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Invisible Beautiful

July 6th, 2011 by

I’m a bit of a clotheshorse for someone on a thrift store budget. Just a few weeks ago, I found myself fretting about what to wear to a party—did I want to go more femme, or masculine? To follow the theme, or not? I got a sexy idea, put it together, tried it on … and frowned. It was exactly the outfit I’d intended, but the image in my head was nothing like the one in the mirror. My body type’s been roughly the same since puberty; why can’t I picture my own clothes on myself?

I am surrounded by examples of how skinny people can choose to look. They’re in magazines and advertisements, shop windows and clothing catalogues. Many of the brands they suggest I wear don’t offer anything in my size; when they do, many stores don’t sell them. And where they are sold, you certainly won’t see a mannequin shaped like me in the window. Plus-size models? Please. According to the LA Times, the average American woman is a size fourteen. From a Huffington Post interview:

At 5’9″ and a size 6, Katie Halchishick was deemed “plus sized” by the modeling industry and asked to “just shave two inches” off her bony hips.

For reference, this is me1. The skirt I’m wearing in that picture is a size twenty-two.

(Size numbering itself is a whole other can of worms, of course. It’s surreal to me that “plus sizes” begin at half my numerical size. Someone half my actual size would be tiny! A friend of mine who is that tiny has the complementary complaint: being labeled a “size 0” as if she were all but incorporeal.)

I’m not just angry about the dearth of sex-positive imagery because it makes clothes shopping a pain. We use our partners as status symbols in this society; if I am never depicted as desirable, I have no social value. That means not only that I’m ignored as a potential partner, but that the very idea that I might have one is a little gross. And of course, anyone who happens to genuinely like fat people is therefore a deviant. The Village Voice described Kevin N.’s experience growing up (emphasis mine):

Meanwhile, his “pretty” girlfriend was an all-state softball player—size 16, five feet nine inches tall, maybe 200 pounds—but could bench more than her scrawny boyfriend. A rumor spread that he was gay, which he didn’t bother to refute. Liking a fat girl was so much more of a preposterous scenario that he worried the truth would “make it snowball even more.”

Living with self-respect while surrounded by this bullshit requires constant attention and willpower. I’m lucky—I have good friends and lovers in my life who make it unambiguously clear how sexy they find my shape. And as much as the BDSM scene marginalizes those who don’t fit its favorite dynamics, it’s pretty size-positive; in a clothing-optional dungeon, there is neither the means nor the incentive to maintain the fiction that stick-thin, unblemished bodies are the norm. I feel confident in the dungeon, and that’s great. I need to, if I want to strut my deviant body proudly in a public space. But I still want something hot to wear while I do it, and then I’m struck once again by the frustrating lack of examples.

I know nobody looks like a mannequin. That’s what the dressing rooms are for. The difference is that I have to actively ignore what I’m seeing in order to imagine myself usefully close to accurately. That’s difficult, and tiring, and having to do it depresses me. If those mental gymnastics sound familiar, it might be because you’ve been listening to maymay.

As a sexually submissive guy myself, I look at a lot of BDSM porn, a lot of women bottoms, and I’ll change the genders around in my head. When I see a woman tied up, I think, “It’s okay, I’ll just imagine them as a guy, someone like me.” […]

And the more I looked at porn the more I realized I really wasn’t interested in seeing images of sexuality that aroused me, I was much more interested in seeing images of sexuality that reflected mine, so I could connect with them and see myself represented in that image and have a validation that I actually exist, that other people are like me there.

He reached it through sexuality, I through fashion, but the longing is the same: we both want to see people who are similar to ourselves portrayed as normal and desirable, and the images just aren’t there.

Neither of us is even holding the shortest end of the stick when it comes to having one’s attractiveness marginalized. Being female-assigned, I benefit from the trope of the curvy girl, and from the BBW and fat admirer communities. BHM appreciators exist, but in the mainstream, the assumption that fat men’s bodies are disgusting is so reliable that it can be used to sell advertising (if they’re acknowledged as objects of desire at all). Maymay’s gender/role identification is underrepresented at best and reviled at worst, but when you do find them in erotic images, most of the models are slender and pretty like him. People who are fat, male, and submissive are both kinds of invisible, no matter how sexy they really are.

I could go on, but a bunch of smart people have already done it for me. Professor Chaos wrote a post in this blog about the invisibility of disabled sexuality. For the 2006 film “A Girl Like Me,” filmmaker Kiri Davis interviewed young black women about their perceived standard of beauty, returning over and over to light skin and straight, fine hair. As the New York Times observed, even those who would reject that standard in favor of a “natural” look might not know how to maintain it—and then may have to endure unwanted rubbernecking and touching. Long, straight, shimmering locks are a mainstay of the beauty-magazine pages. When did you last see a shampoo ad feature someone with naturally kinky black hair?

Our shared concept of what a person looks like comes from the images we see around us—images which have already passed through the very narrow filters of the fashion and entertainment industries. This isn’t just dishonest, it’s dangerous. The link between unrealistic body image and adolescent eating disorders is so strong that the American Medical Association recently adopted policy to discourage digital alteration of advertising models. Such alteration is currently common practice, and its unambiguous message is that even the thinnest few percent of us aren’t thin enough.

When I mentally assembled my outfit for that party, I pictured it unthinkingly on my limited idea of that “normal” human—one who is white, able-bodied, female-assigned, and skinny. The difference between my real body and that image means that when I’m doing my damnedest to disprove the “fat people can’t be sexy” meme, to actively create a better example, I can still try on an outfit, look in the mirror, and for a moment before I catch myself, feel disappointed by what I see.

The day after I tried that outfit on, several hours before the party, I was telling a friend over coffee about my experience with mismatched self-image. We talked about fat-positivity, about frustrating invisibility, and about culture and desire and shame. Finally, she asked,

“… so what was the outfit, anyway?”

I told her: black jeans, a wifebeater, and black suspenders. She stared at me. “What?” I asked.

“Fizz, you have exactly the body type I would imagine that outfit on.”

“Wait, really?”

“Except for having boobs, I guess.”

We compared notes. The image in my head was tall and lanky. She was picturing a “big, working-class punk guy”—my type indeed, but for the boobs and the attitude. That take on it hadn’t occurred to me, but I trust my friend’s judgment; I wore it, chest bound, and packing a strapon. I went to the party, had a good time, and by the time the clothes came off again, it didn’t matter what they’d been; there was nothing to be ashamed of underneath them.

When the next party rolls around, I’ll be fretting once again about what to wear. I want the confidence boost, but I also need to be an example. I am fat. I am sexy. And I won’t let the world keep pretending I don’t exist.

  1. Photo by Myles Boisen. []