Not too long ago – although it feels like eons ago – I had the very rare (more like once-in-a-mom’s-lifetime) opportunity to go clothes shopping with two close friends. I walked through a clothing store full of beautiful garments, vibrant colors, and varicolored fabrics that looked as if they were spun from Nepalese saris and were as soft as clouds to the touch. Each of my friends and I wandered around the store on our own, sifting through all the beauty. Then we reconvened in the dressing rooms where we participated in a fashion show for one another.
We ended up trying on some of the same things, and something struck me (other than the fact that there was no need to rush in the dressing room because my friends weren’t going to throw a tantrum or have an accident): We all had uniquely shaped bodies and what looked lovely and flattering on one of us ended up looking just okay on someone else. If I had been alone and had witnessed some stranger waltz out looking like Aphrodite while trying on something that I had just discarded to the “Definitely NOT” pile on the account that it looked like a trash bag on me, I probably would have immediately looked at my own body in disgust and blamed it for its inferiority to that other woman’s body. But not during this particular shopping trip. Maybe it’s because I love my friends, and I know they unconditionally love me. Maybe it’s because I see my friends as beautiful and in their presence, I feel good about myself and what I have to offer to our friendship. Whatever the reason, it was really enlightening for me that as I slipped into myriad clothing – some that looked good on me and others not so much – I didn’t blame my body for not looking as nice in that flowy kimono top as it did on my super petite friend. Nor did I get upset when I saw a dress that immediately brought Sir Mix A Lot to mind when I tried it on (I like big butts and I cannot lie. Forgive me for quoting Sir Mix A Lot), look quite flattering and modestly chic on my lovely, athletic friend. There was nothing wrong with any of our bodies; they were just different. And if something didn’t look quite right on one us, it wasn’t our fault or our flesh’s fault – it was the cut of the dress or the shirt that just didn’t work for us.
A few years ago I needed a dress for a cousin’s wedding. I found a beautiful coral dress with what I thought would be a flattering cut. I ordered the dress in two sizes. When the package arrive at my doorstep, I could not wait to try it on. I knew coral was a good color for my complexion and the dress had looked so perfect in the catalog. I tried on my typical size and discovered that the dress hugged my Sir Mix A Lot (sorry again) bum way too tightly. Ugh. Yet, the top portion of the dress looked perfect on me, and it really was such a pretty color – the shade of a fiery sunset. Well, surely the bigger size will fit right. Indeed, it did fit my bum just fine, but it hung way too low on top, and I immediately began to lament my mismatched curves. I have the derrière of an hourglass but the top of an isoceles triangle. I tried the dress on for my mom and my husband. They didn’t feel it was flattering on my figure either, but they blamed the cut of the dress whereas I cursed my figure. I also tried the dress on in front of my oldest daughter who just happened to be in my bedroom when I decided to engage in another ritual of self-punishment.
“That dress is too tight on your bottom, Mommy!” she exclaimed as I examined my rear side in the full-length mirror.
I smiled and nodded. And heroically held back the tears as I slipped out of the dress silently, once again, cursing my body.
Later when a friend asked me if I’d found a dress for the wedding, I recounted the horror of trying on those two dresses, but something slipped out of my lips that I hadn’t realized at the time as being the truth. “There was something wrong with those dresses. They’re just not cut for women with a strong backside or any curves on the bottom.” Sure, the model had looked good in the dress but other than the fact that she was probably in her twenties, she was also built in a straight line. There was nothing wrong with her figure, and the dress was cut just right for her. But there was nothing wrong with my figure either, and the dress really and truly was not made for someone with my natural proportions.
But so often we women blame ourselves when something doesn’t fit right or look good on us. Or we buy jeans that are a tad too tight with a promise to ourselves that we will work harder and go Paleo (again) so that the jeans will fit in a month or two. Then we spend the next month fantasizing about doing a million crunches and the day the jeans hang loosely on our body while berating ourselves for the fact that the jeans still don’t fit. We should never buy anything for the “someday” when we will be five, ten, 20 pounds thinner. We shouldn’t buy for the day when that tiny tummy bulge vanishes and the LBD hugs our bodies in all the right places. We can’t buy for the fantasy. We have to buy for the reality.
I’ve also noticed that sometimes I am afraid to buy a really beautiful piece of clothing, and it’s not just its price tag that might be deterring me. So instead I buy a bunch of loose, cheap clothing because at some level I think that this aging, mom-body of mine doesn’t deserve something beautiful. I don’t want to mess up the white sheath dress that fits me just right with all of my gunk (and, yes, the gunk that comes with being a mom to little, messy kids). Maybe I finally convince myself to buy the dress, but then I relegate it to the dark recesses of my closet only to be worn when I feel worthy of its style and delicacy. That’s rubbish. Why not pull out the dress for Mass or brunch with family? Don’t save things for a rainy (or thinner, more beautiful) day. Don’t live to look good – live to feel good. That starts from the inside out. How has hating your body or even just a part of your body (your flat chest, your scrawny arms, your tubby tummy, your big thighs) ever gotten you anywhere? If something doesn’t fit right, blame the clothes, not your natural design. Buy and wear clothes for the life you’re living, not the fantasy life you hope to one day lead or the life you once lived when you were, let’s say, 20. Be realistic with yourself and your figure. Treat yourself with kindness. And remember life is a lot be a lot like a good dress. A dress doesn’t wear you. You wear the dress. A life isn’t meant to be wasted or held hostage for the day things magically change. A life is meant to be lived. So brave those florescent, dressing room lights. Bring a friend if it helps you to see the uniqueness of the human form and to appreciate your own body. Keep searching for the right dress, the great pair of jeans, the feminine midi skirt that is right for your beautiful body. Surround yourself in beauty every day, and know that you are absolutely, unabashedly worthy of it all.
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.
The week of birthday letters! My sweet M.E. turned 6 on Easter Sunday this year, and she lost her first tooth that day! It was a memorable birthday!
Dear Mary Elizabeth,
Happy 6th birthday! As Madeline sometimes writes on birthday cards of little ones in the neighborhood, 6 is such a big number. Truly. When we moved here, you were just a chunky nugget (Papa called you “Chunk Style” when you were a baby), and now you’re a long-haired, little girl who is usually very easy-going and free-spirited, but you most definitely have a feisty, stubborn streak.
You’re playing soccer this year and loving it. You run after the ball with fierce determination. You told me after a game against a particularly physical and rough opponent, “I may be a little thing but when I’m out there, I turn into a pistol.” You may have overhead someone saying that about you, but it’s true.
You’re such a wonderful combination of femininity and fierceness. You’ll be wearing a glittery bracelet that you’ve dubbed your party bangle while digging in the dirt searching for earthworms. You love to draw and one moment you’ll be sketching the dainty flowers and the next minute you’re doodling goofy, cartoonish characters with jagged teeth and bulging eyes.
You love to accessorize. You always have as evidenced from the photo below. A girl can’t have too much bling.
For your birthday a thoughtful neighborhood friend gave you a gift certificate to Claire’s. You’d never been to the mecca for fashionistas. I’d say you were fairly excited by the selection.
Out of my girls, you love baby dolls the most and really seem to enjoy taking care of them. You also frequently talk about how you want to be an at-home mom like me. Once I was making silly faces at you while putting gas into my car (you love it when I do that and make even sillier faces back at me). When I got back in the car, you said, “Mommy, when I have kids, I’m going to make silly faces with them, too, when I get gas.” That was such a simple but meaningful compliment. You notice the little things I do, and they mean something to you.
Once Rachel told you, “You could be the first woman president.”
“No, I couldn’t,” you replied. “I have to stay home with my children.”
Now I am not trying to dissuade you from shooting for the stars, but saying that made me realize that you are thankful that I am here, taking care of you, teaching you how to read, baking banana bread with you at your side, folding laundry, and reading you storybooks.
Aside from baby dolls, you adore your two baby cousins and could hold them for hours.
Let’s see. What else is new in your 6-year-old life? Your reading is starting to take off. You can read simple books. Your handwriting has always been good given your artistic aptitude. Your favorite colors are “blue, yellow, and green like Mommy’s favorite colors and all the other colors.” You have a big heart that has room to love all the colors of the rainbow as well as most things in life from worms to sparkly jewelry.
You adored being a flower girl for the first time last fall and took your job very seriously.
You’re a great big sister to Thomas. The two of you play very well together. A frequent playtime activity is playing the Titanic theme song on our old Casio and putting on a fancy dress and dancing together and pretending it’s your wedding. Not surprisingly, Thomas recently said, “I choose M.E.!” when he was talking about whom he wants to marry one day.
You’re a very affectionate child. You give spontaneous hugs and like to cuddle up close when I read to you. “Put your arm around me,” you’ll say. I don’t have to steal kisses or hugs from you! You’re very generous with them.
And while we joke that you’re our flower child because you seem to dance through life without a care in the world (except at bedtime when your stubborn streak flashes and you have frequent vespertine tantrums), you actually have a very sensitive soul, and I have to be careful to assume that all’s well in your little world. You still talk about my nana; her death had quite the impact on you. You loved bringing her Gaba and Papa’s nesting dolls and sitting at her feet as if she were the queen, which she kind of was. You also miss our neighbor, Mr. Thomas, who died the same year Nana passed away. Recently, Rachel and Madeline were both talking about the books they were reading, and both involved people dying. “Why do Maddy and Rachel read so many scary books about people dying?” you asked, your green eyes imploring. You also try to save injured bugs you find outside.
Other favorites in your life include cuddling with Fang, tomatoes, baking with me, singing (you have a pretty, soprano voice, and when we sing with one another, you say, “We sound good together, Mommy, don’t we?”), bugs, picking me flowers, riding your bike (you never needed training wheels; you went straight to the real thing when you were only 4 after using a balance bike), being with friends, taking baths, making art, swinging, putting lip gloss upon your rosebud lips, and giggling. I know I’m missing so much. A yearly letter could never capture the essence of your full life and lovely personality. I love being your mommy. I love how you still hold my hand. I love your funny stories. I love your earthy eyes and strawberry blonde hair. You cut your bangs earlier this year and at first they looked like Beyonce’s baby bangs (not that you know anything about that, but you do know who Taylor Swift is and like almost every other girl in America, you think she’s pretty) and I have to admit that they are growing out quite nicely. We had an at-home spa day recently and gave each other foot massages and I gave you a manicure, and you were just so tickled to be with me and to be doing something together. Thank you for loving me so well. Thank you for being lovely you.
Happy 6th birthday! Don’t grow up too quickly, okay?
I love you just the way you are. As my friend Amy said, “The world be a lot less sparkly without you!”