I remember the moment when I realized I had an earring problem. It was an April Saturday in 2015, and a pair of long, neon fringe earrings I had had my eye on were suddenly 50 percent off, thanks to a 24-hour flash sale. Luxebaby, a Philly online retailer, had dropped the damage to $10. At the time, I was a broke freelancer between commissions, without the funds for even that.
I didn't have a piggy bank: I had an oval wooden case that I had painted in Girl Scout camp when I was maybe 12 and had saved change in ever since. I had never emptied it for anything. But here I was, at 26, listening to coins clink as I poured them into a counting machine.
By that point, I was already past even trying to estimate how many pairs I possessed. When the earrings arrived, it finally sank in that I had sacrificed my childhood savings. I felt embarrassed. I swore I would never again stoop to such measures to finance my obsession.
Still, there was no end in sight.
With BigCartel, Etsy, personal websites, and even artists willing to sell work via direct message, I stopped having to keep tabs the old-school way, at festivals, community days, on street corners. By searching Instagram and Twitter, I could order earrings from not only jewelry makers in the UK, Australia, Spain, but also from Philadelphians I'd never meet.
The love that I have for earrings runs deep. Before I even knew I wanted to be a writer, I sensed that earrings could speak for me. As a young black girl in Philadelphia coming up in the '90s and the 2000s, I looked for acceptance through fashion, but trendy apparel didn't readily embrace big girls like me. In 2018, there are still regular news stories about the dearth of options for plus-size women, and a dearth indeed there is. But I don't think that the kids will ever fully understand what it was like to try to find a cute outfit in size 18 before WiFi. I never felt like I could wear anything. Earrings always fit.
When big women style ensembles, as Courtney Patterson-Faye, a Wesleyan sociologist and fat studies scholar, explained, internal calculations of "where I fit into popular culture" take place. Many of us, she continued, learn to appreciate what a purse, a hairstyle, a pair of heels or even the right perfume can add to the conversation.
As I selected my clothes, I'd push through disappointments — over availability, over fit, over self-perception. Getting ready for school was the everyday challenge; come birthdays and school dances, the stakes would heighten. I would clothe myself as protection from my bullies, with the unshakable aspiration of outdressing them. I can tell you all about a losing game. It would be cheery to suggest that I didn't internalize the frustrations I felt, but no, they changed me.
Back when I was a little thing, my mother used to take me along as she browsed for accessories. Down at the corner of Germantown and Chelten, she'd stop to buy statement pieces made of cowries, or tiny versions of Africa in leather, or bone beads in swirling earth-tone patterns. How I used to love her '90s-era hoops that were wide but thin, with only several beads on the string.
In girlhood, there's a certain beauty to discovering and learning the sartorial codes in your corner of the universe, and there is a pain when you aim but can't access them.
In head-to-toe fashion looks, anthropologist Brittany Webb sees ethnic distinctions, but also regionalism and class markers. When looking at big black women, she also sees creativity borne amid prohibitive pricing and unwelcoming markets. Treating a piece of jewelry, or body modification, or a tattoo as more than metal or scars or ink is a norm observable across the black diaspora, throughout history.
The "local context" of intra-communal fashion standards doesn't always translate, said Webb, curator of the John Rhoden Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Still, she went on, "it signifies we all belong to this thing, and we know that this is a kind of beautiful that means that a ritual has happened."
Patterson-Faye had hundreds of pairs of earrings when she was a middle schooler at Finletter and Masterman, living in East Oak Lane. She'd to go Lane Bryant, Sears and the Gap, as friends could find the latest from Express, the Limited and Victoria's Secret. My story growing up in Mount Airy was near-identical. We aspired to fit many of same aesthetics — the Guess jeans worn with tees or blouses and Coach belts, while matching the shirt color or belt accents to the shoe.
Through my early teens, when my mother allowed me more sizable jewelry, I took off like a sprinter. I asked my mother perennially if I could get a second hole pierced, so I could layer hoops. She let me do that at 16. The nameplates I yearned for took longer. As Marcel Rosa-Salas, the co-founder of a nameplate jewelry archive, discussed with the music and cultural magazine Fader, those customized pieces often carry a "coming-of-age" significance. My Cassie earrings, now lost, were earned after I got into an Ivy League school and expressed to my mother that I still wanted them. In my mind, a fly girl had to have acrylic nails, Jordans, Timberlands, and earrings just like those, but again, those were the items I could execute.
The invisible labor for plus-size women behind finding the precise garments and accessories to nail a trend, Patterson-Faye said, can feel, at times, debilitating. And the process to make oneself acceptable, she said, would be influenced not solely by shape, but complexion and hair texture. The struggles might quell the hunt to meet beauty standards for some, but not everyone.
"We know what's it's like to want to feel desired," Patterson-Faye said, "so we do what we do to reach that place."
Sometimes, I'd plan earring outings downtown, or start shopping for jewelry for no reason. During a stroll to the train through the Gallery, a $20 bill could stretch a long way, through visits to Claire's, Burlington Coat Factory, beauty supply stores, and small boutiques. I'd slide down to South Street with my friends and bounce around for pairs on the corridor. I would amass piles of costume jewelry, put them in boxes, then buy some more. I was running, running, running, so much of the the time, toward higher notions of self.
At some point in my 20s, I stopped trying to shop like the fly girls I hoped to emulate, and started to buy whatever I truly loved. Looking at my pieces revives memories of the ice I felt while looking for clothes, of the items I thought could make me attractive, of boutiques that are no more, of affirmations received from folks on the street, of the uncertainty I felt at 25, of the DMs I've had with artists to get my hands on their pieces, of the utter excitement to acquiring something I found so beautiful, and of the slow creep toward confidence I've angled toward.