It started when the dress didn't fit.
Now, dress sizes don’t faze me. It’s just a number. If a dress doesn’t fit, it’s not because I’m too big –- it’s because the dress is too damn small.
But this particular dress belonged to a close friend, H, who had always been roughly the same size as me. We had shared clothes before. I sometimes had trouble squeezing my G-cups into her tops but this dress wouldn’t even come over my thighs.
I’ve been lucky with my group of friends. The five of us have stuck together since high school. We’re like the Babysitters Club but with sex lives and wine. At one point, we lived in five cities on three continents and still managed to stay connected.
For years, my friends and I were a Lego set of different shapes and sizes. It was a point of pride. Other girls went out in peroxide-blonde size-2 packs but we all had our individual looks.
I was the confident one. I wore a bikini no matter what state my stomach was in. I never stressed about what boys would say if they saw me naked –- “Hallelujah” was the only response I’d accept. I rarely thought about my thighs unless I spilled something on them.
No one but the shallowest of frat boys would have called me fat. But neither would anyone describe me as thin or skinny or any of the things girls are meant to be.
Our culture likes to remind us that “medium” actually means a big fat fail. Jennifer Lawrence is praised for her “realistic body”, despite being skinnier than 90 percent of America. Magazines targeted at women are all about getting toned, shifting pounds, tightening up. Co-workers talk about dieting as thought all women do it. “Have you ever tried paleo?” they ask, then shift awkwardly when I say I’m not looking to lose weight.
I used to fight this negativity head on. When friends hesitated on dessert, I told them to eat what they wanted. When they were uncomfortable showing their legs at the beach, I told them to be less self-conscious. I rejected fad diets, rolled my eyes at boot camp. I preached my message far and wide: Love yourself. Love your body. Love your life.
Yet there I was, battling with a dress, trying to remember my own message of love and self-acceptance. It’s just a dress, I told myself, and took it off before the seams burst open.
H was giving away clothes before moving overseas. I knew she had recently discovered veganism. She looked amazing and had that healthy, energetic glow. I was happy for her. But I had missed the transition where we went from roughly the same to me being two sizes larger.
Looking around, I wondered if my focus on body positive messages had blinded me to changes in my friends.
Another girl, C, had come to visit from interstate. She had looked more or less the same to me, pretty, blonde and the life of the party. It wasn’t till I looked at her properly that I saw the massive impact of her steady efforts to get fit. She was tiny. And positively radiant with self-confidence. I was thrilled that she was happy, but a nasty thought was creeping up on me.
All my friends were now thin and I was not. I was the biggest girl in the group.
It didn’t change my feelings towards them. We were still the same people. But there was something so insidious, so darkly threatening about those words: “the biggest." I was already the shortest in the group and the loudest and least employed. Now I also had another label and I couldn’t get comfortable with it.
For the first time, I poured over group photos, comparing the thickness of my waist to theirs. I became aware of my stomach pushing against my jeans, my thighs spreading out when I sat. I was fretting and fretting meant eating and then feeling worse about how I looked.
I had always firmly believed that weight loss was a false ideal. This idea of “skinny = happy” was a conspiracy by the patriarchy to make women doubt themselves.
Yet my friends seemed happy. Maybe losing weight could make me happier too? Plus what were they thinking as they watched me tuck into a bowl of chips? Did that seem disgusting? Did my confidence seem like a joke? Were they judging me? Were they judging my body?
The answer, of course, was no. They were my friends who loved me. This was in my head and no one else’s. The negative thoughts fed off each other, creating monsters out of air.
Then I started to ask myself: Was weight really the problem? I had just turned my back on a career in law. I was moving to a new city. My new medication had all sorts of weird and wonderful side effects.
“My friends are all thinner than me” really meant “I feel bad about myself.” And as soon as I realised that, I realised changing my weight would not fix any of the issues in my life.
For some people, their weight is holding them back from some great life goal. Achieving that goal genuinely gives them personal satisfaction. But for many of us, focusing on weight lets us avoid all the other issues in our lives.
Instead of counting calories, I got my shit together. I got a writing job. I worked on my blog. I made an effort to get to know new people. I started running because the one thing I truly envied was how C could bound up stairs without panting.
I may still be the biggest girl in the group, but it matters less when no one’s keeping score. I'm once again at peace with my body.
But when I have the urge to tell someone to "love their body" or "stop worrying," I bite my tongue. Body acceptance requires letting go of a lifetime of cultural and societal influences. It means waging a constant war against the forces telling you to be "bikini ready."
It’s not a matter of being confident or not. It’s an ongoing process. Some days we feel a million bucks. Other days it’s like being a St Bernard in a room full of Greyhounds. Good friends understand and support you; they don't admonish you for being self-conscious.
From now on, the pep talks are out. All I’m offering is genuine empathy and a sympathetic ear. We’re all fighting our own battles –- all we can do is have each other’s backs.