Chapter One Chapter One
“OhmyGod, I am so sorry. Am I late?” Leela Thakoon hurried into the coffee shop with a cross-body bag hanging high on one hip, a zippered garment bag draped over her right arm, and an apologetic look on her face. With her silvery-lavender hair in a high ponytail, her round face and petite figure, and her emphatic red lipstick, she looked exactly the way she did on her Instagram, only a little bit older and a little bit more tired, which was true of every mortal, I supposed, who had to move through the world without the benefit of filters.
“You weren’t late. I was early,” I said, and shook her hand. For me, there was nothing worse than showing up for a meeting feeling flustered and hot and out of breath. In addition to the physical discomfort, there was the knowledge that I was confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about fat ladies—lazy, couch potatoes, can’t climb a flight of stairs without getting winded.
Today I had wanted to look my best, so I’d worked out at six in the morning and cooled down for an hour, unhappy experience having taught me that, for every hour I exercised, I’d need thirty minutes to stop sweating. I’d arrived at the coffee shop Leela had chosen twenty minutes ahead of time, so that I could scope out the venue, choose an advantageous seat, and attempt to best project an aura of cool, collected competence—#freelancehustle, I thought. But if I landed this collaboration, it would mean that the money I earned as an influencer would be more than the money I made doing my regular twenty-hour-a-week babysitting gig, and possibly even more than my dog’s account was bringing in. I wouldn’t be supporting myself with my online work, but I’d be closer to that goal. In yoga that morning, when we’d set our intention, I’d thought, Please. Please let this happen. Please let this work out.
“Want something to drink?” I asked. I already had my preferred summer beverage, cold brew with a splash of cream and extra ice, sitting in front of me.
“No, I’m fine,” said Leela, pulling the metal water bottle of the environmentally aware out of her bag, uncapping it, and taking a swig. Oh, well, I thought. At least my coffee had come in a glass and not plastic. “I’m so glad to meet you.” Leela draped the garment bag over a chair, smoothed her already smooth hair, and took a seat, crossing her legs and smiling at me brightly. She was wearing a pair of loose-fitting khaki shorts, pulled up high and belted tight around her tiny waist, and a blousy white top with dolman sleeves that left her slender arms bare. Her golden skin, a deeper gold than I got even at my most tan, glowed from the sunshine she’d probably enjoyed on a getaway to Tahiti or Oahu. There was a jaunty red scarf around her neck, pinned with a large jeweled brooch. She looked like a tiny androgynous elf, or as if someone had waved a wand and said, Boy Scout, but make it tiny and cute and fashion. I was sure that some piece of her outfit had been purchased at a thrift shop I’d never find, and that another had been sourced from a website I’d never discover, or made by some designer I’d never heard of, in sizes that would never fit me, and that it had cost more than one month of my rent. The entire rent, not just the half I paid.
Leela uncapped her bottle and looked me over, taking her time. I sipped my coffee and tried not to squirm, breathing through the insecurity I could feel whenever I was confronted by someone as stylish and cute as Leela Thakoon. I’d worn one of my favorite summer outfits, a hip-length pale yellow linen tunic over a plain white short-sleeved T-shirt, cropped olive-green leggings with buttons at the cuffs, and tan platform sandals, accessorized with a long plastic tortoiseshell necklace, big gold hoop earrings, and oversized sunglasses. My hair—regular brown—was piled on top of my head in a bun that I hoped looked effortless and had actually required twenty minutes and three different styling products to achieve. I’d kept my makeup simple, just tinted moisturizer to smooth out my olive complexion, mascara, and shimmery pink lip gloss, a look that said I care, but not too much. In my previous life, I’d dressed to hide, in a palette limited to black, with the occasional daring venture into navy blue. These days, I wore colors and clothes that weren’t bulky or boxy, that showed off my shape and made me feel good. Every morning, I photographed and posted my outfit of the day (OOTD), tagging the designers or the places I’d shopped for my Instagram page and my blog, which I’d named Big Time. I kept my hair and makeup on point for the pictures, especially if I was wearing clothes I’d been gifted or, better yet, paid to wear. That had entailed a certain outlay of cash, on cuts and color and blowouts, in addition to a lot of trips to Sephora and many hours watching YouTube makeup tutorials before I’d found a routine that I could execute on my own. It had been an investment; one that I hoped would pay off.
So far, the signs were good. “Oh my God, look at you,” Leela said, clapping her hands together in delight. Her nails were unpainted, clipped into short ovals. A few of them were ragged and looked bitten at the tips. “You’re adorbs!”
I smiled back—it would have been impossible not to—and wondered if she meant it. In my experience, which was limited but growing, fashion people tended to be dramatic and effusive, full of hyperbolic praise that was not always entirely sincere.
“So what can I tell you about the line?” she asked, removing a Moleskine notebook, a fountain pen, and a small glass bottle of ink from her bag and setting them down beside her water bottle. I tried not to stare. I did have questions about the clothes, and the collaboration, but what I really wanted to know was more about Leela. I knew she was about my age, and that she’d done a little modeling, a little acting, and that she’d made a few idle-rich-kid friends and started styling their looks. The friends had introduced her to celebrities, and Leela had started to style them. In a few years’ time, she had amassed over a hundred thousand social-media friends and fans who followed her feed to see pictures of beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes in beautiful spots all over the world. By the time she’d announced her clothing line, Leela had a built-in audience of potential customers, people who’d seen her clients lounging on the prow of a yacht in the crocheted bikini Leela had sourced from a beach vendor she’d discovered in Brazil, or walking the red carpet in a one-of-a-kind custom hand-beaded gown, or dressed down in breathable linen, handing out picture books to smiling children in poor villages all over the world.
When Leela had launched the brand she was calling Leef, she’d made a point of saying that her collection would be “size-inclusive.” She didn’t just want to sell clothes to straight-size women, then toss big girls a bone in the form of a belated capsule collection or, worse, ignore us completely. Even better, in the videos I’d watched and the press release I’d read on her website, Leela had sounded sincere when she’d said, “It’s not fair for designers to relegate an entire group of women to shoes, handbags, and scarves because the powers that be decided they were too big or too small to wear the clothes.” Amen, sister, I’d thought. “My clothes are for every woman. For all of us.” Which sounded good, but was also, I knew, a bit of a cliché. These days, designers who’d rather die than gain ten pounds, designers who’d rather make clothes for purse dogs than fat people, could mouth the right platitudes and make the right gestures. I would have to see for myself if Leela was sincere.
“Tell me what got you interested in fashion,” I asked.
“Well, it took a minute,” Leela said, smiling her charming smile. “I’ve always been drawn to… I guess you’d call it self-expression. If I were a better writer, I’d write. If I were a better artist, I’d paint or sculpt. And, of course, my parents are still devastated that I’m not in med school.” I saw a fleeting expression of sorrow, or anger, or something besides arch amusement flit across her pretty features, but it was gone before I could name it, erased by another smile. “High school was kind of a shit show. You know, the mean girls. It took me a while to pull it together, but I made it out alive. And I figured out that I know how to put clothes together. I know how to take a ten-dollar T-shirt and wear it with a two-thousand-dollar skirt and have it look like an intentional whole.” I nodded along, like I, too, had a closet full of two-thousand-dollar skirts and other components of intentional wholes. “So I found my way to working as a stylist. And what I found,” she said, lifting her shoulders and straightening in her seat, “is that women still don’t have the options that we should.” She raised one finger, covered from knuckle to knuckle with gold rings that were as fine as pieces of thread. “If you’re not in the straight-size range, there’s nothing that fits.” Additional fingers went up. “If you’ve got limited mobility, you can’t always find clothes without hooks and buttons and zippers. If you’re young, or on a budget, if you want clothes that are ethically produced, and are made by people who are paid a living wage, I don’t want women to ever have to compromise,” she said, eyes wide, her expression earnest. “You shouldn’t have to decide between looking cute and buying your clothes from a sweatshop.”
I found myself nodding along, feeling a pang of regret for every fast-fashion item I’d ever picked up at Old Navy or H&M.
“Once I started looking at what was available, it was obvious to me—I wanted to design my own clothes,” Leela said. “I know how great it feels—and I’ll bet you do, too—when you put a look together, and it just…” She paused, bringing her fingertips to her lips and kissing them, a clichéd gesture that she somehow made endearing. “It just works, you know?”
I nodded. I did know. Once I’d started searching out clothes that fit and looked good on the body I had instead of the one that I wanted, I had discovered exactly the feeling Leela Thakoon was talking about.
“I think everyone deserves to feel that way. Even if you don’t fit the skinny, white, long-straight-blond-hair mold. Even if you’ve got freckles, or wrinkles, or wide feet, or you’re one size on the bottom and a totally different size on top.” She put her hand just above her breast, like she was pledging allegiance to inclusive fashion. “All of us deserve to feel beautiful.” She looked at me, her eyes meeting mine, and I nodded and found myself unexpectedly blinking back tears. Normally, I would have had a hard time mustering much sympathy for a woman whose worst problem with clothes was that they were too big. You could always get your pants cuffed and your shirts and dresses taken in. You could even pick up things in the children’s section, where everything was cheaper, but if you were plus-size, there wasn’t much you could do if the size of a designer’s offerings stopped before you started. Still, I respected Leela’s attempt to offer kinship, to point out that even tiny, exquisitely pretty world travelers with famous friends didn’t always fit into the box of “beautiful.”
“So that’s why!” She smiled at me brightly, asking, “What else can I tell you?”
I smiled back and asked the open-ended question I used at the end of all of these conversations. “Is there anything else you think I need to know?”
There was. “For starters, I don’t work with sweatshops,” Leela began. “Every single item I sell is made in the USA, by union workers who are paid a living wage.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said.
“We use fabrics made from natural, sustainable materials—mostly cotton, cotton-linen blends, and bamboo—that’s been engineered to wick sweat and moisture and withstand five hundred trips through the washing machine.” She paused, waiting for my nod. “We recycle as much as we can. We’ll have a trade-in program, where you can exchange a worn garment toward credit for something new. We’ve designed our manufacturing and our shipping with an eye toward keeping our carbon footprint as small as possible, and with annual goals for reducing it as well.”
“Also great,” I said, and found, again, that I was impressed in spite of myself.
“We are, of course, a woman-led company with a non-hierarchical management structure.” She gave a small, pleased smile. “True, right now it’s just me and my assistant, so it’s pretty easy, but as we grow I’m going to keep it that way. We’re small at the moment,” she said with that beguiling smile, “but when we expand—not if, but when—we’re going to be as inclusive as possible. That means race, gender, age, ethnicity, and size. I want to make clothes for everybody.”
“That’s terrific,” I said, and meant it.
“Best of all,” she said, reaching across the table and giving my forearm an uninvited squeeze, “the pieces are luscious.” She popped to her feet, picked up the garment bag, and held it in both hands, offering it to me. “Go on. Try them on.”
“What, right now?”
“Please. It would be such an honor,” she said, her smile widening.
Thankfully this coffee shop had a spacious bathroom that was covered in William Morris–style wallpaper, with fancy soap and hand lotion and a verbena-scented candle flickering on the reclaimed-wood table beside the sink. I hung the bag from a hook on the inside of the door. Luscious, I thought, bemused. It sounded like a brand-new code word for fat, like Rubenesque. But I’d take it. I’d always take a well-intentioned gesture toward kindness and inclusion over the rudeness that had underscored too many of my days.
I unzipped the bag. According to the promotional materials, each piece of the capsule collection had been named after a woman in Leela’s life. They were all designed to work together, each could be dressed up or dressed down, and the collection could “keep a working woman covered, from office to evening, seven days a week.” It was the impossible dream. In my limited experience, clothes didn’t work this way. Yoga pants still looked like yoga pants, even if you wore them to the office with a blazer on top; a bridesmaid’s dress was still a bridesmaid’s dress, even if you hemmed it or dyed it or threw a cardigan over it and put it on for a trip to the grocery store.
I told myself to keep an open mind as I removed the first hanger from the bag and gave the dress a shake. It had an A-line silhouette, three-quarter-length sleeves, and a waistline that gathered under the bust. The fabric was a silky blend of cotton and something stretchy and synthetic, light and breathable, but with enough weight to drape well. Best of all, it was navy blue, with white polka dots. I adored polka dots.
I shucked off my leggings and top, pulled the dress off, shut my eyes, and let the fabric fall over my head and shoulders, past my breasts and hips, unspooling with a silky swish. I turned toward the mirror and held my breath.
For all women—or maybe just all plus-size women, or maybe just me—there’s a moment right after you put on a new piece of clothing, after you’ve buttoned the buttons or zipped the zipper, but before you’ve seen how it looks—or, rather, how you look in it. A moment of just sensation, of feeling the fabric on your skin, the garment against your body, knowing where the waistband pinches or if the cuffs are the right length, an instant of perfect faith, of pure, untarnished hope that this dress, this blouse, this skirt, will be the one that transforms you, that makes you look shapely and pretty, and worthy of love, or respect, or whatever you most desire. It’s almost religious, that belief, that faith that a piece of silk or denim or cotton jersey could disguise your flaws and amplify your assets and make you both invisible and seen, just another normal woman in the world; a woman who deserves to get what she wants.
I opened my eyes, gave the skirt a shake, and looked at myself in the mirror.
I saw how my skin glowed, rosy, against the navy blue, and how the bustline draped gracefully and didn’t tug. The V-neck exposed the tiniest hint of cleavage; the wide, sewn-in waistband gripped the narrowest part of my body; and the skirt, hemmed with a cute little flounce of a ruffle that I hadn’t noticed at first, flared out and hit right beneath my knees. The sleeves were fitted, snug without being uncomfortable—I could lift and lower my arms and stretch them out for a hug, and the cuffs sat between my elbows and my wrists, another visual trick, one that made my arms look as long as the skirt made my legs appear.
I turned from side to side, taking in the dress, and me in the dress, from every angle the mirror would give me. I could already imagine it working with my big fake-pearl statement necklace, or with my dainty amethyst choker, with my hair in a bun, or blown out straight. I could wear this with flats, I thought. I could wear it with espadrilles or wedges or stilettos. I could wear it to work, with sneakers and a cardigan… or out on a date with heels and a necklace… or just to go to the park, sit on a bench, and drink my coffee. As Leela had promised, the fabric breathed. The dress moved with me, it didn’t pinch or bind or squeeze. It flattered, which, in my mind, meant that it didn’t make me look thin, or different, but instead like the best version of myself. It made me feel good, made me stand a little straighter. And… I slipped my hands down my sides. Pockets. It even had pockets. “A unicorn,” I breathed.
“Knock knock!” called Leela, her voice merry. “Come out, come out wherever you are!”
I gave myself one last look and stepped out of the restroom. In the coffee shop’s light, the dress looked even better, and I could notice little details, the subtle ruching on the sides of the bodice, the tiny bow at the base of the neckline, the embroidered rickrack along the cuffs.
“So what do you think?”
I thought about trying to be coy. I thought about trying to be as effusive as fashion folk typically were. In the end, I gave her honesty. “It’s amazing. My new favorite dress.”
She clapped, her pretty face delighted. “I’m so glad! The dress—we call her Jane—is the backbone of the collection. And there’s pants… and a blouse…” She clasped her hands together and pressed them against her heart. “Will you try them on for me? Pretty please? I’ve only ever seen them on our fit model. This is my first chance to see them, you know, out in the real world.”
I agreed. And, to my delight, every piece was just as comfortable, just as flattering, and just as thoughtfully made as the Jane. The high-waisted, wide-legged Pamela pants were chic, not frumpy, a world away from the palazzo pants that grandmothers wore on cruises; the white blouse, named Kesha, had princess seams and a clever hook-and-eye construction to guarantee that it wouldn’t gape. I normally hated blazers, which always made me look boxy and approximately the size of a refrigerator, but the Nidia blazer was cut extra-long in the back and made of a stretchy brushed-cotton blend, with cute zipper detailing on the sleeves in a perfect shade of plum.
The last piece in the garment bag was a swimsuit called the Darcy. I lifted the hanger, swallowing hard. Swimsuits would probably always be hard for me. Even after all this time, all the work I’d done to love my body—to at least accept the parts I couldn’t love—I still cringed at the cellulite that riddled my thighs, the batwings of loose flesh under my upper arms, and the curve of my belly.
The swimsuit had a kind of vintage style. There was a skirt, but it wasn’t the heavy, knee-length kind I’d remembered from my own mother’s infrequently worn bathing suits, but a sweet flounce of ruffles that would brush the widest part of my thighs. You can do this, I coached myself, and pulled the suit on, over my underpants, and adjusted the straps.
Another deep breath, and I looked in the mirror. There were my thighs, so white they seemed to glare in the gloom. There were my stretch marks; there were the folds of fat on my back; there was the bulge of my stomach. I shut my eyes, shook my head, and told myself, A body is a body.
“Daphne?” Leela called. “Is everything okay?”
I didn’t answer. Deep breath, I told myself. Head up. I slicked on red lipstick and slid my feet into my wedges. I made myself smile. Finally, I looked again, and this time, instead of seeing cellulite or rolls, or arms or thighs, I saw a woman with shiny hair and bright red lips; a woman who’d dive into the deep end and smile for the camera and live her life out in the open, as if she had just as much right to the world as anyone else.
Holding that thought in my head, I opened the door. Leela, who’d been bouncing on the tips of her toes for each previous reveal, went very still. Her hands, which she’d had clasped against her chest, fell to her sides.
“Oh,” she said very softly. “Oh.”
“It’s perfect,” I said, and sniffled.
“Perfect,” she repeated, also sniffling, and I knew that not only had I found the swimsuit and the clothes of my dreams, but I’d landed a job, too.
Once I’d changed back into my own clothes, I returned to the table. Leela, beaming, extended her hand.
“I’d love to hire you as the exclusive face, and figure, of Leef Fashion.” Her hand was warm, her grip firm, her gaze direct, her smile bright.
“And I’d love to accept. It’s just…”
Leela looked at me, her face open and expectant.
“Why me?” I asked. “I mean, why not someone, you know, bigger?” No pun intended, I thought, and felt myself flush.
Leela tilted her head for a moment in silence, her silvery hair falling against her cheek. “I like to think that building a campaign is like putting together a great outfit,” she finally said. “You pull a piece from here, a part from there. And everything has to fit. When I thought about who would fit my brand, I knew I wanted someone like you, who’s just starting out. I want to make magic with someone I like; someone who is just at the beginning of her story. I want someone real,” she concluded. “Well, as real as anyone ever is on social. And you’re real, Daphne,” Leela said. “That’s what people love about you, that’s why they follow you. From that very first video you posted to the review you did of that workout plan… BodyBest?”
“BestBody,” I murmured. That had been a doozy. The company had sent me its workout plan, a sixty-dollar booklet full of exhortations about “Get your best beach body now,” and “Be a hot ass,” and “Nothing tastes as good as strong feels,” and shots of slim, extraordinarily fit models with washboard abs and endless legs demonstrating the moves. I’d done the entire workout plan, all twelve weeks of it. I’d filmed myself doing jump squats and burpees, even though I’d been red-faced and sweaty, with parts of me flopping and wobbling when I did mountain climbers or star jumps (none of the models had enough excess flesh for anything to flop or wobble). My carefully worded review had alluded both to the challenging workouts and the punitive language, which I’d found distracting and knew to be ineffective. Research shows that shaming fat folks into thinness doesn’t work. And come on—if it did, most of the fat women in the world would have probably disappeared by now, I’d written.
“You have an authenticity that people like. You’re just…” She tilted her head again. “Unapologetically yourself. People feel like you’re their friend,” Leela said, looking straight into my eyes. “You’re going places, Daphne, and I want us to go together.” She extended her cool hand. “So, what do you say?”
I made myself smile. I was delighted with her praise, with her confidence that I was going places. I was also still thinking about the BestBody review and how the truth was that the workout had left me in tears, so disgusted with myself that I’d wanted to take a knife to my thighs and my belly. I hadn’t written that, of course. No one wanted to see anything that raw. The trick of the Internet, I had learned, was not being unapologetically yourself or completely unfiltered; it was mastering the trick of appearing that way. It was spiking your posts with just the right amount of real… which meant, of course, that you were never being real at all. The more followers I got, the more I thought about that contradiction; the more my followers praised me for being fearless and authentic, the less fearless and authentic I believed myself to be in real life.
Leela was still looking at me, all silvery hair and expectant eyes, so I took her hand. “I’m in.”
She smiled and bounced on the balls of her feet, a happy little elf who’d just gotten a raise from Santa. We shook and started talking terms—how much she’d pay for how many pictures and videos posted over what period of time and on what platforms. We discussed what time of day was best to post, which settings her viewers preferred. “Still shots are great. Colorful backdrops. Walls with texture, or murals. And fashion people love video,” Leela said with the solemnity of a priest explaining the workings of a crucially important ritual. “They like to see the clothes move.”
“Got it,” I said, practically squirming with impatience. I couldn’t wait to finish my day, get back to my apartment, and model the clothes for my roommate, to see how they worked with my shoes and my necklaces, to think about where I could wear them and how I could make them look their best.
“Oh, and outdoor is better than indoor, of course. Do you have any plans for the summer?” Leela asked. “Any travel?”
I breathed in deeply and tried to keep my face still. “I’m going to a wedding on the Cape. Do you know Drue Cavanaugh?”
Leela nibbled her lip with her perfect white teeth. “She’s the daughter, right? Robert Cavanaugh’s daughter. The one who’s marrying the Single Ladies guy?”
“That’s her. She and I went to high school together, and I’m going to be in her wedding.”
Leela clapped her hands, beaming. “Perfect. That’s absolutely perfect.”