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The Forgotten Woman

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

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.

 

Orbach‘s feminism feels retro and quaint, non-germane to the politics of size in the new millennium, her conclusions whimpering like so many thin-mongering Uncle Toms unable to escape the bounds of their own oppression, displaying so much of her personal pain, and that of her case subjects. Yet it feels as familiar to me as if I were reading a page ripped from my own diary. There was Penny, the 24-year-old teacher who believed that if she could just lose 10 pounds, everything in her life would run smoothly. There were Maureen and Orbach, who were both afraid that being fat or thin meant having to choose between two opposite personalities. There were entire groups of women tortured by triplicate sets of non-fitting ”thin“ clothes in their closet. That their pain was recorded a generation ago makes me immeasurably sad. Someone, somewhere should have fixed this by now.

Even though today we whisper the gentle new terminology of ”plus,“ body acceptance -- true body acceptance -- is still a radical concept. It never occurs to Orbach, trapped within the thin-is-best paradigm -- in 1978 at least -- that the market, with its dearth of variety in size-14-and-over clothing, should bend to the will of the consumer. That big itself can be beautiful.

The Cult of Emme

Big girls don’t cry (that‘s just an alibi).

--Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, 1963

Fast forward to 2002. Oprah and Emme, E!’s Fashion Emergency host and size-16 supermodel, are on the cover of People magazine: ”Sexy at Any Size.“ It‘s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it. Confidence, a positive attitude, makes you sexy. Inside: Kelly Osbourne, Camryn Manheim, Mia Tyler, Kate Dillon, Carre Otis. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 68 percent of women wear a size 12 or larger. Over 50 percent wear a size 14. I‘m surprised at the number of designers making plus-size styles: Marina Rinaldi for tailored suits and dresses, Lane Bryant, Liz Claiborne’s Elizabeth line, Emanuel Ungaro, Ralph Lauren, Anne Klein II, Dana Buchman, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Ellen Tracy, Gianni Versace, Givenchy, Richard Metzger. In 1995, Saks Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills opened an entire floor -- Salon Z -- for plus-size. But the surprise itself makes me angry. Why even have a separate floor? A separate store? Why the segregation?

I am the worst kind of fat girl: un-jolly, sullen, sensitive, ready to take offense, secret nurturer of elaborate revenge fantasies. The kind who just won‘t let it go. The kind with the unsexy attitude. In order to form a more perfect union of women who are large and loving it, there is no room for doubt. No space for regret or for wishing you might be anything other than what you are, which is not thin. Show no fear -- behave as you would around dogs or angry bees.

At the mall, I growl in the dressing room -- stupid little zippers, stupid little buttons fastening handkerchief swaths of cloth threatening to tear when I yank them off. Like an ogre raiding a china doll’s trousseau. So near, and yet so far! A salesclerk raps on the door: ”Is everything all right? How‘s it going?“

Where men’s sizes are denoted in straightforward measurements of inseam, waist size, sleeve length or neck circumference, women‘s sizes are a murky, perverse business fraught with contention. Size 0 to 12 is called ”straight“ or ”missy“ size; 14 to 26 is called ”plus“; 26 and above is ”supersize.“ Roving the second-floor aisles at Bloomingdale’s, I see straight-size dresses in every possible iteration -- pale golds, sky blues, reds, fuchsias. Party frocks in polka-dot tulle. Tailored jackets with clever, nipped-in waists. Audrey Hepburn evening gowns in luscious satin. Sporty little Puma shirts and narrow-hipped pants. Upstairs, hidden behind housewares and lingerie, the plus-size department, a wasteland of stretch. Clustered around the sales counter, a solitary rack of DKNY skirts. I pick up a sleeveless dress, a lone red flare amid a sea of darks, which starts to scream. The dress is wired to the rack. The rack is wired to an alarm. (The better to keep chubby hands from a five-finger discount?) A harried saleswoman approaches. ”Can I help you with that?“ Two pale, round-faced women in the sweater section skulk away, wide-eyed and nervous, quiet as ghosts.

 

Other times, the act of dressing is a surly rage, an itching for a fight in busty shirt or clingy skirt, revealing the bulge I‘m supposed to conceal -- Go ahead! Say it! Give me an excuse! In Curve, a documentary about the plus-size modeling industry, the filmmakers posed to their model subjects the magic question: ”If you could choose to instantly become a size 2, would you do it?“ Golden-tressed Katy Hansz, apologetic, glitter-lidded eyes misting, gorgeous by any standard but as a size 12 the closest of the bunch to the realm of straight-size modeling, is the only one who answers yes.

The Fantasy

DR. LECTER: And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer.

CLARICE: No. We just . . .

DR. LECTER: No. Precisely. We begin by coveting what we see every day.

--Hannibal ”the Cannibal“ Lecter, from The Silence of the Lambs

The hunger for clothing is the hunger for acceptance. The drive to match your outsides with your insides. Buffalo Bill had his fat suit, and so did Gwyneth in Shallow Hal. Is there lurking inside every fat woman a thin woman yearning to break free? In college, I take to spying on beautiful women. Corrie in Russian Lit, slender as a Klimt fairy in vintage lace. Cecile at the coffeehouse, with Louise Brooks hair and skinny arms. Susan with the swanlike neck. My dormmate lays out her theorem: ”The hotness of your outfit is directly proportional to your date’s desire to peel it off.“ But struggling in the car with the control-top pantyhose, from which out plops my stomach, I cringe at my date‘s flabbergasted expression: That’s not how I looked with the packaging.

In 2001, Katie Ford, CEO of Ford Models, told Cosmopolitan that the thin-model trend started in the 1940s with fashion illustrators who drew elongated bodies in their sketches. Cosmo, in true Nancy Drew form, set out to ”solve the mystery of the incredible shrinking model.“ a Their conclusion? Blame it on the designers. Designers want girls who are shaped like hangers. Breasts are bad. Hips are bad. Curves? Butts? Tummies? Bad. Bad. Bad. In the early 1990s, Calvin Klein, reveling in androgyny, selected 5‘7”, 98-pound Kate Moss as his “muse.” Cosmo doesn’t actually say it, but you get the picture: It‘s not about hangers or the 1940s. Designers, predominantly male, predominantly gay, didn’t just want women who looked like little girls, they wanted the fantasy. They wanted little girls who looked like little boys.

The truth, of course, is more complicated. Female ideals shift with the seasons, with the generations and eras, in an endless feedback loop. Designer or Model? Industry or Consumer? Chicken or Egg? It‘s a collusion over a fantasy -- of economic success, of sexual and reproductive desirability, of psychological well-being -- that might just as well go back to the Stone Age, when the first australopithecine tailor, squatting over a scrap of woolly mammoth fur, asked the first huntress-gatheress, wouldn’t she care to slip into something a little more huntery-gathery?

There is much debate about the specific connections between the “Cult of Skinny” and eating disorders. Some 8 million people in the U.S. suffer from anorexia nervosa, bulimia or related eating disorders. Images of thinness are everywhere, yet the majority of adolescents do not develop an eating disorder. But then again, anorexia and bulimia are most common in media-saturated industrialized societies. The evidence is a contradictory, tangled mess, but the general consensus is that the links connecting what we see, what we eat and how we feel are undeniable. Witness the pro-anorexia Web sites.

Double the $ize but Twice as $exy

Hey, big spender . . . Say, wouldn‘t you like to know what’s going on in my mind?

--“Big Spender,” Sweet Charity

So why all of a sudden does it appear that plus-size has become a plus and not a minus? The only thing sexier than being too thin is being too rich. Fat and fashion is not just a feminist issue, it‘s a financial one. Like the docking of the Mothership, the large and lovely woman “has finally arrived.” The reverberation of that triumphant “final arrival” has been echoing for 20 years, starting in 1986, when the trade magazine Women’s Wear Daily, the proverbial canary in the mines of fashion, reported a modest yet enthusiastic response to the first plus-size fashion show. Back then, the average American woman wore a size 8. Now she wears a size 14. She‘s bigger. She’s older. And, both collectively and individually, she‘s richer. While 0 to 12 size sales are hitting a plateau, sales of 14-plus are surging (an estimated $17 billion in 2002, even in a downturn economy). Plus-size is the fashion industry’s last great untapped market. Sixty-five million large-size women, MasterCards at the ready. Why should the plus-size woman who has a keen eye for style be relegated to the role of spectator when she should be a connoisseur?, asks Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York. “The money,” he breathes in Curve, “is sitting there on the table.” What kind of self-respecting label whore wouldn‘t take it?

 

Fatter, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

“Obesity science” has, in the last half-decade, been transformed from a lackluster backwater into a vibrant field of inquiry attracting some of the most brilliant minds . . . and liberating overweight from the murky ghetto of “character flaw” to the more potent status of “disease.”

--Ellen Ruppel Shell, The Hungry Gene

At the same time that plus-size fashion is coming out of the closet, obesity rates are soaring. Because I am gaining weight with unprecedented ease, I visit an endocrinologist, who tells me that I have insulin resistance, the warning-signal precursor to diabetes. “But don’t worry,” he says as I slump down from the examination table, “it‘s fixable.” The Golden Era of Body Acceptance is hurtling headlong on a collision course with the Scary Age of Big Fat Doom. In December 2001, the U.S. surgeon general announced that over 34 percent of adults are overweight and an additional 27 percent are obese, that obesity is soon going to eclipse tobacco as the biggest threat to public health. The categories “overweight” and “obese” correlate to a range of weight, or more precisely, to a range of weight-to-height ratios, known as the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI was established four years ago by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute based on how likely it was that a person of a certain weight, height and age would die from certain nasty diseases. Thirty-two billion dollars spent on plus-size women’s clothing versus 1.1 billion overweight adults. In other words, though my chances of dying from high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease or stroke are going up, when they bury me, I am sure to be wearing something really, really cute.

Big Girl Version 2.0

Freudian Slip -- When you say one thing, but mean your mother.

--fortune-cookie adage

In the mythology of my mother, as told by my grandmother, style is the reward for stepping out of the fat-suit. She gave up rice for a month, and the puppy fat melted. Dresses were commissioned from local tailors. Pageants were won. Boys who had teased her about her adolescent chubbiness showed up on her doorstep, roses in hand. Hers is the tale of a war for beauty, fought and won in a single glorious, definitive battle. Mine is a never-ending series of skirmishes, repositionings of polemics, switching sides, and guerrilla encounters. At stake is nothing less than the image of female perfection, yet at the same time nothing more than the silliness of individual mundane decisions. Do I wear the sleeveless shirt because it‘s hot? Because it’s a statement that I don‘t care that my arms look big? Do I care? Are they big? What’s big? Will it be comfortable? What if someone says something? Do I tell them off or let it go? Is it anti-feminist to worry about one‘s arms? Is wearing a sleeveless shirt empowering or just poor fashion sense?

Even though I now have the option of ordering clothes online -- Torrid.com, Gap.com, EmmeStyle.com, JJill.com -- still out of sight in a virtual dressing room, I’m excited that I can finally get something to wear that doesn‘t necessarily involve elastic. The laughable Vogue 2002 Shape Issue sits beside me on the desk as I shop. A million billion years of evolving genetic diversity, and the range of female body-type acceptability begins with Jennifer Aniston and ends with Jennifer Lopez.

At my mother’s house, we‘re getting ready for our annual holiday party. When she asks me what I’m going to wear, if I‘ve found something nice, I take a deep breath and let loose: I tell her that I always hated having to live up to her standards of what she thinks looks good, and that I’m sad she thinks I‘m ugly and fat, and that though I’m sure she‘s disappointed I haven’t turned out to be the kind of daughter she hoped for, the kind who‘s rich and popular and married and thin, that I’m working on being healthy and appreciating people for qualities a whole lot more substantial than looks, that women ought not to sabotage or undermine each other by perpetuating unrealistic expectations, that a dress is coming in the mail, that it‘s hard living in her whippet-slim shadow, but that ultimately I’d be satisfied if, on this issue, she would just let me be me.

 

“Don‘t you know?” she says, in a voice that’s full of wonder. “I think you are beautiful.”

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