I’m A Fat Girl In A Tutu Who Loves To Take Up Space

The physical space I consume is the reclamation of my right to be here.

I f you had told my adolescent self that her 170-pound body would someday weigh just under 300 pounds — and that she’d actually like it — she would’ve looked up at you, her silhouette concealed beneath an ill-fitting, early 2000s rhinestoned tunic top and midnight black boot-cut jeans, and questioned your sanity. As the dark circles embossed beneath her eyes could attest to, her every waking hour (and there were many more than there should’ve been) was spent striving for change. The kind of change that would only be attainable should she get herself down to a respectable single-digit pant size. The kind of change that would mean life — and its myriad possibilities, like love, sexual pleasure, travel, and the kind of adventure she saw every time she switched on a CW teen drama — was finally hers to live.

Like so many women — particularly those whose bodies are covered in “excess” fat — I was presented with the issue of taking up space the first time I noticed that fellow school bus passengers would rather stand than sit next to me. On foot, they could avoid a stranger’s love handles rubbing up too closely against them. They would be safe, a fate flight-goers on either side of me would not be spared should I ever be forced to reside in a middle seat on the way to visit relatives in Colombia; relatives who would grab my muffin top, signaling its jiggliness, and tell me how cute I could be if only I “did something about all this.”

I was presented with the issue through the fat-shaming of my peers, who’d laugh whether I tried to hide in baggy clothes (how lazy and unladylike) or whether I tried to combat those laughs via tight, trendy pants (how disgusting and unacceptable).

I was presented with the issue through the weight loss narratives written for the few fat actors on screen. They were not allowed to exist unless they were proving their willingness to reduce in size. And then there were the before and after commercials: images that would highlight a sad, fat person in a pizza-sauce-stained T-shirt alongside a thin, smiling version of themselves in a couture outfit and MUA-level cosmetic application meant to confirm that happiness truly begins with the eradication of the double chin.

Although fat women and feminine people are not the only ones taught to shrink, it has always seemed to me that the more physical space a woman takes up, the more she is shamed for her alleged failures. She is not doing her job correctly. She is not dainty or meek. She does not resemble a pixie. She is occupying the space that would be far better suited to two far more conventionally attractive women. And even if she remains silent, her presence is too loud.

The more physical space a woman takes up, the more she is shamed for her alleged failures.

Breaking out of the cycle of fatantagonism, particularly the internalized, self-loathing-inspiring breed, has proven to be one of the most difficult challenges of my life. Through the help of radical body politics activism and the individuals who dedicate their lives to it, however, I gladly took on the challenge several years ago. Today I credit fatshion bloggers in their neon crop tops and cut-out bikinis; writers thinking critically about diet culture and the intersection of fat shaming with classism, racism, and sexism; and the representation of marginalized communities offered by social media with the tangible shift in my body image.

It’s because of these brave people that I’ve been able to wear the neon crop tops as well, swallowing my fears and insecurities with the doughnut that I now refuse to apologize for.

But I also credit clothes.

I grew up in a small town in the New Jersey boonies. Fashion wasn’t available to us in the way it would be to metropolitan teens. If you were plus size, you were irrevocably shit out of luck. But there were a few girls who, by high school, traveled into nearby cities enough to purchase glorious outfits. I would watch them from afar, admiring their tafetta-lined dresses, their retro high-waist trousers, their bold prints and patterns, their colors that demanded to be seen. And I’d picture myself in all of the above.

Except it wasn’t me; not really. You could only be worthy of such clothes if your body was small. So when I’d picture myself in the clothes, it was the 120-pound version of myself I hoped I would someday be. The one that I was, once upon a time, when I dramatically restricted my daily caloric intake and my internal organs were shutting down because I wasn’t doing a very good job at looking after them.

By 2013, I was immersed in fat positive literature, though. Around the same time, I discovered poet Lily Myers. Although she is a thin woman herself, her performance of “Shrinking Woman” that year had me contemplating my fatness in such a raw, honest way that I came out of those three and a half minutes feeling ready to crush some bullshit with the weight of my cellulite-embellished ass.

In the poem, she addresses her brother, telling him:

“You have been taught to grow out. I have been taught to grow in. You learn from our father how to emit; how to produce; to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence. You used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much. I learned to absorb. I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself.”

I was tired of the guilt that resulted in taking up space because of my fatness and stature, but mainly my fatness. I was tired of blaming the shaming I experienced on my body, and not on those consumed by intolerance. I was tired of not living: of telling myself that dating and fashion and career success were off limits until I could fit in something from 5-7-9, named as such for its exclusionary take on sizing.

I was ready to take up space. But more than that, I was ready to take up all the space.

It was then that I purchased my first tutu. It was pink, it was loud, and it made me feel like the fat Disney princess I hope to see in cinemas by the time my daughter is old enough to care. The first time I wore it in public was on a night out in Manchester, England. And although people definitely stared — some with undeniable contempt and ridicule — I felt so good that I chose to perceive their gazes as confirmation of my fabulousness.

I chose to live in a way I once denied myself.

The reason I felt so good, I’ve come to realize, is because I chose to live in a way I once denied myself. I chose to behave in the way I’d watched thin people behave. I chose to dress in the way I’d seen thin people dress. I chose to love my body in the way I thought impossible and off limits to someone with back boobs larger than front ones.

My relationship with clothing that takes up physical space has only blossomed in the years since. When writer, designer, and activist Alysse Dalessandro of Ready To Stare released her Convertible Cupcake Dress in 2015, there was an uprising in the cyber fatosphere. Its fullness, largely inspired by Rihanna’s cupcake dress that same year, was not well-received by all. “How unflattering,” someone wrote on Instagram. “That would just make me look bigger,” others mused. It was an experience that taught Dalessandro that “even as plus size fashion grows in mainstream exposure, that doesn’t necessarily mean that visibly fat women taking up space is becoming more acceptable,” as she tells me over email.

These sentiments were precisely why I was all over the dress, though. And they explain why I’m all about the stunning designs created by Elann Zelie of Zelie For She and Jasmine Elder of Jibri, both of whom regularly utilize oversized, traditionally “unflattering” silhouettes to decorate plus size babes in total unapology.

“Oftentimes, this concept of taking up less space is reinforced through the coded word of ‘flattering,’” Dalessandro adds. “When someone says something is ‘flattering,’ what they are really saying is that it is more visually appealing because you appear to be less fat or take up less space.” Challenging this idea is hugely important to her as a designer. “Taking up space helps to widen the lens of who is considered allowed to participate in fashion. I see it as a literal way to demand a place.”

Through large fashions that take up space — the tutus, the tafetta, the chunky faux furs, the feathers — my fatness is on display more than usual. It demands attention and it offers no “sorry’s” for being seen.

Progress is being made. And I feel myself progressing with it.

I have never been one to belittle or deny the transformative potential of fashion. Had I wanted to take up space in such a way as a teen, however, I would not have been able to because such items were simply not made for me. But in 2017, myriad designers (indie ones, especially) are making all things bold and brash available in size fat. Much progress remains to be seen before visibly fat humans have the options of the straight size market (options in every size, price point, and style aesthetic), but progress is being made. And I feel myself progressing with it.

The wilder I dress, the more I am seen. The larger my ensemble, the larger my presence. It’s a concept that would’ve frightened a younger version of myself. But it’s one that feels like a reclamation to me now.

You see, the physical space I consume is the reclamation of my right to be here. Even if the space is cause for mockery at times — for being rejected as a traveling buddy on a crowded subway or pointed at when accompanying a slender friend to a store that doesn’t sell my size, I know now I needn’t shrink. I needn’t strive not to be seen. I needn’t grow inward at all. The enormous tutu I’m wearing is just one way of showing as much.

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