I am approximately 5’1” and 145 lbs. I know what you’re thinking, because I’ve thought it about myself for most of my life; that’s not an ideal body type. It’s small but not small in the way that counts. I can’t remember when I didn’t have a tummy or jiggly thighs or large breasts. Despite my bodily surplus, I am quite fit. I work out everyday; 40 minutes of cardio, then I alternate between arm and abdominal workouts. But none of that matters to the casual observer of my body, or to myself sometimes, because I am decidedly not skinny.
Vassar has been such a confusing space to be in, in this body. The culture of self-love and acceptance here brutally clashes with our campus’s performative fixation on high fashion and aesthetics.
Consequently, at this campus the way I view my non-skinny, non-perfect body has gone through some of the highest highs and the lowest lows. I don’t think that we as a Vassar community need to decide which of those spheres to polarize towards, rather, I think we as a student body need to clarify and modify the way our love affair with aesthetics can be toxic.
If I were to ask anyone on this campus if my body is beautiful, I’m certain I would receive an affirmative answer and a list of reasons why it’s the truth.
But bubbling beneath the surface is the performance game which I feel so excluded from because of my body shape. Here are a list of vogue clothing pieces that I do not always feel comfortable wearing: crop tops, mom jeans, bodysuits, bralettes, bodycon dresses, halter tops, miniskirts, clothing that requires not wearing a bra, I could go on.
I am not suggesting that these are pieces of clothing which we must abstain from wearing, that it is anyone’s fault but mine for my body type, or that people who do feel comfortable wearing these clothes should feel ashamed. But I think part of the conversation often left out when we talk about fashion at Vassar is that the fashion trends here, the pieces of clothing that grow to popularity, are more accommodating for smaller bodies. It’s easier to wear something that forces bralessness if the wearer knows that their nipples will be at the correct height and that their breasts will not sag underneath their own weight; it isn’t as mentally draining to wear a bodycon dress if you know that your stomach will not protrude like an uninvited guest. And thus, the most likely people to be revered for their fashion choices are more likely to have a more “socially acceptable” body type than not.
It is a delicate choice to make if you’re full-bodied, whether or not to wear these types of clothes. On the one hand I could do what makes me feel most comfortable and not wear them. But then I would forfeit the game, I would automatically lose. If I don’t wear the clothing article x, y or z, which is trendy right now, then I’m not a part of Vassar culture; then I lose the social capital.
On the other hand, I could make myself uncomfortable and wear clothing article x, y or z. But the trick is, if you’re 5’1” and 145 lbs., there is no way for you to win the aesthetics game.
Even if you wear the cool clothes, you’re wearing them wrong. Because nobody wants to see the girl with the overlarge ass try to squeeze her way into those tight, high-waisted jeans.
Those jeans were meant to be worn by someone skinnier and we all know it. I can probably get a little social capital for trying though.
Something often left unacknowledged is that Vassar students, living in close proximity to one of the fashion capitals of the world, and mostly coming from privileged enough backgrounds to buy expensive clothing, work in tandem with the fashion industry. Just walk around campus and you will see any number of students wearing Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, J. Crew, American Apparel or Urban Outfitters. By glorifying and normalizing these fashion giants, Vassar culture glorifies, normalizes and inherently supports an industry which perpetuates an idealized, sometimes unhealthy body type. In September, Tim Gunn wrote a powerful editorial for The Washington Post stating just as much. Gunn wrote:
“I’ve spoken to many designers and merchandisers about this [the trend for high fashion to be geared towards smaller women]. The overwhelming response is, ‘I’m not interested in her [plussize women].’ Why? ‘I don’t want her wearing my clothes.’ Why? ‘She won’t look the way that I want her to look.’ They say the plus-size woman is complicated, different and difficult, that no two size 16s are alike. Some haven’t bothered to hide their contempt. ‘No one wants to see curvy women’ on the runway, Karl Lagerfeld, head designer of Chanel, said in 2009” (The Washington Post, “Tim Gunn: Designers Refuse to Make Clothes to Fit American Women. It’s a Disgrace,” 09.08.2016).
To be a curvy woman on this campus, I can’t help but feel jaded towards the hypocrisy of our two clashing cultures; one telling me to love myself unconditionally and the other telling me that I’m not good enough if I don’t look a certain way.
I think the problem is that our campus culture tends to spend a lot of time discussing self-love. Let me explain. There is not a day that passes by where I don’t have someone tell me to be empowered by my being and my body. That’s not the issue. Rather the issue is that conversely, Vassar students expend very little energy talking about how our fashion forwardness translates into a performative game of aesthetics, which sets rules about what is beautiful and what is not.
In the end, this mostly serves to exclude those that are average-sized and praise those that are privileged enough to, firstly, have an idealized and socially acceptable body type, and secondly have the resources to keep up to date on fashion trends. This in turn highlights two other ways the high fashion culture here is problematic.
As a campus, we need to more readily realize that as we praise socially acceptable bodies, we are also reinforcing the white and western ideals which make those bodies more acceptable. I do not believe it is a coincidence that the people we think of on this campus as being the most fashionable are, more often than not, skinny and white.
Further, the issue of class is not often discussed publicly in conjunction with fashion. This is ridiculous to me. When we praise people who can easily buy new clothes we are ignoring and minimizing class privilege.
When we shop at Goodwill or Salvation Army, or engage in the particularly toxic trend of “hobo chic,” we are making light of the very real concerns and lived experiences of people who live in low-income households. The reason why this topic is not often discussed here? To be blatantly honest, I think it’s because Vassar students would rather look really good than acknowledge our entitlement. Perhaps we are not as progressive as we pretend to be.
Instead of ignoring the side effects of a campus culture which fixates on fashion, we need to focus discussion on how our fashion choices are complicit in body-shaming and how we, as a student body, can attempt to alleviate these ill effects and make our campus a more accepting space. Until then, the mantra of self-love endlessly preached here seems to be insisting that people with larger bodies should love those bodies in spite of themselves; not because we actually think they’re beautiful.