Owning my own clothing shop was a real eye-opener.
Pre-shop (and pre-Fatosphere) I hated clothes shopping. Loved clothes, just hated having to find them. You know, going into every shop in the mall and not finding ONE single nicely fitting garment, berating myself for not fitting into the clothes, believing the fault was somehow in my body rather than some randomly-sized piece of fabric. Finishing the day purchase-less, depressed and full of self-hatred.
Oh, I used to come out with some pearlers. ‘It will all be fine when I’ve lost the weight!’, I’d moan, trying unsuccessfully to zip up something that said it was a size ‘curvaceous’ but actually looked like a cylinder stretched over a large pear. ‘If only my stomach wasn’t so fat!’ ‘I’m so vile!’ ‘I’m so gross!’ Blah blah blah – none of it was true and it didn’t achieve anything except to leave me miserable.
Then I discovered body acceptance, located a few good plus-size designers who made clothing that I liked and fitted me well, and concluded that actually I LOVED clothes shopping. I loved trying on clothing that was made for a body like mine. I had no problems when things didn’t fit because clearly it wasn’t anything wrong with my fantastic bod, but just the cut, style, size or fabric of an inanimate object made by somebody far away who had never met me. Oh, but when I found something I loved that did fit? It was heaven. It was magic happy-land, full of fantastic wardrobe selections, being appropriately dressed for any occasion and people saying agreeable things like ‘I love your outfit! I really like your style.’
Somehow from there I fell into clothes shop ownership.
And had a revelation.
Back in those sad shop-hating days, I was not the only person in the world who had loathed finding clothes! I wasn’t the only human in Australia who would make unkind, hate-filled comments about my own body! In public!
Working in the shop some days is like watching a bizarre reality show called ‘When Social Convention Attacks’. It’s a stream of fabulous people from all walks of life, all shapes, all sizes, all abilities, all backgrounds … all coming into the shop looking AWESOME and then just uttering hate all over their amazing selves.
From my body-acceptance viewpoint I find it really hard to hear, even though I once came from the same dark place. The thing I find most amazing is that there is no real similarity in the people who utter such things, except that they are all human people. Fat, thin, short, tall, all the gender permutations, all the cultural backgrounds, all the abilities. All doing the socially-acceptable thing of hating on themselves. Yes, even the women who happen to perfectly fit the social beauty ideal, still come into the shop and say dreadful things about their poor bodies.
Initially I was prepared to be offended. I now admit that no amount of self-acceptance will ever entirely reconcile me to a thin person asking me ‘Do I look fat in this?’ I tell the truth: no. (One day a very thin woman looked my fat body up and down, her gaze lingering on my hips. ‘Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?’ she sneered. That was a tough moment for keeping my professional calm but I managed. I told her the truth again: ’That dress does fit you well.’)
It’s hard to know what to say when somebody asks me if they look fat in the dress and they do, because they are, and they also happen to look great. I am happy to describe myself as fat, but I know many people don’t take it so well. I usually prefer to focus on the fit of a garment, as above. I tell the customer ‘the dress fits you well’ or ‘I think I can find something to fit your shoulders more comfortably’. Oh, I long for the day I can say ‘Yes it makes you look fat: you look GORGEOUS in it!’ and the customer won’t be offended.
I have worked out that there is no point in me showing offence just because somebody has made one of those two-edged insults (my dear, if you think YOU’RE too fat to be allowed out, what do you think of ME?) Sometimes the comments are clearly aimed to offend, in which case it’s their problem, not mine; and just as sensible for me to ignore the jibe and get on with the job. More often, it’s not meant to offend at all. It’s just one of those things that we have been taught to do to ourselves, to punish ourselves to not living up to the impossible ideals of a Photoshop society. Any anger I feel needs to be directed against society as a whole and not individual people.
Most often it’s just dispiriting. When customers blame themselves if a frock doesn’t fit I remind them about the Shop Rule: ‘It Isn’t You; It’s The Clothes’. If a dress doesn’t fit, either the size or the cut is wrong. We simply turn our efforts to finding something that does fit. Why should a wonderful, complex, living body be blamed if a piece of sewn-together, randomly sized fabric doesn’t fit it?
Most people joyfully embrace the Shop Rule and get into the vibe. Some people simply don’t get it.
We understand that everybody is at a different stage in their journey of self-acceptance. It is up to us as the shopkeepers to encourage an accepting and positive environment, and that means finding nice ways to remind people to join in. We tell people about the Shop Rule; we stock different sizes as much as we are able; we use body-positive language; we ask friends and customers to model clothing for us so that the garments can be viewed on lots of different bodies.
We do get people who want to buy a garment that is too small for them because they are ‘losing weight, and it will be inspiration’. While that makes us really uncomfortable, we can’t make customers’ decisions for them, but we usually recommend that people buy in their current size so they can enjoy the garments right now. Our dresses are like puppies – they want to be loved now, not put aside to feel lonely!
We don’t buy into customers’ negative comments about themselves. If somebody says ‘I can’t wear that style until I’ve lost weight’ we tell them up-front to go ahead and try it on, since they’ll look just as lovely at any size. If somebody loves a dress and it makes them happy but they are scared to wear something sleeveless, we will always point out that there are no laws against bare arms in Australia, and tell the customer the truth when they just look really comfortable and good in a garment. And we always come down to Shop Rule no. 2 – You Must Feel Comfortable – by which we mean if you want to wear the garment then you jolly well should!
Having said all this, there is one thing I just can’t bear to hear: negative comments about other people. It’s bad enough hearing perfectly good people trash themselves, but it’s frightening when that negativity is directed outwards.
Some people are just toxic. Two women once looked at our shop sign which mentions sizes 6 to 34, and said very loudly ‘We didn’t even know there was such a THING as size 34!’ (I was scandalized but my business partner calmly replied ‘Of course there is,’ and left it at that, which actually did the trick.) One fantastic customer who we adore, often comes in with her mother, who tells her that she looks ugly in everything, and criticises individual parts of her body non-stop. It’s horrible to hear. And every now and then somebody will come in with a toxic friend or partner who will attempt to vet everything they choose, and try to stop them selecting clothes they love: in the words of one toxic husband ‘You can’t have that, it makes you look porky’ (Grrr, that comment nearly did make me lose my cool). Sometimes a group of friends are dominated by one cruel person who will hog all the time and energy of others while making oh-so-funny comments that undermine their friends’ confidence.
You know, it is amazing how often people creep back later, without their toxic friends, to try things on again in peace and tranquility. Toxic friends don’t win anything in the end …
Trying to keep our little business positive can feel like a losing battle when gorgeous customer after gorgeous customer plays the ‘I’m so …’ game. A game that we are taught to play from a very early age, and which some unscrupulous people use as a weapon to hurt others. It is so prevalent, even people who desperately want to be body-confident sometimes find themselves doing it subconsciously.
Interestingly though, knowing how prevalent it is can actually be helpful. Understanding that nearly everybody does it – seeing it played out again and again and again and again – this helps it to become more visible, more recognisable. Seeing that all kinds of people succumb to self-hatred, that there is no connection whatsoever to what they say about themselves and very evident reality: this has turned out to be valuable in my own struggles not to give in to it.
Next time you’re in the dressing room struggling with a zipper on some garment that just wasn’t cut out for you, try to remember that you’re not alone. All over Australia, people of every conceivable shape and size are doing the same thing, and blaming themselves, and feeling awful about it. Remember that, then take some soothing deep breaths, get dressed again, leave the dressing room, go find your shop assistant and explain that the garment didn’t fit. Ask for something that fits your perfectly good body. And repeat after me: ‘It Isn’t Me: It’s The Clothes’.
And don’t bring a toxic friend shopping!