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What's My Dress Size? Say it Louder. Feel the Power.

The Disclaimer

Today I am blogging with my friend Leanne who I had to lean on this summer when I gained enough weight to qualify as “plus sized.” We’re going to drop our truth and shed light on what we experience in the fashion marketplace at our various sizes. Our goal here is to show that the fashion industry isn’t so much ignoring plus sized women, but falsifying what that looks like. No matter your size you probably can’t flip through a magazine, watch TV or scroll down Instagram and see someone with your shape. Of course God made us each differently but there is still a stereotype the industry is projecting that isn’t what 99% of women’s bodies look like. But would we actually like it if they did? Our pictures are low quality because they're from our lives. They were outfits we felt good enough about to snap a pic and post it on the gram. The top is from the CASA of Baltimore County's Fall Gala in November 2019. I was about a size 8 and Leanne a size 14. I am going to go first only because I want you to read this the way I experienced it.

Above is me at my heaviest, 180 lbs. I didn’t gain a Covid-15 I gained a Covid-30. But that’s a bad joke and this is only sort of about me. To be completely honest this picture was taken 7/4/2020. A few weeks later I had non-covid pneumonia and then dropped from a 14 to a 12. I started fasting and working out again and that got me down to 10. Then more non-covid related health issues caused me to drop another ½ dress size and I am almost an 8. I should mention I’ve only lost 11 lbs and as soon as I was doing high intensity workouts I jumped back up 5lbs even though my dress size was dropping. But this isn't about weight, dieting, fitness, or health.

The takeaways here are that my size fluctuates. Pounds and inches are different things. But mostly I want to say I recognize I am not who many “plus size” women identify with even at my heaviest. That is why I asked Leanne to step in and drop some truth into her fashion experiences, as well. But I want to tell you about my struggle with figuring out how to dress the new body I developed this spring and how it opened my eyes to the challenges of curves, all of them.

My Dressing Story

Like everyone else, in March, out of what seemed like no where, we were in quarantine. There was literally nothing to do but drink and watch tv. It turns out there probably were other things to do but we were scared and depressed so we ate, and we drank, and repeated this everyday. I found myself doing things like hiding parts of my body in photos, whatever way I could. Like this photo from April to wish a friend a Happy Birthday. I realized there was a problem, got weight watchers and trained for about a 2 hours a week, knowing that wouldn’t do anything to stop this train, but this post isn’t about health, mental or physical.

When I finally hit that 14 I really struggled with how to dress myself. At first I tried to cover it up the weight gain, mostly in my stomach and thighs and not try to showcase my arms so much. Enter the box dress. You’re probably looking at this picture and thinking, that looks completely fine and normal. But for me it wasn’t and I didn’t want to wear large box shape dresses all summer. It’s a cute dress but it’s not doing anything for me then giving me the confidence to go the block party and maybe no one would notice about my stress afternoon charcuterie boards and rose, my nightly margarita and nacho zooms, and my late night Easter candy.

This is where I began to realize the failure the fashion industry is still making. Which is not teaching women with different body shapes how to dress. I looked to my friend Leanne, who is a beautiful woman with curves, babies and is a 14-16. She said you still have a lot of great features to need to accentuate them. So I bought XL dresses that looked to me like something Leanne would wear well. I have been giving her this very advice for years and it was strange to see her on the other side of this conversation. But it didn’t work for me because first, I bought the dress too large. I was afraid for it to hug my curves. Second, my body doesn’t look like Leanne’s even when we’re almost the same dress size.

The Numbers Don’t Add Up

The larger issue is how we identify plus size women and how we represent them in media and fashion. On most sites you only see clothes on one sized model, Amazon really loves to show you a size 0 and Nordstrom a 2. Arie will show you models from 2-14, but not in the same outfit. Target it completely different, a size 4 and a size 16. But the 4 is a stick boxy size and the 16 is a curvy goddess. I don’t know very many women who look like either.

Ashley Graham is a goddess. There are many men and women who would say her beauty far outshines ultra thin models like Kendel Jennner. It’s amazing she’s walking high end runways. Took long enough given the average American woman’s size is a 14-16. For years they said it was 12 just to get the Ashley Grahams on the runway. That was not true and again, we’re not supermodels. The plus sized models have these beautiful curves that leave them with that hourglass figure that now our super skinny models are using corsets to achieve. It’s not the standard. Most Americans gain weight in their stomach and thighs. Damn, corn syrup.

This image from Popsugar in an article talking about how well she dresses her curves. They don’t mention she almost certainly has a professional stylist and hundreds of outfits sent to her for her to try on. Leanne will discuss this very important issue for plus sized women. But for me personally Target’s approach of showing a skinny woman and a perfectly plus sized woman leaves me playing a guessing game.

Did I figure it out or am I cured?

After combing through Leanne’s Instagram and getting into a 10 I wore this outfit and it worked. Why? 1. I have long legs and a short torso which is where all my fat is. The peplum top made my torso look longer while hiding the fat. 2. The Wit and Wisdom jeans had a soft waistband leaving no muffin top (but not doing anything else for me). 3. The wedge sandals are doing more than you think. They’re elongating my legs and the tilt on my leg because of the heel makes the thigh fat less noticeable. 4. FInally my accessories. The necklace and headband draw your eyes to my head away from my wider chest. I learned I could still wear cute outfits and look great it just took more thought, time, energy, and clothing options.

Ok but now you’re looking at this picture and thinking that I am not plus sized and you’re right. I am someone in-between with cellulite, fat, stretch marks, saggy boobs who just wants Target to to show me someone who looks like me? Can you give all of us mamas who can’t wear cropped sweaters a break and show us what clothes will look like on us. I am also fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy three sizes and return the two or all three that didn’t. I didn’t even know the extent of this dilemma for an actual plus sized woman. Perhaps you noticed the changing seasons on the decorations on the porch and realized that eventually diet, exercise, and my own health journey allows me to be almost back into an 8 practically every time I slip up. So enter Leanne who’s journey as a plus sized woman is much different.

The Dreaded Mall

I started hating malls after I had my first child. I had always been a curvy girl, bigger on the bottom half, always having to size up so pants fit my thick thighs but then worrying about the gap that always formed between my waist and the back of my jeans, but when I became a size 16 trips to the mall became pointless. My options were to squeeze myself into an XL at New York and Company and end up with dress pants that left no bump, lump or roll unseen or spend way too much money for a pair of saggy butted pants in the Women’s section of Macy’s. Although more brands are carrying extended sizes, very few actually carry them in store.

A few years ago when Loft released their plus size collection I thought my prayers were answered. Two of my besties and I went to the opening at our local store and for the first time everything fit! The pants are cut with curves in mind, no gaping in the waist, more room in the thighs, and although I still need to go down to regular sizes in tops, their clothes are fantastic. Unfortunately, that was just a tease, the Loft in the mall has one rack of plus size, everything else has to be ordered online.

Plus size subscription services like Dia and Co were a great way to find new brands. My current favorite is Molly and Isadora, but there is no going and trying it all on before you buy. As a plus size woman I can’t just hop over to the mall to grab a cute outfit, I have to plan in advance and order options. Mandie would like to point out here that while many of us get back ups and a variety of sizes to try when ordering online, 1. It’s a choice not a necessity and 2. I order back ups from Nordstrom or Old Navy and then I just drop off the wrong sizes in stores and don’t have to hassle with shipping. It’s just not the same.

The Shape Dilemma

Leanne again, I feel like the plus size fashion industry is doing a slightly better job recognizing that women come in different shapes. Don’t get me wrong, every plus size brand is still features 5’11, hourglass goddesses with minimal cellulite and perfectly sculpted arms, but at least their clothes are aimed at different shapes, wrap dresses to enhance curves, peplum tops to flatter apple shapes, pants in shorter lengths and plenty of options to support those whose bra cups runneth over. But why hide us in the back of the store? Isn’t our shape pretty too? Don't we represent most women?

Leanne is correct and the some parts of the fashion industry is now reading the numbers and seeing they were missing a target audience, you know the one represented by the majority of American women. She’s also right that they’re doing a better job then the 8-12 market of recognizing height might not be the only issue at play. We’re all made differently and it’s what makes the world so beautiful, Ala loves variety.

Consider the variety of hair and skin colors, cultures, and countries Disney has princesses from. Little girls want to play with toys that look like them. One of my Filipino aunts kept giving my blonde haired blue eyed little girl the Asian dolls and she simply didn’t identify with them. It’s time for fashion to do the same for a girl who struggles to zip up a size 8,12, or 16. Ashley Graham belongs on the runway filled with Chanel art as much as Giselle ever did. But that’s art people. I’m talking to you Target. My daughter may be ¼ Asian but she doesn’t look like she is and she reversed white girled that doll situation I suppose. Target if you can produce dupe American Girl Dolls in every color, why can’t you show clothes on real women. (The photo below was taken when we were both 3ish years out from having babies and were about sizes 12 & 14 wearing LuLaRoe’s forgiving fabric and had few other options.)

Reality Check

When I was considering getting my P.h.D. in economics I really wanted to write a dissertation about the fashion industry and if there were missing market shares to be had. There’s an old economist joke that goes: Two economists are walking down the street and one says “hey there’s a $20 bill on the ground back there” and the other keeps walking. The first says "why didn’t you stop?" and the second says “if there were $20 on the ground someone would have picked it up by now.”

Has fashion been so powerful and so stuck to their artistic nature that they were walking past money on the ground by selling more clothes to women who don’t fit the mold? Or did the $20 not exist because our previous standard of beauty (of our current time) was such that plus women weren’t interested in spending a lot of money on clothes because they wanted the tent. Is the reality that our modern beauty standard has finally shifted to acceptance as we become woke, that now the fashion industry sees there’s money on the ground? It's hard to believe that there are executives somewhere, even in fashion saying "I see you plus sized fashion aka the $20 bill but I am just not going to pick you up."

Of course there are artistic snobs in fashion who only see the art, who think clothes only belong on Gigi and Bella. Who may have been convinced that Ashley Graham can walk the runway and show you that the most beautiful art still looks best on the most beautiful women even if they're curvy. But the head of Target Fashion cares more about the $20 or he/she would be at a couture house and not Target. And this ladies is where we have to bite the bullet and say, I photo shop the pictures I post on the internet. That dress won't ever work with my curves and so maybe the reason Target isn't showing me that picture is because they know I won't buy the dress.

It's possible that Target is showing me the best at some sizes to give me hope I can wear that dress. It's more than possible I'll buy that dress and even though it's not right for my body, I kept the dress hoping if I lose 5 more pounds the dress will fit. It's reality that I don't want to look in the mirror and see reality so until I do, Target won't show it to me. But that's me. That's not Leanne. Leanne has been trying on and up loading pictures to Amazon reviews showing what dresses look like on a plus sized girl with her beautiful curves she embraces. Like the picture below. I look at Leanne who on any given day is 2-6 sizes larger and I always see a beautiful woman. But I can't always see it on myself. I know Target has magic powers, can they fix that?

In the meantime, I will leave you with links inspired by the fashion you’ve seen in this post, that did work for us.

On Mandie:

Red Dress Peplum Tee Wrap Dress Wit & Wisdom Ab-Soultion Jeans Romper

On Leanne:

Wrap Dress Plus Wrap Peplum Top Plus Lace Cocktail Dress Plus Skinny Jeans

Vintage Style Pencil Dress with Wrap Front Plus Velvet Wrap Cocktail Dress

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