Okelle’s Guide to Online Shopping for Curvy Ladies

Despite the fact that my blog is mostly devoted to poetry and other arcane topics, the top search term bringing people here lately is “North Style.” Back in April I posted a strongly worded letter to North Style — a company I’ve never actually done any business with. They send me catalogs on a fairly regular basis though, like a lot of other companies do. That’s because I do, in fact, buy clothing from catalogs.

“Why buy your clothing from catalogs?” you ask.

“Funny you should ask,” I reply.

About two or three years ago I made the switch almost entirely from brick-and-mortar stores for pretty much one reason: I am fat. That’s right, I said it. I am a fat fatty. I have a fat belly, a fat ass, fat-ass thighs (which, admittedly, some people like), big fat tits, and miscellaneous fat distributed across the rest of my physique. In the world of fashion — and in the world in general, if you are to believe many people — this is a deadly sin, deadlier than anger, pride, greed, lust, sloth, envy, and gluttony combined. And since sinning fatties aren’t entitled to the same dignity and respect we accord to, say, people who cause massive financial crises, that means we have to pass by all the really cute outfits offered at reasonable prices on our way to the back of the store, where we can choose from a black polyester tent or a purple polyester tent for twice the prices a “normal” person would pay.

Thanks to teh Intarnets and to other fat fatties who like to look cute, I have other options. Also, I got some extra cash back after paying off a debt and discovered a few places who offered free shipping. Et voila! La belle femme sans honte est arrivee.

Applied to marketing, this means that any retailer who thinks I might possibly buy their stuff sends me catalogs regularly. If I actually BUY something from their catalog, I get a veritable deluge of the things. And I keep the damn things laying around because

(a) at the age of 38, I’m finally willing to admit that I like pretty clothes;
(b) I still covet pretty clothes;
(c) I actually have the money to BUY pretty clothes;
(d) the really clever retailers include all of these TOP SEEKRIT codes for free shipping and stuff.

The resulting flood of glossy pamphlets featuring smiling women and their collarbones reminds me a lot of B.F. Skinner’s experiment with the pigeons. He did quite a few experiments with pigeons actually, but the one I’m referring to showed that random positive reinforcement results in the highest payback. In other words, if a pigeon didn’t know when its next meal was coming, it pecked at the pigeon-food button more consistently and more often than in any other scenario.

To extend the metaphor to its breaking point (which is something I’ve been known to do), these are the pigeons I enjoy feeding:

  • Simply Be: A retailer from the UK with lots of cute, on-trend clothes. They used to offer free shipping and returns, but that seems to have changed as they become more popular. They often have specials for new customers. Their customer service people are awesome. Their price points are higher, but the quality of many — not all — of the clothes makes up for it. And if you wait for the sales, you might not find it in your size!
  • IGIGI: A San-Fransisco-based boutique with FAAAABULOUS dresses, skirts, and accessories. Most of their stuff is very feminine and therefore not always career-friendly, but they do come out with a few business suits every year. I scored a killer pantsuit from them last season that sees plenty of wear. All of their stuff is made in San Francisco so you’re paying San Francisco prices, but if the dress fits you will wear it for years and years. Plus, they have some of the hottest plus-size models I’ve seen. So there’s that. Shipping will always cost money but their standard method is FedEx which means you get it pretty quickly. Returns cost money, although I’ve never returned anything I bought there.
  • Woman Within: Good for staples like t-shirts, leggings, nightgowns and the like. With discounts and special offers, many items are insanely cheap, which probably means you’re supporting a sweatshop in China that beats its workers and makes them sleep in dormitories with windows made opaque by coal dust. But hey, times are tough.
  • Ulla Popken: If you believe their “About Us” pages, they were one of the first retailers to go into the plus-size business. Their styles lean toward the matronly and the tent-like, but you can find some good career pieces and many of their items (especially the tunics) have lovely detailing. Higher on the cost side unless you catch their sales. They don’t offer free shipping very often and their returns cost money as well.
  • Sonsi: This is the new-ish multi-brand website started by Lane Bryant and a few other retailers you’ve probably seen in storefronts (Catherine’s, Fashion Bug, etc). You can also find more obscure brands like Igigi and Kiyonna here — often with good deals. Shipping and returns usually cost extra but they often run specials and sales that make up the difference.

When I decided to make the switch to online shopping, I had to make some adjustments in the way that I think about buying clothes. I had to give up on the notion of instant gratification. I had to give up on the idea that everything I ordered would work out (this one was the hardest, and is why I still prefer free shipping and returns when I can get them). I had to get used to the idea of ordering clothes for the next season one or two months in advance. And I had to give up on the idea that online shopping is any more convenient than shopping at a brick-and-mortar store. It’s just a different kind of inconvenient. I also had to learn how to make allowances for the cash moving back and forth (I recommend setting up an extra bank account just for online shopping).

While the adjustment was difficult, it was well worth the effort — not just because more than a few friends have commented on how well-turned-out I am these days, but because I feel more confident, sexy, and well cared for.

Now that I’ve got a solid wardrobe put together, I’ve really got to get back to my old frugal-fanny ways when it comes to clothes. Which means that more of those glossy collarbones are heading right to the recycling bin. And that I’m less likely to take a risk with a retailer like North Style.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: With all due respect to fat fashion bloggers, who help make the world a more fabulous place, my only relationship to the retailers mentioned in this post is as a paying customer or a potential customer. I received neither money nor free stuff from them.]

Open Letter to North Style

Dear NorthStyle folks:

About once or twice a year I receive a catalog from your fine establishment. I’m a big mail-order shopper, so it’s very appropriate that you would send me one. Each time I receive it, I think “hmmmm… stylish, understated, affordable.” I mark off a few items. And then I notice that you insist on a $5 surcharge for me to order your clothes in my size.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but fat ladies all across the world are getting fed up with this kind of treatment. Countless times every day, I get messages — covert and overt — that there’s something wrong with me because of the size of my hips and the number on a label inside my clothes. These messages persist in spite of assurances from my doctor, my boyfriend, and my loved ones that I am healthy, lovable, and actually pretty attractive.

North Style, if you really want my business — and you should, considering what I spent on new clothes last year — then you’ve got to get with the program. I don’t hang out with people who make me feel ugly. And I’m certainly not going to hand over my hard-won dollars for the as-yet-unproven privilege of purchasing your merchandise. Take a number from retailers like Simply Be, Woman Within, and Ulla Popken, who treat me with the same courtesy and respect as a lady who wears a size 10. Then maybe I’ll take the next step and actually place an order with you.



[EDITOR’S NOTE: The main focus of this website is not fat politics, fashion, or online shopping reviews. Comments on this post have been closed. If you would like to discuss haiku, poetry, spiritual practice, gender, sexuality, or social justice, please feel free to follow me. If you would like to debate the pros and cons of fat acceptance and American’s obesity epidemic, please troll someone else’s blog. There are lots of people being wrong on the Internet. You can’t fix them all.

Oh, and for the record, I never ordered from North Style. And I never will. They sound like a company with a lot of customer service problems. ]

Review: Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, by Stephen Puleo

This review of Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, by Stephen Puleo is re-posted from my Goodreads feed.

In January 1919, a 2.3-million-gallon tank of molasses located in Boston’s bustling North End burst, wreaking death and destruction in its wake. Most people — myself included — laugh in disbelief when they first hear of the incident. But the towering wave, which traveled at 35 miles an hour, claimed the lives of 21 people, and transformed the North End into a moonscape, was deadly serious. Puleo does an admirable job of extracting a living tale about this event from dry court records and newspaper accounts.

The circumstances of its construction, its failure, and the criminal and civil trials that followed all serve as a focal point for the major forces sweeping through the country at the beginning of the last century, including industry’s increasing footprint on the American economy, the impact of World War I and the Prohibition, corporate negligence, and the radical anarchist movement.

Puleo’s book focuses on the lives of the individuals surrounding the case — not the major historical figures we usually read about, but the ordinary people who lived and worked in the North End neighborhood, built the molasses tank, managed the plant, and investigated the disaster afterward. His storytelling is grounded in primary sources but manages to bring alive an event that happened almost 100 years ago and had a profound impact on the way business is conducted today.

Book Review: Sword of the Lord, by Andrew Himes

With his newly released book Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, Andrew Himes creates a history that is both well-researched and deeply personal. It’s a history that’s about more than dates and place-names. It’s about the struggle of a people to survive and thrive in a foreign land. And it’s about the ties of blood that bind Himes to these people, from their roots among the Scots-Irish — “a troublesome group of dirt-poor, hardscrabble farmers and fighters in the borderlands and lowlands along the Scottish, English, and Welsh borders” — to his own family heritage as the grandson of influential fundamentalist preacher and publisher John R Rice.

Many elements of the journey — the American Revolution, the Civil War and the outlawing of slavery, the Scopes Monkey trial, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s — will be familiar to Americans with a standard public school education. But Himes has managed to tell these old tales anew, through the eyes of his own ancestors. They were often on the losing side of these cultural and political battles, and Himes makes no apology for them. What he does do is tell their story with an unflinching eye and a compassionate heart.

The book focuses on the lives and struggles of Himes’s forebears, however it’s clear that it only came about because of a journey that Himes himself undertook: one of rejection and reconciliation. If Himes had not rejected his own fundamentalist upbringing, he would not have had the emotional distance necessary to speak so frankly about its rigid, judgmental legacy. But if he had not been able to reconcile himself to it, the book’s tone would have been unbearably vitriolic. As someone who has gone through a similar journey, I can appreciate the time, work, and insight required. He writes that the book took about 30 years to research and write. I, for one, am glad that he didn’t rush it. I doubt that he would have been able to write the following 30 years ago:

I can identify several specific ways in which my training as a fundamentalist bore good and healthy fruit, though I’m aware that a statement like that may be greeted with some skepticism by those who have only witnessed the world of fundamentalism from the outside. As a fundamentalist, I learned that it was perfectly all right for me to have an idea or outlook different from most folks … I learned that it was acceptable to be passionate about my values, and to care deeply about the consequences of my actions … I learned that faith and community are essential to life.

In a recent interview, Himes said that he expects the most passionate audience for his book to be conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. I hardly fall within that demographic — as even a cursory perusal of this blog will reveal. And yet I thoroughly enjoyed this book and think that most Americans — especially the ones like me — would benefit from reading it. I appreciate that the book steers clear of the extreme and inflammatory rhetoric that characterizes so much of America’s current culture wars — on either side of the issue. Himes is not trying to win your soul for Jesus, nor is he mocking the deeply held beliefs of fundamentalists. He’s just doing what every good writer ought to do: telling a compelling, relevant story. And he’s got the footnotes to back it up.

Read my interview with Andrew Himes here

Interview with Andrew Himes, author of Sword of the Lord

Publishing houses have been complaining about losing money since the dawn of the printing press. For about that long, authors have been complaining about how hard it is to make it into print. Many more authors make it into print only to see their editions languish on the discount table. That’s because publication isn’t the same thing as marketing, and publishers don’t always have the budget or the inclination to market every book they put out.  So it’s often up to authors to market their books themselves. And herein lies the rub. In general, the qualities that make someone a great writer — especially of non-fiction — aren’t the same qualities that make someone great at marketing their work.

That’s where I’ve been particularly impressed by Andrew Himes. I first became aware of his work with the Voices in Wartime project, which is how I ended up on his mailing list and heard about his book The Sword of the Lord, ready for wide release on May 15, 2011. This is a book that manages to make history personal. Himes, whose grandfather John R. Rice was founder of the Christian fundamental newspaper Sword of the Lord, combines his own personal story with that of his ancestors, creating a seamless picture of a people forged in strife and trauma and adamant in their beliefs in the face of historical pressures. A more in-depth review is forthcoming.

Given my own personal journey around matters religious and spiritual, I think it a ringing endorsement that Himes could make me see this particular religious group — one which tends to demonize people like me — in a spirit of compassion. Himes’s sense of compassion, as well as his willingness to engage in a meaningful email correspondence, is what won me over to him as a person and not just as an author. He agreed to answer a few questions for me:

Frances Donovan: I can tell that you researched this book very thoroughly. Can you describe your research and writing process?

Andrew Himes: I decided from the beginning of researching and writing that the stories and references in the book needed to be beyond dispute. So you might disagree with my analysis of conclusions, but you should still feel confident that the narrative is a truthful and accurate recounting of history. So I read and annotated almost 250 books in order to write my one book, and I read countless articles and posts and historical documents online. I visited the archives of The Sword of the Lord newspaper several years ago to get copies of a number of specific issues I was interested in, and read four biographies of John R. Rice, two of which are unpublished dissertations, and I delved into Rice family archives in the possession of various family members.

Finally, I showed various drafts of the manuscript to several family members, including my mom and all of my aunts — the daughters of John R. Rice – plus my sisters and brother and several cousins, and got extensive critical feedback. I had hundreds of hours of conversation with various church historians, professors, and pastors so I could deeply understand the historical and religious issues I was writing about.

My writing was a process of exploration and transformation. I had no plan in the beginning other than to use the story of my life and my family’s in order to illuminate the story of fundamentalism. So I followed one story or book or historical incident to the next, almost as if I was using stepping stones to cross a shallow pond, but without knowing where the next stone would be until I was ready to step on it.

Frances Donovan: The ending chapter gives us a sense of your own spiritual and political journey. You talk about trading one kind of rigid belief system for another, and it’s obvious both from the overall tone of the book and from your grandmother’s example that compassion is an important spiritual value to you now. Can you tell me a little more about your own spiritual beliefs and practices today?

Andrew Himes:  Compassion is absolutely at the center of my own spiritual practice, and I’m aware that I inherited this focus from both my granddad and my grandmother, as I recount in the book. And compassion is not merely a feeling. It’s an action. The Latin from which the word comes means literally “co-suffering,” and if when we are in deep communion with someone else who is suffering we are driven to act in order to relieve the other person’s suffering. So the very heart of the gospel as we have it presented in the New Testament is Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is a verb. Compassion is an action.

Frances Donovan: Do you think there is a difference between religion and spirituality? How would you describe that difference?

Andrew Himes:  Wow! That’s a question that might require several thousand books to answer. .I suppose the crucial distinction is that spirituality describes the path of an individual towards salvation and enlightenment, while religion is a communal and community-based response to the fundamental questions of human existence, including the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the moral foundations of life. I believe that every single human is built to be both spiritual and religious and connect with the notion of God, a mystery much bigger than our individual lives, the idea and reality of God a mystery beyond anything any of us can imagine or understand. Even people who claim to believe in no God are nonetheless driven to ask these big questions about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, how to understand their connections with other humans, and how they might be held accountable for their actions.

Frances Donovan: It was especially engaging following the thread of your own ancestors’ story within the greater context ofAmerica’s political and religious movements. Is it possible to relate their story to the challenges faced by Muslim Americans in this day and age?

Andrew Himes:  My ancestors came to America fleeing religious persecution, political oppression, and economic disaster. They came to find a new world where they could live in freedom and thrive by taking advantages of new opportunities. The same story can be told of countless new immigrants to the United States, including Muslims from many countries. The faith of Muslims is no more alien to the dream of America than was the faith of my ancestors. We all share in this dream of freedom.

Review: In the Hope of Rising Again

Reposted from Goodreads (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/141961890)

Helen Scully’s prose is lush and fluid, like the flood waters of the Mississippi. She sweeps you through three generations of the Riant family, from the golden days of the Civil War hero founder through its decline and rebirth in the midst of the Great Depression. One book jacket blurb describes this novel as “Southern Gothic,” and the prose does have a dreamy, decadent quality. At times I found the story depressing but appreciated its proto-feminist ending. One can only wonder how much was inspired by events in the lives of the author’s own family.

From page 33: “She felt a surge of power as she focused on the empty road, and its vision on this particular morning made a print in her mind. Soon she would strike out; great things awaited her, travel and love — the courageous search. Where would it take her in this life? … As she turned and stalked back through the sweet stirrings of the garden, she felt an urge to expose herself alongside the flowers, but knew she could not, not yet. Suddenly violent, she lashed with her new parasol against the elephant ears in her path. Then, sap on her shoes and in the webs of her fingers, moth wings in her hair, she returned by the same routes through the dark and chilly downstairs, sipping cold black coffee until sick and unable to sit still, waiting for the house to wake.”

From page 311: “None could guess where Imogene’s search had taken her, but by then the heat had gotten to all of their heads. No behavior seemed out of the ordinary. That was the season, hotter and hotter, the season of blueberries, plums, thunderstorms, storm drains overflowing with the smell of swamp, shutters closed against the sun.”

Review: Wife of the Gods

Wife of the Gods: A NovelWife of the Gods: A Novel by Kwei Quartey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found Quartey’s description of the divide between city and country culture in Ghana eerily similar to the same divide that exists in the USA. At times lyrical in description, with excellence characterization. A story about real people in Africa, not just the latest political or natural disaster.

View all my reviews