For plus-size women like me, dressing for joy is a radical act | Sam van Zweden

Like many others, I spent a significant portion of 2021 in activewear. As a plus-size woman, my choice of activewear was somewhat limited. Now that dressing to leave the house is back on the cards, I’m doing it with comfort, joy and rebellion at the front of my mind.

I’m a 34-year-old fat woman – I use the word fat with love, as a neutral descriptor of my size – and I have felt locked out of the “fun” of dressing for most of my adult life. I spent years in my early adulthood thinking more deeply about the size and shape of my body than anything happening outside of it. This bought me the privilege of fitting into “straight-sized” clothes, but it also means that time of my life is a blur of calorie counting, uphill runs, guilt, shame and punishment.

Nevertheless, when I went to loud, sweaty gigs in tiny pubs I was able to do it wearing fitted tartan pants and a ripped-up T-shirt that told the world I didn’t care what anyone else thought. This is the power of getting dressed: it turns your body into a billboard where you can project your values, moods, tastes and desires. At least, this is the power for thin people.

When I quit dieting, I also had to quit expressing myself through my clothing choices. The options available for dressing a larger body, especially on a minimal budget, are few and often poorly made. My beloved band T-shirts gave way to hoodies, purely because the sizing was more inclusive. I started wearing loose shirts in the hope of hiding my belly. Getting dressed shifted from being about self-expression to being about camouflaging my shame.

The power of clothes is targeted to plus-size people in particular ways. Here are a few of the main themes: it’s part of a weight-loss redemption story; it’s a product that controls your unruliness (hello, tummy-holding-in undies!); or you are exceptional (“pretty for a fat girl” style). Black used to feature prominently. Now it’s more about florals.

What is offered in extended sizes from mainstream brands often puts ethics on the backburner, so that plus-size people are denied the opportunity to put their money where their values are and are forced to opt for fast fashion instead. Extended sizing often isn’t carried in store, so plus-size people must shop online, consult size guides with a tape measure handy, and pray to the online shopping gods (AND pay shipping) instead of wandering into a store like their straight-sized friends. Because I’m a “small fat”, extended sizing usually includes me. This is not true for people in larger bodies. There’s still a way to go in extending this right to all people.

Luckily, local designers are filling the gap. Small designers are coming forward who tailor exclusively for larger-bodied people, providing a personal connection to what we wear and accountability for its production. Some bigger brands are slowly expanding their size ranges as they realise that catering for a broader portion of the population is profitable.

I’m learning to dress in ways that make me happy: what’s comfortable, what feels good, what makes me feel powerful and capable. Relinquishing the activewear and returning to the office has especially made me question who I’m looking presentable and put-together for. While living in activewear, I learned new lessons about clothes and my fat body. For example, I can be comfortable and other people don’t get to be offended by that.

A big meeting calls for brand new socks. I keep a stash in my bedside drawer for occasions when I need to feel held and safe; the unworn fibres cradle my arches and I know I’ve got this.

I swish back into the office wearing palazzo pants, my curly hair large and defined. In a world that demands for me not to take up space, here I am. I can move up and down the staircase with ease. I can sit how I like during meetings. I am powerful and capable.

I kick intentionally against the lessons I’ve been handed by unreasonable beauty standards and a biased fashion industry. For example: bellies are bad, the more pronounced the worse, so hide them. Mentally scrunching up the Post-it of shame and discomfort, I put a belt around mine and march into the day.

Big earrings are joy. Sometimes they explicitly state my message (CUTE hangs from one earlobe and CURVY from the other), others times they’re more subtle. A little gold fleck winking from underneath my hair.

Because I live in a bigger body, dressing for joy is a radical act. I’m expressing myself, yes, but I’m also a living message to bigger-bodied people around me that says: “We have the right to take up space, too.”

All the messaging I’m surrounded by tells me that nothing could flatter my plus-size body, and that excellent clothes aren’t made for me – these lessons are wrong. Carving out lessons of our own is powerful and rebellious. This summer, I’m dressing fabulously.

Sam van Zweden is the author of the essay collection Eating with My Mouth Open and co-owner of the A Plus Market