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How Not To Do Body Positivity Fashion

Stationery and flowers lying flat on a surface, papers and fabrics kept beside scissors and paper cutter.

There is an aesthetic template for the ‘beautiful’ urban Indian woman. She dresses in ‘traditional’ attire, has the right kind of curves in the appropriate places, has large breasts, and no bulges anywhere else. This aesthetic is comfortable with words like ‘chubby’ or ‘voluptuous’ but doesn’t venture into a size larger than XL. A few more inches take us into the apparel fashion category called ‘plus-size’, where women with large bodies are either fetishised or subject to denigration. The fat woman is desexualised and denied her sexuality by design in the fashion industry. From ill-fitting clothes to limited and expensive options as well as receiving pitiful or contemptuous smiles while shopping at apparel stores, fat women oscillate between bewilderment, amusement, and outrage at the cruel joke that is ‘plus-size fashion’.

When I walk into a store, I feel anxious about the impending ordeal of trying on multiple articles of clothing that will flatten my breasts, accentuate the roundness of my belly, cling to my shoulders awkwardly or make me look unflattering and odd in different ways. Mostly, nothing fits, and even if it does, it looks terrible. For women like me, there is an enormous lack of options in addition to the market that relegates us to a corner of ‘plus-size brands’. I do not have the choice to browse through clothes and pick up something I like. Instead, I must be content with the lot that has already been chosen for me. I tend to ask at clothing stores, “What do you have in plus-size clothing?” and not, “Do you have this piece in larger sizes?”

Levying the social fat-tax

The Indian fashion industry prices plus-size clothing at higher rates as companies cite the extra fabric needed for such sizes and the production costs for a supposedly niche population. However, the reality is that most purchases fall between the range of sizes L–XXL and the plus-size population generates 12% of the total revenue. As for extra fabric, this reasoning falls flat because companies and designers buy cloth material in bulk, which makes the additional costs negligible. Women are forced to pay the extra costs of existing as bodies that do not fall within the category of ‘normal’.

The fashion industry penalises fat (or large/heavy, insert preferred terminology) women by making affordable, attractive clothing inaccessible. Clothes are designed for bodies that cater to the patriarchal gaze and conform to existing notions of beauty. I shopped for clothes in the men’s section for a long time until I stopped pretending to be indifferent about my appearance. I acknowledged that I wanted both comfort and style without having to settle for the former over the latter. The higher pricing of plus-size clothing is not an economically driven decision. It is influenced by societal notions of how women should be, however far removed from reality that may be.

Why so ugly?

The average plus-size model is a curvy woman with a slender neck, a defined jawline, big breasts, and a flat and even midriff. Where is the fat on the belly, and what did the designers do to the FUPA (fatty upper pubic area)? This model always smiles or laughs, invoking adjectives such as sweet/adorable, whereas her M-sized colleague leans seductively with come hither eyes. Fat is cute, at best. Models throwing flowers in the air in “traditional” ethnic clothing is a palatable vision for most audiences, but they have to give the crop tops a miss. Yet, Westernised clothing is far from comfortable. T-shirts come in round-necks and monotone colours with ridiculous captions. Manufacturing companies and designers seem to think that increasing width is the only difference between “normal” clothing and plus-size wear. Most clothes are cut and stitched as may befit large sacks of flour, not the diversity in women’s bodies.

Women’s plus-size fashion has a lot of frills and floral prints that point out how ‘cute’ is conceived in the normalised notions of femininity. It is this choice made by the industry at large which highlights the desexualising of fat women A lapse in judgment guides the designs for such clothing because they appear to be made for 7-year-old girls or women who can no longer have an opinion about what they wear. I was once compelled to buy a t-shirt with Mickey Mouse’s face on it because it was the only oversized t-shirt available in the entire store (do note that it was an oversized tee and not a plus-size one. Brands make these t-shirts for more petite women.) Needless to say, it was not oversized for me.

Moreover, due to the absence of standardisation of sizes among brands in India, larger sizes do not correlate with one another within a brand’s own products and across brands. A size XL and size XXL might differ by one-and-a-half inches in some brands, whereas, in others, there might be a larger or smaller difference in measurement. The shapes are either cut in a manner to fit 19th-century Victorian women in corsets or with the assumption that women everywhere have the same chest-waist-hips ratio, irrespective of size. Online shopping is a waking nightmare if one does not know exactly what one wants and from where. More often than not I have to return multiple pieces of clothing that I have purchased from online retailers – this repeated cycle of events makes me feel dejected and ashamed of my body every time.

Not even the bare minimum

Plus-size fashion is a consolation prize for women who struggle to remain visible and take up their rightful space in the world. Ironically, their visibility makes them the butt of all fat jokes. Under the garb of inclusivity and body positivity, the Indian fashion industry continues to play to society’s rules of feminine beauty by offering a portion of fabric leftovers. Designers and companies are selling products that make shopping a humiliating experience without taking responsibility for furthering a violent cycle of patriarchal conformity. While some brands are taking note of this bias and how it affects their customer base, most of the industry seems oblivious to the glaring gaps in plus-size fashion. Smaller brands and enterprises are designing clothes up to 6XL, but they are expensive and only available online, thus rendering them inaccessible to many buyers. Although more nuanced narratives are developing around fashion and body positivity, the mainstream fashion industry in India is not a part of these conversations. The general outlook towards such clothing is to hide fat women instead of supporting them to embrace their physical form. Brands have to make plus sizes more easily available at stores at the same prices as the other options. Designers need to create designs for real people instead of some imagined person whose breasts grow but the underbust does not expand. If such ways of representation are to be challenged, then plus-size fashion has to reinvent itself, and in many ways, it is up to the fat woman to make the industry accountable for its actions.

Cover Image: Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash