, and white was a eurocentric beauty preference. Being American (first-generation), that’s what I always had to consider, but, being African, it made sense to look to the elephant ear-shaped continent where I found that there are many more things that different cultures find beautiful, including big women.

Fast-forward about 10 years and you’ll find a world where technology is wholly accessible and social media is king queen*. Press play in 2015 and you’ll also find that African fashion has gained steady popularity, though it is still in an early adoption stage. As an aspiring fashion designer, the new-found Afrocentrism is extremely exciting for me. I and other African designers’, both aspiring and on the rise, only hope is that African designers and African nations will be the main ones profiting off the adoption of African fashion in the western world. Racism in the fashion industry is a huge issue that I will continue to explore in this blog, quite often I’m sure; however, I want to start by asking the question that my colleagues have not and probably will not ask: Why are African brands not making clothing for plus-size women?

African Print Turban by The Pretty Caps store on Etsy.com
African Print Turban by The Pretty Caps store on Etsy.com

Like the fashion-loving fat girl I am, the first thing I thought about upon realizing the doors being opened for African fashion, was that there were going to be more people in the industry fighting for, or at least catering to, plus-sizes. Call it wishful thinking or just plain naivete, but imagine my dismay to learn that most of the apparel designers’ sizes stop at size 10. The first thing I asked myself was, “Is this the new standard for Africans now or is this the compromise we have to make to succeed in the Western-dominated industry?”

Stella Jean & Tata Naka designs
Stella Jean & Tata Naka designs

Am I wrong to believe that in promoting diversity in the fashion industry, designers should also promote diverse beauty ideals? The same way that non-Africans who make collections “inspired” by African fashion without using any black models leaves a bad taste in my mouth, African fashion that is inaccessible in bigger sizes just feels plain wrong. Pop in any given African movie into a DVD player and you’ll see thick and fat women galore because Nollywood doesn’t play by Hollywood’s rules—yet, but neither should African fashion. I implore African designers to take this opportunity to twist, bend, and turn the fashion industry inside out. Celebrate the fact that Africa is an entire continent full of beautiful black women of all different shades, shapes, and sizes, and bring that realization and mindset to the industry. It’s time to refuse compromise and break down the boundaries, especially since there is a HUGE market of women like myself who have nothing to wear and would love to know that there is a place in this world where fat, thick, and curvy women are not only accepted, but admired, that is, of course, if that is still the case.

***

Oh yeah, and please do it before the culture vultures in the fashion industry stick a dashiki on a size 8 model and not only call her plus-size, but say that they came up with the idea. You know that’s how it ALWAYS happens. For once, let us be the first to make money off our own ideas.

Stella Jean & Tata Naka designs
Stella Jean & Tata Naka designs

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