Fashion’s fat-phobia

November 15, 2020

Fashion is notoriously weight-conscious and alienates a large part of its consumer base through unattainable body standards and lack of inclusive sizing. Instep explores…

One of Pakistan’s only plus sized influencers, Baemisaal has never let social taboos of dressing cramp her vibrant style.

A few weeks ago, a Karachi based designer - while speaking to another from Lahore during an Instagram live session - made extremely disparaging remarks regarding a senior fashion editor when asked about critics. The designer premised his dismissal of the aforementioned editor’s decades of work based on her body weight. He’s not the only one to opine that a plus sized woman can’t be taken seriously, as fashion isn’t for fat people.

Fat-shaming and fat-phobia are multi-faceted issues that not only plague the global fashion industry but also warp our ideas of health and fitness. The global ideal of beauty, as discussed in the paper countless times before, is unattainable and excessive in its focus on a homogenously anorexic look for men and women both.

While the global fashion industry is slowly moving towards recognizing it biases regarding beauty ideals, it is unfortunate that in Pakistan, we are far from recognizing just how absurd our post-colonial standards are. Let alone embracing the South-East Asian body type and complexion, a majority of designers still choose to peddle Caucasian ideals as the epitome of style and fashion.

Fashion is also unfortunately plagued by tokenism. When critiqued for lacking diversity in models, brands will often bring in one or two people of colour for ‘representation’ while letting the structure that allows this form of discrimination to function without reform. Often jumping on the feminism bandwagon, fashion’s response is usually surface level, leaving very little recourse for consumers who are affected by such unwritten rules.

Conversations around complexion have managed to make some headway in the sub-continent with major retail brands forced to reckon with their fairness fetish but while conversations around body weight are taking place, the conception that men and women who weigh over a certain number of kilograms are inherently unworthy is still strongly embedded in our cultural discourse.

Fat phobia still reigns supreme in our local fashion industry and it appears that the decision makers, far from acknowledging their bias, insistently hold on to their warped views, alienating not only a large part of the consumer base but also cementing the fact that fashion is inherently exclusive.

If we look at the greatest exporter of popular culture and values, the United States of America, the conversation around fat-shaming and fat-phobia have yielded incredible results. Activism, led by a vanguard of PoC influencers, has managed to take down major brands like Victoria Secret that peddled skinny whiteness as the only aspiration worth pursuing and replaced it with gloriously inclusive options like Rihanna’s Fenty x Savage collections.

A recent comparison of billboards in the US that featured lingerie clad models showed a shift from what was considered fashionable in 2010 (bony, tanned, blue eyed models lounging effortlessly) to 2020 (Calvin Klein’s billboards now feature a black, plus sized woman posing in a turban and her natural locks), marking a major victory for those fighting against weigh discrimination.

Pakistani billboards, however, rarely reflect this shift. Sure, there have been a few brands that will feature a plus sized women in special campaigns, but the inclusion ends here despite the fact that most women who can afford these brands are curvy.

To explore the fat-phobia labyrinth, we spoke to model, artist and activist Baemisaal, who campaigns for a more inclusive fashion industry, on tokenism and what it means to be stylish as a plus-sized woman.

In a much appreciated and widely shared Instagram post titled “Where are the Plus Sizes?” Baemisaal calls out major retailers on their failure to provide clothing for women beyond a slender body type. She asks why, despite a large percentage of the population not fitting into off-the-rack sizes, designers and labels refuse to acknowledge their existence, why designers haven’t bothered pushing boundaries on design and why businesses continue to make her feel unwelcome in their stores by never catering to women (and men) beyond size Large.

According to Baemisaal, her inclusion in mainstream fashion has been more about the brand using her activism and following to position themselves as caring or socially relevant, rather than actively making any changes in their policies. “I’ve noticed that a brand will use my face, my engagement and then that’s it, they’re gone,” she explains. The feeling of being used, being exploited by a brand obviously doesn’t endear the brands to her.

Baemisaal touches on the important role that patriarchy has played in determining the ideal body type, discussing the shift from full-bodied, voluptuous women idolized by European artists in the Renaissance to the pre-pubescent skinny girl fixation that fashion currently has, pointing out that our designers are merely creating clothes that fit into this narrow definition of style.

She questions why more designers aren’t brave enough to break out of these parameters instead of parroting them and we concur. If a designer’s job or self-professed passion is to create wearable art or make clothes that bring people joy then why is their expression of creativity so limited? Why haven’t more local designers (several of whom don’t fit the beauty ideals or body sizes they themselves consider peak) chosen to represent their actual customers through their collections?

Ashley Graham has redefined the way we see fashion models.

The make-up loving, bright haired college graduate also points out the redundancy of the argument that fat-phobia is based on health concerns. “You can’t tell who’s healthy or not simply by looking at them. You can put a skinny person on a pedestal but that doesn’t mean they don’t have underlying health issues you can’t see,” she offers. While there has been a recent fixation on exercising and eating healthy, Baemisaal opines that it’s still an obsession with how you look and finds the entire culture reductive.

There’s also the entire mental health aspect to the skinny vs fat debate, with countless mental health disorders like anorexia or bulimia being romanticized through the belief that skinny is inherently good and healthy, something that isn’t often talked about in mainstream discourse.

“You’re not supposed to fit into someone else’s ideal of what you’re supposed to look like,” Baemisaal states. She explains that for her, fashion isn’t about fitting into an ideal but rather about celebrating your own unique way of doing things. “This is what I really think the future of fashion is going to look like,” says the digital content creator.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that more often than not, designers and brands are doing themselves a disservice by creating fashion that only caters to one demographic. It not only limits their business reach but also speaks of a lack of creative flair, hiding behind the disproven concept that fashion only looks good on leggy, svelte women and well-built men. After all style, true style, isn’t beholden to trends, body size or type and every style savant worth their salt knows that.

Fashion’s fat-phobia