Fat, happy and fabulous
Throughout the 80s, my mother got fat-lady mailers in the letterbox. They were filled with thin, standard size models, cheerfully drowning in loud blouses and stirrup pants.
Those catalogues illustrated a basic truth for fat women. A fat woman's goal when she dresses herself every morning, if she has any decency, is camouflage; to disguise the roll of her stomach and the spread of her hips with billowing fabrics and distracting prints.
Even as a girl I knew, as most fat women do, that these clothes were a penance. The elastic waist band was my pillory, the ugly flowers on my middle-aged blouse the sign that hung round my neck declaring my crime. Fat. You don't get to be pretty. You don't fit.
But times have changed.
In the 21st century, almost everyone in the Western world weighs significantly more than their grandparents ever did. It's also a time where the internet allows people to make acquaintance with the world through their personalities, before their appearance enters the equation.
And a time where the trend of non-discrimination is starting to extend to the obese.
You can now buy whatever you want in size Fat: bikinis, regal gowns, skinny jeans, crop tops. Online shopping and international shipping means it's just a click away.
And, as a bonus, companies now use 'plus-size' models to show customers how they might really look in those clothes.
Except, they don't. Those 'plus-size' models are six feet tall and size 10 to 12; defined, well-proportioned and beautiful.
We - the fat women who buy these clothes - do appreciate the effort. And most of us understand that the clothes would not sell if not presented in their best possible light.
Nonetheless, this discrepancy has left room for something more authentic. Something to identify with, rather than just aspire to.
And it has arrived in the form of 'fat-shion' bloggers: plus-size 'fat-shionistas' who know they don't look like the models, even the so-called plus-size ones. Women who have bellies that bulge and sag, and thighs that are thick and marbled with cellulite. Double chins and back fat. Like a real fat lady.
And guess what? They don't hate their bodies. And they love fashion. They love how colour pairs with shape, how new designs excite the eye. So they're going to wear an item just the way they want to.
And if it's not - to quote that most overused of terms - 'flattering'? Well, good.
"What flattering basically means is for fat women to cover up their bodies, to stop being comfortable in their fat bodies because it makes society uncomfortable," says 18-year-old university student Whitney Fulton, American proprietress of the blog People of Color Fat Fashion.
It's important to understand that these women have no delusions about their appearance. They haven't tricked themselves into thinking they look like the girls in the magazines. They know they are fat.
But: "I was like 'f*** it, if no one thinks I'm beautiful or smart, I will. I do,'" Whitney says.
Her path to self-acceptance was years long, though, and strewn with cruelty and self-loathing.
"I was mooed at, called a 'whale'; I had people pretend the ground was shaking when I walked," she recalls.
"It continued through to high school, while I was growing and trying to discover myself. But I couldn't grow. Everything I did or wore was ridiculed. I was breaking at a rapid rate.
"I hated my body, because everyone else hated it; hated my existence, because no one thought I was worthy. I just didn't understand; what was wrong with me? What was so bad about me?"
Then, she says, something clicked: "I think I just became sick of it all - suddenly, abruptly. I was tired of letting other people ruin my life, and I was tired of being sad. I started to be brave, which was difficult, because I wanted to be invisible, because I thought that if I was life would be easier.
"But now, f*** being invisible. Now I want to been seen - I take up space. I'm here. I'm beautiful. I'm worthy. Being fat doesn't make me less of a person, and I will no longer allow myself to feel less-than."
Whitney's blog tapped into an unserviced niche, and the rapidity of its success surprised even her.
"I was just thinking that a lot of fat-positive blogs were missing girls of colour, and I didn't see too many blogs posting only fat girls of colour, so I created mine," she says.
"I remember going to bed around 4am and waking up with 300 followers, and after that it just took off."
Sian Morgan is a 24-year-old jewellery-design student from Manchester in the UK.
Her blog, Sort Life Out; Buy Milk, is devoted to her fierce love of fashion. 'Fierce' because Sian - with her shock of bright blue hair and fondness for black lipstick - is part of a rarer subspecies of fat-shion blogging known as Fat Punk.
"I have a body shape that's not aspirational in our society," she says. "I'm broad, fat and large, but not in the traditionally feminine way. I don't have a big bust or hips to make up for my 'flaws', which means clothes fit me in a different way.
"For a long time I covered myself up in baggy jeans and T-shirts. I didn't want people to notice
But Sian's blog, and the fatshion blogs of others, changed her perspective.
"I started it in 2011 mainly because I was so inspired by other plus-size bloggers, but also because I saw that there was something missing in plus-size blogging," she says.
"There still aren't that many alternative fat bloggers - there are so many wonderful retro, girly, even Lolita or preppy plus-size bloggers around - but great Goth or punk bloggers just weren't as visible."
The spirit of punk fashion is to upset the norm; disassemble acceptable standards of beauty, re-colour them, tear them to shreds, then sew it all back up into a unique and subjective beauty. In that sense, all fat fashion activists have a streak of punk in them, even more mainstream bloggers like 30-year-old New Zealander Meagan Kerr.
Meagan is a fashion and beauty writer, photographer and body-positive activist from Mt Eden, Auckland. She also manages one of the most popular plus-size blogs in the world: thisismeagankerr.com.
"At the beginning of 2013, I sat down and thought about what makes me different to the hundreds of other fashion, beauty and lifestyle bloggers in New Zealand ... I'm fat," she says.
"At that time there was a distinct lack of plus-size fashion blogs in New Zealand. There was no one talking about what great new things were available here for fat women, a lack of styling ideas, and no one with a body like mine standing up and saying fashion was for fat people, too.
"So I decided to put my money where my mouth was and be that voice for fat Kiwi women who were interested in fashion."
Visit Meagan's website, which attracts more than 10,000 readers each month, and you'll see a woman who knows how to strike a pose. One day she's showing off her latest purchases, the next she's dispensing advice on how to dress for a job interview, or where to find the best plus-size activewear.
She takes all her own photos using a tripod and remote shutter, and in every picture has a beatific smile.
Her dedicated readers ask questions, share their own stories, and heap praise.
"I am obsessed with my weight, size and the scales to the point it rules my life," posts one.
"[But] after reading heaps of your posts, and especially today, it's made me want to change my whole attitude toward it."
"I want to help other people be more adventurous in their clothing choices and be more confident in themselves," says Meagan, who recently started Fat Girls Shouldn't Wear Stripes, a photographic project for which she travels New Zealand taking pictures of women size 16 and over "being their fat fabulous selves".
For large women to embrace fashion like these women do is almost obscene in our culture. To make no effort to hide any feature of your body that diverges from the limited body types praised by society goes against the grain in a serious way.
But these women bash against that rule regardless, using their blogs to post pictures of their fashion creations as they truly appear on their fat, individually shaped bodies.
Meagan came to the conclusion that trying to hide her fat wasn't only unfair, but unrealistic.
"I'm a big advocate of using your personal style to express yourself, and I got sick of hiding myself behind swathes of black fabric," she says.
"Not that I don't love black - I'm just no longer using it to hide. [Because] it turns out, no matter what cleverly draped bits of fabric I wear or uncomfortable pieces of shapewear I squeeze myself into, I'm actually still fat - who knew?"
But isn't she glamorising obesity; encouraging other big women not to lose weight? It is, unsurprisingly, an accusation she's familiar with.
"This old chestnut is pulled out any time someone fat does something positive," she says.
"You can't tell the state of someone's health by looking at them, and it's really not your place to pass comment on someone's body unless they invite you to.
"Whether you're on a weight-loss journey or happy as you are, your body deserves care and respect. Creating a positive body image is an important part of that, no matter your size. Women should love themselves and their bodies. I believe this is true whether you're a size six or a size 26.
"The reason I chose to focus on plus-size clothing," she adds, "is that no one in New Zealand was talking about clothes I would wear, or interpreting fashion trends that made them relevant to me.
"I want to make fashion accessible to women over a size 14."
Fashion retailers and brands are taking note: Meagan has had multiple labels approach her for feedback on their collections. And she's more than happy to comment, "even if it's politely saying they're not on top of their game, and suggesting ways they could improve".
She also belongs to New Zealand agency Bloggers Club, which specialises in matching bloggers with brands. They manage "a number" of her commercial relationships, including sponsored posts, which are always identified as such.
Since graduating in design and visual arts last year, Meagan has worked as an assistant at Flossie.com, a local salon and spa-booking service. But she's poised to go out on her own and, from mid-next month, her blog will have her undivided attention.
Fatshion writers use the internet to broadcast their revolution, but it's the internet that has enabled their revolt. Before the internet, I knew - just like my mother knew - that I must be dull and un-fun and pathetic, because those flaws are what turn you fat.
And since I knew so few other fat people, I had no reason to doubt it. So I was timid, non-sexual, and fearful; shuffling to the back of the classroom so no one would see my thighs spill over the sides of the seat.
The internet ended the isolation of being fat. It showed fat people with razor wit and probing intelligence, cool jobs, friends, boyfriends and beach trips. Fat people began to whisper in a shocked hush, 'We're real people. We've been real all along.'
Says Sian, "Blogging, feminism and body positivity are the reasons I can now go out in a crop top, bright blue hair, black lipstick and leather. Seeing fat people as beautiful, seeing big people wear gorgeous clothes in a million different styles, and seeing people like me be sexy - that blew my tiny mind."
Of course, women who dare be both overweight and confident are seen by some as an affront to decency itself, and many critics have no qualms about voicing their displeasure. Among the (publishable) commentary on Sian's blog is this, from 'Sammiejoe': "YOU HAVE SUCH A DEGRADING PIG FACE! GO ON A DIET AND STOP POSTING YOUR LARD ALL OVER THE INTERNET!"
To which Sian replies, "Nope, I think I'll keep doing what makes me happy and ignore your hate & ignorance :)"
"Some people can be cruel," she says, "but that's where the definition of punk comes in. I don't care if people don't like the way I look or dress - it's for me, not them."
Meagan has also experienced the unwelcome judgment of strangers: "While I was at uni, I posted a photo of myself wearing stripes and a man said, 'Oh no, fat girls shouldn't wear stripes.' I started looking at all the things plus-size women are told they shouldn't wear or can't wear. Then I realised that everything we're told is quite contradictory, so if we listened to all of those rules we'd be left naked."
Whitney agrees. "I think a fat woman gains control of herself and her body by wearing clothing society thinks she shouldn't. My mum always says, 'People are going to talk about you till the day you die,' so let them talk and just continue to be you. It ain't easy but it's worth it."
My own mother wore cheerful but concealing outfits until she died. Most fat women of her generation do. They fight desperately against their bodies and natural inclinations, loathing the necessary ugliness of their wardrobes and trying fad diets way into their golden years.
They've been told they're sub-human for so long, they're never going to forget it.
I take after my mother, perhaps too much, with a drawer full of nondescript flowing black pants and a closet of light cardigans to cover my upper arms. But after me will come a generation who has never lived without the internet. People who have seen the Facebook photos of fat acquaintances living happy lives, made friends with people of all colours and sizes through message boards and forums, and stumbled across the blogs of pretty fat girls just daring the camera to find genuine fault.
My daughter will grow up in this world, and she might be fat someday. If she is, thanks to women like Meagan, Sian and Whitney, she might not hate herself for it.
- With additional reporting by Jeremy Olds and Rebecca Kamm.