I became interested in muumuus because of how they are culturally representative (in a kitschy, clichéd kind of way) of obesity. They are what fat people have to wear when they get too big for all other fashion options. (Homer Simpson wore a lovely flower muumuu during his plan to collect disability for being morbidly obese.) The muumuu also has a history that invites symbolic interpretation: English missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands in the 1820s were appalled to discover that the natives were naked except for loin cloths and designed the muumuu to cover them up. In short, they taught the islanders to be conscious (ashamed) of their bodies and about the Christian virtue of modesty.
The decision to make muumuus was kind of an intuitive one on my part; I didn’t really know where the project would go, just that I felt compelled to do it. Not surprisingly, this work doesn’t feel finished to me. Instead the process of sewing has revealed a whole new set of thoughts and feelings that will feed future work (no pun intended), and for that reason this project was one worth doing.
I began by purchasing several vintage muumuu sewing patterns on ebay. They were generally from the 50’s and 60’s and I chose them because they had the classic muumuu design with the yoke collar and short sleeves. I purchased some fabric that I felt complimented the muumuu’s design and the absurd (loud and cheerful) look I was going for. (I think I was channeling John Waters during fabric selection.) Because I had never sewn a garment before I also bought some cheap gray jersey fabric to make my first muumuu. I got impatient waiting for the patterns to come and improvised this first muumuu on my own. I used the cotton print fabric to make my second one, which was more by the pattern than the first and as a result came out much nicer. (Thank you for the extensive tutoring Michelle!) I’ve never made wearable clothing before from scratch (Halloween costumes don’t count) so I’m proud of myself. As with the tomato skin quilt, once again I was reminded that I’m not a fan of actually sewing, but still I’m very interested in it as a skill set and tradition. I think once I get better at it I’ll enjoy it more.
The second observation occurred when the muumuus were complete and I tried them on and checked myself out in the mirror. I was truly surprised at how ashamed and sad I felt wearing the muumuus. It was strange to have made these items of clothing, to have labored on them and then to feel whatever pride in my work I had overshadowed by a strong dislike (even resentment) for the items. They made me look ugly, I thought, or at least feel ugly. They hid every curve of my body and reduced it to a large fabric sack. My head, legs, and arms stuck out strangely from the holes and appeared disembodied to me. It felt like an admission that I was all the things that people think fat people are. I became angry at a culture that would mentally assign this garment to people, mad that my identity (but really all identities) could be reduced to one physical feature.
But even in those very moments when I stood in front of the mirror feeling such strong self hate and anger, I also had this rational voice in my head who was surprised at my emotional reaction. It’s not like I don’t know I’m obese–and since when am I so vain anyway? And actually they are really comfortable. So then I wore them around to do small errands, only to be gawked at—which is a totally reasonable reaction to seeing someone in a muumuu; I would gawk too. When I took the muumuus off again and hung them up, I enjoyed looking at them. (NB: I grow more fond of the muumuus everytime I slip one on and more at ease with how I look in them.)
It was interesting to me that my experience of wearing the muumuus also kind of mirrors my experience of being obese; I’m pretty much cool with myself when I’m going about my life and only feel anxious or unhappy when I encounter negative external stimuli in the form of weird looks or verbal insults (usually from adolescent boys interestingly), panicky news reports, or mainstream advertisements that tell me that taste is the most important quality of food and simultaneously encourage me to eat and be thin. All of this perpetuates the anxiety and self-hate that keeps me fat. (Don’t worry y’all. I’m in therapy.)
I’ve been sitting with this experience for only a couple days and I’m not sure what to make of it just yet. Going forward this summer I’m planning to continue these explorations of obese body identity. It’s a timely topic and something I’m deeply connected to. In some sense I’m still trying to determine my perspective on the issue.