When I was around 10 years old, my mother decided we should have swimming lessons. It was a good decision; in 1992, the Mattole River was still deep and swift in many places, and that's where we spent most of our summers, dogpaddling and diving for submerged soda cans with our cousins. I wasn't scared of the river, however. I was scared of the public pool and the public at that pool, who would see me in a bathing suit. Even at 10, my body was growing at a pace and complexity that no one, including me, was really prepared to deal with, and nothing in my wardrobe could keep up.
So it was that I went to the College of the Redwoods pool in my grandmother's old bathing suit, with a length of orange baling twine tied across the back to keep the straps from falling down. It wasn't that we couldn't afford a suit for me; I remember thinking at the time that asking to go buy one would be both pointless and proof that I did not know my place. I grew up on a ranch, in an environment that prized self-sufficiency, hard work and thrift. That was my place. Town — and the college pool with its skinny town girls in their pink one-pieces — was never going to be a space where I fit in. Neither was the mall or department stores where, try as we might, we couldn't find a single dress that would zip all the way up my back. I wore drab women's clothes and a male cousin's oversized sports sweaters all through middle school. I remember being unhappy about all of this — about my size, about the fact that nothing fit me, about how my body, no matter how much I willed it to stop, kept growing and growing and growing. But I also remember thinking that there was no use crying about it because crying changes nothing. I was a misfit, the wrong size for the normal-sized world, so chubby that when I ran, my cheeks would bounce high enough to obscure my sight.
We are never totally the person we have grown into being. We always carry all the people we have ever been inside us. I know because last February I went shopping at A Plus For You in Henderson Center — recently re-morphed into Sisters Clothing Collective in Old Town — and had to hide my wet face against a row of winter coats. I had never been in a thrift store that was exclusively for plus-size women, and found it unexpectedly moving. The new location, a collaboration between friends Jennifer Bessette and Willow Hendry, specializes in women's clothing up to size 5X, and is focused on creating an inclusive, body-positive experience. Bessette and Hendry also created an online shopping platform for a COVID-safe browsing experience.
"Please don't cry in the Big Girl's Store. Please don't cry in the Big Girl's Store," I willed myself, taking deep breaths as I flicked through pairs of secondhand jeans. Today I am a confident, well-dressed woman who has come to terms with her body, but I am also still that chubby little girl who didn't fit in anywhere. I love thrift stores, but cute vintage stuff isn't usually an option for women my size unless we're willing to throw a ton of money down online. And for quality non-vintage threads, the majority of clothing in local stores still skews heavily toward the petite side of the spectrum.
In the last quarter-century the fashion industry has figured out fat women have money they might want to spend on clothes that don't look like circus tents and now there is much more of a selection of plus-size clothing in traditional retail stores. But I've always felt ethically uneasy with the labor practices of most clothing companies, and prefer to spend a little less money on clothes that have already been loved once. Also, fashion industry? Where were you when I was using baling twine to jerry-rig my swimsuit? You weren't on my side then, and I don't believe you're really on my side now, no matter how often you slap a #brave on a picture of a size 14 woman wearing a $200 jumpsuit.
The phrase "safe spaces" gets a lot of crap thrown at it. Cynics and "thought warriors" like to push back on the notion of inclusivity and emotional safety by insisting that the world is intrinsically cruel, and that by creating safe spaces we are doing ourselves a disservice, refusing to test our beliefs against alternative facts. This is a fallacy. Those of us who stick out are perfectly aware of the world's cruelties. Like that pool, like those department stores, much of the world is policed by those self-same critics who rely on a completely artificial sense of normalcy so they themselves can feel safe. There are ways to fit in and there are ways to resist. And there are ways to make the world a little bigger, a little roomier — a place that fits for everyone. To the sisters doing just that, I'm sorry for using that cute scarf to wipe my eyes and, yes, I'd like to try on that wrap dress in the window.
Linda Stansberry (she/her) is a writer who lives in Eureka. You can follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry and read some of her work at www.lindastansberry.com.