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How I learnt to throw away the curvy woman's fashion rule book and finally embrace the trends I've always loved

Rose Stokes has stopped adhering to the 'can'ts' imposed on curvy women
Rose Stokes has stopped adhering to the 'can'ts' imposed on curvy women Credit: Courtesy of Rose Stokes

As a child and teen, I would spend hours poring over the fashion pages of magazines looking for inspiration, and trend-forecasting with my other fashion-forward friends. “Nautical is going to be a huge trend next season,” we would chirp. Later, we would learn that Breton stripes are always in style.

But despite my profound appreciation for fashion, it was never a space in which I saw myself reflected. 

From a young age, I struggled with my body image. In childhood, I had softer edges than my peers, causing me to stand out in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. I was never obese, not by a long stretch, but my thighs were close friends rather than distant relatives, and I was wearing bras in sizes way beyond my years by the age of 11. I was always at least one size above any of my friends, and my approach to fashion was always more about squeezing — rather than fitting — in. By 12, I’d embarked on my first diet, and would spend hours of my life researching different fads and fantasising about surgeries that would make my body a shape and size capable of wearing the clothes I would see on the front pages of fashion magazines. Obviously, this wasn’t a great foundation for building healthy self-esteem, and I fell into bad habits quickly — habits that endured, and then worsened, as I became an adult responsible for my own health and wellbeing. 

Like many women, in my twenties, I vacillated between different sizes, achieving both the heaviest and lightest weights of my adult life in relatively quick succession. Curiously though, despite the fact that finally reaching the Promised Land of thin afforded me access to a range of brands, styles and trends that I had previously felt excluded from, I quickly learned that it wasn’t a panacea for low self-esteem. 

I had a huge emotional crash at the end of my twenties that felt a lot like waking up for the first time. Decades of self-hatred fuelled by a desire to be thin had left me emotionally exhausted and completely burnt out. I realised that nothing I wanted to achieve either personally or professionally would be possible unless I unlearned the notion that my worth was in any way defined by my weight. With the help of regular therapy, I soon found out that looking good has much more to do with feeling good than how big or small your body is, and so I set that as my aim. 

Learning to appreciate my body has meant confronting a lot of the rules about fashion that I passively ingested in my youth. A curvy woman’s fashion rulebook consists of a list of can’ts. 

Can’t wear horizontal stripes. Can’t wear short skirts. High necks? No, not for you. Bright colours? Absolutely not. Bodycon? No thank you. Bold prints? Still no. The rulebook’s goal, it seems, is to encourage curvier women to blend into the background.

Models like Ashley Graham have made plus-size body shapes more visible Credit: Getty

Aside from the detrimental impact of this on the psyche of those involved, a big problem with this line of thinking is that fashion isn’t something you engage with to blend in, and is — by its very definition — a celebration of personal style and taste. People engage with fashion as a form of self-expression, and if your personal aesthetic is built by limited colours and muted styles, well, what does that tell the world about you? And, more importantly, how does it make you feel about yourself?

There has never been a better time to be a plus-sized woman interested in fashion. There are more brands catering towards larger sizes and most high-street shops have started carrying lines above a size 16, which was the traditional upper limit. This has coincided with the spread of body positivity, a social movement initiated on Instagram to normalise a diverse range of bodies, particularly for women, and improve body image. The combined effect of this has seen more visible plus-sized models being featured by high-profile brands, and a slow unlocking of the world of fashion for a population who had previously felt it wasn’t meant for them. 

I can imagine that for some this has added a new layer of complexity to navigating body image issues. But for others, myself included (a UK size 16-18), who have a keen interest in fashion, it has completely transformed the way I interact with clothes. It has allowed me to throw the Fat Girl Style Rulebook out of the window and to participate in trends I would have previously assumed were only for those with smaller bodies.

Rose embraces leopard print and shorter lengths Credit: Courtesy of Rose Stokes

These days, I often wear bright, bold colours, or patterns. I will happily show off my midriff, and am not afraid of sheer fabric. I wear horizontal stripes if I want to. Heck, I even wear bikinis on holiday. I tend to favour clean lines and am a big fan of layering, but I dress now to stand out, rather than to blend in. I want to be noticed. I’m comfortable being noticed - I even bought Zara's polka dot black and white dress which went viral this summer

Alongside building a deeper sense of self acceptance through therapy and a healthy routine that works for me, this has allowed me to appreciate my body — and the way I feel inside it — in a way I could never have imagined as a teen. This, in turn, has boosted my confidence. Most importantly, I have discovered a newfound joy in adorning my body with things that make me feel — and therefore look — good.

There isn’t a quick-fix for self-esteem, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: Kate Moss might once have said that ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ but my version of that is ‘nothing tastes as good as self acceptance feels’. If that means losing weight, gaining weight or settling where you are, then that is your choice. Fashion can be a useful way of helping to fast-track the process though, and find a way to feel comfortable and happy in your body. And with so many options available these days, why not give it a go?