This year a plus-size woman won Project Runway. Ashley Nell Tipton, a Latina from San Diego, was not only the first designer to launch a plus-size collection in the 14 seasons Project Runway has been on, Tipton was the first plus-size designer on the show. And the internet erupted, sadly, exactly as you would think: fat shaming came out on every board, list, and comment I saw.
* * * * Background on Project Runway: a reality show in which a group of designers make a fashion-ready piece and presents it to judges, including Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia, and Zak Posen. The designers have one (sometimes two) days to plan, shop for fabric, design, and make the piece, fitting it to a runway model assigned to them.
Twists are tossed in during the process. Designers may have to work in teams, or use unconventional materials from items found in a florist or greeting card shop.
Each show, one designer is eliminated for poor design, poor construction, or not representing their vision well enough. The last three or four designers go to New York Fashion Week and show their line alongside well-known designers. The final winner gets cash and product prizes. As reality shows go, it’s entertaining and talent-based instead of the usual bitch-fest most reality shows devolve to. * * * * *
Tipton did something completely new. She designed to celebrate plus-size women. Not make them look thinner, or diminish them by making sure they know they are not fine with the shape they have. Tipton celebrated plus-size women who want to be stylish no matter what their size, and with that, she forced change into the fashion industry.
Tipton celebrated women who are big, love color and want to dress stylishly.
Style is an individual taste, and not everyone agreed with Tipton’s design choices. That part is fine. In truth, I didn’t always love the colorful prints Tipton chose, either. But there are women of every size who love color and prints and bold looks. Every woman, no matter her size, should be happy to wear what suits her style. She should not have to learn how to sew to wear clothing that fits well and suits her taste.
That’s the fact most fat-shamers used to pull down Tipton’s work. “Fat women shouldn’t wear bright colors.” “Fat women should cover their arms.” “Fat women should wear vertical stripes to make them look slimmer.”
Even Tipton’s fellow contestants didn’t want to deal with the plus-size Tipton. Her purple hair and lavender lipstick made her stand out. So do her full skirts in colors like mint green and daffodil yellow. Even when she had won two contests, she was the last chosen for a team challenge. The only reason was that she was fat. And fat people don’t deserve to be on teams in our culture.
Fiber artist Diane Becka, struggled with Tipton’s ideas: “. . . my judgment of how Ashley is portraying fat women, it occurs to me that even I expect a fat woman needs to do more than be as good as a thin woman at anything she does,” this artist said. “Just to be seen as good enough. Kind of the way women can’t just be as good at a job as as man to be considered equal, they have to be better.”
That’s a lot of honesty. Several people said Tipton should not have won, because she frequently cried during critiques. Crying labeled her as weak. But a woman who dies her hair purple and wears daffodil yellow full skirts is not weak. She’s sensitive and determined. There’s a difference. When Mondo Guerra (also a Latino, also a risk-taker with color and print) came out as HIV-positive on Project Runway, he cried. That wasn’t labeled as weak; he was lauded as brave. But he’s a slender man. And slender, gay men are a staple in fashion, but fat women are not.
Diane Becka also said something else that summarizes what we don’t want to talk about. “I’m seeing how much my own bias has been formed by society’s lack of acceptance of fat. When I complain that there aren’t flattering clothes for plus sizes, that means there aren’t clothes that fit well and make me look thinner than I am. Why should that be what we want? Why isn’t it good enough to have well made, properly fitting, comfortable clothes that express something of our own style? Why do we seek something that hides that we are fat? Why is that what is considered good? It’s not like anything can really hide that we are fat. And the answer is that we are made to feel being fat is all it takes to make us not good enough, and we don’t want to be less than. Or we want to be a little less less than.”
In an August, 2015 interview with Bustle, Tipton supported every creative when she said, “I would like everyone to embrace who they are in this world, do what they want to do, and not let anyone take that away from them!” Go Ashley Nell Tipton–you are way ahead of the haters.
—Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who supports brave creative choices, wherever they appear.