The Mall

June 5, 2006 at 1:39 pm (Uncategorized)

I’ve had some down time in Philadelphia. One doctor could only see me last Friday, and another only this Thursday. I have a couple tests and one other appointments in between, but I still have plenty of hours to spare. So I’ve done what any sensible woman with a credit card and time on her hands would do – shop.

Before we moved into my friend’s brother’s apartment in downtown Philadelphia, we were staying in King of Prussia – home to the world’s second largest shopping mall. It just doesn’t get much better than that, especially when you hearken from Montana, where retail therapy is limited to Wal-Mart or Target or, if your husband is in charge, Home Depot. King of Prussia, on the other hand, has a Nordstrom’s and a Macy’s and a Bloomingdales and a Lord and Taylor, and pretty much every other chain outlet found in every other mall in America. (Who knew Pottery Barn had launched a children’s store, stocked with shockingly expensive overstuffed armchairs for the two-and-under set?) The King of Prussia mall is so big it’s practically a town; in fact, you have to drive between mall segments.

My mother and Andrew and I went to the mall with a single objective – to find a dress to wear to Jay’s brother Isaac’s wedding next month. Isaac’s bride, Rayna, is incredibly mellow – so mellow, in fact, that I’m wondering if they’ve already eloped and are making us fly to North Carolina in July for a potemkin wedding – and has given me free reign in choosing what to wear, even though I’m sort of in the wedding party. Everyone else up front will be wearing back and white, so I figured I should blend in. And how hard could it be to find something floor length and dressy in black and white, right?

Well, pretty darn hard if you’re bigger than a size fourteen. What should have been a lovely day playing hick amid the retail cornucopia of the King of Prussia mall turned into a frenzied quest for a dress that wasn’t utterly ridiculous looking. And like all true odysseys, this sartorial one had less to do with the end result, which turned out to be $500 worth of clothing, and more to do with confronting the darker aspects of myself and the world I encountered along the way.

I should note here that I haven’t always been, um, plus-sized. I’ve never been what you would call a delicate wisp of a girl, since I’m nearly 5’10 and have a sturdy build. But I’ve been as low as a size six and, prior to my adventures with prednisone, only as high as a fourteen. Shopping in the Woman’s Department, as they so politely call the clothes for fat people, is a new experience for me.

The name of the department is practically the only thing tasteful about clothes for fat people. In store after store, we found nary a dress, only “separates, ” consisting of elastic-waisted polyester skirts or pants combined with flimsy tops. I finally turned to my mother and asked her, “If you are bigger than a fourteen are you supposed to stay home from formal events?” Apparently, you are, unless you want to show up in knitted separates. You are also not supposed to wear pants that reach your ankle, given the almost exclusive reign of Capri pants; nor are you able to put on a top that doesn’t have some weird combination of sequins and lace. Simple designs, quality fabrics, and clean lines are not for fat people. What we do get looked to me to be very large versions of children’s clothes: flouncy skirts; ruffled tops; wild prints studded with rhinestones and sparkles. I would have found my dream wardrobe, had I been seven years old.

The infantalization of fat clothes began to feel like a conspiracy about the time I had tried on my fourth pair of Capri pants and my twentieth too-tight lace top. I became convinced that these clothes were designed to minimize the female form – at its largest and lumpiest. These pants and tops took the big woman’s body and tried to make it littler and thus more manageable.

I’m sure my interpretation of these design choices is colored by my years in the post-modern academic world of Berkeley. When I was in college, if you didn’t mention Foucault in a paper, you might as well just give yourself a C. As a result, I tend to view reality with an eye towards the mechanisms of power at play beneath a seemingly harmless, or at worst annoying, façade.
This has the potential to border on paranoia. So, yeah, I was probably stretching things by thinking “conspiracy” – but given what the spandex Capri pants on my long legs were doing, stretching seemed to be the order of the day.

I do think I was on to something in the child-like quality of this clothing, though. As a culture we assume overweight people are childlike in a number of ways – overindulgent, impulse-prone, lazy, pleasure-loving, unable to know their limits. Perhaps designers created fat clothes to psychically fit their image of a fat person – a giant child in need of restraint and guidance. Hence poofy skirts and sequined tops. Hell, I’m surprised I didn’t find a tiara in the middle of Macy’s.

Whatever the reason behind the ludicrous clothes I tried on, I wasn’t the only one who was getting angry at the choices. “This is absurd,” a woman said to me at one point. “I need to find something to wear to work and these pants are just silly.” My mother had a conversation with another woman who told her, “Just because we have large shapes doesn’t mean we don’t have any shapes at all.”

I’d bet, though, that all these furious women lost their piss and vinegar once they got behind the dressing room door. I know I did. My rage against the clothing and the evil merchants who selected them turned into a bitter self-loathing. “How could you let yourself get like this?” I asked myself over and over again. I forgot that I had a lot going on in my life, particularly my daily horse dose of prednisone, which has contributed to me being heavier. I forgot that I had a wonderful husband and son who loved me even with dimply thighs and a thicker waist. I forgot that no one was going to be looking at me at Isaac and Rayna’s wedding anyway. The spotlight would be on the bride; who would notice the cut of a chuppah-holder’s dress?

If my mother and Andrew weren’t along, I would have bolted from the mall in the middle of my Macy’s experience. I was working through an enormous pile of clothes, not one of which looked even reasonable, much less attractive on me. It was either little girl’s styles or sack cloths and not much in between. The dressing room was hot, and the mirrors and bright lights accentuated every flaw in my flesh. “I think I’ll just wear the skirt and top I found at Talbot’s,” I told my Mom. “It’ll be fine.”

But I think my mother saw that I wasn’t just tired and sick of shopping. Instead I was getting sick of myself and sick within and that if I fled now, I would carry the shame of the day I could find nothing to wear with me for a long time. So she did what all mothers have the capacity to do. She made me gut it out. “Just one more store,” she said through about thirty stores and thirty piles of crappy clothes. Andrew kept me going by picking out his idea of pretty clothes for Mommy. Invariably they were gold lamé, very tight, and reminiscent of my Barbie’s dress-up clothes. He also hucked hangers across the dressing room and said, “I don’t like this place” in Macy’s – a sentiment I couldn’t agree with more.

It wasn’t until we hit Nordstrom’s that I took a real breath for the first time in a couple of hours. There was a real live salesperson who brought me dresses to try on. The aisles were wide and piano music tinkled in the background. Even better, I felt like a paying customer with needs and rights, not some embarrassment to be cloistered back in a segregated space for fatties. Charlotte the saleslady told me what looked good on me, what looked lousy, and why I should stop getting down on myself. “Just because you’re bigger than a size fourteen doesn’t mean you can’t look beautiful and stunning,” she said. We picked three dresses for the wedding festivities. (Since marrying Jay, I’ve learned that a Jewish wedding just isn’t a wedding unless it consists of enough events to require the guests to acquire an entirely new wardrobe.) I have to say, I look damn good in each outfit, and the one for the wedding is even black and white and floor length.

I want to lose weight. It would be good for my health to lose weight. I think I look better when I am thinner. But no one should have to look like an idiot, and be treated like an afterthought, because they wear a size sixteen – or a size thirty-two. The self-loathing that attire inspired in me that day did nothing but make me want to eat a few dozen brownies. You can’t look good – and you can’t move forward – if you are filled with self-hate.

In my darker moods, I sometimes think that god is teaching me a lesson with all this prednisone-related weight gain. I used to be one of those bitchy and obnoxious women who thought that weight control was always a matter of self-control. If you were fat, it’s because you ate too much and didn’t work out. How utterly lacking in compassion and common sense I was. I’m almost (but just almost) glad I’ve gotten to experience life among the larger. Now I can recognize a prednisone-puffed face across the room. I can also spot the look of timidness and the hunched shoulders in big women who think they shouldn’t be so big. It sucks. And I’m sorry for the prissiness I must have conveyed a few years ago.

As it is, I think women who wear a size larger than fourteen should start demanding reasonable attire in an ambience like the rest of the store. We’re not children; we’re not large bricks in need covering. We’re people with breasts and waists and legs who want to look pretty and normal. Don’t make us even freakier than we are. And please, make long pants.

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