I am fat.
And for the first time in my young life…
I am okay with that.
As I write this, I am sitting in my size 20 dark-wash skinny jeans.
You read that right. Skinny jeans — that somehow miraculously hug my butt, hips, thighs, and calves without making my stomach protrude unnaturally. Skinny jeans that make me look, well, really good.
On top of these magical jeans, I am wearing a size XL faded teal 3-quarter-sleeve fitted shirt with buttons halfway down the front, mostly unbuttoned so I feel neither choked nor awkward. It hangs just at my hips, which is remarkable considering my tall torso.
I am happy with how I look, even though I still have bulges I’d rather not have.
But it most certainly has not always been the case.
I remember the first time I felt public shame about my body.
I was 8 years old, in third grade, and we were having a class performance. We all were wearing white button-up shirts and navy pants (for the boys) or skirts (for the girls), and were all in a rush to pull on our school-issued red vests.
My vest had fit every month previous to this, but suddenly I was having trouble pulling it on. It was tight, uncomfortable, awkward. I raised my hand and informed my teacher that my vest didn’t fit. I think I was trying to tell her that I must have grabbed the wrong vest, but I assumed she would understand that from what I said.
She looked me over, then declared with a delighted sneer in front of the entire class, “Of course not. You’re too fat for it.”
The class erupted into laughter, and I suddenly wished I had the ability to shrink into the shadows, never to be seen again.
I stopped eating in the eighth grade.
People complimented me on how much weight I was losing, how much prettier I looked, how much better I was.
They didn’t know something was wrong until I started passing out. And when my eating disorder finally came to light, it was largely seen as me going through a phase to be popular or noticed, much like with my cutting and suicide attempts.
Because, you know, depression and suicide and self-harm and eating disorders are only a phase.
It didn’t matter that I hated my body. It didn’t matter why I hated my body. And sometimes, I was encouraged to hate my body, because fat people absolutely cannot have a relationship with their body that doesn’t involve self-loathing and the perpetual impetus to hide as much of their body as possible.
“You shouldn’t go out in public with wet hair,” he told us. “It makes guys think of you…” He paused, clearly uncomfortable, then said in a quieter voice, “in the shower.”
We were at a Bible conference, staying in the college & career cabins, standing outside and talking. He and his friend were somber-faced, and me and my friends were uncomfortable yet eager. We were talking about relationships, and how guys and girls (why not men and women?) could “help each other stay pure.” We learned that having wet hair was a stumbling block, along with ever allowing any male to see us wearing pajamas. Apparently that makes men think of us in bed.
Why a shower or a bed are inherently sexual places for a woman to be, I don’t know. Frankly, I think it’s quite telling about our culture that those assumptions could be considered “logical” in the first place.
But I do know that during this hours-long conversation, I kept adding things to my mental of list of Things To Do To Be A Good Christian Girl — a list that was comprised almost entirely of Things To Do To Be Pure, which looked a lot like Things To Do To Be Silent And Invisible.
And my quiet panic kept growing and growing, because I wanted so desperately to not be a stumbling block, but it was starting to sound like having long hair, breasts, and hips was stumbling block enough. I thought of my outrageously curly hair that I kept long out of personal religious duty. I thought of my large and endowed body. And my heart sank.
I was a stumbling block. I was impure — by simple inescapable virtue of being unable to hide the body I had.
“What were you wearing? Did you do anything…inviting?”
I’m never certain what people are saying when they ask me these two questions about being sexually assaulted at the age of 18. Because it sounds like they’re asking me if my assault is actually my fault.
For the record, I was wearing a lime green high-necked T-shirt, a pair of men’s jeans that were baggy and shapeless, and a large trench coat that was equally baggy and shapeless. Along with a pair of Vans. I was literally covered from collar bone to wrists to toes.
And no. I didn’t do anything inviting.
And it’s insulting that people think that sexual assault is something that can be invited.
For years, those questions have hurt. To be honest, they still hurt.
Because they seem to say, “Your body is temptation that makes assault okay. Your body makes men do evil things. Your body is toxic. Your body is sinful.”
And for years, I believed it.
I stared at the article title in shame, hating myself for even wanting to read it. Hating myself for fitting into the category of “fat girl.” I was at my largest size yet, a 24–26. I was depressed. I had just started battling PTSD on a nearly daily basis. My self-hatred was at an all-time high. I clicked the link, fully expecting ten rules about how not to be a fat girl anymore.
Boy, was I surprised.
I drank in the positivity. I marveled at concepts like, “You are not obligated to be thin, healthy, or pretty.” This section in particular hit home for me:
Touch yourself. You’re not gross. If you’re doing yoga and your belly’s in your way, take hold of it and shift it. I’m serious. Most people don’t think about that, but it can really help — touch your flesh. It’s yours. You grew it; you own it. Don’t be afraid of your body. Often because we are heirs to such body shame, we avoid getting to know our flesh, so when something does go wrong we don’t realize it until it’s really serious.
I thought of my recently diagnosed poly-cystic ovarian syndrome, and how I spent all of my developing and adult years thinking that excruciating ovarian pain was normal, that unbearable menstrual cycles were normal, that every sign I had that pointed to PCOS was just normal and indicative that I was a wimp for not being able to just handle it. I thought of how uneducated about my body I was, and about how out of touch with my body’s needs I’d been my entire life. And I took hold of those words. “I’m not gross. I’m not afraid of my body. It is my body. It’s mine.”
A little ray of sunshine shone through the clouds into my world.
Around this time, I also stumbled upon “You don’t have to be pretty.”
But what does you-don’t-have-to-be-pretty mean in practical, everyday terms? It means that you don’t have to apologize for wearing things that are held to be “unflattering” or “unfashionable” — especially if, in fact, they make you happy on some level deeper than just being pretty does. So what if your favorite color isn’t a “good” color on you? So what if you are “too fat” (by some arbitrary measure) for a sleeveless top? If you are clean, are covered enough to avoid a citation for public indecency, and have bandaged any open wounds, you can wear any color or style you please, if it makes you happy.
Sunshine exploded in my world as I absorbed validation and healing.
I started being more honest with the people closest to me about my body image issues. To my surprise, most people were utterly unaware of the existence of my self-hatred, let alone the intensity of it. Even more shocking — most people completely understood where I was coming from.
Michael and Paige started a campaign to alert me to when I would disparage myself, whether for my weight or my personality or my thoughts. I started reading about concepts like consent, agency, autonomy. I talked to people like Dianna, Sarah, and Grace about purity culture and modesty doctrine and this poisonous idea that there is something inherently sinful about a woman’s body that causes men to lose control of themselves. I started reading the Redefining Body Image blog. I started reading about plus-size fashion, and dressing the body you happen to have.
And yesterday, while shopping for this pair of size 20 skinny jeans that I am wearing right now, all of those conversations and blog posts and articles all came together and hit me like a ton of bricks. Two things became suddenly, inescapably, liberatingly and joyously clear to me.
- I have to dress the body I have, not the body I wish I had.
When trying on pants upon pants upon pants, and talking out the pros and cons of each pair with the ever-patient Michael and Paige, I realized something. It was as I was wearing a pair of size 22 boot cut jeans. Paige had asked me what the problem was with them, and I was struggling to find an answer. I suddenly realized: “I always buy pants that fit like this, and I always hate them.” It hit me again when I tried on a pair of size 20 flare legs that fit my thighs and butt wonderfully but gave me a horrible case of the dreaded muffin top. I was lamenting that no jeans I ever tried on fit me right, and Paige reminded me that maybe I should try something that I’d never tried before. I realized that I’d been stuck in this cycle of thinking that I have to buy the same kinds of clothes I’ve always bought that I’ve always hated, because I constantly want to buy clothes for the body that I wish I had instead of finding clothes that fit and flatter the body I happen to have.
The body I have is not shameful.
Wearing clothes that fit does not make me a bad person. Wearing clothes that fit does not make me a seductress. I’m not dressing for the approval of others. I’m dressing for my body, my comfort, my own approval. And I will not pretend that the body I have is toxic poison anymore. Neither being fat nor being female is shameful. My feminine body doesn’t have the magical mythical ability to strip away the logical thought-processes of men, making them into helpless hormone-driven apes. My fat body is still my body, and it’s my vehicle in this life. It doesn’t belong to anyone else for their commentary, critique, or approval. It belongs to me. It harms no one.
These concepts may seem really simple and obvious. But I’ve struggled with them subconsciously for all of my life. And as I sit here in my skinny jeans and fitted top, for the first time in my life I am fat, female, and unashamed.
I love the body I have. And I’m not afraid to show it.
For more on why I wrote this piece, please see “Existential perfection, problematic cultural systems, and being okay.”