body diversity problem

Why "Size Doesn't Matter" Is a Myth: Fashion's Body Diversity Problem

  |   By Holly Jackson

When people find out that I write about lingerie full time, I tend to get a mix of reactions.

“Oh, that must be so great!” says some women, as they ooze with envy and picture me lounging around with my laptop in silk dressing gowns. “Ugh!” say some people, as they try and imagine my life in an unsavory industry. “Oh, of course. You must need custom bras,” says the third group, as they try to imagine why anyone would possibly choose to write about lingerie full time when they can do anything else with their life. But mostly, people just stare. They look me up and down carefully, balancing out my size 14 body with my hourglass figure and breasts and try to decide whether I’m a good sort of alien or a bad one.

When I was 12, I got boobs. I vividly remember getting dragged to Nordstrom for my first bra fitting with my mother, where I expected to get a training bra. Instead, I was handed an ugly beige bra that made me lose any hope and interest in lingerie. It said minimizer on it in big letters and had no lace, but it did help the buttons on my shirt gape less. “This is what you’ll always have to wear,” the saleslady told me helpfully as my mother watched her with an approving stare. “This is who you are.” is what the 12-year-old in me heard instead. I went home, stared at the ugly bra covering my body and cried.

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When I was a teenager, I was a skinny girl with boobs. I took 10 hours a week of ballet lessons and ran around regularly. When I was 16, I became incredibly ill and was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome six months later. Basic movements were exhausting and going to school was more than I could handle. Medications and trials of medications made me gain weight, and as I gained weight, I gained more cup sizes.

body diversity problem

Me, at my High School Graduation

By 19 I was officially a fat girl with boobs, which quickly taught me that a larger cup size was only desirable if it came with a tiny body attached to it. As fat me, my boobs were just another thing that took up too much space. I could only improve them by making them smaller and less noticeable.

As a 30-year-old who works in the lingerie industry, I’ve learned that my breasts can occasionally feel like public discussion points. Once, a woman at my parents' cocktail party told me about her breast reduction and then asked when I was going to get mine. When you’re fat, weight also becomes part of the discussion. “Maybe your breasts would be smaller if you were skinny,” people frequently try and suggest in a helpful manner. “Probably not,” I reply in as a matter of fact tone of voice as I can manage.

body diversity problem

Tia Lyn Teal Chemise

I didn’t think about being fat before I started working in the fashion industry. This industry was both my first serious experience with body shaming and my first introduction to the idea of fat activism: the idea that one could fight back against all of the people who didn’t love you for who you are was new to me in my early 20’s, as it is to most people. The truth is, I’m lucky that I don’t have to think about being fat nearly as much as many women. My curves and breasts give me an added privilege that many don’t have. My conventional body shape means that I inhabit this strange land between fat and not fat---between plus size and core size.

My boobs are both a "get out of jail free card" and something that I always have to think about. They protect me from much of the horrific negative attention that plagues female writers online, like death threats on Twitter or worse. But they also mark me as different from others in the industry. I’m not fat enough to be truly plus-size according to many, but I’m also one of the few lingerie writers over a size 6 in the industry. I stand out, both visually and regarding the content I’m interested in producing. When I get invited to industry events, I wonder if it's because someone liked my writing or because they needed to check the “fat girl with boobs” box to tout diversity at the event.

Sometimes I think about losing weight, and I wonder how my life would be different. I wonder if I could keep my place in an industry that I feel both deeply uncomfortable about and incredibly at home in. I wonder if I would be more popular if I were thinner. As it is now, my body feels like a layer of protection. The way people react to my body helps me make decisions every day: which editors to work with, which bloggers to network with and which bloggers to avoid or risk being a target due to my looks. I may be alone in my in-betweenness, but at least my body helps keep me honest - and other people too. I’m always nervous networking with new colleagues. How many have seen the picture on my website? Do they care that I’m fat? Did I not get into that trade show booth because of my size or because my writing profile wasn’t high enough?

bod diversity problem

Tutti Rouge with Felicity Hayward modeling

The one bright spot in this difficult industry has been finding a select few lingerie friends with which to hang out. We mostly do it privately in Facebook chats on or Skype. I used to call it the “misfits fashion club” but when you get down to it, there’s one major thing we have in common: we’re all plus-size. Sometimes we just hang out and goof off, but many of our discussions come back around to articles we’ve read in the industry that week. “Did this person make you feel bad too?” we ask each other. “Do you think they know how awful that is?” we’ll say.

I’ve gotten used to working in an industry that uses body size to determine value, but I still cringe every time I see a photo shoot that checks off the “plus-size” box with a woman who is a conventionally attractive size 10. I work hard to advocate for designers who treat plus-size women like real customers and refuse to cover designers who produce anything less than what plus-size women deserve. My breasts and conventional body type give me a power that many plus-size women just can’t access, due to their looks, shape or race. I am constantly aware of how real size and shape privilege is and also always striving to do as much as I can for others as a result.

body diversity problem

Tess Holliday for Simply Be
Photos Credit Heidi Calvert 

Sometimes I sit around and wonder what thin Holly’s life might look like. Would I have the same job? Live in the same place? Would lingerie even matter to me so much if I were thin? My love of pretty lingerie has never waned, but some days I get up and think about not writing about it anymore. I love writing, and I love underwear, but the pressure of being the token perfectly behaved plus-size woman does take a toll over the long term. It’s not just me either---it’s a refrain I hear when plus-size women who work in the fashion industry talk to each other. We’re tired and many days we feel like we’re not getting anywhere. We feel like people aren’t listening, or are only pretending to.

In the past year, several prominent voices in the plus-size fashion and lingerie communities have stopped blogging entirely. I wonder if these same deep seeded feelings and concerns got to them---and I hope if they did, they’ve found a happier mindset in which to live. But whenever I consider not writing or just skipping the latest issue, I realize it represents one more voice erased from the fashion scene.

body diversity problem

Me, today

For plus-size consumers to matter in the current fashion landscape, each blogger or writer has to assume an outsized importance. We have to band together and hold people accountable for the things they write and say, whether they’re brands or individual bloggers. And we have to be visible, even when it’s tiring or feels like no one is listening. The fashion industry machine works hard enough now to try and ignore plus-size customers---by quitting or giving up; we’re just giving up the voices that we have.

What do you think? How can the lingerie and fashion industry work to solve its body diversity problem? 

Featured image: Lane Bryant Cacique Lingerie

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