Plus-Size Fashion Across The Globe With Elisabeth Harker

Posted by on November 6, 2013

American women are now weighing in about 25 pounds heavier than they were in 1960, and since the average dress size of an American woman is a US size 14, this means that American women are buying a mix of standard size and plus-size clothes. Personally, I tend not to really pay much attention to sizes at all when shopping. Instead, I come from the try everything on school of thought. But that isn’t always an option for Elisabeth Harker.

Elisabeth Harker, 28, is an American woman living and working in Wuhan, China as an English teacher to primary school students. China, a country that is notorious for their very thin-centric beauty ideals, might not be every plus-size woman’s first choice of location to embrace their body and expand their fashion sense, but Elisabeth doesn’t let a few snide remarks stop her from loving her body. It was her move to China and her experience with tailoring clothes and being a “fat foreign girl abroad” that initially sparked her interest in fashion.

“I was actually quite vehemently not into fashion for the first 25 years or so of my life,” says Elisabeth. “I felt left out of it, I guess, so I rejected it completely.  Then at some point after I moved to China, I needed a dress to wear for a function, so I went to Wuhan’s tailor street to get one custom made.  Realizing that I suddenly had a clothing option that I hadn’t ever had before, and that a lot of people don’t, really sparked my interest.”

Elisabeth grew up wanting to be an actress on Broadway and found happiness halfway across the world teaching English. She has a passion for languages, literature, and most recently fashion. Credit: Elisabeth Harker

Elisabeth grew up wanting to be an actress on Broadway and found happiness halfway across the world teaching English. She has a passion for languages, literature, and most recently fashion. Credit: Elisabeth Harker

Jane: What tips would you give to plus-size women living abroad who want to expand their wardrobes and go shopping?

Elisabeth: You have to have thick skin in order to do it.  You also have to know your body type very well.  I know that if I go to brick-and-mortar stores here, I won’t be permitted to try anything on, so I have to be able to tell by looking at things whether or not they will fit. If you think you’re going to be here for a while, try to bring some clothes that would fit you at a size up or down from what you currently are.  The diet here is different, and most people I know who have moved to China from abroad have experienced a weight change in the first couple of months.  If you’re outside the size range sold in most shops, that can present a challenge if the clothes your brought suddenly stop fitting.

Jane: What would you say to plus-size women who want to travel, but are nervous about potentially being discriminated against?

Elisabeth: Don’t let your size stop you!  There was a point when I was considering putting off traveling abroad until I lost weight.   If I’d done that, I would have missed out on six years of some of the best experiences of my life.  Understand that even if you do get a lot of comments, most of them won’t be malicious.  If I go outside my house for more than a minute or two, I can count on somebody remarking on my weight, but usually it’s just an observation.  There are people who are legitimately mean spirited, but no more so than there would be at home.  Don’t let your reaction to the mean spirited few color your opinion of the culture, because they shouldn’t be the ones who get to represent it.

Elisabeth describes her fashion as cheerful. She likes bright colors and fun prints. Credit: Elisabeth Harker

Elisabeth describes her fashion as cheerful. She likes bright colors and fun prints. Credit: Elisabeth Harker

JaneHave you ever personally felt any size discrimination?

Elisabeth: I said before that I can tell by looking at a piece whether or not it will fit.  It’s actually a very frequent occurrence for me to try and buy something at a brick and mortar shop here in Wuhan, and be told that it won’t fit me.  I just say that it’s a gift for my sister, and buy it anyway.  That said, I guess I also have some anxiety about ever admitting anything I buy is for myself… even when people offer to let me try things on, I usually claim that they are for my sister.  I was told once during my first year in China to leave a clothing shop because nothing there would fit me, and even though that’s never happened again since, I’m overly quick with the “Don’t bother me! Shopping for my sister, who is not fat!” defense.

JaneHas your experience abroad changed how you feel about your body?

Elisabeth: It’s made me stop trying to hide it.  I’ve realized that I can’t, and that trying is a waste of energy.  It’s also made me realize that I have to be happy with it, because if I am, the opinions of others matter a lot less.

Elisabeth says that her first trip back to America after three years in China was a big deal for her, since it was the first year into her major style change after years of being somebody who wore jeans and t-shirts. Her friends, family, and even some strangers took note of Elisabeth’s newly discovered interest in fashion. “There was this one day, pretty soon after I got back, where I was wearing a black dress with a puffed out skirt and a red bow around the middle, that I felt really dressed up and amazing in,” says Elisabeth.  “An old lady came up to me in a parking lot, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you how beautiful you are!’  It was very surprising, very sweet, and just completely made my day.”

This glittery teal skirt is Elisabeth's favorite piece in her wardrobe. Credit: Elisabeth Harker

This glittery teal skirt is Elisabeth’s favorite piece in her wardrobe. Credit: Elisabeth Harker

If you want to dress like Elisabeth, she recommends the IGIGI Rachelle Lace Dress in Black/Rouge. She would wear it with a black lace choker and a pair of black flats, keeping the accessories simple because the dress speaks for itself.

For her future plans, Elisabeth is in the process of deciding whether to stay in China for a seventh year or move back to the United States. Elisabeth truly adores China, but part of her is ready to return home and potentially live in New York to be near to Broadway, or she may even try another country entirely.

To keep up with Elisabeth and talk to her about her experiences, you can check in with her on her blog.

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