There was a long period of time when I didn’t think of myself as fashionable. My large, unruly body—considered on the smaller side of fat at a size 18—had very few options on the clothing racks in specialty stores and even fewer I’d consider cute. I wanted to enjoy fashion, but the fashion industry didn’t want to make it easy for me.
I know I’m not alone in this experience. And in 2011, one of my fellow fat fashion-loving Canadians, Sarah-Anne of Tonsa Blush, decided to do something about it. The plus-size vlogger organized a small clothing swap among her friends and community in Toronto called Big, Fat Clothing Swap. The event provided a space for women to discuss their style struggles—like having to pay more for clothes, limited size ranges and online order fails—while shopping each other’s closets. It was unlike anything that had been available for plus-size Canadian women before, and it soon inspired others to create similar swaps in their own communities, such as Carlie Roberts, who launched Consign Your Curves in Guelph in 2013.
Roberts found that many consignment stores in her area wouldn’t accept clothing over size 12, and the market for second-hand plus-size clothing was there—it just needed someone like her to organize it. “I also wanted to meet curvy fashionable women in a more accessible space,” she says. Now headed into its sixth year, her event, which takes place on May 5, has grown to include more than 50 vendors and draws women from all over Ontario. “Many people have come up to me thanking me for hosting this,” Roberts says, remembering how motivating it was when a mother explained to her that the swap was the first time her teenage daughter felt comfortable shopping because she was finally surrounded by fashionable folks her size.
When Allison Tunis organized her very first swap in Edmonton this year, she too saw just how powerful they could be. She describes how “there were a lot of compliments, clothing recommendations, deep discussion and general community-building” and says that while a clothing exchange doesn’t need to be complicated, large or formal, it does need to provide a safe, comfortable space for people to rediscover their love for fashion. “These swaps are important to try to build capacity and reduce isolation for people that are often overlooked by the fashion industry and even in society in general.”
For me, finding clothing swaps and clothing groups for fat bodies has been nothing short of revolutionary. Beyond being an actually affordable way to clothe my body, swaps have become a way to rethink beauty standards, subvert fashion norms and resist and challenge the capitalist nature of the fashion industry. Second only to oil, the clothing and textile industry is one of the largest polluters in the world, and the United Nations has proclaimed we’re facing an environmental and social emergency. Making the conscious decision to trade, swap or obtain clothes second-hand makes me feel like I’m making a smarter decision for not just my wallet, by also for the planet as a whole.
For others, it has also become a way to showcase their gender identity, which can be extremely difficult to do when shopping the typical plus-size retail offerings, which tend to be very femme. A masc-of-centre person, Carla Taylor says they have scored several great pairs of gender-neutral jeans from fellow masc-dressing people at swaps in their hometown, Manitoba. Furthermore, they say that the community-building aspects of plus-size clothing swaps give them more confidence to fight stereotypes and discrimination. “I really love how folks will find an item of clothing and bring it to me, saying, ‘this would look so good on you.’ It’s like having a room full of personal shoppers.” Much in the same way, online groups such as Curvy Bunz Clothing Swapz, Montreal Plus Size Swap Club and Fat Babes Winnipeg have been providing a safe space for cis and trans women and non-binary folks to access clothing that helps them express themselves with even more visibility.
It has taken me years to find the confidence and strength in my own fashion sense as a self-identifying fat babe. When discovering how your body fits into this world, it’s important to surround yourself with others who can reflect your image back to you and help you realize you are not alone and, yes, you can wear that. Without swapping, I would have never tried on my first romper (and loved it!) or dared to wear a crop top. Clothing swaps have refreshed my wardrobe, but have also brought a new community into my life that I’m so incredibly grateful for.
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