The Right to Bare Fat Arms

A judge once told me that she "couldn't stand to look at me" in this dress. To that I say, please sip this big steaming mug of suck it!
A judge once told me that she “couldn’t stand to look at me” in this dress. To that I say, please sip this big steaming mug of suck it!

Ah, spring has sprung and so has the fashion advice.  Blog reader April let me know about this gem “What Not to Wear to Work this Summer” including the quote “Stafford says sleeveless tops are appropriate in the office—’if you have the figure to pull it off.’ For most women under age 40, she says few people would blink. However, for those who are older or heavier, she recommends paying particular attention to your body type and what works on you.”

First, to be very clear there is no clothing requirement to “prove” that we are part of body positivity or size acceptance.  We have the right to bare arms (and legs, and stomachs!), but never the obligation.  Long time readers of the blog are well aware that I think the idea that bare arms are somehow professional on thin women and unprofessional on fat (or older) women is bullshit.  In fact I think that the idea that there is anything that’s ok for thin people and not ok for fat people is bullshit.

I am personally a member of the F*ck Flattering club, I’m so sick of hearing about “flattering.” When someone tells me that seeing rolls isn’t flattering, or showing fat arms isn’t flattering, or bright clothing on fat people isn’t flattering, or clothing that *gasp* isn’t slimming isn’t flattering, what I hear is “I’m interested in buying into and reinforcing the idea that we should all try to get as close to some arbitrary stereotype of beauty as possible.”  People are allowed to do that for themselves, they aren’t allowed to dictate it to others.  For me, I think it’s feeding the machine that oppresses me and so I personally have no interest in it.

Back to that whole sleeveless thing. When someone says that some clothing is ok for people who look one way, but not ok for people who look another way, I don’t see how it’s possible to justify that as anything other than appearance-based prejudice.  Businesses can set dress codes, but they need to be equally applicable – either everyone can wear sleeveless shirts or nobody can.  We get to decide how we dress at work.  If our clothes push against unspoken (or spoken) anti-fat prejudice that may have consequences.  As I’ve said before, risk is the currency of revolution.  We get to decide if we want to engage in that kind of risk and that kind activism.  Whether or not we engage in the activism we get to decide if we think it’s right and that’s what’s most important.

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36 thoughts on “The Right to Bare Fat Arms

  1. Most of the time, I personally prefer sleeves, the longer the better. But if it’s a hundred in the shade out there and my house starts retaining heat like a sombitch, you can bet your sweet bippy that I will be wearing something sleeveless. If that offends someone who has to look at my arms, I invite them to look elsewhere and shut up about it.

    And now that I’ve hit the age where my internal heating unit goes wonky and broils me every once in a while for no particular reason, I’m betting I’ll be taking my sleeves off more often. Why? Because I want to.

    So there.

    1. See, and I’m an Art Fart who loved black clothes even when I was skinny. (Or, y’know, mixing black with bright colors can be nice, too.) But I still don’t worry if not everyone on the planet feels like wearing them. All those wannabee fashion cops out there really need to just live and let live.

      1. Art Fart? That takes me back to high school, which happened to be on a university campus. We called the Fine Arts building “FARTS.” And yeah, I wore a lot of black and carried a sketchbook everywhere. ^^

  2. I get so frustrated whenever I go shopping, because pretty much all of the clothes are either sufficiently low cut that they don’t cover my bra (which admittedly is practically a piece of industrial equipment) or are sleeveless. And people totally judge whichever way you decide to go.

    1. I so understand about the industrially designed bra situation. Almost anything that is not a turtleneck shows my bras, too!

  3. It also sounds like some of this plays into the ‘women must look young and pretty’ with the corollary that if a woman isn’t young and pretty, she should do her best to be invisible.

    Reading your piece made me think of a talk given by a female weather forecaster I happen to like. She told us that she colors her hair regularly, because as a woman in television, she isn’t allowed to go gray, even though the males on television are allowed to without anyone raising an eyebrow.

    I’ve certainly noticed that men can go out to a restaurant looking whatever way they want, but if they are with a woman, she is usually dressed fairly nicely.

    Granted, men don’t usually wear sleeveless shirts to the office, but then dress shirts for men usually have at least short sleeves. Come to think of it, I’m not sure many men would wear a tank top to even the most relaxed office on casual Friday.

    I really hate this obsession with women being expected to look a certain way.

  4. I dealt with this for a long time. My mother passed the stigma down to me and for a long time I suffered through summers in long sleeve shirts afraid of what people may think. One fateful summer I said screw it with a capital S and wore a sleeveless shirt. It was bliss. My mom was shocked but seeing me so comfy and free actually made her venture out as well. Now we’re fat and sleeveless and loving every minute of it lol.


  5. To be fair, this article is about work. I don’t think anyone should wear sleeveless shirts to work in a business-casual environment: fat, skinny, men, women, it doesn’t matter. Everyone should be held to the same standards.

    1. I tend to agree with you. I think it looks too casual — although, oddly, I’ve less of a problem if a woman wearing a suit takes off her jacket and has something sleeveless underneath (I guess I’m either a hypocrite or I’m used to making exceptions due to living in a part of the country that turns into an oven in the summer.) — and shouldn’t be acceptable regardless of body size.

      But I’d be okay in principle if it was “acceptable” for everyone, not generally-a-bad-thing-but-you-get-a-pass-if-you’re-thin.

    2. That’s what Ragen is saying too—everyone should be held to the same standard. “[S]leeveless tops are appropriate in the office—’if you have the figure to pull it off.” is not holding everyone to the same standard.

  6. This post reminds me of one of my all-time favorite quotes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

    “Does this sweater make me look fat?”

    “No, the fact that you’re fat makes you look fat. The sweater just makes you look purple.”

    I know it was supposed to be an insult, but ever since, I’ve thought of it as a healthier, neutral attitude I’ve tried to adopt. Clothes aren’t going to make me look fat or thin. My body size does that. Clothes are just decoration and protection from the elements (and public indecency charges).

    1. I love that quote! Will have to go re-watch some Buffy!

      When I was in college I went to summer school & took tennis as my last class of the day. So I just wore shorts to everything. People made “jokes” about the glare from my white non-tanning legs. Joke the first time, not so funny the 20th. Anyway, I started telling them to wear shades or look away. Took me a few years to realize the same thing applies to fat. But boy it was liberating the day I realized people know I’m fat whether I’m wearing a parka or a bikini!

      1. Reminds me of the part in Persepolis (the comic) where she’s running to class, and the police say to walk slower so that her bum won’t giggle. She said that if they didn’t want to look at her bum do that, then “stop looking at my butt”. In the movie version the police got a stunned look on their faces.

    2. I love that quote!

      It reminds me of a time when my son was about seven or eight and was watching me getting dressed. I jokingly struck a pose in front of the mirror and said, “Does my bum look big in this?” He replied, “Yes, Mummy, of course it does, it’s a big bum.”

      Out of the mouths of babes … :o)

  7. I would like to join the F*ck Flattering club, please. And could I have gift memberships for all of my daughters? No, make that all of my children, for I want my son to be able to say, “I don’t care whether the Fashion Police think these shorts are the wrong length and make my legs look spindly, I feel comfortable wearing them today.”

    It says a lot that most “how to dress to flatter your figure” advice for women assumes that everyone is aspiring to the “long and lean” look and wants to narrow down the broad bits, draw attention to the narrow bits (unless that narrow bit is a flat chest), create the illusion of height, and conceal the bulging bits. Who dictated that this shape should be the standard for female beauty, and who are we supposed to be trying to impress? And why are we being encouraged to create the illusion of a smaller, more muted physical presence? It’s time we stopped putting up with it.

    When my husband is choosing what to wear, his criteria are, in order of importance, “Is it suitable for whatever activity I’m going to be doing?” “Does it fit me well enough not to be comfortable,” and “Is it free from big rips and stains?” If he frets about whether it’ll make his butt look big or whether it’s appropriate for a man of his age, shape, and skin tone, he doesn’t do it in my airspace.

    Are there really people out there who can’t deal with the sight of ARMS? Well, that’s very sad and all that, but it’s THEIR problem and I’m not going to swelter in long sleeves in case they get offended.

  8. This post reminds me of this nonsense that’s been in the news recently: Basically, a school in Illinois banned leggings . . . which, in and of itself, is fine in my opinion; maybe annoying for the girls who go to that school, but it’s the school’s prerogative to set dress codes. However, not only did they ban them because they were “too distracting for the boys,” which is a whoooooooole other blog post’s worth of bullshit, but students and parents have noticed that the girls getting disciplined for wearing leggings tend to be those with bigger and/or more developed bodies. There are quotes in the article from girls saying they were explicitly told that they were not allowed to wear leggings because of their body types. I’ve heard and read several stories about other people in other schools having similar experiences.

    This is a perfect illustration of something I believe very strongly: if a policy is not applied equally to everyone, it stops being a policy and becomes discrimination. Personally, I have no objection to offices or schools having dress codes, especially schools (as long as there’s some shame-free mechanism in place to help out students who cannot afford clothes that fit the dress code). School is, among other things, practice for a professional environment, and I think it’s important for students to learn about standards for professional dress. Of course, as adults, they’re free to partially or completely ignore those standards if they want to, but I think it’s only fair that they learn how to navigate them, so they have that option. But I do have a HUGE objection to people being unfairly judged or disciplined because of their body types.

    My own high school had a dress code that, in retrospect, was actually pretty lenient, but of course my friends and I all violated it semi-regularly. I certainly noticed that I was more likely to get called out on the days I broke the rules and wore a spaghetti-strap top or low-cut shirt than my skinnier friends were, but no one ever specifically told me it was because of my body type. I would have raised hell if a teacher or administrator had ever said something like that to me.

    1. Back in the before time, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I got called out in high school for wearing a sweater that was “too low cut” without a t-shirt under it. While I’d wear it today without a t-shirt under it with no qualms — at 40 or 50 pounds more than I weighed then, I might add — it never occurred to me that I might be being singled out due to weight or body shape.

      Then again, it’s possible the reason that didn’t occur to me was that I was so busy being irritated about the fact that one of the custodial staff thought it appropriate to grab a student by the arm between classes and stop her to lecture her on what she was wearing.

      1. I think a “no-low-cut shirts” rule is one that’s impossible to enforce without being unfair to women with large chests (fat or thin). You can’t really measure shirt height the way you can skirt length, so “low-cut” just translates to “showing cleavage,” and the more cleavage you have, the more shirts are likely to show it. For dress code rules to be fair, they need to be specific: “no shirts with straps less than one inch wide,” “only collared shirts,” etc.

    2. Clothing discrimination happens anytime anybody is “too” anything. When I was younger I was told not to wear certain styles because they are too attractive and will distract boys. I pointed out it wasn’t against the rules and other girls were in similar styles and was told, bluntly, “They don’t look good so they can dress that way.” So their secret dress code only applies if teachers think you look good.

      Now, I get told I’m too fat to wear what I want. I think there will always be someone out there wanting to tell you you’re “too whatever” to wear whatever it is you want to wear. It doesn’t really matter what you look like, people can always find some reason to criticize your clothes.

    3. Our local schools went through the whole “leggings” thing about 25 years ago. The main problem with wearing “leggings” is that many of them were wearing nothing more than colored panty hose and not anything with a real fabric-like texture. Not only were the designs on panties visible through them but you could count every hair (leg and otherwise) and skin pore. Even teachers in their 40’s were wearing these outfits. When my son’s second grade teacher showed up at the board of ed to accept an award wearing her “pantyhose and sweat-shirt” outfit, that’s when they banned them for faculty and students alike, and the next year they started the uniforms for all incoming students and lower grades, and within 5 years all students were required to wear them.

  9. My place of work has HVAC issues: it’s a huge building with museum high ceilings. About two years ago I couldn’t stand it any longer and found some pretty sleeveless blouses and shirts, and have not regretted it one bit. And when the AC is working I have a light sweater close by. It is hard to find something cute or pretty that still looks professional in my size; I refuse to be sausaged into clothing plus I like the pertinent parts covered as in no cleavage, bra straps covered. I agree with you very much, bodies should not be judged by how they are clothed or sized. Thanks again for providing this forum!

  10. I like the old school T-shirts with the sleeves that fall about halfway down the upper arm. I’m not a fan of these new ones where the sleeve is so short that it’s hardly there, and I have to buy up a size from what I usually wear because its also tight. If I wanted to wear a tank top or sleeveless shirt, that’s what I’d buy!
    What I hate even worse is that this is also the trend with scrub tops these days!

    1. I occasionally have this fantasy where you can order t-shirts with the following options: deep-scoop neck, shallow-scoop neck, v-neck, regular neck, and then sleeves of various lengths.

      I wonder how hard it would be to set something up like that?

    2. Same here. I’ve always had broad shoulders relative to the size of my chest. My waist was never very narrow in the official “feminine” sense even when I was at my skinniest.

      “Baby” Ts and “girly” Ts just don’t work for me. I’d rather buy Men’s Ts even when it means the breast pocket won’t be in the right place. :/

  11. I don’t go out in sleeveless tops, but HEY that’s just what I like. I don’t usually wear black, either. I”M ALL ABOUT COLOR!! I love my brightly colored clothes; they match my personality. I don’t sit in a corner, and try not to be seen! I want to be out loud in life! Thanks Ragen, you help remind me I don’t have to apologize to the world around me! I’m no longer afraid of the person sitting next to me on the plane. If that make a face or comment, that is THEIR problem!

  12. Sure you can wear sleeveless tops in the office–if you work in that kind of office! My employee manual has a very strict policy against sleeveless tops of any kind, which is made worse by the fact that this is Arizona and it’s pretty much hot all the time always. That said, I look great in sleeveless tops and I love wearing them. (Though I’d rather be able to get nearly naked like men are allowed to do, but that is another soapbox entirely…)

    The thing about fashion advice is it assumes everyone wants the same thing: to look “flattering” which is fancy code word for “thin.” What if you’re like me, and comfort is your primary goal, not “thin”? Or, what if, GOODNESS FORBID, you’re one of those awful fatties who’s not properly ashamed of they way they look?? The fact that this kind of “advice” is just a gentler kind of bullying seems to allude people. Why is it soooooooo upsetting to think that a woman, and a fat woman at that, might NOT be ashamed of her body? Why is that the most terrifying thing we can come up with? A woman who’s not soooooo busy concentrating on her body she actually uses her mind— oh, now I see.

  13. Also, this person reminds me of a former boss, who was known for being sexist and fatphobic, who was totally fine with the thin women in the office wearing jeans on casual day, but attempted to ban the fat women from doing so. So apparently we’re too unsightly to be… casual? HUH?

  14. A little late to comment here, but this post so reminds me of a mortifying experience at work last year.

    So, it was teacher work day, the day before students returned to school and I had been assigned a new classroom, the previous occupant of which had not cleaned it out at all. I needed to spend the whole day cleaning out my new room and making it ready for the students to start the year.

    Now, my job has a rather strict dress code. I know the dress code and I am careful not just to follow it, but to dress above what is required to appear more professional. Here’s the thing though, at the bottom of the dress code is specifically says the phrase “except on teacher work days.”

    Well, on this teacher work day, I chose to wear sneakers, a loose fitting tee-shirt, and yoga pants (brand new ones which were definitely not see through). I chose this outfit because I knew I would be doing quite a bit of heavy lifting and hauling and re-arranging furniture. I felt comfortable in my choice because I have seen many of my colleagues wear the exact same thing in years past.

    At work, I was not the only one in such an outfit. Things were fine until I had to go to leave my room. When an administrator passed me in the hall, she immediately stopped and pulled me aside. She told me that I was inappropriately dressed and I had to leave the building and not return until I was covered up. She said a handful of students and parents were on campus and she was afraid someone might see me in yoga pants (gasp! I have an ass-shaped ass! Oh, the horror!). She then escorted me out of the building and had someone else go fetch my car keys from my classroom. I think the thing that made me most angry was the fact that the administrator in question was wearing RUNNING SHORTS! Those tiny nike ones that are very short.

    Later that day I asked a colleague of mine who was also wearing yoga pants if anyone had said anything to her. She said no. In fact, she had even had a face-to-face meeting with the administrator who sent me home and no issue was raised. The only difference between us is that I outweigh her by ~80 lbs. Gah! I hate the double standards!

    Thank you Ragen for bringing this issue to greater attention!

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