It never fails to startle me when I am immersed in a book, thoroughly enjoying myself, and a fat phobic line appears.
Sometimes it’s used for a cheap laugh. Other times, the description of a fat body is a way to make an antagonist less likable. Every time, it immediately shows me this book was not written with me in mind as a reader. Including fat characters in books is wonderful, but mocking them is not. The experience is even more hurtful when it comes from someone who is considered an ally for fat people.
I picked up Mindy Kaling’s book, “Why Not Me?” because I believed it would be relatable. Kaling is a well-known player in the body-positivity movement, and has a reputation for speaking frankly about what it’s like to feel pressure to meet an unrealistic body size. I have always admired her advocacy of loving our bodies how they are. I heard her book was an anthem of sorts for plus-size people, and I was looking forward to feeling seen and validated.
I spent the majority of the book relating to nearly everything Kaling said, not just about bodies but about life in general. Then I stumbled into that familiar flashing neon sign reminding me this book was not meant for me. “I don’t look like them, do I?” Kaling writes about being included in a magazine spread of popular curvy celebrities. “I can buy my clothes at regular stores! I can still fit into an economy seat on a plane! Those porkers would have to buy a row!”
There it was.
Even body-positive queen Mindy Kaling thinks I am too fat. To Kaling’s credit, she says this in the context of recognizing her own fat phobia, and notes she is not proud of having had that thought. Still, it doesn’t make being called a “porker” any less alienating. Kaling might have meant to show that even she struggles with fat phobia, but what she really did was tell people like me — a size 26/28 woman — that she may be curvy but at least she’s not me.
Kaling is by far not the only “body-positive” person to fall into this trap. Frequently, I see comments that imply being “acceptably fat” is okay, but being bigger than a mainstream plus-size is not.
Clothing companies are the worst culprits. “Inclusive sizing” is the new buzz phrase, but companies continually show they don’t actually know what that entails. Actress Jameela Jamil faced backlash when she worked on a campaign for clothing company Aerie and dubbed it as “inclusive,” not realizing they only sold to a size XXL. Jamil quickly acknowledged the concerned comments she received on Twitter, and urged the company to include a more diverse size range.
When people who are a size 24 and above point out that they feel excluded from clothing lines, there are always excuses for why companies don’t carry the bigger sizes. Plus-size fit model and writer Marcy Cruz says the explanations she hears in the industry tend to boil down to two justifications for the exclusion.
The first is a belief that people above a size 24 don’t buy enough clothing to be “worth it” — a statement of which Cruz questions the validity. “First I dispute that data — I want to know where it came from and who is the customer,” says Cruz. “Second, I feel if she is not truly buying, I ask, why? Does she know you carry her size? Are you carrying styles she wants? Are you giving her the same options as women under a 24? And are you marketing to her? You can’t market to a size 16 as you would a size 28.”
When I found a store that carried a wide selection of clothing in my size for reasonable prices, I went on my first shopping spree for myself in years. It’s true that I had not been buying clothing for my size 26/28 body; but it was because I couldn’t find it. These properly-fitting clothes gave me new confidence and pride in my appearance, and prompted me to invest in more clothing.
The second justification Cruz says she hears is that samples to accommodate sizes larger than 24 are expensive. “I call BS on that one,” says Cruz. “If smaller brands … can do it on a smaller budget and smaller production, why can’t a major brand like Lane Bryant do it? I feel it’s because they don’t want to.”
Excuses like this let us know that we are not worthy of inclusion because we are too far outside of “normal.” It isn’t just a barrier to finding proper clothing, it’s othering and isolating. Even the existence of a plus-size section creates a boundary between us and “regular” people. The term “plus-size” is a misnomer. Who decides at what size a person stops being just a size and starts needing an entirely new category?
While still problematic, the fashion industry is starting to see the merits of marketing to bigger consumers. In a video for Allure, Cruz gives us an insider’s look at what it’s like to be a fit model who is bigger than mainstream plus-size. It’s a start, but we still have a long way to go.
“I struggled for many years with resentment toward thinner fats because I felt so unseen, and being in the industry, there is a lot of comparison that goes on,” says Cruz. “It’s so damaging to one’s confidence and mental state. It took a lot of work on myself, and educating myself also, to get to this place.”
Like Cruz, with a lot of effort and introspection, I have come to feel comfortable in my body, regardless of what size I am. Not everyone is there yet. When we consistently exclude those bigger than mainstream plus-size from fashion, from body-positive spaces, and from ideas of what is considered an “acceptable” body, we dehumanize them. Body-acceptance means all bodies. It means a person holds value simply for being human. It means recognizing bodily autonomy, and separating the worth of a person from the characteristics of their body.
Everyone deserves to be included.