The Forgotten Woman 

Revelations from a plus-size life

Thursday, Jan 9 2003

More of Aguilar’s work can be seen through Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5363 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Or vielmetter.com.

Once plus sizes were a fashion ghetto. Now they have their own runway show.

--Kate Betts, former editor of Harper‘s Bazaar, apologizing to Renee Zellweger inThe New York Times for refusing to put the actress, who had gained 30 pounds for Bridget Jones’s Diary, on the cover

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Now You See Her, Now You Don‘t

I always wanted to be thin. Looking down onto the street where I walk, I wish that I could turn my body into my shadow. Where I am heavy, fleshy, my shadow is slender, sprightly -- legs and neck and arms elongated by the 5 o’clock sun. My doppelganger self is light as air, elegant, alien. We are bound at the ankle; it is a love-hate affair, a trick of light. In the infinite number of ways of categorizing a human being, size is the least cohesive.

In my childhood, my mom, slender and nicknamed by our family the “Filipino Jackie O.,” visits me each year in Manila, a dozen boxes of stateside clothes in tow. Corduroy jumpers from J.C. Penney, Sears khaki pants with elastic waists. Each year I am bigger and rounder than she anticipates. I am the fattest girl in my third-grade class, save for Patricia Aurelio, whose parents are wealthy, who has me by about five inches around the waist on the red-pleated tartan skirts we wear as standard issue from Our Lady of the Assumption Convent Elementary. When I am 7, my mom, sad that once again we have to shop for a Christmas outfit in the junior plus-size section of the department store, asks me, “Don‘t you want to be thin? Don’t you want to wear pretty dresses?” I consider the chocolate ice-cream cone I am just about to lick. “Yes,” I answer solemnly.

In junior high, I move to California to be with my mom and quickly learn the rules of attraction, American-style: Don‘t stand next to a fat girl, lest you catch the disease by association. But if you’re thinner than her, she‘ll make you look better by comparison. Sandy in homeroom teaches me that my T-shirt has the stripes going the wrong way. “You want them up and down,” she explains, gesturing vertically, “so that parts of you disappear.”

And so, over the years, I do disappear. If not in size, then into a sea of black. Black stretch tops. Black boot-cut pants. Black turtlenecks. Long, flowy black skirts. I am sick of black. But it is all I can buy. Black is the ultimate figure flatterer.

On late-night television, a weight-loss-system infomercial invites me to take a picture of myself wearing a bathing suit and, with a permanent black marker, shade out the parts I want to remove. Be creative: Slim the line of the hip, the cheeks, the pudge underneath the jaw. “This could be you.”

Fat or Phat?

36-24-36? Only if she’s 5‘3“.

--Sir Mix-a-Lot, ”Baby Got Back“

In a culture still caught in the throes of a deeply entrenched fat-hatred, ”plus-size“ is a category struggling with its own rhetoric: full-figured, queen-size, Rubenesque, lush, womanly, curvy, substantial, voluptuous, zaftig, statuesque, real. ”Thin“ is a compliment, ”fat“ an insult. In an interview with Newsweek, Anna Nicole Smith, asked if she had ”weight issues,“ answered: ”No, I love my weight right now. I’m not hard-bodied, which I never ever want to be. I‘m just soft and yummy.“ At 12 years old, looking into my father’s exasperated, worried face, I quote Garfield the cat, ”I‘m not fat, I’m fluffy?“

Not so long ago, plus-size clothing was for covering up bodies that were seen as undesirable. After all, the archetypal fat girl is fashion‘s ”forgotten woman“ -- both supremely visible for her physical largeness and supremely invisible. She is the wallflower fading into the woodwork. In 1978, Susie Orbach proposed a psychoanalytic theory of fat in her book Fat Is a Feminist Issue: ”Fat is not about lack of self-control or lack of willpower. Fat is about protection, sex, nurturance, strength, boundaries, mothering, substance, assertion and rage. It is a response to the inequality of the sexes.“ Women get fat as a deflective measure, as a way of donning an unattractive ”safe“ exterior to protect a vulnerable, frightened interior from invasion. ”You must first accept your body in its largeness,“ she said, ”before you can give it up.“ But give it up you must. Orbach wrote Fat Is a Feminist Issue as a self-help manual, a weight-loss guide rooted in the idea of overcoming one’s subconscious fears of being thin. The fat woman uses her clothes to hide her body and avoid calling attention to it. ”By and large, cheap, stylish clothing is not available over size 14 . . . Much of the compulsive eater‘s negative self-image gets expressed in the way she dresses and carries herself. This then produces a spiraling of self-hate.“ The large woman thinks: ”If I am fat, I must be horrible and don’t deserve to have nice clothes.“ The trick then is to accept yourself in order to lose weight. Wear fitted clothing, don‘t be afraid to tuck your shirt in, embrace bright colors, she urges; it’s good practice for being thin, when you will reap the crop of fashion options.

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