For someone who struggles with an eating disorder, shopping for clothes is right up there with sitting through a four-hour lecture on ceiling paint. It’s uncomfortable, unpleasant, and you really don’t want to be there.
For almost four years, I dreaded the dressing room. I hated shopping for clothes, and I put it off as much as possible. I would wear my husband’s baggy t-shirts because I didn’t feel beautiful enough to wear my own clothes. I wore shapeless baggy things because I didn’t want my own shape to be visible. On one occasion, I reluctantly went to the beach with family and friends, but instead of the sundress I should have put on, I wore long black jeans and a sweater. A heat rash quickly spread across both my thighs.
Fashion, for me at that time, was something I believed only slim model-types could enjoy. And in my mind, I was not one of those types. My legs weren’t long and lean enough to wear shorts, I thought. My shoulders weren’t sculpted enough for strapless tops, and my arms certainly weren’t slim enough for tank tops. Crop tops would look ridiculous with a belly like mine, and tight fitted dresses? My waist certainly wasn’t small enough for those. So I never wore them.
My anorexia had a hold on me. It consumed me, from monitoring my caloric intake (less than 600 a day) and my exercise routine (about two hours a day,) always to burn off what little I’d eaten, to how I viewed my body shape and my own self-worth. Because I’d always been slender as a child, I was convinced that now, I was huge. Massive. The only days that I felt O.K. about my weight were days after severe restriction and exercise purging. And one of the most triggering things for me was going into a fitting room and trying on clothes that didn’t “fit.”
I would look at my body in that lighted dressing room mirror, and I’d cry. All the fat on my body, every imperfection, every stretch mark, every wobbly bit, every part of me that I hated, was literally illuminated. All the things about my body that I wanted to change were hanging out the sides of those pants, or spilling out of that dress, reinforced by a size tag with a number on it that could never be small enough.
At home, my closet was a graveyard, filled with clothes that I either kept in the hopes that someday I would be small enough to wear them, or things I hated because I couldn’t stand the sight of me in them. Getting ready in the morning was a panic-inducing ritual of trying on outfit after outfit, and ripping each one off in disgust and throwing them in my hamper, only to wash them later in shame and start all over again.
When I started recovery for my anorexia, I started to heal physically – I gained the necessary weight to allow my body to function again — but my mind was still stuck in this foggy place where I knew my body was becoming healthy again, but the way it looked still caused me anxiety. I felt like I didn’t fit – not only was my body even bigger than it was previously, it was still showing signs of disproportionate weight gain. For those who don’t know, when a body that has begun to shut down due to malnourishment is suddenly flooded with calories and nutrients, the body stores the majority of its new fat around the belly, to protect the vital organs. And you bloat. Painfully. Trying to find clothes to fit my new body was possibly even worse than before, and I felt I needed those baggy clothes I’d hidden in before to hide my new belly. That, coupled with the confusion of adjusting to this new shape, made shopping for clothes even more of a nightmare.
But at the same time, I was learning about – and joining – the body positive community on Instagram. I met women who spoke an entirely new language – body love. These were women who embraced the word “fat,” who wore bodycon without fear. Who took photos of themselves in their underwear because they felt fierce. I saw women like Megan of BodyPosiPanda and Amalie of LETSRECOVER rediscovering their bodies post recovery, and showing me that body love comes in all different sizes and skin tones. I met women who celebrated their bodies because of their size, not despite it. They wore colors and patterns and exposed their arms without a sweater to cover them. Their thighs touched when they wore shorts, and their bellies rolled in their crop tops, and they were beautiful.
The more I immersed myself in that world, and the more I listened to their language, the easier it became for me to understand it. As my weight redistributed (thanks to high caloric intake and putting an end to all exercise,) my body healed, and I started to speak the lingo. And one day, it happened. I stepped into a dressing room with a pair of jeans, and they didn’t fit. I couldn’t even get them up past my thighs. Looking at myself in that mirror, at the way the denim strained against my legs, I stopped. I pulled them off, put them back on the rack, and got a bigger size that fit me, and bought them.
I felt liberated. No tears. No disgust. No vows of restriction or punishment. I looked at my curves and I saw my body for what it was, not what I wanted it to be. I would turn around and look at my butt and smile at my body, because it was mine. Little by little, I shopped more. I tried on dresses that excited me, and pants with fun patterns, and donated all the clothes that were either too small or brought back unpleasant memories.
My morning ritual no longer includes trying on a million outfits and then taking them all off in disgust. I no longer have a pair of pants sitting in the back of my closet for “inspiration.” I wear the things that make me feel beautiful. I buy clothes in the sizes that fit me, regardless of the numbers on the tags. I filled my wardrobe with positivity. I bought clothes that made me feel good, and didn’t give a flying fig about anything else. And this summer, I’ll be trading in those black jeans for a bikini on the beach.