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The Good Eye: Swimming While Fat

Does this swimsuit make me look fat? I hope so.

By Amy Gentry, Fri., May 16, 2014

Cathy Benavides of Austin Slave to Fashion
Cathy Benavides of Austin Slave to Fashion
Photo by Amy Gentry

I am 12 years old, bathed in the fluorescent light of a department store dressing room, squeezing myself into a girdle-like "Miracle Suit." I am slightly taller than average and not especially chubby, but having tried on all the non-miraculous monokinis and neon, zippered scuba tanks (this is 1990, after all), I have seen something terribly, terribly wrong in the mirror. That something is me. A twopiece is beyond my wildest ambitions; I just want to feel happy at the church pool party. And at age 12, I truly believe that it'll take a miracle.

Those days are long past. Nowadays I drown out the disapproving voice in my head – which, coincidentally, sounds a lot like my mother – and don a string bikini or skirted retro onepiece as my mood requires. But what if stores didn't even carry my size – or only carried it in that matronly floral surplice suit with its circulation-defying "tummy control" panel?

Until recently, that was more or less what swimsuit shopping was like for plus-size women. And with roughly a third of us fitting into that category, according to estimates, the operative word here isn't tummy, it's control.

According to Cathy Benavides, who blogs about plus-size fashion and body acceptance at Austin Slave to Fashion, that's all changing faster than you can say "leopard-print maillot." Despite her blog's name, when it comes to fashion, Benavides is anything but a slave. In fact, she prefers the word "style" to "fashion." "Style is your look," she clarifies. "It's what you wear to say who you are. And that's completely personal."

On an average, non-swimming day, Benavides favors knee-length dresses in basic black, fuchsia, or classic stripes and polka dots, accessorized with bright flats and a veritable parliament of owls, many of which she inherited from her grandmother. She recently acquired an oversized owl tattoo on her right forearm; her other forearm bears the Coco Chanel quote, "I don't care what you think about me. I don't think about you at all."

Benavides fills me in on the revolution in plus-size swimwear over coffee. "It used to be onepieces and tankinis, that's it. Now you see strapless, you see bikinis. There's pattern and style. It's not like here, put this on, smooth your lumps!" She pauses, and her voice takes on the quality of a patient, but sorely tried, goddess. "You know what? They're my lumps. If I want them unsmoothed, that's my prerogative. Why are you so concerned with it? You sound like my mother, website!" She does a quick horrified-mom impression: "You can see your lonjas in that!"

Benavides and other bloggers in the thriving online plus-size fashion community have been instrumental in changing the game from lonjas-loathing to curve-embracing. In 2012, self-styled "fatshion" blogger GabiFresh posted pictures of herself looking drop-dead gorgeous in what she dubbed her "fatkini." When the blogger designed a version of her bikini for retail site Swimsuits for All, it sold out in record time.

The fatkini trend showed that plus-size women were hungry for new styles, and they were sick of being told to lose weight or stay home. "There's been this misconception that plus-size women just want to hide their bodies when they put on swimwear," Benavides says. "People think that plus-size women are terribly ashamed of their bodies, when really, that is a projection."

Since the Year of the Fatkini, a variety of new lines have emerged to acknowledge that full-figured women want swimwear every bit as diverse and vibrant as they are. Among the most exciting of these? Josephine Swim, whose flutter crop tops and high-waisted bottoms in subtle safari prints look so fresh I'm tempted to order one myself and have it altered. Ditto Monif C.'s glam collection of luxe styles, including a covetable fringed bikini that makes me want to integrate "blue tiger" into my pattern vocabulary permanently. Plus-size model Robyn Lawley has designed a saucy, French-lingerie style in white and a floral high-waisted bikini with cut-outs that's to die for. Curve-friendly brands like Jessica Simpson and Tropiculture are available alongside GabiFresh's bikini at Swimsuits for All. Modcloth.com routinely sells out of Esther Williams' plus-size ruched retro maillots in a rainbow of colors, and has slowly been adding styles. Thanks to the new competition, even plus-size mall chains like Torrid and Lane Bryant have stepped up their swimwear game, offering more and better in-store options.

There's room for improvement, however. Many lines remain online-only, which keeps women from trying on multiple suits and reinforces the idea that they deserve a segregated shopping experience. Old Navy, upon which many plus-size women rely for affordable basics, pulled larger sizes from stores in 2007. Though the sizes are available online, the message is clear: We'll take your money, but we can't be seen with you in public. For large ladies, this can feel painfully familiar. We'll hang out with you afterschool, but we won't sit with you at lunch. We'll have fun with you in bed, but we won't take you out to dinner. It's body-shaming on a mass-market level.

Benavides has her share of bloodcurdling tales about being ignored and insulted in stores, from J. Crew to a certain local bridal boutique that rhymes with Schmelle Schmaison. (Newsflash: Fat women get married, too!) But she prefers to focus on the positive. Like me, and every other woman who rolls her eyes at the shrill neon chorus of women's magazine covers every spring, she knows that her "beach body" is the same as her going-to-the-store body, her date-night-with-the-fiancé body, and her oh-shit-it's-deadline-day body. It's just a body. And every body is a goddamn miracle.


Check out our photo gallery of Austin mermaids rocking their favorite swim apparel at local pools and swimming holes at austinchronicle.com/photos.

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