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I was trying to make myself small. I stood in one of those too-tiny fitting stalls bracketed in the back of a cutesy boutique by a curtain that never fully closed. With my pants still on, I pulled the dress over my head, trying to minimize the amount of time my body was bare. I could hear the saleswoman shuffling close to me; I could feel her hovering anticipation.
“How is it?” she asked.
I couldn’t tell because the mirror was outside, a cunning trick to force you into the sightline of those trying to make a sale.
“I think good?” I said, my cheeks flushing. I remembered why I hadn’t gone into a fitting room in years — the feeling of squeezing into a dress or shirt or pants and hoping that it fits, the way a bad fit could feel like actual weight, a sudden heaviness in my cheeks and chest and belly.
It was that heaviness I felt then, making me regret every little decision that had led me to that moment: detouring off my route from my friend’s apartment to the train so that I could investigate a black jumpsuit in the shop’s window, continuing to browse the merchandise after realizing the jumpsuit was way out of my price range, allowing the saleswoman to place a boldly-patterned maxi dress in my arms and usher me into the changing stall.
But I did like this dress — a blue and red paisley, sleeveless, with a collar embellished by wooden beads — and I was in the market for new, high-quality items. It was something of a project, a self-imposed challenge to shift my lifelong directive of “lose weight” to “buy bigger clothes,” which, if successful, would be revolutionary — for me, at least.
In 30 years, I’d never felt a break in the stream of narrative telling me to lose weight, lose more weight, and then more; it had been a wave carrying me through cycles of bulimia and anorexia, addressed through an outpatient program but never thoroughly quashed.
Now, healthier (and heavier) than I’d ever been, things were going pretty well. I was working my dream job, supported by a loving partner, mother to two perfect rescue cats. I wanted to rid myself of the last vestige of my disordered days, namely the closet full of clothes from years and sizes ago. They were the tangible stand-ins for the thoughts I’d tried to abandon, the embodiment of the assumption that I would — that I had to — lose weight.
And so here I was, trying to put my money where my mouth was. I would let myself look good. I would decorate my body as is. I would dress myself, now, with the styles I wanted, and if the world didn’t collapse because of it, then maybe I wouldn’t have to lose weight at all. Maybe I could just be. This is what I told myself when I parted the curtain and stepped in front of the mirror.
I was prepared to hate my body (because oh god I hated it so much— so wide, so obvious, so visible) but to my immediate delight, I… kind of liked it. I didn’t love it — I couldn’t; I wasn’t there yet — but I didn’t hate it, which was a tiny miracle. I smoothed the skirt over my stomach as I turned to look at my profile.
Not bad, I thought, scouring my reflection for tell-tale mounds or bulges, pockets of shame.
The saleswoman stood next to me in the mirror. I smiled.
“You look beautiful!” she said, and I knew she had to say this, but still it felt good to hear.
“Yeah, it’s nice, right?” I asked, though I knew already the sale was as good as done.
“So nice,” she said.
I wouldn’t have chosen it on my own, but now I saw myself breezing through summer parties, tall in platform sandals, impossibly elegant. Maybe being 30 pounds heavier than I wanted to be didn’t actually mean I no longer looked good. Maybe new clothes wouldn’t have to be a palliative against a body I could never love. Maybe — and this was most appealing of all — this woman had no idea of the stakes underlying this purchase. To her, perhaps I was just a woman buying a dress.
So I changed back into my shorts and oversized tee — my otherwise uniform — and carried the dress to the register, newly confident. The woman asked if I wanted to sign up for the mailing list; I explained I didn’t live very close. She asked what I was up to on this lovely day; I told her I was heading to the park for a friend’s birthday party. She asked if I didn’t want to just change into the dress right then.
“You’d be the best dressed,” she said with a wink, and then lowered her voice. “It’s very slimming.”
And just like that, my happiness evaporated.
It won’t be news to anyone who has struggled with body image, read the comments section under an article about body positivity, or felt targeted by the unavoidable media catering to the weight loss industry, that our culture isn’t exactly on the same page re: rejecting weight loss as a requisite of personal fulfillment. (Yet!) But once we challenge that notion internally, we start to see just how many insidious ways we’re made to inherit it.
There are the obvious methods, of course, those that tell us explicitly to get thin — the ads for diet pills, diet foods, and gyms, the cover stories detailing weight loss plans.
Then there’s the barrage of more subtle, suggestive media — the juxtaposing of weight loss success stories and weight gain cautionary tales, the monopoly of thin bodies on mainstream roles, the unrelenting methods through which our attention is directed toward the happiness and desirability and success of people who all just happen to share the same body type.
It’s taken me longer to recognize a third class of persuasion, because it often Trojan-horses itself into the discourse of empowerment. These are all the ways we’re told we can live in and enjoy bigger bodies, as long as they don’t look like bigger bodies. There’s the uncomfortable shapewear that will hide “unseemly” bulges. There’s the “flattering” rhetoric, the “know your body type” fashion rules, implying an inherently flawed body that must be camouflaged as something which is, at the very least, acceptable. There’s the the saleswoman saying something is “slimming” — or, in other words, “You look good, despite.”
At the core of all of this is the same message: Your body is bad. These compliments are weapons in disguise, language which, regardless of the speaker’s intent, keeps the person receiving them fixed firmly in the belief that their body, on its own, is not enough, that any beauty they have requires a qualification.
This is complicated. I wish it didn’t have to be. I’ve logged more hours contemplating the politics of my body than I’d like to admit (think of the hobbies I could have taken up! the scarves I could have knit!) and I’ve spent time at every point along the spectrum from hating my body to deciding to love my body to deciding my body can just be an inherently amoral object. Each decision I make feels like a contradiction of one that preceded it. I want to buy bigger clothes so I can like the way I look in a bigger body, but my body is bigger because I wanted to prioritize my health over my vanity. Which battle am I fighting; which point is my body trying to prove — that I don’t have to care about how I look, or that I don’t have to be thin to look good? The answer shifts daily, but the closest I’ve come to freedom is in those moments that I’ve indulged the notion that I might stop trying to change my body while beginning to enjoy it. If I’m doubling down on this notion, enjoying my body cannot mean hiding it.
I tried to change my body from as early as 5 years old, when I proudly told my mother I wanted go on a diet. Between 5and 30, I’ve had varying levels of success in making my body smaller or tighter, but never to an extent that satisfied me. And since I’ve hated my body equally at 110 pounds and 140, I began to suspect the weight might not really be the problem.
So I’ve given up the fight, in theory. In practice, I eat something and feel bad about it, and then I tell myself not to; I try on a pair of pants that no longer fits me and remember how quickly I could lose weight if I just stopped eating for, like, a week, and then I put on something that makes me feel sexy and let my boyfriend make us some nachos.
I am not empowered by the optical illusions which try (and mostly fail) to make my body look like what it isn’t (though, after a lifetime of absorbing them, I could rattle off a long list: don’t wear horizontal stripes; don’t wear crop tops; do cinch that waist) and telling me I’ve successfully camouflaged myself as a skinny girl is not a compliment. I am not a skinny girl. Often I want to be, but I’m trying to want it less. That work requires pushing against all the overwhelming messages telling me I should want to get thin — that doing so equates to self-care — which are encoded in advertising, pop culture, daily conversation, and yes, backhanded compliments from well-meaning saleswomen. The body positivity I’m interested in is true and inclusive and unconditional; it doesn’t require caveats.
I did buy the dress that day. I didn’t thank the saleswoman for her compliment, but I also didn’t tell her what was wrong with it; instead, I smiled uncomfortably and then chastised myself for not talking back. Baby steps. Still, I loved the dress. I wore it all summer. Not because I think it makes me look thin, but because it isn’t so tight it makes it hard to eat, because the bright colors look especially vibrant against my olive skin, because maxi skirts really do make me feel goddess-like.
Mostly, though, I love it because it does the best thing I can ask of an item of clothing: It makes me feel so comfortable that I’m not thinking about it at all.