Editor's note: This is the fifth part of a six-week series on the perceptions of beauty. Last week, we looked at body image issues among men. Next week, we'll look at beauty across cultures.
(CNN) -- Lesley Kinzel is not a size zero. She's not a size 6 or 16 either. She wears a U.S. size 26, has no plans to change that and she'd be more than happy to share her style advice with you.
Kinzel, a 35-year-old associate editor at xoJane.com and author of the upcoming "Two Whole Cakes," is part of an increasingly popular online movement that celebrates fashion for larger women -- without a tent dress or body-camouflaging cardigan in sight. The authors of so-called "fatshion" blogs -- with names like Fat Girls Like Nice Clothes Too, Manolo for the Big Girl, Curves to Kill and Thicker Than Your Average Girl -- seek to send an empowering message to their plus-sized sisters: We're here, we're fat, we look just fabulous -- and you can, too.
"Fat" is a loaded word, often wielded as a weapon, but Kinzel hopes to lessen its power to wound.
"Learning to use the word 'fat' as a basic descriptor, stripping it of its negative baggage, was a huge part of my self-acceptance process," she says. "Some women never get comfortable with it, and I understand that -- for some, it's been used as a weapon for too long for anything positive to be salvaged.
"But I love the word 'fat' precisely because my candid and positive use of it often shocks people...it means everyone who hears the word 'fat' from me is having to take a moment to think about what I mean by it, and to resist the knee-jerk assumption that I must mean something bad."
With that in mind, she created a blog, Fatshionista, in 2007. Though many of the original postings are now archived at her "body politics, social justice activism and pop-cultural criticism" blog, Two Whole Cakes, her writing shares a body-positive message for women she feels are not represented as beautiful and desirable in mainstream media. Growing up, she says, "I didn't have many famous examples of positive fat-lady representation. I mean, there was Roseanne. I loved Roseanne, but not because she was beautiful -- I loved her because she was smart and tough and didn't take crap from anyone."
Fat girls representing themselves as confident, smart and resourceful is key, Kinzel says.
"If we wait for television and magazines to do this for us, we're going to be waiting a very long time," she says. "So we do it ourselves."
Jessica Kane, creator of Life and Style of Jessica (tagline "Real is perfect!") and owner of Skorch Plus Size Style Magazine, agrees with the importance of owning words as a first step to self-acceptance. Some girls might see themselves as curvy, while others see themselves as plus-sized. She says, "I do embrace the word 'fat,' because I am. It's not mean or spiteful, but a fact."
Kane recalls, "I grew up in a broken home with no role models, and was tortured in high school for not being cool enough and never had a boyfriend. It was after high school and realizing the larger world around me and being exposed to plus-size fashion via the Internet that I started to see I was not the minority and there were women who were confident and my size. Those women gave me strength, and I hope to pass that along as well."
With her blog, she's taken control of the message in the way an occasional "special section" or magazine insert never would. "The majority of women need to be represented, and blogs like mine that thrive with hundreds of thousands of views a month show that there are women who want to see more. We need the thin girls next to the big girls as well as the brown girls next to the white girls. Diversity is key," Kane says.
"There's nothing more empowering than connecting with women just like you. No matter what you're going through, you aren't alone."
The problem for many women, no matter their level of body acceptance, is simply finding attractive clothes in their size. It's easy for bigger women to feel like no trendy clothes exist in their size, and they have no right to wear them, to be seen, to be active participants in fashion.
As Kinzel says, "The fatter you get the harder it is."
Bloggers share their plus-sized fashion finds from mainstream retailers like Lane Bryant, Top Shop and Torrid, as well as delving into more niche designers and outlets like Domino Dollhouse, Qristyl Frazier Designs, Monif C. and the Curve line from ASOS. They post pictures and links from the catalogues -- or even of themselves modeling the clothes, looking confident and gorgeous as all get out.
Dee S., an 21-year-old Irish woman who blogs at Pearls, Lace and Ruffles says she's a "5'3"-apple-shaped-plus-sized-gal" who carries her weight in her midsection, so even fashion for large girls rarely fits her.
Her secret is to remain open to possibilities.
"The best way to find clothes is just to go out shopping and don't restrict yourself. I used to avoid the 'normal' side of Forever 21's store and go straight for the plus section -- but now I browse the whole store. If I see something I like in the regular section, I try it on. Most times, if it's a stretchy or knit fabric, then a size large will fit me," Dee says.
Designer Angela Zampell noticed this inequity in the marketplace and decided to expand her already popular Mode Merr clothing line to, as her company's tagline says, dress "stylish women from xxs-xxxl."
"I truly believe that there is room for woman to feel sexy in their clothes. I saw a definite need for a wider size range in the market. It's not fair for just the tiny ladies to have the best selection," Zampell says. "I think that the key is not to forget that larger gals still have a shape and it isn't square."
Her bold, curve-hugging clothing (she has an item called the "Everybody Loves Cleavage Blouse") has become a favorite of the plus-sized blogosphere, as well as the generally body-positive burlesque community. She sees the lack of flattering clothing as a result of social prejudice, rather than a result of any perceived figure flaws.
"It's much easier to design for curves," she notes.
For Kinzel, Kane and Dee, there are tremendous rewards in helping other women realize their beauty potential, but it has not been without risks. It is, after all, the Internet, and with that, the inevitable rain of anonymous hostility from people offended that a larger woman would dare to find herself attractive.
"The people who get angriest about fat girls looking good and feeling hot are the people who are the most strongly invested in the idea that a person has to be skinny in order to be happy, healthy, and loved," Kinzel says.
"Very often it's people just projecting their own body-loathing onto someone else; if you're truly comfortable and confident in your own skin, it shouldn't make a difference to you what anyone else is wearing, or how they look. It only affects you if it's making you question your assumptions, about both other people and about yourself."
Dee says she's weathered worse in person. When people see a bigger girl enjoying herself, they're shocked, she says.
At a club with her friends, a man referred to her as the "fat bitch." She responded, "Yes, I'm fat, so what?" The look on his face, she says, was priceless.
"Where I live, most women over a size 16 tend to wear long skirts and baggy dresses, so people sometimes double-take when they see a big girl in a mini dress or cute blouse and heels."
Kane chalks the reactions up to jealousy and notes that in the bigger-girl blogosphere, it can cut both ways.
"That person judging and knocking a thinner woman for feeling great is probably jealous that that person feels so great about themselves, and secretly wishing they had that too," she says.
Kinzel, however, has found the negative response to be an extreme minority, and their invective is greatly outweighed by the reward. She routinely get grateful emails from people of all sizes, people dealing with or recovering from eating disorders, even men. "It's very humbling."
And it's worth it to Dee to keep putting herself out there in such a public way, no matter the challenges. While it's empowering to look beautiful on the outside, "Life is too short to be hung up on appearance," she says.
"At the end of the day, its just your outer shell -- there's a whole personality underneath that's just waiting to shine. And even if you don't realize how beautiful you are, someone else is out there who thinks you are the most beautiful person in the world."
Even if it's a stranger, looking at you through a screen.