I grew up in the ’90s, when body positivity hadn’t been invented yet. Brands didn’t have plus-size lines ― fat adolescents like me could only yearn for the babydoll tees featured in the pages of the Delia’s catalog, and there was still a mall store called 5-7-9 because those were the only sizes they carried. If you were larger than that, you left the mall with your mom crying at least once every school year.
No, there was likely only one store in the whole shopping center where you could buy plus sizes that were guaranteed to make you look like a junior businesswoman or cover you in dancing hippos or elephants like you wanted to be the butt of a classmate’s joke. (This is one reason I refuse to participate in the cow print trend now, although it’s very cute on the cute girls of Instagram. Not falling for it, cow print!)
Honestly, you didn’t even have to be that fat to be too big for the junior sizes of the day, cut as they were for the presumably uniformly boyish bodies of teen girls. Should you be instead made up of, I don’t know, a curve, or more problematically, boobs, everything was doomed to fit like one of those dresses that might actually be a shirt, but you’re not totally sure. It didn’t help that the low-rise jeans and midriff-baring tees that were in fashion were designed to feature washboard abs because again, body positivity had not been invented yet. I didn’t see my first fat girl in a crop top until at least 2011.
But among the house of horrors that was plus-size fashion at this time, one trend stands out in my memory as particularly atrocious. It was the plus-size swim dress, and if you were a fat girl in the ’90s, you probably wore one.
“We were taught to cover up in the never-ending pursuit of ‘flattering,’ which every fat girl knows means ‘thinner.’ I had 57 black cardigans and no horizontal stripes.”
Shopping for swimwear as a fat teen was not that great in the first place, as you might imagine. I was also raised evangelical Southern Baptist, so alongside being fat, I had to reckon with the sin of having a set of incredible tatas that might tempt the boys during our separate swim times at Christian summer camp. I wore my first bikini at age 28 for an article. I don’t even remember having a tasteful one-piece or a tankini as an adolescent.
Instead, it was always the swim dress. Maybe there’s nothing inherently offensive about the swimsuit with a skirt itself, although I’d argue it wasn’t the most effective design, given its intended function. The offensive part was that the swimsuit with a skirt, which covered one’s thighs and rear end and distracted from the stomach, was the default plus-size option for young girls.
“There’s definitely a reason why that style of suit is marketed to plus-size women and girls,” said Amanda Richards, host and creator of “Big Calf,” a podcast that tells stories about growing up as a fat kid. “I think part of it is about concealing the type of midsection that’s considered unsavory or unworthy of being seen, but I also think it’s about the fact that fat women and girls are so often encouraged to perform femininity as a way of making fatness acceptable — like, sending the message that it’s OK to have curves as long as you’re being super girly about it.”
“I wore a skirted swimsuit from the time I was coming of puberty age and old enough to realize that I was fatter than other girls and the appropriate thing to do was to hide my disgusting body so that other people wouldn’t make fun of me at the beach (or so I thought it would act as like a shield from knowing what my body truly looked like),” said Alexis Krase, owner of Plus BKLYN, a New York City boutique selling second-hand and vintage plus-size clothing. “I did hate the style though, and though I felt shielded I also felt like a super unhip granny at the beach.”
I don’t think I ever saw a thin teenager wearing a swim dress, any more than I saw a thin teenager in one of my Dillard’s mini-pantsuits. I’m willing to venture they didn’t even make them in straight sizes back then, or at least didn’t stock them extensively in that section. But the plus-size section was lousy with them because the assumption was that we bigger girls must want to cover up.
And honestly, many of us probably did. We were a long way away from Ashley Graham and Gabi Fresh having flesh-baring swimsuit lines and the coining of the term “fatkini.” Magazine cover lines were still talking about how to get your best “beach body” instead of the now-common mantra that every body is a beach body. We were taught to cover up in the never-ending pursuit of “flattering,” which every fat girl knows means “thinner.” I had 57 black cardigans and no horizontal stripes.
“Fat women and girls are so often encouraged to perform femininity as a way of making fatness acceptable — like, sending the message that it’s OK to have curves as long as you’re being super girly about it.”
– Amanda Richards, host and creator of “Big Calf”
The first time I put on a size 14 bikini, I felt cripplingly self-conscious. But I also felt something else ― sun and the summer breeze on bare skin, skin I’d never bared before. And that felt great because being as close to clothes-free as possible on a hot day just feels good.
And look, the skirted swimsuit hasn’t gone extinct completely. They still sell the things. I just searched “swim dress” on Target and found several options including ones for “slimming control” boasting “ruching,” which a lot of retailers throw into plus size clothing to hide lumps and bumps. And if you are still wearing one because you like it or feel more comfortable in it, I think that’s just great.
But the skirted swimsuit is no longer the dominant plus-size swimsuit paradigm, and today, we have the choice to flaunt our assets at the level we feel most comfortable. It’s no longer assumed that women bigger than a size 12 must want to cover our lower halves.
“Today, there are a multitude of options for plus-size women, though size runs are still limited and niche to find (just like the growing plus-size clothing market in general),” Krase said. “But at least styles are more modern and accessible, and if you want to find something skimpy for a small and medium fat woman, you likely can.”
She added: “In any case, today I rock a suit with my belly out ― what a change.”
And that is truly all plus-size women are asking for ― options. The same options that straight-size women have: to cover up or bare our bodies however we feel most comfortable.