I've been in recovery from an eating disorder for about a year. For me, recovery has meant gaining weight, as it does for many in the recovery community. Naturally, this has meant buying new clothes, which I view as pure torture. As I gained the weight back, I bought a few new pieces of clothing here and there just so I would have clothes to wear while purposely avoiding large shopping trips. Still, each time I left a clothing store I cried in my car.
A couple of months ago, when none of my pants fit yet again, a trip to Goodwill revealed that I wore the same size pants as I did in high school, when I started the diet that would eventually turn into a full-blown eating disorder. I was devastated, fell into a deep depression, and almost and relapsed back into my eating disorder. I thought to myself, I'd rather be sick than fat.
After many conversations with friends, loved ones, and my therapist, I decided that I'd rather be healthy than go back to the hell of an active eating disorder. This decision meant that I'd have to learn to accept my new body, no matter how much weight I'd gained. If I ran out of clothes that fit me comfortably and if I wasn't going to change my body to fit the clothes, I'd have to get the right clothes for my body.
I've always had a really complicated relationship with clothes and with fashion in general. My eating disorder caused my weight to fluctuate drastically and often. When I was heavily restricting I could maintain a thin body, but when the restriction was too severe my body rebelled by forcing me to binge. I would gain massive amounts of weight quickly. This meant that I was often getting rid of and buying clothes.
When I was thin, the size on the clothes was a huge ego boost. I felt beautiful and sexy so I bought fashionable clothes. I would spend lots of money I didn't have on the latest styles. Shopping trips became very different when I gained weight. The size on the clothes made me feel worthless and ashamed. I would buy frumpy clothes to hide my figure. I avoided all the latest trends and fashions assuming that I couldn't pull them off with my larger body. I believed I only deserved fashionable clothes if I was thin.
Knowing that I would need to buy a brand new wardrobe to fit my new body, I made a conscious decision not to let my previous beliefs about fashion take over the big shopping trip. I wanted to buy fashionable things that fit my new body well and made me feel amazing rather than ashamed. I knew I wouldn't be able to do this alone, so I called in my little sister for support.
I am not naturally fashion savvy. The image below (on the left) is what I look like when I'm allowed to dress myself. I'm a super simple jeans and t-shirt kind of girl. No makeup. Nothing done to my hair. Just plain old me. The picture on the right is me actually trying to be cool (and is still pretty basic).
My little sister takes a different approach. She does much better than me in the fashion department. And most importantly, she knows how to dress in a way that makes her look and feel great. When I was in high school my sister used to say that she should be allowed to dress me so I'd leave the house looking presentable. So, that's what I decided to let her do.
The mission was as follows:
- I would go shopping with my sister and let her pick out everything for my new wardrobe.
- I would try on the clothes she picked out, regardless of how I felt about them.
- I would let her have the final say on all purchases, even if I felt like I'd never wear the outfit again.
- She would then take pictures of me in every outfit we bought, even if I felt like dying being in front of a camera.
The goal was that I would end up with fashionable clothes that fit my new body and made me feel good about myself. I was skeptical that this goal could be achieved, but I told myself to suck it up and try it anyway.
We set out for the mall we used to frequent when we were teenagers and got to it. We started at Forever 21, since we'd both heard they tended to have more plus size options available than most stores. We ended up finding a sheer, sleeveless black button up that ended up being part of this outfit:
I liked the way the shirt flowed. It felt like it hugged the right places and flowed in all the right places. I could wear it buttoned or unbuttoned with a cami underneath. It seemed like a really versatile top, and it was fancier than my normal sarcastic graphic tee. It did kind of do that thing button ups do when your chest is too large to be contained, but I figured that was a small price to pay for a cute top.
We also found this travesty, which needless to say, I left on the reject rack:
The flannel you see hanging on the hook in this photo also ended up being a purchase from Forever 21, but I've since decided to return it. One of the major things I learned while shopping in Forever 21 was that their designers are not really prepared for a woman with broad shoulders and big arms, both of which I have. In the spirit of body positivity I refuse to call these my faults, but my arms are one of the hardest parts of my body for me to accept, to this day. The flannel ended up being tight around the shoulders and on my arms, but I initially liked it so much that I tried to ignore the fact that it was pretty uncomfortable.
After the shopping trip was done, I remembered that part of the mission was for me to find clothes that were comfortable and made me feel good about myself, so when I honestly thought about it, the flannel had to go.
Overall, the trip to Forever 21 was kind of a dud, which was a little disappointing. I've always liked the clothes I see in there and it was one of my favorite lower priced fashion splurges when I was thinner. I was excited to hear that they were known for stocking plus sizes, but we didn't find that to be the case. Maybe it's because we were at a smaller store but still, the disappointment was real.
Next, we stopped by American Eagle, another favorite of mine when I was thinner. After looking at a few of the price tags I decided AE was out of my budget for the day, but browsed the racks while my sister tried on some stuff for herself. Turns out, I didn't see any jeans in my size in the store and their definition of a large shirt seemed to be very different from the larges that fit my body. I have a feeling if I'd decided to try anything on in American Eagle I would have had a dressing room meltdown over sizes that normally fit being too small. Final call: I dodged a bullet by skipping American Eagle.
The goldmine of our shopping trip ended up being Old Navy, which has always been a staple of mine. After an hour or so of rooting through the massive clearance section we ended up with three new outfits, and to my surprise, I actually liked them.
The first outfit my sister picked was a cute red tank top (pictured below) and a simple pair of jean shorts. I was, of course, horrified at her suggestion that I should buy shorts. After my arms, my legs are the part of my body that I am the least comfortable with. I had a strict no shorts policy, even when I was thin. Only at my very thinnest did I ever wear shorts. I even wore pants when I went to Italy in high school when it was ninety degrees outside. I always believed that being uncomfortably hot is better than showing my legs.
Then my sister said one of the smartest things she would say to me all day, "it's going to be hot. Get over yourself and put on some damn shorts."
So I did.
The result wasn't half as awful as I thought. The top draped in just the right way and didn't make it look like I was wearing a shapeless bag. The shorts weren't too tight on my thighs or my waist, and the world didn't end when I emerged with bare thighs.
The second outfit (see above) also involved shorts. I grimaced, but remembered what I'd been told and just tried them on. Again, nothing apocalyptic happened when I bared my thighs, and the shorts were cute enough that I even let my sister take a picture that included my legs. This may not seem like a big deal, but I have obsessed over my "knee fat", yes I'm concerned about knee fat, for years, so having a photo where my legs are shown is huge. The pattern on the shorts was super snazzy, I rarely go for patterns, and the flowing, sheer t-shirt looked awesome. Bonus, the t-shirt was super comfortable. The material is super soft and the sleeves weren't tight around my arms at all, which is usually a huge problem with short sleeved shirts. Plus the shirt accentuated my chest, arguably my best feature.
The win of the day ended up being this cardigan and tank combo from Old Navy paired with leggings that I already owned:
Both the cardigan and the tank were super soft and fit perfectly. They were loose, but not shapeless. They accentuated my new curves. Most importantly, when I wore this outfit I felt awesome. So much so that I actually started playing "America's Next Top Model" while we were taking the photos (hence, the "glamour shots").
I'm not going to lie, the whole experience was pretty uncomfortable. I am all too familiar with fashionable clothes in my size not being available at popular stores. I am very familiar with grabbing a size that "should fit" me and discovering in the dressing room that I need a larger size, one the store doesn't usually sell. I have become resigned to the fact that just because a size fits at one store doesn't mean the same exact size will fit at another store. In other words, I'm familiar with the general horror of shopping as a plus sized woman. Some of this did happen on this shopping trip, but it was super helpful to have my sister there to talk me through it. I'm happy to report that I didn't cry once. I was also pretty uncomfortable having my photo taken in the new outfits. I spent more time than I'd like to admit staring at all the photos we took and choosing which ones to show to the world. I'll be a happier person if I never have to try on that many clothes or take that many pictures again.
Despite my discomfort, I would call the mission a complete success. I obtained four new outfits, eight new articles of clothing, and a new perspective on clothing and fashion. I realized that having a larger body did not exclude me from the world of fashion. I learned that if I looked in the right places I could find fashionable clothes that fit my body. I discovered that having clothes that fit correctly and looked good on my body made me feel better about my body.
Most importantly, I came to believe that I deserve to be fashionable, regardless of the size of my body. The fashion industry so often sells us clothes by putting them on tiny women and broadcasting images of these women to us constantly. This can give the impression that fashion is only meant for women who look like these women. I certainly believed that and I made myself very sick trying to look like those women. Shopping for clothes that fit my healthy, plus sized body convinced me that fashion is for women of all sizes. I deserve to wear whatever I want to wear.
I deserve fashion just as much as any other woman. And so do you.