I have been following fat fashion blogs for a few years now, first through the politically oriented blogs that referenced the fat acceptance community and then through the more mainstream-seeming blogs that were linked from non-plus-size independent fashion blogs. The personal social justice blogs that I read often incorporated academic theory with personal stories and activism, which led me to position this paper in that tradition: blogging as a way to comment on the social underpinnings of performance of identity, while positioning the argument in my own space to reinforce its importance as my experience.
One of the trends that I have noticed is the rise of more blogs that feature fashion editorial styling, partnerships with fashion retailers, and the decline of an emphasis on the problems of finding attractive, well-fitting clothing with an attendant rise in discussions of following mainstream fashion trends. In this paper I will be looking primarily at the fat fashion bloggers whose work is in conversation with the logic of the fashion industry, with an overview of the bloggers who reject those standards, and how both approaches are successful attempts to create an agentive self.
One of the starting points for finding blog networks that I will be using is the Young, Fat and Fabulous conference website. Gabi, the blogger who runs Young, Fat and Fabulous, has risen from being a completely independent blogger who posts outfits of the day to one of the central hubs of what I term the “glamour” contingent of the fat fashion blogger community. This is the particular portion of the community I will be exploring in this paper, despite the existence of many plus-size bloggers who post outfits of the day in much the same manner as the bloggers profiled in this paper do. The reason I focus on this subset of the community is that it is more clearly in conversation with the conventions of the mainstream fashion industry, and the visual presentation of the bloggers themselves, in addition to the jobs that they hold in many cases, has more in common with Vogue and Marie Claire than many of the other bloggers do. This paper covers bloggers working in a variety of countries, with a particular emphasis on French and US bloggers.
rejection of the mainstream
Critical to understanding the fat fashion blog movement is a reading of the Fatshionista community on livejournal.com. Functioning essentially as a community blog, Fatshionista has an explicit political aim that situates it in the fat acceptance movement and owes much of its mission to adhering to the values of social justice activists. The information page for Fatshionista informs all viewers that “Yes, this is a political community,” in bright red, large letters, before any visitor can make the assumption that the members posting pictures of themselves is somehow not a political act.
Fatshionista engages with the concept of agency directly, even if the word is never used on the page itself (although it is used in discussions in the community.) While the education occurring here does not occur in an institutional context, and often preaches lessons contrary to those received in most institutions, (see “The Fat Studies Bibliography,” linked below) it exemplifies Erstad and Silseth’s commentary in “Agency in Digital Storytelling: Challenging the educational Context” that “when young people are given the opportunity to blend the informal ‘cultural codes’ with the more formal ones in their own learning process, agency might be fostered in a new way, with implications for democratic participation. (Erstad & Silseth 214)” The Fatshionista community members are explicitly engaged in an ongoing project of presenting their lives as a narrative that runs counter to the mainstream position on how fat people, women, and queer people should position themselves.
The information Fatshionista arms itself with before readers engage with the material states that it is a “diverse fat-positive, anti-racist, disabled-friendly, trans-inclusive, queer-flavored, non-gender-specific community.” There is also frequent discussion in the community of the issues of class in clothing consumption, and how assuming all members of the group can purchase or wish to engage in supporting the wares of various fashion entities is detrimental to the political cause.
I am, to a certain extent, setting up a dichotomy between Fatshionista and the other bloggers I cover in this paper, although I think they accomplish many of the same goals, and many of them know each other and spring from the same community. The fundamental difference here is in how they think that the goal of achieving respect and bodily autonomy for fat people can be achieved. The Fatshionista community members use mainstream ideals of beauty as a toy, something that can be picked up and used when the occasion calls for it or if the user likes the effect, whereas the bloggers from the glamour fat fashion community seem to use beauty as a tool, something that has to be fully put in place before interacting with the world.
Lesley Kinzel, who blogs at Fatshionista.com (the blog arm of the community, which also has a Flickr feed and various other internet satellites) has a post entitled, “Uninvested in Being Beautiful,” in which she argues that, “You do not have to be beautiful. It’s not your responsibility to be beautiful, for yourself or for anyone else, not for your family or your partner or your friends or some stranger on the street who finds your face unpleasant.” The argument here is not that beauty is the enemy, but rather that there is no reason to mourn the loss of social capital from failing to participate in mainstream beauty standards. By contrast, the glamour bloggers place a high value on looking “beautiful” and “cute,” and I would argue that, because of the social context in which they operate, this is as much an assertion of agency as the bloggers at Fatshionista who feel that beauty is optional.
The bloggers at Fatshionista can be clearly understood through Erstad and Silseth’s conception of agency, primarily because they assert a personal narrative within the context of a multi-voiced environment. They are working together to change something they see as politically dissatisfying, and creating themselves as agentive selves through the practice (216). However, another part of Erstad and Silseth’s argument is that citizenship-as-practice involves being recognized by the institutional and social framework (218) and I would argue that the glamour bloggers achieve this through the seemingly contradictory practice of acceding to many of the normative rules of beauty while making an argument that these rules are constricting.
Without speaking in the language of the dominant ideology they are contesting, their voices would not be heard. The mechanics of this accession can be read in the ways in which the bloggers photograph themselves, what stories they tell of their lives, which blogs they decide to link to, and the style of clothing they choose. The bloggers who participate in this successfully often receive free goods and sponsorship from companies, while those that do not are less frequently linked to, and wear clothing that is often cheaper and less well-made. There is a hierarchy of beauty and conformity here as in the mainstream fashion world, even as many of the glamour bloggers frequently reference their connections to the social justice-oriented blogs already discussed.
fashion editorial styling
Le Blog de Big Beauty, a French blog, is one of the best examples of this connection between mainstream fashion styling and blogging and plus-size fashion blogging. Stephanie, the blogger who runs the site and an occasional professional model herself, recently received a deal to work with a French fashion label, La Redoute, to help design plus size fashions. While she still functions as an independent blogger because she is not officially blogging for a particular company, this stamp of approval from a corporate fashion entity allows her to achieve legitimacy in terms of her ability to affect opinions and institutions. Stephanie is larger than most of the plus-size models used by fashion companies, and has received coverage from other blogs (like Fat Girls Like Nice Clothes, Too) commenting on how she more closely resembles the actual purchasers of the clothing made by those companies. Being positioned as someone whose voice counts and, possibly more importantly, whose body counts, is due solely to the way that she has constructed herself on her blog as a viable voice in fashion.
One of the ways Stephanie does this is in presenting photographs of herself that are glamorous. Many outfit-of-the-day bloggers take pictures of themselves in dressing rooms with cell-phone cameras, or have their romantic partners or roommates take pictures of them in their homes, which they then post on their blogs. Stephanie consciously puts herself in a context that asserts that her body and style are worthy of more attention.
In this series of photographs, representative of the photographs that she usually employs, Stephanie uses a fashion editorial style. Rather than simply shooting a picture of herself in an outfit she likes, Stephanie uses a particular setting and adjusts the photoshoot to fit the theme. Half of her photographs are black and white, which, combined with the rows of names of famous directors and actors, positions her in the milieu of old Hollywood glamour, in addition to fitting the color scheme of her outfit. She is shot in profile, from the waist up, focusing on her face and her beauty, rather than the clothing itself. When she does show a full-length color picture of her outfit, she is still employing fashion editorial style, because she is shown wearing the clothes in a particular environment and engaging with that environment, in a way that invites the viewer to want to be like her and experience what she is experiencing. Her photographs are as much advertisements for the life she portrays as for the clothing she is wearing.
Almost all of Stephanie’s photoshoots are set outside and placed in a geographical context, and show her engaging with that environment. She takes care to transport herself from the quotidian existence that would be implied by taking photographs in an average home, which allows the viewer to feel an aspirational connection to her photographs.
This acknowledgement of and engagement with audience (rather than only with community) is one of the recurring themes of the glamour bloggers. They use the logic of fashion photography to assert their right to be looked at. This requires both skill in styling and photography and an understanding of how fashion photography works.
There is an aspect of the professional/amateur tension in many of the glamour bloggers, because they are sought after by plus-size fashion companies and fashion magazines looking to expand their reach to plus-size customers. Some of the bloggers blog for Vogue Italia’s new curvy/plus-size website, and others offer contests that feature rewards of clothing and accessories that they are modeling. Being able to work within the context of the fashion industry and have their voices courted increases the reach of their message.
Also important to the way in which agency is enacted among the glamour bloggers is the fact that many of them belong to the group “Independent Fashion Bloggers.” IFB has a wide group of participants encompassing many different approaches to fashion. The primary requirements for acceptance to the group are, “1. Your blog must be about fashion,” and “2. Your blog must be independently owned.” By participating in a group that positions them as mainstream, the glamour bloggers move in a milieu that states that their concerns are the same as those of other women. While IFB has no particular political ethos, it enters the glamour bloggers into a conversation about what constitutes fashion, a conversation that, in the mainstream fashion industry, would most likely reject them out of hand.
All of these interactions with a world beyond the community of plus-size blogging make the glamour bloggers more able to navigate the institutional context on which they are commenting. The community references and teaches itself in the way it goes about blogging, but the bloggers are interested in influencing more people than just those who share their ideology.
strategic performance of femininity
While a large segment of the fat acceptance/lifestyle blogger movement is connected to fatshionista.livejournal.com, which has an explicit queer-friendly, trans-friendly ethos, some of the more popular fat fashion bloggers are often the ones who maintain the most heteronormative performance of femininity. This is not to say that the personae that the bloggers create for themselves are uniformly heterosexual, or that the community is not queer-friendly, but rather that the looks that the bloggers are most lauded for, and the bloggers who maintain the biggest networks, reach the largest audiences, and receive the most attention from corporate interests are the bloggers whose performance of femininity fits an ideal that closely maps onto that of the fashion industry from which they are shut out due to size. (I am measuring popularity here with linkbacks, retailer deals, and events like being linked on websites as mainstream as those that get reblogged by the Huffington Post.)
In positioning themselves in feminine clothing, with full makeup and hair done in every shoot, these bloggers advocate a style of presentation that adheres to a particular beauty ideal. The proliferation of dresses and skirts is partially due to the stylistic quirks of how clothing is made to different bodies and that many of these women feel that pants are often unflattering, but the consistency with which this style of dressing appears belies the idea that this is purely a problem of the fashion industry not responding to the consumer. Most of these women wear dresses, skirts, and heels very often. All of the more popular bloggers have a signature hair and/or makeup style. This ability to speak within the logic of that notion of femininity, that argues that one is not presentable without extensive styling, would seem to undermine some of the ideals of rethinking the dominant media ideology that does not position these women as beautiful. However, I would argue that for many of them the goal is not dismantling the beauty standard, but expanding it. Studies (for example, Kimberly Bissell’s 2006 work with college students) have shown that visual literacy is key to resistance to detrimental messages about body image, as viewers of media tend to compare themselves to the body presented. The glamour bloggers provide a new standard for comparison for their viewers that works within an intelligible context by mimicking standard fashion photography.
J. at fatshionable.com has a consistent style of wearing clothing at a variety of price points accessorised with designer shoes and handbags, while Gabi at Young, Fat and Fabulous only post outfits that have a “wow factor” and consistently quotes fashion magazines and tells her readers how to make trends work in larger sizes. Hayley at fashion hayley works as a stylist and fashion photographer, immediately adopting the latest couture trends by customizing clothing she finds in thrift shops.
I would argue that their popularity is tied to their ability to make themselves beautiful and fashionable according to the logic of both the fashion industry and the mainstream society. This narrative of themselves is at odds with the very fashion industry it is in conversation with, which is why it presents an agentive self. By learning from each other and teaching their audiences to perform the type of beauty that they have been told they do not have access to, the glamour bloggers create an environment in which the community can challenge institutional concepts about their bodies through the images they present in everyday life.
Erstad, Ola and Kenneth Silseth. “Agency in Digital Storytelling: Challenging the educational Context.” Digital Storytelling, Mediatized Stories. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.
Bissell, Kimberly. “Skinny Like You: Visual Literacy, Digital Manipulation and Young Women’s Drive to be Thin.” Simile 6.1 (Feb. 2006): 4. Web.
The Fat Studies Bibliography: covering society, health, and media, this is a wide-ranging bibliography that provides information on many aspects of the study of fatness. It is extraordinarily multidisciplinary in scope.
Young, Fat and Fabulous Conference participants: a collection of fat fashion bloggers prominent enough to be invited to participate in a conference and meet and greet with fans. The bloggers in this list are glamour bloggers and they tend to work in the style of fashion editorial.
Fatshion Blogroll: Fat Girls Like Nice Clothes, Too‘s blogroll on her sidebar is a comprehensive look at the fat fashion bloggers currently working. While she does include the popular bloggers covered in this paper, she also provides links to corporate/sponsored blogs, non-glamour bloggers, and less popular bloggers. Also useful for the fat acceptance/lifestyle links.