"Eat," my aunt said to me, pushing plates in my direction all throughout the year I lived with her during college. "If you get sick, you'll need some meat on your bones."
I never did get sick that year. But what I did get was overweight. Baggy clothes I'd had in my closet were suddenly several sizes too small. Soon I was wearing men's sweat shirts over equally unstylish sweat pants. Needless to say, I was hardly the height of campus fashion.
What I remember most about that time is not the remarks about my appearance from family and friends. Instead, what remains most vivid are the often stinging comments from salespeople in department stores when I sought out clothes that would make me feel a bit less depressed.
More than once I wanted to fade into the walls when some allegedly "helpful" salesperson came up to me and said in a loud voice, "I'm sure there's nothing here that would fit you. You want the big women's clothes over there."
But any woman who has ever walked past the large ladies' section of a department store knows what is usually on the racks. Forget trying to find anything in soft colors. Forget trying to find anything for someone other than your grandmother. And forget looking for a variety of fabrics. The unspoken philosophy seems to be that if you wear anything larger than a Size 14, you automatically love polyester.
"Nothing is ever stylish and there's never really any selection," said Donna Martin, a hotel clerk in Ojai. "The styles are either for thin women that are just made bigger, or the clothes just look sloppy. I never feel comfortable going in there."
Obviously, I am not the only person who experienced the dearth of fashionable outfits for large women. In recent years, magazines like Big Beautiful Woman began challenging the idea that in order to be attractive, it is necessary to wear a perfect Size 8. Larger women are not content wearing only muumuus and maternity clothes, the editors said in each issue; they, too, want to buy clothes that make them feel feminine and pretty.
That message has apparently caught the attention of several designers and corporations. They are turning their sights to that previously ignored market. In Ventura County, several stores now cater exclusively to larger women.
Although some carry only the expected selection of polyester and stretch pants, there also are fashionable, feminine outfits to be found.
"They finally realized that there's a lot of money to be made--and a lot of people to be made happy--by concentrating on fashion and not just size," said Dee Matthews, manager of Lerner Woman in Oxnard's Esplanade Mall.
If any store is proof that a change has occurred in large-size fashions, Lerner Woman is it. Owned until recently by The Limited, it could very well pass for any one of a number of trendy stores surrounding it. In fact, when I first stepped in, I wasn't aware that there was nothing in a size smaller than a 14.
Hanging in the window were cotton shirts with embroidered designs, stretch-denim jeans and bright cotton sweaters. Against one wall were career coordinates, jackets and coats; against another were blouses, shirts, bathing suits and lingerie.
Sizes go up to 50, and prices are reasonable. Skirts range from about $25 to $33, jackets from $40 to $60, dresses from $50 to $90 and pants from $19 to $39.
"I'm going to a concert Friday night and I'm looking for something a little bit dressy," said Lawrina Kaleiohi, an aide at Point Mugu State Park who was browsing at the store recently. "This store has a better selection than department stores."
The relaxed atmosphere of the store, Matthews said, also has a noticeable effect on many customers. "Overweight people are really treated as second-class citizens, and some people come in here and they are really depressed," she said. "They don't make any bones about it. They say, 'I'm so fat, and I feel so ugly.' It's good to see them brighten when they find a good outfit."
Another store with a wide selection of large-size clothes is Women's World in downtown Ventura. The store tends to offer the most variety for career women, with rayon suits, skirts and dresses, but it also has a large selection of casual clothes, including cotton dresses by New Hero. There is the expected selection of polyester print dresses, but also plenty of special-occasion dresses in silk and lace.
As I left both stores, I remembered my own experiences years ago. Perhaps as more women discover that wearing a larger size doesn't have to dictate how they feel about themselves, I thought, society may change its perception as well.
Matthews seems to think so. "I'm at a point in my life where I say, 'So what if I've got fat knees?' This is who I am," she said. "If I forget that, I just have to remember that a lot of it is all cultural. I lived in Iran and Spain, and being big there was just fine."
Matthews broke into a smile. "They thought I was great."
* THE PREMISE
Ventura County is teeming with the fashionable and not so fashionable. If you have a fashion problem, sighting or suggestion, if you know a fashion success or a fashion victim, let us know.