Fitting In: How Fashion Finally Made Space for Me


I didn’t dare envision myself wearing the beautiful pieces I clipped out of magazines and filled scrapbooks with. Versace gowns and Jil Sander suits were for supermodels and Hollywood starlets, people with the good genes and diligence to maintain size-zero physiques. Sophomore year, when I’d whittled myself down to a size 10, I’d stare at the photos of Cameron Diaz and Naomi Campbell taped to my mini-fridge door as I munched my carrot sticks and think: Someday.

But while I had every intention of wearing beautiful clothing one day, I had no real plan to work in fashion. Based on what I saw online, on sites like The Fashion Spot and the then novel street style blogs, everyone who worked in fashion was impeccably dressed, thin, and independently wealthy. Fashion was Carine Roitfeld stomping through the Tuileries in head-to-toe Azzedine Alaïa—it was not Janelle from Long Island in patched-up Levi’s.

Still, when I headed to my dreary post-college nine-to-five, fashion images were one of the few things that kept my spirits up. I was stuck dressing older than my age in blouson tops from Banana Republic and little black dresses from Calvin Klein’s diffusion label, but in spare moments I’d escape into the endless scroll of Style.com. Fashion didn’t want me, but I wanted it—and as with any unrequited love affair, I put it on a pedestal, giving my favorite brands a pass on plus sizes because they were making art. I would have had to staple together two looks to wear anything from Nicolas Ghesquière’s Balenciaga or Dries Van Noten; instead, I simply pushed down my desire to touch and to feel—to experience fashion as a participant, not a spectator.

My defense crumbled as soon as I began my first real foray into fashion—working as an intern in a modeling agency. The glamour of being surrounded by the faces I’d stared at in magazines evaporated after I heard an agent driven to histrionics over a model gaining an inch on her hips ahead of casting season. Once you hear a grown man yell at a teenage girl in an attempt to dissect her body, you understand the consequences of all that artistry. When clothing exists as a prop to be admired—one that is dependent on an almost impossible set of physical standards—people get hurt.

Over the years, my faith in fashion’s treatment of women’s bodies continued to erode, even as things were supposedly changing. Ad campaigns featured more plus-size models, while former colleagues forwarded me emails filled with “thinspo” dieting tips. Celebrities made grand statements about inclusion—one of them a daughter of rock royalty who, upon seeing me backstage at the season’s hot ticket, loudly remarked that she couldn’t believe they’d “let in the trolls.” Brands expanded their size ranges for capsule collections, designed special pieces for the likes of Lizzo and Naomi Watanabe—and then went right back to business as usual.

If you’ve visited an e-commerce platform in the last decade, you’ve seen how a high-minded concept like body positivity can be watered down into slogan tees and platitudes about embracing your cellulite, as what began as an attempt for those with stigmatized bodies to assert their worth has been repackaged into a commodity. Yes, challenging cultural beauty standards can be universally empowering—but only a select few have to deal with obesity discrimination.

This is where someone—and there is always someone—will interject to suggest a trip to the gym, weight-loss surgery, or hiring a trainer. And while bodies change all the time, along with our relationship to them, full-scale physical transformation shouldn’t be a prerequisite for personhood. How I feel about my body changes almost daily, but other people’s reactions have been constant: Fat is the first thing they see, and the sole measure by which I am first judged. The limited shopping options are just one of a number of slights—I’ve had doctors suggest gastric bypass when I’ve gone in for a fever, and relatives who thought diet books were suitable Christmas gifts. What I would love is what most other people take for granted: to walk into a store and not think about whether or not I can shop there—and to meet new people without worrying that they perceive me only as a number on a scale.

For decades, fashion sneered at fat women, expecting gratitude for offering them the bare minimum. Now, with retail in a slump and the financial viability of the plus-size demographic newly evident, more brands are dipping their toes into the waters. Of course, if the challenge was just about clothes, women like me could have kept subsisting on the ill-fitting miscellany of Lane Bryant. The real objective, though, is for everyone to be able to create a wardrobe that allows them to thrive both personally and professionally.

For my first interview at Vogue, in 2014, I arrived at Condé Nast’s Times Square offices in a bright blue shirtdress from Calvin Klein worn beneath a black blazer. At the time, this was the best look I could pull together at short notice—one that allowed me to show that I had a point of view on fashion, even if it was imperfect. The moment I made it past security, though, I noticed that every other person I passed was just slightly dressier—their heels higher, jewelry showier, accessories more exclusive. I was overqualified for the slightly above intern-level job I was there to interview for, but found myself nervous and self-doubting.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job.

I was (almost) relieved—after all, if I had been successful, there was no way I could dress the part. At the time, my shopping habits were limited to online retailers like fast-fashion staple Eloquii and a few brick-and-mortar haunts. I’d trawl through the women’s department of Macy’s on 34th Street, passing tourists who’d amuse themselves by laughing at the size 3X dresses or seeing if two people could fit into a single coat. While I was glad to be able to walk into a store with the knowledge that something would be salvageable, most of what was available was still designed with someone else in mind. Either it skewed older (boxy blazers with shoulder pads, palazzo pants, matronly dresses), juvenile (T-shirts covered in cartoon kittens, plaid pajama pants), or completely hideous.


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