Dear Skinny Jeans,
I haven’t forgotten about you although I am working on it and hopefully at the end of this letter my farewell to you will be complete. For some reason, every time I open my closet lately I hear your siren song calling my name, taunting me and telling me that life was better…I was better, stronger when I fit comfortably into you. Sometimes I mark my life by the times I weighed this or that. And, of course, there was the skinny jeans age when I effortlessly slid into your tapered denim legs. My mom was buying me a special birthday gift, and we were at a store I couldn’t afford to shop in at the time. My third baby was not quite one year old. I was running around raggedly. I took (foolish) pride in my lithe postpartum body. I found you, and you were even on sale. My mom and the sales lady all said you looked great on me, and I felt great wearing you. But maybe that was the problem right there. Clothes or the way they fit me shouldn’t dictate the way I feel, especially not the way I feel about myself, my strength, or my worth.
So the other day, knowing full well I am not as thin as I was in that glittery-gold “skinny jeans era” even though I cannot recall the last time I stepped onto a scale, I decided to try you on – just to see how you’d make you feel. Why do we women let a number on a scale or a clothing label or how a pair of jeans fit us shape the way we see ourselves and even our lives?
Well, I had to stuff my flesh into you. The zipper slid up easily enough, but then I had to lie supine on the bed to button you and then I felt like I couldn’t breathe. You didn’t make me feel good at all. You reminded me of failure. You reminded me of weakness. You made me fearful of the “fat” girl of my past – the one a boy spat upon on the bus, the one another group of vicious boys oinked at, the one who bore the nickname “Miss Piggy.”
Walking stiffly around my house with you clinging to me was a form of punishment, and there was also an unrealistic hope that you would quickly stretch and fit me loosely as you once had. I found myself mourning the old me – not one my critical self labeled as the “fat” one – but the one who was thin enough that you hung loosely on my hips. Now you dug into my hips like sharp teeth, and I wasn’t sure which pain was worse – the searing physical pinch of tight fabric on skin or the emotional pain. It wasn’t so much that I was married to the desire of looking good in you any longer. It was just I wanted to protect myself against future pain. I equated wearing you with happiness and security when really those things have nothing to do with my waistline. And I was afraid that allowing you to become tight on my waistline was allowing myself to slip back into that lonely, uncertain girl who got teased on the school bus.
I peeled your denim off me like it was second skin I was shedding. I cried at first because of what I had lost – a size 25 inch waistline, power, ephemeral happiness. But then I started to weep for a different reason. I hated it that someone who was supposed to be a body image role model, someone who was blessed with daughters whom she wanted to teach to reclaim the beauty of Creation, someone who wrote a book called Weightless and now I felt weighted down by this burden of self-loathing. This led more tears to flow.
Rationally, I know that thinness does not equal happiness. It is an illusion. Skinny people suffer. Overweight people suffer. Rich and poor suffer. Most human beings suffer. I also know that I like to pretend that I was gifted with you during a blissful, healthy time, but this is a half-truth. I had happy moments, but I was thin partly because life had lost its luster and so had food because I was mired in the darkness of postpartum depression. On the outside, I looked happy enough, but on the inside I was breaking and crippled by sadness and uncertainty. That’s been a trademark of big chunks of my life – smile, be the life of the party, and then go home and weep, question every word you uttered, berate yourself for all that you are and all that you lack.
And you, Skinny Jeans, I was allowing you to be another reminder of all that I wasn’t and couldn’t be instead of seeing you as just a silly piece of clothing from a distant part of my life. My expectations of still wearing you comfortably after four children and when I eat fully and richly without counting calories and exercise out of enjoyment and not as a punishment or obligation, it was absurd. And, yet, I couldn’t let go of you right away. So I draped you on a hanger and hung you on a silver knob of my dresser where I would see you every morning and each night in hopes that you would remind me of what I once was and give me the drive to be stronger, to work harder because I couldn’t let myself go. I couldn’t return to what I saw as that unlovable, little girl hidden behind too many layers of flesh, the “fat,” ridiculed one.
A reader once emailed me that while she appreciated my book and writings on body image, she also found it disheartening because in her words I was a thin, pretty woman, so how could I really know what it’s like to feel overweight and unlovable? At first, I was angry. Who was she to tell me what I was qualified to write about? That’s what my pride said. Then I was hurt because I wanted to tell her she didn’t know me when I was the overweight kid and the object of fat-shaming and bullying. Of course, she also didn’t know me when I was the ugly duckling turned swan and very confused by the new attention from boys and people calling me pretty. It didn’t sit well with me. I felt like the same person through all those phases, but people saw me and treated me differently based solely on a change of my physical appearance, and sometimes I gloried in it – all that newfound attention. Other times I resented it. I just wanted people to love me for me and not comment on my aesthetics. At the same time, my peers’ admiration gave me satisfaction. I can remember going out to eat with girlfriends and nibbling on shards of lettuce while they took down greasy cheeseburgers and slurped up thick milkshakes and thinking that I was stronger than they were.
And if people thought the thin me was better than the heavy me, then how much better would they think an even thinner me was?
So I restricted more, but it wore on me. And sometimes there was something freeing in scarfing down Twizzlers or globs of gooey cookie dough. Eating was a guilty pleasure instead of just a pleasure. I was the perfectionist who found short-lived happiness and relief in overeating because it felt like a moment of freedom and reckless abandon. But the guilt that followed was overwhelming. I couldn’t let myself to return to that bigger, scarier version of myself.
But what I know now even as I mourn the skinny jeans era is that I’m not afraid of gaining weight or being what the world might consider “fat.” What I’m really afraid of is rejection. I want to be loved and lovable – able to be loved. We all do. Don’t assume a woman perceived as beautiful by society doesn’t deal with loneliness or self-hatred any less than a woman who is seen as overweight might. The outside is a poor indicator of what’s going on in the inside for a lot of people.
One day my 10-year-old waltzed into my room. Sometimes I look at her and feel equally proud and sad. Proud because she is so comfortable in her own skin. She sees her body as a strong instrument that can run a mile in just over seven minutes and can take her across the soccer field or basketball court rather than an object to be fixed or tweaked. In a world that lauds self-improvement, this is a young girl who is satisfied with herself and sees that she is good enough. I was nine when I first considered dieting. A few years after that I had started to hate my body and wanted to hide all that extra flesh away. I decided I would be the funny, outgoing girl to distract people from the extra weight I was carrying around. My oldest daughter has made no such decisions. She’s herself because she’s herself. She’s outgoing because she likes people, not because she wants them to like her.
Well, she noticed you, Skinny Jeans, hanging on my dresser. “Are those new?” she asked.
“No,” I told her.
“They’re cute. They look like they might fit me,” she remarked.
My girl takes after her daddy. She is tall. I have already started passing down old running shorts or tops I no longer wear because she’s nearly my height, and her hands and feet are already bigger than my own. She has just started to take an interest in trying on my clothes.
“Can I try them on?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “But they’ll be too big on you.”
My beautiful daughter still thankfully impervious to any trace of body image angst yanked the jeans off the hanger. She clearly did not revere you, O Skinny Jeans, as I did. You were just a cute pair jeans. Nothing more, nothing less. She tried you on, and I was shocked to discover you were just a little long and your waistline was only an inch or two too big. You almost fit my athletic 10-year-old daughter, and I had been berating my approaching-40-body that has been pregnant five times and brought four children into the world that you were too tight on me. Why was it that I was using an old pair of jeans as a barometer of my self-worth? Why was I so afraid of letting go of being thin and just being satisfied with being fit and happy? You were given to me under subterranean duress when I didn’t feel like eating or doing much of anything else. You do not personify joy or happiness. And my no longer fitting into you like I once did doesn’t mean I am on the verge of being my scared and rejected 9-year-old self.
Skinny Jeans, you are nothing but fabric – and not even all that much of fabric considering my 10-year-old will probably comfortably wear you in a year or two. You are not the Holy Grail of Happiness. You never have been. You, the scale, my weight – none of this defines me. I refuse to listen to your taunting, to the lies you whisper to me that if I lose enough weight so that you sag on my hips again, I will somehow be happier or inoculated against self-doubt. I will not hold onto you or another life I wish I was living. This is where I am now. I am going to be content with this beautiful now.
Thanks to you, I decided to sift through my closet and purge. I wasn’t just saying good-bye to old clothes or clothes that never made me feel good about the natural design of my body, it was a valediction to negativity and an illusory hope that life was better in the past (when I fit well into this bit of clothing) or would be better in the future (when this article of clothing fit me again) when it’s pretty damn wonderful right now. It was a purging of self-loathing, self-scrutinizing. A purging of ridiculous expectations and holding onto certain articles of clothing that represent a life I think I want to live rather than being content with the life I am living. Why do we sugarcoat the past and glorify the future while muddying up the present? I realized that in holding onto all these different sizes of clothing – the “skinny” clothes, the “just-in-case-I-gain-a-few-pounds-or-get-pregnant-again clothes” – I wasn’t allowing myself to fully live in the now.
What I decided to keep were the life-I-am-living-right-now-clothes and the if-I-really-stop-to-consider-it-the-life-I-am-so-grateful-and-happy-to-be-living-right-now-clothes, the comfortable clothes, the jeans that my figure fills well now and has for the past few years, the pretty, delicate, bohemian lace top I feel feminine yet adventurous in, the cozy sweaters, the line of brightly colored fitness clothes I have covered many miles in or held a plank in. The neon tank (“You look so pretty in those bright, neon colors,” I hear the friend who gave it to me as a birthday gift saying) I wore when I recently ran a 5K where I somehow placed first in my age group and third overall in the women’s division. These remind me that the size on the label of my clothing have nothing to do with my strength or my happiness.
Ironically, back when I wore you, Skinny Jeans, I felt too tried to run or to do a push-up. Now I run as my body allows, which isn’t as much as I’d like, but God has a way of humbling me and reminding me that sometimes a weaker body yields a stronger soul. These days I weight train because I enjoy it and because it’s something my husband and I can do together in our basement after the kids are asleep. I play pickup basketball games with my kids and end up sweaty and happy. I jump on the trampoline with my little jumping beans giggling around me. I dance in the kitchen while listening to Pandora and making my family’s dinner, and my kids either join in or affectionately call me a geek. I was always a geek. After I made my transformation, a boy said, I was a geek trapped in a hot body. But like the beautiful weight loss memoir I couldn’t put down, It Was Me All Along. Once a geek, always a geek and proud of it.
I am not going to fear my (heavier) past or yearn for a different (thinner) future. I am not going to see myself as a failure just because I still sometimes struggle with seeing food as a necessary pleasure and as fuel rather than thinking about it too much and wondering if maybe I, too, should go paleo or give up gluten or try to be a vegetarian again when I know that for me everything in moderation is the best dietary path to take. I am not going to hide away and not write for weeks on end because the ghosts of my eating disorder have returned to haunt and tempt me and I feel like I am a hypocrite if I try to be encouraging when maybe we all need encouragement from real people like me who have suffered and still do from time to time. I am going to share my mistakes, my weaknesses, these big, confusing feelings I sometimes still have about myself, my weight, my personality, my life in hopes that they might help someone else out there. I am not going to let an old pair of jeans – or a new pair of jeans either – control my happiness. I can choose joy. I can always choose joy.
I imagine a ceremonial burning where I hurl you into the flames and watch your faded denim turn to ashes, but I then I realize that would give you far too much power. You’re just clothing. My daughter might need a new pair of jeans in the future. My thrifty side can’t deny that, so I’ll just tuck you away in a storage closet upstairs. As for some of your friends – other pieces of clothing that don’t make me feel good about myself or my body like the floral pencil skirt that never fit me right, but I held onto thinking that something was wrong with my body’s proportions and thinking I could change my natural shape instead of considering that perhaps something was wrong with the cut of the skirt – well, I’m moving on and donating some to charity and selling some on Thred Up. I don’t need to keep anything around that makes me unhappy or tempts me to criticize my body. Clothes like that are like bad boyfriends, and I had one of those in the past who made me feel just as badly about myself but that I kept around for far too long thinking there wouldn’t be another guy who would take me. And here I am married to a man who would have taken me when I was 16 if I’d given him more of a chance, a man who loves every inch of me and always will, a man who says he loves a happy me the best no matter what the blasted scale says or what jeans I’m wearing. I hope these pieces of clothing will find their way into another woman’s closet and that they will make her feel good and happy and content with the life she’s living. Because whether we are a size 0 or a size 20, we all deserve that.