When I was 21, I found a tube of matte red lipstick under my bed, which my sister must have dropped the last time she’d visited. It was MAC’s Ruby Woo, the shade she always wore. My sis — a tall, blonde and beautiful creature — looked so powerful with that red pout. As a fat woman, I’d never felt particularly powerful or comfortable in my body like she seemed to. I had never dared wear anything that might make me stand out even more than I already did.
At that moment, though, something took over me and I tried the lipstick on. I suddenly saw my face transform in the mirror. Don’t get me wrong, I was still just as fat; my cheeks and chins were visible as ever. Still, I felt different. It was as though I saw the person I might become if I stopped trying to hide or shrink or become altogether invisible. I was bringing attention to the vastness of my face and with it, the expanse of my body.
The pin-up age feels like the closest fat bodies have ever come to aligning with a mainstream beauty standard.
Through its retro vibes, Ruby Woo ended up being my gateway into a larger world of pin-up and vintage-inspired looks. I went on to find a size-inclusive clothing brand full of retro swing dresses in which to joyfully spin around. I discovered the no-effs-to-give attitude beckoned by a thick winged liner. I found Hilda, the plus-size pin-up illustrated by Duane Bryers from the 1950s until the ‘80s. Hilda’s body looked a lot more like mine than anything I’d ever seen in legacy women’s magazines or on television.
The more I immersed myself in plus-size blogging and pin-up style, the more I realised that these worlds very often collide. In the eight years since, I’ve continued to see countless fat babes rocking retro pencil dresses, satin lingerie sets, red lipstick, cat eyes and micro fringes on social media, at plus-size fashion shows, at body-positive panels and day to day on the street. There’s something about the style that seems to draw a lot of us in.
Perhaps it stems in part from the pin-up age feeling like the closest fat bodies have ever come to aligning with a mainstream beauty standard. Famous pin-ups like Bettie Page, Bunny Yeager, Eartha Kitt and Marilyn Monroe were not fat (even the illustrated Hilda wasn’t fat per se) but their bodies were curvier than the beauty standard that followed: the Twiggy, a standard which arguably continues today.
I like thinking that there’s a community in places where people do winged eyeliner to feel accepted. I know for many it adds a boost of confidence. Or maybe they like to look like they might cut someone with wings so sharp!
STEPHANIE LACHANCE, pin-up enthusiast
“I think that plus-size babes are drawn to the pin-up style because the 1950s (as much as it could have for the time) favoured a more lush body type that feels a little more attainable to me at least,” New York City-based pin-up model Susie Dahl tells Refinery29. This isn’t to say that the 1950s was a time of overt acceptance of fat bodies, though. As performer, model and director Trixie Divine explains: “I own a lot of ‘50s girly magazines and they’re filled to the brim with ads for weight loss devices, pin-ups posing with measuring tape around their waist and loads of jokes about sad and lonely fat girls.”
Even so, some continue to wonder if the “curve” appeal of pin-ups paved the way for the perception of fatter bodies as appealing, too. “Because the women being focused on in the pin-up scene were more voluptuous and curvaceous, it might have opened the door for bigger bodies to be seen as desirable, which in turn normalised the plus figure in the scene and made it easier to find a more welcoming community,” muses Kat Stroud, plus-size model, blogger and author.
It’s also interesting to consider the role of winged eyeliner in the pin-up sphere and in more alternative communities, like emo and scene (both of which were and still are popular choices for many plus-size babes). Alternative fashion and beauty communities often favour a strong wing and because plus-size people are, unfortunately, considered “alternative” beings simply for existing in larger bodies, maybe many of us have come to favour the wing, too. “I like thinking that there’s a community in places where people do winged eyeliner to feel accepted,” pin-up enthusiast Stephanie Lachance says. “I know for many it adds a boost of confidence. Or maybe they [like to] look like they might cut someone with wings so sharp!”
“[Winged liner] really does seem like this way of saying, ‘I don’t care about being natural because you’ll never accept who I am naturally. Might as well be as out there as I want’,” adds Divine. Stroud further notes: “I fully believe that the winged eyeliner is truly universal when communicating between those labelled as alternative, misunderstood and judged as falling short to the beauty standard. Eyeliner draws us to focus on the eyes, which are said to be the seat of human expression. By using eyeliner we are drawing focus to what we are truly feeling and not what society’s box says we should be feeling.” Lachance feels similarly about red lipstick, which makes her feel “all types of confident and like I can do anything and everything.”
Pin-up remains a way to claim our right to visibility, boldness and beauty in a culture that believes we should all but disappear.
The origins of pin-up are arguably rooted in the alternative as well, as the style was born from burlesque. According to Artnet: “The term pin-up came into play when performers left behind photographic business cards to be pinned up on the wall or stuck into mirror frames.” With burlesque comes theatricality and with theatricality comes a distinct lack of apology — a sentiment many fat babes try to embrace as they begin to do away with internalised fatphobia.
Of course, it’s always worth unpacking the fact that many plus-size women and femmes feel pressured to present in hyperfeminine ways in order to “make up for” their bodies or be considered more “palatable” to potential fatphobes. Divine has found herself moving away from pin-up in recent years because it started to feel like a tool for doing just that. “I used to have a vintage underwear collection and while I still think it’s beautiful, it’s also very much about strapping yourself in, putting lots of constricting layers on and moulding your body into something else,” she says. “While that’s super interesting from a purely aesthetic point of view, it did start to make me sad to feel like I was only beautiful if I did all this work.”
She’s understandably critical of pin-up’s reliance on having curves “in the right places” as well. “There’s this idea of fat pin-ups just being blown-up versions of thin women,” she muses. “Huge boobs and a big behind but with a flat stomach; on heels to have arched feet and shapely legs (doesn’t matter if it’s comfortable). So you’re allowed to be big as long as it’s in the right places.”
This is all absolutely valid. Subcultures (which pin-up arguably is these days) can often breed their own problematic beauty standards. For many, though, pin-up remains a way to claim their right to visibility, boldness and beauty in a culture that believes we should all but disappear — and perhaps this is particularly true for those who exist at the intersection of various marginalised identities.
“Being both Black and plus-size, I do feel that placing myself within the modern pin-up genre could be seen as radical considering the history of the time,” explains Dahl. “For years I forced myself to feel invisible in both my personal and professional life, and discovering and cultivating my pin-up style has had such a positive influence on how I see myself.” She also notes that any pressure to present hyperfemininely for being plus-size hasn’t influenced her love for the style. “As strange as it sounds, when I was less comfortable in my own skin I didn’t want to bring extra attention to myself with flashy makeup and hair. Now that my confidence has greatly improved, I love reflecting that through how I present myself to the world. I never considered it as making myself more palatable to the world, I honestly do it for myself.”