My mom used to take me shopping for clothes. It was always a weird experience for me because on the one hand, it was time I got to spend with my mother, but I always knew that I would hate myself and my body by the end of it.
Although now I know that my perception of my body was flawed and that I wasn’t as overweight or fat as I thought I was, at the time I was convinced that I was, and it didn’t help that I was hearing the same message around me.
My mom’s favourite place to shop for clothes was Winners, so that is where we would go. They had a lot of nice things, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that the clothing I thought was cool, or interesting, or what I wanted to wear, were the ones that either didn’t come in my size, or I was told looked bad on me.
I kept being steered towards baggier and looser fitting shirts and clothing. It got to the point where I believed that if a shirt at any point dared show that I had a roll on my body, or showed that my belly was rounded, that that meant it didn’t fit.
As a result much of my clothing tended towards greys, blacks, and neutrals. My mother in particular favored me in creams, beiges, and white, whereas I always felt washed out in those colours. Because I was convinced that I was fat, I avoided pink out of fear of hearing comparisons to pigs. I avoided skirts and dresses, convinced that I could not look good in them. In the summer I wore jeans, terrified that in shorts people could see that my long legs were actually lumpy. I pulled at my sweaters and shirts constantly, hoping that if I stretched just enough, I could hide any pudge from showing.
My odd build didn’t help, long legs atop a short but round torso with a high waist and high hips. As the fashions began to trend towards hip huggers and low riders, I despaired. What would flatteringly fall at the widest parts of many girls hips managed to fall right below mine; barely staying up. It wouldn’t have been so bad if any store still carried the other styles, but over the years they became harder and harder to find.
The message I was being sent, by stores, by salespersons, by my mother, by TV, and even by my own school, was that fashion wasn’t for me. I was excluded from being allowed to express myself through my clothing. Even going to a catholic school where uniforms were mandatory, the cut and style was distinctly unflattering to anyone above a size six, and certainly not for anyone with odd proportions.
When my Crohn’s first hit, I lost a lot of weight. For the first time in my life, clothes from mainstream stores began to fit me. Going shopping for the first time and not leaving in a state of self-hate, going shopping and having clothes fit me and look good on me, it was an amazing feeling. It is one I experienced only once however.
While clothes fit me, they didn’t much fit my budget. My parent’s well timed visit was the only reason I was able to have even that one experience.
Soon after, I realized why these clothes fit, I was dropping weight at an alarming rate. And I went through my Crohn’s story, during which time I started on prednisone and gained back all the weight and then some. I went from large at the store sizes and extra larges, and graduated to the dreaded PLUS SIZES.
It was here that I discovered again just how much fashion wasn’t for me.
At my size, there are very few stores that even carry clothing that fits me. They fall mostly into two categories: Walmart and Expensive.
What’s more, the variety is surprisingly limited. While stores like Addition Elle have some very nice clothing, they tend to fall within a very similar and ultimately limited style. Whatever the plus size trend that year is, those are the clothes you can expect to find.
Walmart on the other hand, seems to take the approach that people who fit into plus size clothing have the aesthetic of conservative older women. They run high to pastels and floral prints, neither of which look particularly good on me.
While I can occasionally save up enough to buy the occasional pretty from one of the Plus Size stores, there is not an added consideration that bars me from many of the available fashions: my disability.
Tight restrictive clothing, particularly around the abdomen can be quite painful. My weight can fluctuate suddenly, or at least appear to as a previously ok pressure suddenly become unbearable. Because of the bathroom issues related to Crohn’s disease, it can be fairly important that clothing is easy to remove when needed.
This limits my clothing options dramatically. It’s a difficult series of concerns to navigate, made more difficult by the ways in which the cost of plus sized clothing is kept artificially high.
There was a time, when the barriers imposed by my weight translated in a rejection of the feminine. Since the fashion industry is often represented by society as being representative of femininity, I felt as though I was being rejected by femininity itself. I was being told, I wasn’t a real woman. I was being told that I didn’t belong in the world of women. So in return, I rejected it.
I told myself that it didn’t matter that I couldn’t find any clothes because I hated shopping. Find something that fits and buy ten of it, that’s my motto! It’s silly to put yourself in pain just to fit a look. I’m not like other girls. I choose comfort.
In response to my feelings of shame regarding my body, I decided that being feminine was shameful. I embraced the flawed idea that a strong woman was one who rejected the femme in favour of the masculine. Selfies were silly. Since I couldn’t be a girl, I wanted to be one of the guys.
The fact that I was also dealing with gender questioning that I didn’t understand certainly didn’t help.
Recognizing my own femmephobia, came with recognizing the damage of imposed gender roles and restrictions. Fashion wasn’t feminine in the same way that video games and sports are not masculine. Our culture decides to gender these activities out of a misguided attempt to impose a gender binary that doesn’t exist. There are men, and there are women, and there are a variety of other genders under the heading of non-binary and agender. Nor was gender even a completely fixed construct. I could not be rejected from femininity because my gender was not external but internal and mine to claim.
There is a moment that stands out in my mind, before I was introduce to discussions of gender that weren’t dictated by rigid binary standards. It was a particularly beautiful day, but we were far from places where we could enjoy it. Except in the case of a nearby nudist club. I was invited to go along.
This wasn’t the first time I had been invited. In the past, my self-consciousness surrounding my body prevented me from accepting the invitation. I didn’t want to go and be stared at with disgust or hear derogatory comments. I was convinced that I would be stared at.
My nervousness was misread and I was assured that there were strict rules about discomfort. If someone did anything that made me feel preyed upon or uncomfortable, I could speak to the admin and they would either speak to the person, or if there were any other complaints, including from me previously, they would remove the offender.
At the same time that I was having this conversation, I was thinking about one of the characters I was writing. This character was my secret alter ego, the one through whom I could live out parts that I wanted to in the body I wanted. I thought about her in this situation and thought about what she would do. I realized that she would own it. She would walk in and if anyone stared, she would stare them down and strut. In short, she would fake the confidence she didn’t feel, and shame anyone who tried to make her feel otherwise. “I am woman, hear me roar or fuck off.”
So I agreed.
Challenging the fat shaming, allowed me to experience something that it turned out I highly enjoyed. More than that, it told me a truth. There was power in femininity as well.
It would take years to challenge all the pre-conceived ideas regarding gendered behaviour, not to mention ableism, fat shaming. I still struggle with body image issues and moments of self-hatred. But hilariously, I don’t care so much about what other people think of it anymore. While I still fight with the voice of troll brain in my own head, I can hear the taunts from others for what they are. The manifestations of their own doubts and indoctrination by the status quo. I can rationalize away the outside comments for what they are: fat shaming, misogyny, ableism, and in cases pertaining to others in the same situation, racism.
As for fashion?
There are too many barriers to overcome to really become fully participant in it for its own sake, but I let myself understand the excitement over my wife and my friends finding the perfect dress, or the perfect shoes, and I hope for a time when I too can participate fully in this joy.