On Class, Fat bodies, and Scarcity

By | April 24, 2009

Recent posts on the fatshionista livejournal community have me thinking about the gulf between experience and the intolerance/misunderstanding that often grows out of that gap. A casually-dressed poster admits to pulling clothes off the floor and zie is met with comments like “that’s unhygienic” and accused of “advancing a sloppy fat stereotype.”

Of course, the “dirty/rumpled fat person” stereotype is just as much about hating fat as it is about villifying a certain income bracket. In our society, we boast a rich (!) and long-standing tradition of looking down on modest/zero earners, all the way back past the serfs in the feudal system to biblical times. Even though many of us have witnessed, first-hand, that working hard does not make everything and anything possible in North America–that discrimination and a whole host of isms deny perfectly willing and capable people opportunities–we hang onto the puritan work ethic, the false belief that compensation is proportional to the effort of the individual, and blame poverty on the poor. We hate the poor, because it’s easier to assume laziness/lack of self-respect on the part of fellow humans than to interrogate a system that promises–even if it seldomly delivers–so much. In fact, in capitalism poverty–and all the assumptions/associations packaged within the term–becomes the ultimate insult. We deride those who stand outside of the white-upper-clas-euro-American-christian patriarchy by labeling them “cheap”–in values, beliefs, actions, image, appearance, and worth.

As long as I’ve been consuming culture/media, a foothold in class mobility serves–whether subtly/overtly–as a way to alleviate/temper the other facets of identity–race, gender, sexual orientation–for which people are oppressed and marginalized. In the fatosphere looking “groomed” (read: like your putting MONEY into your appearance) becomes a way to stand in opposition to the erroneous-as-it-is-pervasive assertion that “fat people are slobs who don’t take care of themselves.” In short form: “I may be fat, but at least I am not CHEAP!”

While there’s nothing wrong with being “groomed” there is also nothing morally wrong with not being middle/upper class and presenting in a way that reflects that. It’s only abhorrent if you’re desperate to keep up with the Thin Jones’ which, I will not deny, many fatties feel tremendous pressure to do (especially in the workfoce, where image and presentation seem, more so than job-proficiency, to beget opportunity/job-security). There is much more to say about how it’s easier for thinner people to dress “casual” and the associations with upscale leisure activities–yachting, golfing–that often go hand-in-hand with that particular iteration of casual, but i will leave that for now to make a point about style/effort in general.

I hesistate to articulate some of my “poverty rage” because my circumstances have changed enough that I’m certainly not scrambling for food and living under the threat of eviction/zero utilities from month-to-month. But I have lived that way. When I was a kid there were months where we didn’t have fruit and veggies and our clothes were torn and didn’t fit us and there was never any money for hotdog lunch. During my undergrad, as a part-time job holding full-time student, I had on more than one occasion been in a position where I had to choose between food for the week and laundry detergent. (dirty clothes won’t kill you. starvation will.) To this day, my annual wage–though almost double what it was when i was a student–places me, as an individual, well below the poverty line. the canadian gov’t considers me to be one of the working poor, and if I didn’t live with a partner, there’s probably no way I could realistically keep a roof over my head, food on the table, and clothes on my body.

I don’t write this as a bid for sympathy, or because i’ve got some I Grew Up Poor chip on my shoulder, but to hammer home that the poor/working class fatty is confronted with an additional level of difficulty when it comes to finding suitable clothes for his/her/zir fat body, nevermind developing STYLE. You might very well disagree with me here, but i tend to think that style is equal parts content and equal parts creativity. Even if you’re the visionnary equivalent of Rodin when it comes to wardrobe styling, your final product will still suffer if your materials are wanting. Fat people already contend with a serious dearth of clothing options. Access to more diverse genres of clothing has improved thanks to online sellers, but if you don’t have a credit card/can’t afford to spend the same on shipping as on the garment itself, the cheapest of online stores will remain closed off to you. Remove internet shopping/ebay from the picture and you are limited to the paltry offerings of local retailers/thrift stores, and, empirically speaking, working with a helluva lot less. If you have dependants to support, and live in a small town or rural area, the struggle becomes even more pronounced.

While I very much admire the style of wealthier fats who can more readily access upscale options–better tailoring, better materials–and envy them their luxury of being able to court and quickly sport new trends and styles the minute they hit the runway, I’ve got an extra special admiration for the fat people who post outfits comprised entirely or primary of thrifted or discount items. I’m not saying that online shopping is effortless and without heartache, and that people with money to burn don’t put thought into their style, but I know from experience that when budget plummets, time expenditure necessarily soars. I know how much time and effort goes into cultivating a mostly thrifted/ discount store look and how much creativity is invoked to make that clothing–much of which is the sartorial equivalent to one-use dollar store trinket–SING. It may seem effortless to put on a thrifted vintage dress, but just locating one in the first place–and then having it FIT–is often the product of at least tens of hours of scouring secondhand and charity stores, garage sales, estate sales, and disorganized sale bins/racks in demoralizing multinationals. (I won’t even get into how expensive well-fitting bras are, and what a difference they make when it comes to fit.)

The working-class (or working-poor) fatty has to work really damn hard for style & fit. Zie is probably guerilla in more than one respect, learning to sew and knit*, thinking constantly about how to re-wear and repurpose items from seasons to season. Zie cuts hir hair at home and is in all likelihood not benefitting from quality hair products and styling tools. Zie is probably limited to box dye–if zie’s colouring hir hair at all. The working-class or working-poor fatty is probably not buying mineral makeup, or fancy brushes with which to apply that makeup. Zie is not taking hir clothing to the dry cleaners and having it professionally steamed (with a drop of lavender essential oil) and pressed. I’m not saying to have to hold hir up as some sort of underdog hero. I’m not saying you have to fall all over yourself to acknowledge hir style. I’m not saying you have to LIKE it. I AM saying that zie, like any other fat person daring to take up space and be visible, like any other HUMAN BEING, for that matter, deserves to be treated with respect. I AM also asserting that casual–or, if you like, “grungey casual”–whether you’re fat or thin, is a legitmate look. And that you, as a fat person, as any type of person, needn’t present in way that makes you uncomfortable because you feel you “owe it”–again with the financial terms–to other fatties/people to embody a specific type of put-togetheredness. That’s bullshit. You don’t.

*I should point out that the materials required for sewing/knitting aren’t exactly that cheap anymore, either.

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