The Fashion Discovery That Changed My Life

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By CeCe Olisa(as told to Kelsey Miller)

When you’re little, getting dressed is a blast. You have your favorite dresses and t-shirts and shoes—and you don’t just like them. You love them. You feel like superhero or a princess when you wear them. It’s funny to think about now, but when you’re a little kid, getting dressed is legitimately exciting.

I remember a time when I had favorite outfits like that. There was a window of time when I inherited tons of cool clothes from my older cousins. Then, somewhere around 2nd grade, that window abruptly slammed shut. All of a sudden, I was growing up—or at least, my body was. And it seemed to be happening much sooner and much faster than it was for my friends and classmates. By the time I was 12, I stood a head taller than any of my peers, and my size was larger than anything in the juniors section. Overnight I went from being a kid, to being a kid in the body of a plus-size woman. Soon enough, I was dressed like one too.

This was the 90s, and my town was small. To say that plus-size clothing styles were limited at that time would be a laughable understatement. But there were definitely clothes I could buy. It’s just that they were all, well, for grown-ups. Florals! Prints! Crisp, tailored blouses! These would have been great looks if I had been a thirtysomething businesswoman heading into conference calls and lunch meetings every day. But showing up to show choir rehearsal in a nice, structured blazer was not exactly the look I was going for.

I wanted to dress like a flower child or a grunge kid! I went through all the fashion phases a 90s teenager went through, but I could never quite find clothes to match. I remember desperately hunting for a flannel to tie around my waist (ideally, paired with overalls). The closest I could find in the grown-up-lady stores was a white and burgundy (burgundy!) plaid button-down, which was made of a fine, soft fabric that was definitely not flannel. I bought it anyway. You work with what you’ve got, right?

My eighth-grade graduation dress was probably the most iconic moment of my child-in-womenswear years. Searching the mall and local department stores, the only dresses I could find in my size were in the Mother-Of-The-Bride section. You know the look: Formal and elegant and often very beautiful—but not exactly “fun.” I wound up with a knee-length iridescent dress that sort of shifted between purple and green when I moved. It was...interesting! But it definitely had shoulder pads.

Despite these limitations, I think I’ve always been a fashion girl at heart. Since I couldn’t express myself with clothing, I became a master accessorizer in high school, and loved experimenting with makeup looks. But still, I always kept an eye on fashion trends I’d see in magazines or on my friends. Then, after high school, I moved to New York—and everything changed all over again.

This is the thing about New York: There is no one look, no dominant trend, at any given time. It is all of them, all at once, all the time. From the moment I stepped out my front door each day, to the moment I came home and closed it behind me, I was barraged with style. It wasn’t just mainstream looks, either. On any given block you could walk past a man in a three-piece suit, a woman dressed like an old-school punk, and a flock of teenagers dressed like models (some of whom probably were models, actually).

New York also had more clothing options than I’d ever had back home. The plus-size market was still limited (and a lot of the pieces were two years behind the trends in straight-size stores), but now I could play and tweak and experiment with clothing. I could take a boring top with a nice neckline, and amp it up with my accessories. I could mix and match and get creative, finding my own look without worrying about judgment. It was as if that window that slammed shut in 2nd grade had been flung wide open.

In fact, windows were opening left and right. Over the next ten years, plus-size fashion went from niche to—well, not quite norm, but way more accessible than it had ever been when I was a teenager. More brands expanded their size ranges, and with the advent of online shopping, I suddenly had a whole virtual world of options. The internet introduced me to hundreds of new style bloggers, many of whom had bodies like my own, and soon, I launched my own platform, Plus Size Princess.

But the biggest revelation came the day that I went shopping with my friend Alissa (who you may know from her blog, Stylish Curves). We were talking about a popular retail store—one that had recently dropped its plus-size line. “Oh, I still shop there all the time,” Alissa said. What? I froze. She continued: “Yeah, I shop at plenty of stores that don’t carry plus sizes. I can just look at a piece and know if it’ll work on my body.”

That was the lesson that changed everything: It’s not so much about size as it is about cut. If it’s a swingy dress, a flowy top, or anything with a wide A-line, then odds are good I can fit into it. I’m not kidding. After Alissa explained this to me, I started stealthily popping into straight-size stores and trying things on. Lo and behold, nearly all of them had at least one item I could wear. It was crazy! I’d spent my entire life with these internalized fashion restrictions that were entirely unnecessary.

These days, there are even more plus-size options out there. But clearly, there’s still progress to be made—major progress. I'd also add that, while I've happily conquered a number of my own shopping challenges, there are many women out there who have far fewer options, due to their size or shape (not to mention, things like access and financial barriers). They, of course, must be served as well. I'm hopeful the rest of the retail world will catch up to all of us—and soon.

My point is, while there are still limits on where and how a woman of my size can shop, I no longer feel limited by myself. I have total confidence looking in my closet or walking into a store that I will come out, not just with something that fits me but something that is me. Getting dressed isn’t a chore anymore. Once again, it’s a blast.

Want more from CeCe? Obviously. Follow her on Instagram at @CeCeOlisa.