A Primer for straight sized and small fat people, especially HAES therapists, dietitians, counselors, and other clinicians working with clients in large bodies.

Many years ago, while visiting my sister she and I were shopping in one of her favorite Santa Cruz hippie stores. As she selected a variety of items, I poked around a little, looking at scarves and jewelry.

What stands out is that this was the day Polly asked me why I wasn’t getting anything. I told her truthfully, nothing would fit. She was surprised, “but they have XL?”

“I’m a lot bigger than XL”

“Oh, I didn’t realize.”

You see, to someone in a small body, the XLs look huge. She had never realized there was a lot more to clothing sizes. She hadn’t connected all the mail order clothing (remember when you had to call in an order) or my lack of purchases when we shopped together. It was completely outside of her experience and awareness.

Yet to me, those same XLs look tiny, they might as well be size XS. I went along shopping because I enjoyed time with Polly, even though the stores reinforced my body shame. I dieted a lot back then too.

Polly and Amelia 1972 Ketchikan, Alaska

Now, you need to know a bit about our nature vs. nurture family history. Polly and I are sisters through adoption and have very different genetic backgrounds. We will never be mistaken for sisters visually. She lives in a very small body, I’ve always been varying shades of fat.

At this time was a relatively small fat, wearing a US 20-22, there was nothing in the store that would fit me. Even the “xl” broomstick skirts would really only flow if I wore them around one thigh.

We had often shopped together though, this is what the big girls do, we go along, yet can’t get a thing for ourselves.

I share this to let you in a smaller or “straight-sized” body know that I understand that you might not fully understand clothing for fat bodies, large bodies, plus sized bodies. Even small fat people don’t fully understand the range of sizes and challenges presented by clothing.

However, if you are a therapist, dietician, counselor, or other professional or clinician working with fat people, you need to learn and understand the situation better. Because there are significant differences between sizes and availability of clothing for large bodies. Especially those of us who wear over a US 28. Please also do your work around thin privilege and know that just because your grandma called you chubby one day, you may still be carrying a great deal of privilege, however that is fodder for another post.

Sidenote: As someone who is cisgender, my pronouns are she/her, I speak from the experience of shopping for “women’s” clothing. From what I understand the situation I describe is universal to genders and clothing shopping.

But, things have changed, right?

It seems that these days there are far more options for fat bodies, however, the vast majority require online shopping. Only those who are an US size 22/24 or smaller will really find choices of clothing at the mall. Consider this – these are the only people who can actually try something on before having to buy it.

Do you try on clothes?

Do you have a variety of choices?

Do you put things back that don’t suit you?

What if you had to buy everything sight unseen? And probably pay more too?

Sizing is crazy too, how a brand grades between sizes makes a big difference and the failures of this are often seen by those in larger bodies.

For example, I am essentially a size 30/32 and yet I often wear my favorite J. Jill linen button down shirts in a 4X, which they list as a 26/28. I can’t wear much if anything else in their line though, and almost nothing else in a size 4X from most retailers. There is a small niche market of plus sized retailers that are focused on super sizes and their sizes are far more generous and sometimes I am a 3X. Recently, new online brands from China are showing up – they advertise up to size 6X, which is actually about a 1X in US sizing.

I generally have to rely on the measurements provided by manufacturers, online reviews, and prayer. And don’t mock me for having duplicates of something that works. I have 5 pairs of one brand of pants, I like them.

Straight talk for the HAES therapists, dietitians, counselors, and other clinicians working with clients in large bodies:

As a fat and super fat person, I hope you can imagine how all of this makes dressing a challenge. How hard it could be to even get out of the house. And for a body that is changing, perhaps getting fatter with appropriate weight restoration, not fitting clothes and struggling to buy new ones is a huge trigger. It all sucks and is very painful.

This may well be shared in a session with you. How you handle it is going to tell your client/patient a lot about you and if you are safe. The world is awful to fat bodies and we need the professionals we work with to have some understanding of our realities. Like my sister, I do not blame you for not knowing, I’m simply challenging you now to learn and do better.

Because, I see a fair number of small bodied professionals who want to help. They put out requests for clothing recommendations for their clients/patients. Except most do not share the client’s size. They don’t know it, they don’t know it matters, or are they scared to ask. Which means, that they are missing an important level of cultural competency in this field.

It also is really dangerous and damaging. Just imagine me in session with you, sharing a bunch of stuff about not fitting my clothes, how I’m having a hard time finding clothing, how I just want to go back to diet culture to fit in this world, how crappy I feel about the fat body I inhabit.

Offering to help me as a client find some resources is reasonable. You in your small body simply knows I’m fat, but has no clue about my size, It’s so much bigger than you. So when you bring me these well meaning recommendations you could be doing quite a few things, the two most common micro aggressions are:

1. If all the people you asked are small fat and I’m super fat, you will offer me options that are too small, reinforcing my body shame and struggle.

2. If you overestimate my size and bring me back recommendations that are all for super fat bodies, you are telling me you think I am also super-fat, which also reinforce my body shame and struggle. Now don’t get me wrong here, there is nothing wrong with super-fat, however society is pretty crappy about it.

OPTION 3: Speak with transparency and share that while you know there are resources and you have contacts that can help, you also know that sizing is important and different retailers offer clothes for differently sized large bodies. Then, ask my darn size. If I don’t know if, perhaps the painful and embarrassing act of figuring it out through measurements could be done or processed in session.

Polly and Amelia 2017 Arcata, California

Part of the transparency is acknowledging your own body size and difference. Name that dang elephant please. Also, be careful, your own cultural programming is just under the surface, please no disparaging comments about your thighs or such. And if you haven’t been my size or bigger, DO NOT EVER TRY TO COMMISERATE, centering yourself is about as unhelpful as it gets.

Living in a fat body requires so much in our culture, being a truly supportive ally requires understanding and the willingness to speak out as well as amplify our voices instead of yours. This is a social justice issue. I simply request that you work to do good instead of harm when interacting with us around clothing.

Note: I wish I could say was making up most of this stuff around how professionals have interacted with me. Sadly, I am not. It is a major blind spot for many in the helping professions. I think the most painful are those who are at best small fat wanting to bond over their body struggles and greatly diminish mine in the process.

6 thoughts on “Clothing the Fat Body 101”

  1. This is an important and informative article that I plan to share.

    I found it in my never-ending search for clothing for my mid-fat butch wife. She has the privilege of being able to try clothes on in most stores, but the extra layer of challenge that most clothing that leans towards feminine styles and prints, and mens/androgynous clothing lines are not sized for fat women’s bodies.

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