A Maximalist on the Undeniable Power of Taking Up Space

As a New Yorker, my relationship to maximalism is complex. On one hand, there’s an urge to fade into anonymity within the sea of head-to-toe monochromatic black outfits that populate our city, but on the other hand, New York is also home to a culture based around being extra. I’ve rarely ever succeeded in fading into the background—in middle school, my backpack was a Feministing tote with a woman giving the finger on it—but I haven’t always felt comfortable wearing color. In fact, there were many years in which my wardrobe consisted only of black. (Maybe I was self-conscious or maybe I was afraid of being mistaken for a tourist.)

The truth is that maximalism, both as an aesthetic movement and a way of life, has often been reserved for a select few. Plus-sized people are told to avoid patterns, bright colors, or anything “oversized.” Black women are sent home from school and chastised in the workplace for wearing certain hairstyles. LGBTQ+ folks often face pressure to “pass” or adhere to style choices that fit a narrow set of respectability politics. The faces of maximalist fashion trends on runways have historically belonged to thin, white, cisgender women, and the people that our society encourages to express themselves maximally have typically been straight, white, cisgender men. This pressure to shrink oneself, to live and express oneself minimally, is unhelpful at best and insidious at worst—its impact can be found in everything from diet culture and disordered eating, to the pleasure gap that exists between men and women. So, how can we reclaim our space and learn to move through the world as our best, biggest, and loudest versions of ourselves? This is what we’ll dive into this Thursday during a Good Evening panel discussion at MR HQ with Brittany Brathwait, Sesali Bowen, Arabelle Sicardi, and Laura Delerato.

I have a career that I want, I have the sex that I want, I have the partners that I want, my friends are the shit… I’m booked and busy.

For Brittany, reproductive justice activist and co-founder of KIMBRITIVE, learning to take up space requires embracing “abundance over scarcity—with the understanding that I’m never too much.” But Brittany hasn’t always found this approach easy. “It’s taken a long time for me to understand that my taking up space, with my hips, my voice, or my ideas, isn’t taking anything from anyone else,” she says. And her fear of overwhelming others is extremely relatable. For those of us who have been socialized as girls, it’s common to hear messaging that we must put the needs of others before our own. Former senior entertainment editor at Nylon and cultural influencer Sesali is an amazing example of how we can learn to center our lives around not just our own needs, but our own joy. “I live a very full life,” Sesali says. “I have a career that I want, I have the sex that I want, I have the partners that I want, my friends are the shit… I’m booked and busy. The more full my life got, the more space I needed and at some point I realized I couldn’t feel bad about that.”

My own journey toward maximalism didn’t follow a straight line, and for me, it started at the gym. When I got into weight lifting after college, I quickly noticed some pretty intense gender dynamics. The weights section at my gym was populated mainly by men, and as a small, female-presenting person, I found myself being literally squeezed out of the area. It wasn’t just dirty looks or the fact that dudes would steal my weights while I paused for a sip of water—it was the feeling that I was invisible that made me feel unwelcome.

At first, I was embarrassed, and all I wanted to do was shrink further into the background, ditch my weights, and never come back. Eventually, however, the experience fired me up, and became part of the inspiration for Body Politic, a queer feminist wellness collective I founded in 2018 to try to create safe spaces for marginalized folks in the fitness and wellness worlds. I started seeking out more welcoming spaces to exercise, and I also slowly ditched my all-black wardrobe for the most obnoxious workout clothes you’ve ever seen. If you catch me in the weights section of this gym today, I’ll probably be wearing polka dot leggings and a “They Power” t-shirt while I listen to my “you got this” playlist—because when all else fails, Lizzo, Cardi, and Alanis always have my back.

Putting on patterns and shapes I’ve been told are reserved for body types unlike my own, or outfits that loudly merge traditionally feminine and masculine elements makes me feel both in charge and unique.

There’s something about dressing myself up in a bold look that makes me feel safer. Beauty writer Arabelle also likes to take up space through self-adornment. “Getting my makeup done by my friend Slater is one of the surefire ways to drag me out of a bad mood and helps me take up space in my body. Getting a new tattoo is also one of my top three favorite sensations,” they said.

For women, LGBTQ+ folks, people of color, and other marginalized populations who have historically been barred from controlling their own bodies, it can feel electrifying to reclaim that power via fashion, makeup, and body modification. Writer, creative producer, and body image activist Laura uses fashion to proudly affirm her identity. “I find ways through my personal style to purposely call attention to the fact that I am a plus-size woman living a successful life, so that others in my community know they can do the same,” Laura says. “It’s a daily maximalism, and it makes me special.”

Before we kick off the conversation in collaboration with Body Politic at Man Repeller HQ on Thursday, I want to encourage you to take a moment to stop and consider the ways you can reclaim space in your own lives. When do you feel your biggest, loudest, and proudest? What parts of your life make you feel like you’re living abundantly? What does expressing yourself maximally mean to you?

Graphics by Lorenza Centi.

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