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Sewing machine Photo: Shutterstock

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My Great-Aunt Didn’t Care About Her Dress Size, So Why Do I?

The wealthy women she tailored for asked her to cut size tags out of their dresses; years later, I struggle with the same impulse.

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My grandmother’s sister Juana was a seamstress in Manhattan in the 1960s. She moved from Puerto Rico to New York to make a life for herself, a life that would include a one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights with my mother and grandmother. To make her money, she helped tailor women’s clothing that she could not afford herself. Yet in every photo I’ve seen of them, they’ve been dressed to the nines.

My grandmother and my great-aunt always took pride in their looks — my grandmother was 4’9” but seemed to tower over women in high heels, wearing fitted dresses that flared out at the bottom and accentuated her waist. Her big secret? In her cheap dresses that looked couture, she knew that price didn’t matter. Style did. That was a thing you radiated.

When I think about them, when I see their photos with lacy gloves and pill box hats, and later on disco heels and silk body suits and big hoops, here’s what I never think: “What size did they wear?” Who would ever think that? When you see a beautiful dress on someone, you’re not thinking it’s beautiful because you know it’s a size 6 or 8 or 2x. It’s just beautiful.

But here’s another secret — when my grandmother’s sister was tailoring dresses, she talked about one request she received above all others: Women would ask her to take the label bearing the size out of the dresses. Or they would ask to replace the size tag with a smaller one. That, she would laugh, was one of the most common requests.

For years, I would think about this. Why? How could these women not know what my great-aunt did: that looking good was not about little things like price or size — the things that could be sewn and tailored away — but fit and confidence? Who were they lying to? Ten years later, I think I finally get it.

I’ve never had a good relationship with my body, which means I’ve also never had a good relationship with clothing. My grandmother and my great-aunt reveled in the way they looked, in choosing outfits that worked for them. I rarely take joy in wearing clothing. Just like the women they tailored for, it’s a numbers game for me. A measure of how small I am or am not. Where I grew up, attending a predominately white and upper middle-class high school in a Westchester County suburb, clothing was never about fit. It was always how small you could make yourself. I felt like there was no room there for a body like mine, with large breasts and a fat tummy. So I trained myself to squeeze into the smallest size I could, and I still do.

When I’m online and hovering over what size I think I should order, or when I’m at a store and looking through the sizes, I tend to choose the wrong one. On purpose. I tell myself I’m a size smaller than I really am, just because it makes me feel better, just because some arbitrary number is more important than knowing it will fit me. It’s a game I still play, only with myself, after carrying around an eating disorder for many years and then recovering from it. Twenty-eight pounds heavier than my lowest weight and loads happier, I’m still telling myself I’ll probably fit into a size small when I know I’ll be a medium. My great-aunt Juana was my example of loving yourself in clothing. I grew to fight that idea for most of my life.

I have a hard time talking about my clothing size, just like a lot of people do. But I don’t lie to people’s faces. I lie to myself, when I’m in the dressing room or unwrapping a dress package. I usually always return dresses I buy online. And why, after all these years of recovery, does it even matter? Sometimes I’m a size 4. Sometimes I’m a size 8. But that’s not news. Give me one woman who is consistently one dress size at every store, and I’ll show you a shape shifter.

So if I’m not even a real size, why am I so scared of being a bigger one? A long history, maybe, but here’s what I know for sure: If I don’t get over it, I’ll never look good in a dress, and I’ll never be happy.

When I was asked to be in my friend’s wedding, we had to order the dresses online and get them tailored. My grandmother and great-aunt are no longer around, my mother’s sewing machine is unreliable, and I can only sew buttons. You know, because things fade over time. And you know the rule about bridesmaid’s dresses: Order them larger. They’re easier to take in than let out.

I found myself unable to do that. I ordered a size 4 after measuring myself with a tape measure in an office bathroom, squeezing it tight and promising myself a smaller size would be perfect. It wasn’t, not even close. The tailor didn’t know what to do. The wedding was in a month and I couldn’t order another dress. She said she could let it out as much as she could, and that I should maybe diet or run a lot for a month. I ate bags of raw veggies, drank no alcohol, consumed mostly juices and cashews for a month, all while putting myself at risk for relapse and also at risk for eating my friends and family whole, out of hunger. I fit into the dress, a moment that had suddenly become a “feat” because I didn’t want to be a larger size. I didn’t take the tag out, but I might as well have. I did not feel beautiful that day, only hungry and accomplished.

A few years later while picking a beautiful dress from ASOS for another wedding, I chose two sizes and ended up fitting into the larger one. I knew I would be, but I still ordered both, hoping for the miracle of vanity sizing. Being a bigger size in this one particular dress threw me off for weeks. When I hung it up in my closet, you know what I thought of doing as it floated there?

Cutting the tag off.

The dress itself was a vision. Very rarely do I choose a dress because I think it’s gorgeous. I usually pick something because it looks like it’ll run big or fit loose. This one was royal blue, off-the-shoulder style with glistening fuchsia beads. It was cinched at the waist. And when I put it on the day of the wedding, in the size that was larger than I wanted it to be, it fit like a glove. I didn’t have to tailor myself to fit into it because it was tailor-made for the body I already had. The loud colors reminded me of the bold and tight outfits my great-aunt used to love to wear. I was all smiles and felt happy, a wonderful thing that can happen in the right clothing that rarely happened to me. And in that dress, I did something I had rarely done before — I asked my friend to take a full-body photo of me. I liked the photos. And yes, I forgot about the size. Who would care? It looked miles better than some shirt in a size small I squeezed myself into. I did not shove myself into that beautiful dress.

Photo: Alida Nugent

My relationship with clothing, like all important relationships, needs some improvement. I am not a healed woman after I fit into a dress I loved. But I did learn how important it feels to love yourself in an article of clothing, and to divorce that feeling from the size on the label inside. Fixing doesn’t come from cutting a label off or squeezing into smaller jeans. It comes with clothes that fit, and it comes from allowing yourself to be happy in them.

My grandmother and great-aunt took pride in the way they looked for the rest of their lives. I never asked those women if they loved their bodies. For all I know, they might not have. But they dressed it in ways that made them feel beautiful. And when somebody told them they looked nice, they allowed themselves to believe them. I knew that by the smiles in all the photos I have of them. And when I look at those photos, if the inside of their dress had the label cut out, or it was a size 4 or 8 or 12, I could never really tell. And the same does apply for me: When somebody tells me I look nice, I try to believe them. I remember that they aren’t thinking about my size.

Perhaps, soon, neither should I.


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