There was just one pair left, on a much-too-high rack in a corner of a Forever21 plus-size section in Miami. The perfect pair of bell bottoms, cropped and with a slit up the side. They were my size, hanging there just for me.
I wore them to work as soon I got back from vacation, gagging over finally finding bell bottoms that fit me, when a colleague chimed in. “I want to wear flared pants, but I just think they’d, you know, compress my body,” she said, using her hands to demonstrate how stocky she thought they’d make her look. At least five inches taller than me, she probably didn’t realize the unintended implication of her words: I was too fat, too short to wear them.
It’s a sentiment I’m all too familiar with. Ever since I can remember making my own clothing choices, I dressed to hide my body. The rules were as follows: Only wear dark or neutral colours—they’re “slimming.” Don’t even *think* about a bikini—in fact, probably just avoid bathing suits altogether. And if you’re going to wear jeans, definitely pair them with a loose-fitting top to hide your love handles.
Jeans in particular had their own set of rules. “Skinny” was the only acceptable cut, and black or dark blue was essential (due to the aforementioned slimming qualities). This style of denim carried with it a great deal of promise, a guarantee that when worn I would look almost OK. I was told by marketing, by friends, by well-meaning women in fitting rooms that skinny jeans would make me look taller, longer and leaner—I mean, it’s in the name. Skinny jeans became my camouflage, no matter how uncomfortable or how hard to put on and take off.
For a long time it was the only style I could even find in the fast-fashion stores where I would shop for trendy plus-size clothing. But even when extended sizing in an array of styles started to become more widely available over the past couple years, I was still reluctant to stray from the skinny. I openly condemned the reemerging ’70s and ’90s bell bottoms and baggy jeans while, in truth, I wanted so badly to be a part of the trend. But these were styles seemingly reserved for the likes of Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner—tall, skinny, beautiful women whose bodies allowed them the freedom of never worrying about looking too fat, too short—compressed.
Things began to change for me when I started seeing these trends worn by plus-size fashion influencers. Model Paloma Elsesser—who’s been featured in numerous issues of Vogue—and fashion blogger Joey of @joeydarlinn are just two examples of curvy women who have embraced baggier styles of clothing. When I saw photos of them wearing loose and low-slung denim, I envied the freedom they seemed to have. They, along with style stars like Rihanna were paving the way for a future where fashion doesn’t have to be “figure flattering.”
Though RiRi is still a conventionally beautiful woman with the means to dress herself in any designer she wants, she faces much more body criticism—as a curvaceous woman of colour who is unapologetic about her “fluctuating” weight—than thin, white celebs. Back in 2017, Barstool Sports writer Chris Spags shared a disgusting post about Rihanna “making fat fashionable.” Later that month, she was photographed meeting Brigitte Trogneux in an anti-figure-flattering outfit: an oversized, untailored pantsuit—the fashion equivalent of a giant middle finger. That picture comes to mind now when I second-guess if I “should” take part in a specific trend, like those bell bottoms.
In many ways, dressing without the aim of looking smaller is an act of resistance. Advertising tells us that bigger bodies aren’t meant for certain styles. Think about Calvin Klein’s iconic denim ads featuring chiseled, bony models—we are sold the idea that their jeans looks best on these kinds of bodies, and only these kinds of bodies. And a quick glance at almost any plus-size blogger’s Instagram comments will expose how society generally feels about big people wearing clothes not “meant for them.”
So the day I wore those bell bottoms to work, I did, indeed, feel radical. When I bought my first pair of loose-fitting Everlane jeans a few months later, I did, in a way, feel like I was rejecting the idea of what’s “flattering.” I didn’t care that people would look at me and perhaps think I didn’t know how to “dress for my shape.”
I’ve now acquired an addiction to denim, and each pair hangs beautifully on S-hooks in my closet because I refuse to hide them away in dresser drawers. Having my collection of baggy jeans, cropped denim, jean skirts and ripped shorts brings me a sense of accomplishment beyond simply having a stacked wardrobe. I look at the denim that hangs in my closet and I remember how it felt to put on those bell bottoms in that sweaty Miami fitting room. I remember that they’ll definitely accentuate the thickness of my thighs and they certainly won’t make me look taller. I remember that I’m not supposed to wear them—and I do it anyway.