Disclaimer: This is an angry post. There are swear words. (More often than not I measure my words. But you know what? Not today. Because this needs saying.)

I am fat. (There, I said it. Please understand that I am not using the term ‘fat’ to shame. I use it because, in claiming it, I acknowledge who and what I am. I stand firmly on my ground and demand to be seen. And that is powerful.) The conversation within the sewing community about plus sizes collided in my brain with a comment made whilst at a fashion school open day, my internal motivation for going to fashion school to begin with, memories of specific events during which I was fat shamed as a young adult, and my mental health history and how it may have impacted on my wanting to make clothing.

First, the comment: “We start at New Zealand size 10 and then grade up from there.” An innocent, if not informative, comment at the time. Until I realised I’d failed to ask up to what size one would be taught to grade. And then I realised I was too afraid to ask because I didn’t want to know. What if I was disappointed with the answer?

Second, the motivation for going to fashion school: a) I’m utterly fascinated with all things clothing* b) it would be amazing if I had the all skills to make all the clothing**, including the period stuff, and c) I want to make clothing for Sophia that are to her taste and that fit comfortably. I don’t want her growing up like I did, feeling like it was my fault my mum couldn’t find ready-made clothing in a size that would actually fit me.*** Or, perhaps more relevant to me, I’m tired of walking into department stores with a sense of dread every time Sophia needs new clothing. Because the chances of us finding something are tiny. It’s hard to hide the exasperation, and that’s not fair on Sophia. d) Most sewing patterns I’ve come across for little people are to “standard” sizing. Clothing made to these measurements simply won’t fit Sophia. Plus size sewing patterns for children don’t exist, or I’ve not found any. I need to learn how to grade up properly so that sewing for her feels do-able.****

Third, the fat shaming. I want to describe two events because a) it’s cathartic and b) I want to demonstrate how fat shaming is, often unwittingly, presented as a compliment.

Flashback to my early twenties. I was standing in my cousin’s kitchen on a cold winter morning making a hot beverage. She came in and we started to chat. She then commented on how my jersey was fitting me so much better now that I’d lost some weight and my tummy bump wasn’t there anymore. “It looks so much better now that your tummy is flat”, she said. I’d always had a tummy bump, and now she was telling me I was better for having lost it? A year or two later, the same cousin came to visit family in Johannesburg. She hadn’t seen me since that conversation in the kitchen. During that time I’d lost about 20kg. When she saw me, she exclaimed “Wow, you’ve really slimmed down!” She looked me up and down like she was admiring a piece of art. I’d gotten so used to being invisible, the attention made me feel quite sick. I didn’t feel beautiful. I felt exposed. I didn’t like this kind of attention, or the scrutiny. I smiled meekly, and left the room as quickly as I could.

I still have the items of clothing I was wearing on those two occasions – because I really like the clothing and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to wear them again. And that’s a problem. It’s so typical of fat people – to hope we’ll shrink so that we can fit into pretty clothing. One day, we say. One day.

But I want that day to be now. I want people to start where they’re at today – wearing clothing that fits well and makes them feel joyous, now. Today. Not sometime in the future that may or may not come.

Fourth. About my mental health history. Read this: “Indeed, Dr. Peter A. Muennig, an assistant professor of health policy at Columbia, says stigma can do more than keep fat people from the doctor: it can actually make them sick. “Stigma and prejudice are intensely stressful,” he explained. “Stress puts the body on full alert, which gets the blood pressure up, the sugar up, everything you need to fight or flee the predator.” Over time, such chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes and other medical ills, many of them (surprise!) associated with obesity. In studies, Dr. Muennig has found that women who say they feel they are too heavy suffer more mental and physical illness than women who say they feel fine about their size — no matter what they weigh.” ***** What if a big part of my mental illness, and a lot of the anxiety I still experience today, had its roots in obesity stigmatisation? (!) Sure, I’ve found meaning in my experiences of depression. And yet… I can’t help but wonder where I’d be today if I hadn’t fallen into a state of major depression more or less half way through my first year at The Gordon Flack-Davidson Academy of Design. Maybe I’d have been better able to deal with the pressure of working to earn money to pay for my studies. Maybe I would have been better able to keep up with the workload. Maybe I would have been better able to deal with the stress of writing exams. Maybe.

Here’s the grind: because I failed the first time I tried studying at a fashion school, I wonder if the same thing will happen again. Of course, my circumstances are very different, but there’s that element of doubt. And I have it in my head that there’s a lot of drama that goes on in the fashion industry. Whilst I might be more mature in how I handle things, I do wonder if my skin is thick enough to deal with all of it. I honestly don’t know.

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* it’s changing silhouette throughout history, it’s construction, how it tells stories about human experience, how social and economic factors influenced what people wore… all the things!

** I include underpinnings, shoes, hats, gloves, bags, and all sorts of accessories here.

*** I have a very clear memory of needing a new school uniform, and my mum taking me to the local school uniform shop in Parkhurst. I remember the man behind the counter looking me up and down, doing the mental maths, hoping he had something big enough for my frame. I’d developed breasts by then, in addition to being plumper than most girls my age. We did find something. My mum said she’d take up the hem to make it work. I remember asking her to leave it mid-calf because I wanted to hide my legs.

**** I expect there would be a shit load of vitriol coming my way if I dared come up with a fashion line or a series of clothing sewing patterns for fat children, because obesity stigmatisation. But that’s a conversations for another day. I’m tired.

***** Brown, H: 2010. For Obese People, Prejudice in Plain Sight. The New York Times. Also, Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health.

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