Oct 28, 2021 • 44M

"You’re Showing Up in the World, and Nobody is Fooled," with Dacy Gillespie of Mindful Closet

On the fallacy of fashion optical illusions, detaching from clothing sizes, and other epiphanies of intuitive style

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Weekly conversations about how we dismantle diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting, health and fashion. (But non-parents like it too!) Hosted by Virginia Sole-Smith, journalist and author of THE EATING INSTINCT and the forthcoming FAT KID PHOBIA.
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Hello, and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

Today I am chatting with Dacy Gillespie, a personal stylist and creator of Mindful Closet.

If you follow me on Instagram, you might have noticed I have been posting a little more fashion content. If you think anything I’ve been wearing is cute, it is because of Dacy. She is brilliant at fashion. She is even more brilliant at helping us release the patriarchal rules that we have felt like we had to follow about getting dressed. Dacy does it all from a weight-inclusive, Health at Every Size perspective. She is an amazing unicorn in the fashion universe.

Dacy Gillespie
Dacy Gillespie of Mindful Closet

Dacy

Thank you, Virginia, for the really kind words.

Virginia

All extremely true. For folks who don’t know you, let’s start by having you give us a little of your story. You are a classical musician-turned-stylist. You are also very much not what people think of when they think of a stylist! I would love to hear a little more of how you got into this work.

Dacy

I appreciate that you say I’m not what you would think of when you hear “stylist.” For me, that is a good sign that someone connects with what I feel like I’m doing, in a weird way. I truly feel that way myself, so it’s nice to be recognized.

I’ll try and give the short version of the story. I know we’re going to talk later about the messages that people get around clothing and fashion. My story started with a message I got from my parents, which was: If you care or think about clothes or fashion, you’re superficial and silly, and not a serious, caring person. I know a lot of people can relate to that. Fashion was something I always, always loved. If it weren’t for that message, I probably would have gotten into something in the fashion field much earlier on.

Instead, I went into classical music which was an approved field of study. It was an interesting career for a while, but ultimately a really high stress one. When I decided to change careers in my mid-thirties, style and fashion was what I went back to. I did some research on fields within the industry and realized that something I’d been informally doing for people my whole life actually was a job: Personal styling. I was always that person who would come over and help you clean out your closet or help you decide what you were going to wear to an event. It never felt validated as something that I could actually do, partially because of that message from my parents, and partially because I just never felt cool enough to be in fashion. Thanks to a really supportive husband and a lot of privilege, I started this business about nine years ago.

Virginia

I went into fashion magazines, but worked in the health departments. I was like, “I’m not cool enough for the fashion people.” Which was both true and not true. The fashion industry is very insular and puts up barriers, but it’s ridiculous that these barriers exist and that we internalize them.

We’ve been working together in your one-on-one coaching program. It’s been low-key life-changing. And it’s a lot more like therapy than I expected, in a good way. I was like, “Oh, I want to work with Dacy because I need to figure out what styles work on my body,” and like, “maybe she’ll just tell me what to wear and that’ll be so great.” And instead, you were like, “What messages have you absorbed about your body? Let’s unpack this! Where did this come from?” I started realizing I had all these ideas, like that I should only wear flowy tops or I should only wear dark colors. You helped me sort through that and figure out where it comes from. So, I’m curious to hear why you think it’s so important to start with those stories that we tell ourselves about clothes.

Dacy

Well, I think awareness is always the first step towards growth and change. You have to be aware of those stories that you’ve been told before you can let them go. You have to hold them and look at them and say, “Is this true for me? Or is this just someone else’s idea of what I should be doing?”

As women, we’re so used to taking in others’ opinions and changing our actions around those opinions. I see this as an entry point to getting in touch with what your true needs are. Fashion is just a way to practice that. You talk about intuitive eating and Health at Every Size, and there are so many similarities and parallels in this work. It’s about listening to your body and what it needs. I always ask, “Is it external influence or is it an internal motivation?”

The whole first session when I work with someone is called “Style Stories.” It’s about asking, “What has your relationship with clothes been over the course of your life? Who dressed you? Who took you to buy clothes? Who influenced what you thought you should be wearing? Who gave you messages?” It can be anyone, from our mothers to fashion magazines and of course, social media. It’s so important to acknowledge those messages and decide whether you want to accept them or let them go.

Virginia

Yes, yes, absolutely. We talked a lot about middle school for me. It was all about Cool Girls, and because I moved schools around that time, wondering if I had the right thing to wear. I realized that here I am, a 40-year-old adult, still worrying about having the right thing to wear.

One of my big takeaways was how much joy I had gotten out of clothes as a kid, and even as a teenager and young adult. That joy had been really sucked out of fashion for me, and a lot of that was because of my body changing. I grew up as a thin kid. I’m a small fat adult. That was a big transition because clothes just aren’t accessible to me in the same way. There were also feelings of wanting to fit in and play it safe and wear black all the time.

When we started digging deeper into it, you asked me to show you what I love. I showed you people like Emma Straub and Nora Pelizzari who are wearing tons of color and mixed prints and bright patterns. They’re like walking rays of sunshine! It was so interesting to realize that’s actually what I’m really drawn to.

We realized that wanting to play it safe is really a fear of taking up space. It’s really a fear being noticed. Is this is a common fear you encounter? Does this fear of being noticeable come up a lot, especially for people in bigger bodies?

Dacy

Yeah, for sure. This is what I hear especially people who have lived in a larger body for most of their life. They felt excluded, that clothing and fashion were not things that they could participate in—in some cases, literally! Like, “When I went to the store with my mom and my sister, my sister could buy the clothes in this store and I couldn’t.”

People have this experience of feeling excluded and getting messages that if you are not in a socially acceptable body, you should hide yourself. You don’t deserve to be noticed. Something is shameful about your body and it should be hidden. You should just be grateful if you can find anything that fits your body. Of course, we have a long way to go, but steps are being taken, thankfully. There are options if you love and enjoy fashion, so that you don’t have to wear shapeless, black sacks. I, however, am someone who loves a shapeless black sack.

Something I was thinking about talking to you, Virginia, is that—and I think this is common for a lot of mothers—the period of time when you lost your spark of joy about fashion was the period of time when you became a parent. That was a somewhat traumatic experience for you. People get to the point where they just have to get through the day, just have to get by, and fashion is not something that they have the luxury to think about. You are somewhat through that, and finally able to feel more of the things that bring you pleasure. It was really lovely to be able to help you connect to that.

Virginia

When we were going through our more traumatic years with my daughter’s medical condition, I did a lot of stress shopping. I remember sitting attached to the breast pump in the ICU, and buying boots on my phone in this compulsive way. I just needed something good.

I’ll never shame anyone’s coping strategies, but for me, it wasn’t super satisfying. Shopping is hard to do in a spontaneous, joyful way. The whole structure of online shopping, in particular, is difficult to navigate. Recognizing that I needed joy and deserved joy and didn’t have to do it in a furtive, stressful way was helpful.

The other realization I had as we were doing this work, was how much I had lowered my standards. I think of myself as someone with high standards, so that was surprising. As shopping got harder, I ended up keeping stuff I didn’t really like because returns seemed like a hassle. Maybe I really loved it but it didn’t fit quite right. Or I didn’t love it, but it fit okay, so I would convince myself it was fine. There was a lot of accepting stuff that wasn’t great. There was some inertia and some fear that it would be hard to find something better. I want to hold space for the fact that for folks on tight budgets, for folks in larger bodies, it often does feel somewhat impossible to find better options. I think you’ve mentioned that you’ve encountered that belief a lot, too. But why is this important to challenge? And how do we challenge it?

Dacy

People who are in larger bodies or people whose bodies change, as yours did and as mine is right now, have been given this message that we don’t matter, that we’re not worth the effort. If we have something that that fits, we should just shut up and be thankful. It’s a real expression of self-value to say, “No, this is not quite right.” Maybe you need this item right now, because there’s not always a perfect solution, but just knowing that this isn’t what expresses yourself in the most pure way can be helpful. It may not be what makes you the most happy, and you can continue to look for that.

As mothers, we would never say to our kids, “Make do with the rain boots with the hole in them.” or “You grew out of those but I’m not going to buy you new clothes.” But we often let our needs fall to the bottom of the priority list.

Virginia

How do you advise people to start to shift that? Is it finding more time to spend on shopping? Is it thinking differently about what you’re buying? What’s the starting point?

Dacy

The starting point is awareness. Allow yourself to feel what you feel about your clothes. When you get dressed in the morning, if you are putting on two or three things and taking them off because you don’t want to wear them that day, just try and sit with and understand what is going on there. Is it because it doesn’t fit well? Is it because it makes you feel squeezed? Is it because it’s a very bright color that you feel uncomfortable in? Is it because it’s black and you feel drab?

It’s going to be so different for every single person, but start allowing those things to come up. We’re not supposed to complain about these things; we should be grateful we have clothes. Allowing yourself to start to think, “Okay, this is the reason why I don't want to wear this today. I'm gonna put it on because I don't have any other options, but this is going to start a process of thinking about what I want my clothes to be for me.”

A huge part of it is also finding visual inspiration and really not censoring yourself when you’re doing that. People will create Pinterest boards and they’ll put things on where they love that print but have been told that doesn’t work for someone in a larger body. Or they may say, “I love that fitted shape, but God forbid someone see my stomach!” So, if you can reach out for visual inspiration that truly resonates on a gut level without filtering in that way, you’ll just start to see things a little bit differently and see what you’re wearing a little bit differently. It comes down to this awareness of rejecting what you’ve been told. You can decide what it is that you like the look of, and then later on you can figure out a way to translate it into your life.

Virginia

I went in thinking I knew what clothes I liked. If you’d asked me previous to this, “What is your style?” I think I would have said, “Whatever the Anthropologie plus size collection has, that’s probably what I want to wear.” It turns out, it’s actually not at all what I want to wear! We didn’t end up buying anything from them. It’s not a style that really speaks to me. I realized how much I was just accepting, like, aren't we so lucky that Anthropologie makes plus sizes now, I must want to wear that. There are lots of ways this plays out.

Then there was this process of refining and realizing I love when Emma Straub wears a giant, multicolored muumuu. But I don’t actually want to wear a muumuu, I want something with that feel, but with smaller pops of color. That still feels very bold to me, as someone who came from black t-shirt land.

Dacy

You start with that visual inspiration, then at some point you have to put it into practice and see how it feels. There’s a little bit of a swing to the extreme sometimes, too. I think maybe you did this a little bit. This thing of, I need to wear all the prints and all the colors, because now it’s available and it has never been available before. And yet, you still have to do what feels good for you. I think you experienced some of that. Some of those more colorful things made you uncomfortable and didn’t get worn and therefore weren’t really useful for you.

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. We also did a much bigger closet purge than I was expecting. That was cathartic. It was exciting to realize how much stuff I had hanging in there that I wasn’t wearing.

What are some other common beliefs that come up with clients, especially folks in bigger bodies, that you help them break through?

Dacy

These ideas that that style is not for you, that you can’t take up space, that you can’t just be the physical person that you are, and that you should strive for an optical illusion that makes you appear smaller, which we then call '“flattering.” And that “flattering” should be the priority above all else.

I like to start by reversing that and saying, “What do you like, without considering what is socially appropriate or conventionally appropriate for your body?” Let’s start with what you actually like the look of and let’s prioritize that. That way you get some say in it, you get some control. Otherwise, you’re just saying, “Well Tim Gunn or Elle Magazine or whoever says, ‘you have to wear fitted waist and full skirts,’ all for the sake of appearing as small as possible.” What if you just don’t like how that looks? People in larger bodies have been pressured to do this as much as they possibly can. God forbid you show up in your full size, that would be so offensive. Let’s use all the tricks in the book that we can come up with to try and make you appear smaller than you actually are.

Virginia

It’s so exhausting and the tricks don’t work either. People will still see your body.

Dacy

You’re a three dimensional object. You’re showing up in the world, and nobody is fooled. It just makes you feel uncomfortable and you’re trying so hard to achieve something that is impossible.

Virginia

It also triggers so much comparing and that’s not helpful, as opposed to focusing on what makes you happy and what makes you feel good in clothes. I remember reading an interview with Lindy West where—thinking of your comment about black shapeless sacks—she said something like, “I would love if someone put me in that for a photoshoot, but they always put me in the like 1950’s hourglass silhouette with a bold red lip.” That’s the way that fat girls are allowed to feel pretty, to really lean into the retro vibes. What if you don’t— and I don’t—particularly love a retro vibe? What if you don’t want to be Marilyn Monroe? What if you don’t love a puff sleeve, at the moment? Or certain silky flower prints that we get over and over? It probably sounds very hard to start with what you love, but I think you’re right that it’s a very pivotal step to take.

Dacy

You and I, and probably a lot of people listening, have been challenging this concept of flattering. Some people get very worried, like “Why would I wear something if it’s not flattering, because flattering makes me feel good.” It comes down to the meaning of the word and what you consider the word flattering to mean. In my in my opinion, it has always meant to appear as small as possible. If to you “flattering” means something that makes you happy because you put it on and you light up, that’s great.

Virginia

The clothes I ended up buying after working with you are, in many cases, silhouettes that I would not have thought would be “flattering” on my body. I would now say they actually are flattering, if we redefine the word. I look better in these clothes because I’m comfortable and happy in them. I’m not trying to hide my body.

Dacy

It’s because we started with what you liked the look of, right? If we had stuck to the rules, we wouldn’t have gotten to those clothes.

Virginia

I want to talk about detaching from your clothing size. I truly do not care what the label says anymore. When I look at what we bought, which I was doing because I was posting on Instagram and wanted to give people sizes, we bought like 47 different sizes. I think that’s often a stumbling block for people. They’re really caught up in their head about wanting to stay a certain size and buying the next size up feels like this big, scary step to take. Can you explain, as someone who understands retail so well, why are clothing sizes such bullshit and what do we do with that?

Dacy

I don’t know if I have perfect answers for either of those questions. I mentioned this in passing before, that my body is changing. I do feel that little bit of sadness when I realized that the sizes I bought for years don’t fit anymore and I’m in a different size now. We want to acknowledge that, it is definitely a thing. And also, sizing is so meaningless. It’s absolutely meaningless. One size in one store equals a size four sizes up in another store. So how can you say you’re one or the other? I always say to my clients that 100 or 150 years ago there was no size. There were no clothing sizes. Clothes were made for your body. If you were wealthy, someone made them for you. If you were poor, you made them for yourself. This concept of needing our bodies to fit into certain clothes or certain styles is a new concept. It’s new since industrialization; it’s new since globalization. Sizing is a construct that ultimately makes a lot of people feel bad. But it’s imaginary.

Virginia

Yeah, you have to start viewing it as white noise, in a way. The relief of finding a clothing item that fits well is so powerful. It feels so good that I can stop caring about the number. That was a helpful turning point for me. There is a mourning process, you’re right. You have to grieve. It’s frustrating, too, because clothes are expensive, to realize that the entire closet that I had before each of my children is gone. That is infuriating. But you have to detach from those numbers and just see them as this strange system that the store is using to chart out its clothes, that doesn’t have any reflection on us.

You also explained to me about taking your measurements and studying the size charts. It is a little more labor intensive and can also be triggering because anything with numbers and bodies can be triggering. But, if you can do measurements in a way that feels safe to you, it’s a much more reliable as a way to buy clothes. Look at the size charts and match up your measurements. That was really helpful.

Dacy

The alternative is that you order something in a size you hope will fit and it comes and it doesn’t fit and you feel bad about yourself. You feel frustrated and you give up and end up with no clothes that make you feel good about your body.

If you’re not feeling comfortable in your body and your clothes on a daily basis, you’re just a little more restricted in your thoughts and your movements. It’s such a valuable thing to have clothes that fit. While it’s hard, I don’t see an alternative because I don’t think wearing clothes that don’t fit is a good option for most people.

Virginia

It’s a lot like living on a diet. Even if you’re living on one of those less punitive diets and it’s a “lifestyle plan,” it’s sapping your energy in this small way every day because all this mental energy is going towards what you’re eating or not eating. And wasting mental energy on jeans that feel uncomfortably too tight is such a life suck. Why do that?

The system you encourage is ordering multiple sizes, trying things on, and returning. This is something that I started doing years ago because it felt like the only practical way to shop. We should also talk about the returns piece of things, because this is a topic that is complicated. I would love your thoughts on how we navigate that part of it.

Dacy

It’s funny, you’re a huge outlier. Almost everyone I work with is shocked by the idea of ordering multiple things to try!

Virginia

So people are just buying one thing at a time? And then returning it?

Dacy

Or not returning it because it feels frustrating and they don’t want to order the next size and so they just get stuck. A lot of people just need permission to know that there is absolutely no way to know if something is going to fit based on the size chart on a company’s website. Even if they have a well laid out size chart, and you take your measurements, and you match up to a certain size. There’s just no way to know. You are setting yourself up to get stuck in the process by only ordering one thing and then feeling like you failed. You haven’t failed, it’s the system, which doesn’t work for anyone.

Virginia

I bet it’s people being really hesitant to order the larger size and being attached to that clothing number. Maybe they’ve already gone up one size but don’t want to go up two sizes. I think we need to reckon with why that is so scary. This is a meaningless number.

Dacy

I have a lot of people who always ordered one size, no matter what store. How on earth do you know if that’s going to fit? If we were in a dressing room in a store and you tried on something and it didn’t fit, of course you’d get the next size. By not doing that you’re stilting the whole process.

In terms of returns, I do not have all the answers. It’s an environmental concern. It’s something that a lot of us take personal responsibility for and feel guilty for. But in reality, it’s another big system that needs to be managed by corporations and the people making money off of us. It is not our personal responsibility to save the planet by never returning anything and keeping clothes that we don’t like or that don’t fit.

Virginia

Which you would just end up throwing out anyway, at some point.

Dacy

Exactly. Good point. It’s even more wasteful to keep them, in some ways. A lot of people are really concerned about shipping and carbon emissions and—if anyone has any data about this, I’d love to hear it—in my neighborhood, there’s a delivery guy going from house to house to house, which is probably more efficient than everyone in my neighborhood driving separately to buy something.

The thing that I value the most is women feeling good in their clothes because I feel like it allows them to have that freedom of thought and freedom to be an activist for the things that are important.

At the moment, the system only allows us to get clothes that fit by trying a bunch of things and returning some of them. Unfortunately, that’s our option. The only other option is getting clothes that don’t fit or sticking with clothes that you ordered and feel guilty about returning and are a waste of money because they’re not quite what you need.

Virginia

Amanda Mull had a great piece in The Atlantic about returns, for anyone who wants to read up. The big concern is that a lot of retailers destroy inventory instead of putting it back into inventory, which is pretty disgusting and neither of us are saying it’s not bad. It’s bad.

Dacy

Yes. But there’s a lot of nuance to it. I believe the article said that 25 percent of returns are not going back into inventory. I’m going to guess that a majority of those are fast fashion retailers. Very cheaply made things are just not worth the cost of being put back into the inventory system to resell. So, here’s a little plug for trying to buy more sustainably made clothing. I can tell you for sure that a lot of the brands that I work with and follow are not putting garments in the trash. If a piece is worth a certain amount of money and it’s well-made, like out of organically grown cotton, it’s not going in the trash.

Virginia

Yeah, they are going to put it back in inventory. It’s also true that, for plus size folks, fast fashion is often the only way to get your sizes. It is a broken system and you still deserve to be able to put clothes on your body, even if you’re on a tight budget, even if you don’t have a lot of size options. Our individual choices only go so far here.

I often hear from from other folks in the fat community that the returns process is a burden unique to us. So, it was really interesting to read that Atlantic piece and realize this is happening across all retail, not even just clothing. It is true that folks who can’t shop in brick and mortar stores, because they don’t carry our sizes, are stuck with this model. But, it’s also true that everyone is doing this. It’s not our unique burden or unique failing. It’s helpful to understand the scope of the problem even though it’s also depressing.

Dacy

Yeah, I think what you just said is really important. People feel like they’re failing if they can’t immediately buy an image on a computer screen and have it work out. That is so unrealistic. Just know, shopping is hard for everyone. I buy and return many, many things before I find what I want, personally. And I’m someone who knows the landscape out there and knows about lots of options and and I still cannot determine until I put it on my body.

Virginia

One other option I will shout out is that my new newsletter assistant, Corinne Fay, runs a really awesome Instagram @SellTradePlus. It is a great option to know about for buying secondhand clothes. And, if you did buy something that you can’t return because you’re worried they’re gonna destroy it or you’re past the return window, you can sell it on SellTradePlus. It’s an awesome community.

I wanted to end by giving a recommendation of something we are loving or something that is making our lives easier. Dacy, do you have a recommendation for us?

Dacy

I really had to think hard about this and I have I have three answers.

Over the last couple of years, I have started to get into a better relationship with movement and movement that makes me feel good. It’s more for my mental health than anything. It’s faux-hiking. It’s walking, but it’s hiking. It’s a paved path, but it’s very steep. I’m sure real hikers would be like, “That’s not hiking.” But it’s not walking around my neighborhood, okay?

And I went to REI the other day and actually bought a pair of good shoes for that. I’ve just been wearing just running shoes and I’m terrified of slipping and falling, especially now as we’re getting into fall and winter. So, that’s one thing.

Along with that, something that I will need to do this year is buy myself a new winter coat because I’ve outgrown mine. Cold weather gear is so important. I’m from the South and I currently live in St. Louis. I do not enjoy the cold, but for so long I just wore an extra sweater or two pairs of gloves. Buying winter gear was kind of a revelation. So, I’m looking forward to having a great new winter coat.

And then the last thing that’s making my life really a lot better, since pandemic parenting—I also have two young children—is that I have taken a couple trips. Obviously this is not something that’s available to everyone and I’m extremely lucky. Last week I went to Tucson and in a month or so I’m going to to New York with a friend. Just having those on my calendar is bringing me a lot of joy.

Virginia

Oh my gosh, yes. I love recommending faux-hiking, winter clothes, and abandoning your children.

Dacy

One hundred percent.

Virginia

My recommendation this week is going to be this song that I’m obsessed with called White Woman’s Instagram by Bo Burnham. I’m probably the last person to discover it because it does have 10 million views on YouTube. During the pandemic, Dan, my husband, got really obsessed with Bo Burnham, who is apparently a YouTube-sensation-slash-stand-up-comedian person. This making me sound really out of touch with the kids, but I am, so that’s accurate.

Dacy

If it makes you feel any better, I have not seen the video, so I’m even behind you.

Virginia

Oh, well, then there is delight awaiting you, Dacy.

Bo Burnham did this comedy special that he produced during lockdown. He shot it all in his house in Los Angeles. It’s definitely a privileged person’s experience of the pandemic, but he shot this whole special at home. Dan watched it and was obsessed with it, and kept trying to make me watch it. And I kept refusing. Sometimes when he’s really excited about things, I don’t get excited.

Finally, I watched it last week, because we do a monthly Movie Club and it was Dan’s turn to pick the movie. He was able to make everyone watch Bo Burnham: Inside. I have somewhat complicated feelings about the movie, which I will not go into (but if anyone wants to discuss in the comments, feel free!).

But! White Woman’s Instagram is satirizing white women on Instagram very accurately. My favorite line is when he talks about seeing some random quote from “Lord of the Rings” incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. The video is really fun to watch because he recreates very well-known tropes of Instagram, as a man, and it’s just very funny. If you are someone who, like Dacy and me, has to navigate Instagram for your job and you feel exasperated by it often, then you will enjoy this.

Alright, thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you like this episode and you aren’t yet a subscriber please subscribe!

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Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus. Our logo is by Deanna Lowe.

And I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. You can find more of my work at virginiasolesmith.com or come say hi on Instagram or Twitter. I’m @v_solesmith.