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(In)visible bodies

As a fat lady in Australia, I don’t have many options when it comes to brands that make clothes in my size in styles that I love. What I do have is an immense amount of privilege as a white, able-bodied person, a decent amount of disposable income and a bit of spare time here and there to sew my own clothes. Learning to sew and make beautiful garments in prints and styles that I love has been revolutionary. I adore bright colours, loud prints, and over the top patterns. I don’t give a shit about rules, particularly rules about how fat women should dress. I will wear a floral skirt with a striped shirt and a rainbow cardigan. I will wear a multicoloured dress with bright red tights and a sparkly jacket. I love that my wardrobe practically screams ‘my body is here and it is beautiful and it is celebrated’. Slowly but surely, sewing has helped to heal my relationship with my body and has made my wardrobe more ethical and environmentally friendly than it could ever be if I exclusively purchased ready-to-wear garments. 

So why is it that sewing makes me feel so visible yet so incredibly invisible at the same time?

For starters, patterns often just don’t exist in my size. I’m not going to make excuses for pattern or garment designers. The age-old arguments of ‘it’s too hard’ ‘it costs too much’ ‘we don’t have those skills’ ‘there isn’t enough interest’ are thrown around by designers all the time. If it’s really so hard, then how come I (as someone with zero pattern-making or sewing training) can draft a pattern that fits my fat body? If I can take a pattern that stops at a size 20 and grade it up a few sizes with nothing but a ruler and some tracing paper, why can’t the pattern designer do that? If a garment designer can make a basic smock dress in a size 22, why can’t they make one in a size 28?

The answer is pretty simple- it’s not because it’s too hard, or too expensive, it’s simply because they choose not to. In 2020 there really isn’t an excuse for having a limited size range, whether this is in ready-to-wear garments or in sewing patterns. The only explanation for limiting your size range is that you hate fat bodies. And to be clear, hating fat people isn’t just making vitriolic comments towards fat people or thinking that we should all go on diets. Pretending that fat bodies don’t exist or conveying the notion that fat bodies are too difficult to clothe, or even refusing to seek out and work with fat models, is fatphobia. 

Patterns designers- I see you churning out pattern after pattern that are pretty much… exactly the same as another company’s existing pattern. Don’t get me wrong- I love a smock dress- but how many size 12 smock dress patterns does the universe need? How many gathered-waist, thigh-length skirt patterns do thin sewists need access to? Lots of pattern companies seem to think that every new pattern they produce is all their own design and has never been seen before- when 9 times out of 10 it is neither of those things. If you want to do something that’s actually new or revolutionary, start catering to fat bodies properly. And I mean fat fat bodies, not just creating a pattern that goes to an AU22 and calling it a ‘plus-size range’, or creating a pattern range that goes to an AU30 where the actual finished garment measurements of that largest size are more like a ready-to-wear size 24.

It’s incredibly hard to discern if a pattern is for you if you can’t see how it looks on a body like yours, even if it actually exists in your size. Lots of companies that have started to extend their pattern ranges still use smaller models to showcase this- for example, a pattern that has a plus-size range of 18-26 uses a model that is usually at the smaller end of those plus sizes. I can say with great certainty that the size 26 is going to fit my body very differently to the size 18 model. I’m not going to buy it if I can’t see how it might look on me. 

Almost every pattern company out there re-posts photos of garments that their customers have made. Why wouldn’t you? It’s genius! It’s free advertising! Beyond the initial release of a pattern, you don’t have to do much to promote a product if your customers are doing this for you. However, most of the photos that designers choose to share are those at the smaller end of the size range. The people featured are also usually white and, whilst I know that not all disabilities are obviously present in photos, they are also generally able-bodied. Fabric companies aren’t any better. I probably follow at least 40 different fabric manufacturers or businesses on Instagram, and the photos they share of their customers are almost always those in small, white bodies.

On Instagram, fat people, disabled people and people of colour are basically invisible unless you deliberately go looking for them.

The sewing community is a goldmine of inspiration and information- if you look in the right places. Curating my feed to prioritise marginalised peoples and trawling through tags and accounts related to plus-size and fat sewing is refreshing and empowering. I have been known to start many a fight in the comments section of a Gorman Instagram post by asking about their limited size range because I know that they can do better. They just don’t want to. I’ve also started reaching out to pattern designers more and more often to ask them where the photos are of these invisible bodies.

Because I’m a teacher by day, I’m setting you a research task. Go and scope out the Instagram accounts of some popular pattern designers and fabric manufacturer/resellers. Scroll through and keep a mental tally of:

  • How many of these people are thin or inhabit smaller fat bodies (most of them will be). 
  • How many of these people are white (most of them will be). 
  • How many of these people are able-bodied (most of them will be).

When you’ve collected a bit of data, maybe you’ll feel angry enough and confident enough to let that company know what you’ve noticed and ask them to do better.

Our bodies have value and we deserve to be visible.

4 replies on “(In)visible bodies”

Yes to absolutely all of this!! I love following you not only because of your style but we’re a similar shape and everything you wear is an inspiration. (My only sadness it when you self drafted so I know I can’t find the pattern myself!)
I have very little disposable income so I flat out refuse to buy a pattern if I can’t find anyone in the hashtag who looks like me. To me it just seems obvious that you would get someone of each size to test out your pattern?! And if you’re not sharing all of them then you don’t want me shopping with you.
My internalised fatphobia has improved so much since taking up sewing. People stop me on the street to tell me they love my clothes and that definitely never happened when I was forced to buy what fit me at target.

I would like to follow you and explore your feed but I can’t because you haven’t identified yourself! Can you leave a name or instagram account somewhere? Thank you.

Oh good! I’m not alone. I love this piece, the writing, and the perspective, and would love to see/read more. I understand if the writer wishes to be anonymous, though.

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