Tim Gunn; or, When “Support” for Plus-Size Fashion Is Disguised Fatphobia

Ariel Goldberg
Sep 9, 2016 · 5 min read

“Based on my experience shopping with plus-size women, it’s a horribly insulting and demoralizing experience,” writes Tim Gunn, seven paragraphs into his recent Washington Post diatribe.

And he’s not wrong. As a girl who grew up fat and started dieting at eight years old, I’m sure it’s no surprise (or maybe it is if you didn’t grow up fat, I don’t know) that I’ve had more tearful shopping experiences than non-tearful ones.

Finding clothes as a fat girl sucks. It always has. It’s getting better, for sure, but it’s still not as easy as it is if you’re below a US size 12 (even worse if you’re above a size 18, which I am).

But this is not about how difficult it is for me (or any fat girl or femme) to shop. It’s about Tim Gunn (and other purported body positive/plus-size-accepting/whatever figures), latching onto (the only-now-socially-acceptable) support for plus-size fashion while simultaneously reinforcing fatphobia.

(Ugh, his piece is a mess, y’all.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about where we’re at. It’s 2016. We have a plus-size Project Runway winner who designs for plus-size people (Even if Gunn says of her winning clothing line: “I’ve never seen such hideous clothes in my life.” Ouch. More on this later.)! There are more retailers that cater to people above a size 18 than ever! Gabourey Sidibe is rocking red carpets and slaying at every goddamn turn! Tess Holiday, for all her many (and there are many) faults, exists in our semi-collective consciousness! Gabi Gregg is a freaking icon! Melissa McCarthy is the highest paid actress in the world (and she has a surprisingly-not-terrible clothing line of her own)! We’re in a better place with fatshion than we’ve ever been, and I’m excited (albeit disappointed at the result) to see mainstream icons like Tim Gunn jump on the pseudo-size acceptance bandwagon.

But with mainstream fat acceptance comes fake fat acceptance, or ingrained fatphobia dressed up to look like fat acceptance. And that’s what we have here.

There are plenty of gems in Gunn’s piece that I could (and will) talk about, but first I want to go back to that line I quoted above:

“Based on my experience shopping with plus-size women, it’s a horribly insulting and demoralizing experience.”

Yes, this is great, thanks so much for validating our experiences, Ti — Oh, wait. There’s more (the next sentence):

“Half the items make the body look larger.”

Oh.

What this deceptively short sentence says to me is this: If your body is even slightly larger than anyone else’s body, it’s bad.

I am not balking at Gunn’s assertion that designers should design clothing with all bodies in mind, and that merely sizing up garments made for smaller frames will undoubtedly produce a bizarre aesthetic effect when worn by a real live fat person (every fatshionista reading this knows what I’m talking about), but rather I take issue with the implicit notion here that large = bad.

In this particular section, Gunn is writing specifically about shopping for “size 14-plus clothing.” Let me ask you this, then, Tim:

If a size 14 garment makes a size 14 woman look like she’s actually a size 16, and that’s a bad thing, then are you saying that being an actual size 16 woman is a bad thing?

(I don’t need you to answer me because I already know the answer is yes.)

Look, I know he’s trying. And I appreciate his (probably) good intentions. But he’s still wrong.

“Done right, our clothing can create an optical illusion that helps us look taller and slimmer,” he says in an earlier paragraph. “Done wrong, and we look worse than if we were naked.”

Not only is this weirdly body shaming (lord help anyone who is not a size 00 and thinks that they look good naked), but it also very clearly contends that the only “right” kind of fashion should make us look taller (less important to my point) and slimmer (very important to my point) than we are.

Woof.

Here’s what I’m getting at: Telling plus-size women that we need to look slimmer is not supporting us. Telling any woman that she looks good because she doesn’t look as large as someone else is not only fatphobic, but also sexist as hell. Tearing down people with larger bodies in order to uplift people who have not-quite-as-large bodies does nothing to rid the fashion industry of its biases.

Later in the piece, Gunn expresses his dislike of Ashley Nell Tipton’s winning Project Runway clothing line. It’s no secret that he was not a fan of her work on the show, but, again, these comments do everything to reinforce his masked “fat bodies are bad” narrative:

“I’ve never seen such hideous clothes in my life: bare midriffs; skirts over crinoline, which give the clothes, and the wearer, more volume…”

I dare Tim Gunn to accuse “bare midriffs” and “more volume” of being “hideous” in a straight-size clothing line. (He wouldn’t.)

Saying that a plus-size person should not wear clothing that gives them more volume implies that any other person who has more volume as a part of their actual body looks innately bad.

What if I don’t hate that I am or look fatter than the person next to me, Tim?

And what if really, truly supporting plus-size fashion — rather than forcing comparisons between my large body and another’s large body, or that-person-over-there’s large body and someone else’s large body — looks like talking to plus size people, discovering what we like, and letting us wear what we want? (I thought Tipton’s line was hella cute, I’d wear the crap out of some of those skirts.)

Tim Gunn, I appreciate your attempt, and it’s not all bad (“Simply making a nod toward inclusiveness is not enough,” is an excellent point, and I thoroughly welcome your critique of fatphobia in the fashion industry in general, even if I do wish you’d focus more on people above a size 20 and not those who are “size 14 and up,” because we all know you really just mean those in the 14–18 range, who have it much easier than those of us who both look and are — heaven forbid — larger). But you’re still policing bodies in a very real and harmful way.

You can dress your fatphobia up in all the pastels, prints, and patterns you want, but in the end, it’s still fatphobia.

Ariel Goldberg

Written by

content queen, queer fat femme, activist, traveler, & writer. also @lambdalegal’s deputy digital director.

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