UC Berkeley alumna encourages fierce fat fashion

Meg Elison/Staff

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She walked into the hip vintage shop in a glowing chartreuse dress that hugged her curves all the way down, from her ample cleavage to the visible outline of her lower belly. That outline is the territory of horror and shame for many women, especially women who shop in the plus-size section.

But author, UC Berkeley alumna and former teacher of the Female Sexuality DeCal Virgie Tovar is immune to shame: fat, fashionable, unstoppable. She accessorized the dress with pink and green French tips and a chunky pixel necklace, finishing the look with a sheen of raspberry lipstick.

A self-described fat-activist, Tovar does not shy from the F word in her book. The usual F word is everywhere in her frank prose, but the taboo term here is “fat.” Tovar does not prevaricate and say “plus-size” or “full-figured.” She uses the word without flinching, and her book is strong medicine for anyone uncomfortable hearing it.

Tovar came to Oakland to read from her book “Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Love, Life & Fashion” for a small crowd that came to absorb the glamor of body-positive talk and fearless fashion at Halmoni Vintage & Treasure. The shop is on the southeast side of Lake Merritt and full of unusual finds such as sequined Miss Piggy purses and cross-stitch unicorn sweaters.

Owner Natasha Harden hosted the reading in her unliterary but colorful space with grace and style. Her shop is decidedly body-positive, with open and inclusive retail space. Vintage shops in the Bay Area often are spaces associated with thin white hipsters, recalling a less pluralistic past. Harden is a woman of color, and she has taken obvious pains to exude inclusion in retail space in her sizing information and display of queer affinity. The audience was served cake and fruit and sangria while Tovar made rounds, her unrestrained laughter ringing off the bright blue walls.

When asked what prompted her to take on curating a multiauthor anthology about fat fashion and body acceptance, Tovar said she viewed the book in a larger scope than just personal purchases. Her graduate research in human sexuality encouraged her to see fashion as political and ritual behavior.

“Every time I spoke to someone about their gender visibility and sexuality, clothes were brought up,” Tovar said. “How we dress is incredibly relevant to how we present ourselves to the world and how we want to be seen.”

Tovar admitted that fat women have to develop the confidence to make bold choices, as the fashion industry strives to minimize larger bodies and directly or indirectly shame them.

“When I look at the fierce fat girls around me, they have spent so much time developing that ferocity, and it’s such a gift that we get to be around that,” she said. “So this book was written to share that with the world.”

“Hot & Heavy” is a collection of stories from fat-activists, fashion bloggers, scholars and poets who contributed pieces of their own experience living in fat bodies. The themes are diverse and deep, rooted in obscured sexuality and fraught with the physical reality of being fat. The voices are distinct, spanning the gender-identity and sexuality spectrum as well as different racial, cultural and economic backgrounds. The result is a heady mixture of sorrow and triumph, steeped in femme liberation and fat-girl solidarity.

Reading from the book, Tovar managed to describe herself succinctly. “You know when you’re in the presence of a cool fat girl,” she read aloud. “Cool fat girls aren’t always nice, but you’re allowed to admire them … from afar. A cool fat girl doesn’t give a fuck about whether those Daisy Dukes are ‘flattering.’ She might have a cookie in one hand and a milkshake in the other, while her boyfriend holds a parasol just so. I like to walk around my apartment and act like a cool fat girl.”

She stood before the crowd, reading from her book, joking, drawing the audience in and glowing in her chartreuse and unapologetic glory. Virgie Tovar is the quintessential cool fat girl, and she has the stories to prove it.