Q: I’m a 40-year-old woman who has hated my body all my life. Since my daughter was born 11 years ago, I’ve begun to heal from my disordered eating and realize that the diet industry is a big capitalist scam. But—pandemic. I gained a ton of weight and I’m having a hard time getting past it. Especially because my clothes don’t fit. I want to look cute coming out of this, and I can’t afford to buy a whole new wardrobe. Do I throw all my old clothes away and work on accepting this larger version of myself?
So, I celebrated my own 40th birthday this past weekend. My mom and step-dad took our kids for two days (yay vaccines!); we rented an AirBnB (yay vaccines!); and made some dinner reservations (yay vaccines!). And my husband invited two of my oldest, dearest, fully-vaccinated friends to drive up on Friday night and surprise me. I immediately burst into tears—these women are like sisters to me, and we hadn’t all been together since well before the pandemic. It was magical to see them IRL.
But after I cried and hugged them and they started unpacking the vast quantities of cheese they had brought me (see: sisters), I went upstairs and quietly panicked for a few minutes about what I was going to wear to dinner. It sounds so silly to say out loud, both because I know these friends had come to see me, not judge my wardrobe, and because I had already DECIDED what I was wearing to dinner when I packed for the weekend. But that was what I was wearing to go out with my husband, who sees me every day and was himself only dressing up to the extent that he changed out of the pants he’d been wearing for a month straight into an identical pair of pants. Suddenly this outfit was going to be seen BY OTHER PEOPLE. Also I forgot the necklace I wanted to wear and somehow this made everything more fraught.
All of which is to say: I get this. It is sometimes very, very hard to have a body and have to put clothes on it. You are not the only person writing in with some version of this question, because we’re all on the verge of re-entry and that brings up all the body feelings, especially since bodies have changed and this is happening with the onset of warmer weather (more swimsuits, more visible skin). It makes sense that the siren song of dieting is so loud right now. Fashion options for bigger bodies can be so dire that shrinking yourself can seem like the easier (and cheaper!) solution. But trying to fix your body issues with clothes is a losing battle, too. I know this because while I have never had an eating disorder, I have struggled at many points in my life with some compulsive shopping stuff that was really me trying to find the magic unicorn clothes that would make me feel better about (gestures around at everything). It never works, and it gets expensive, fast.
I know you (and many other people!) are framing this current anxiety around your weight gain. But this kind of wardrobe stress doesn’t get better when we’re thinner, because it’s not really about the clothes. It’s about feeling out of control. One thing I have learned over the years is to try to notice what I’m really worrying about, underneath the body checking. On Friday night, I was able to say to myself, Oh right! It’s so great to see people but also very surprising and emotional! (I mean, it was a literal surprise visit.) Then I went back downstairs and announced my lack of a statement necklace to my friends, who told me to shut up and eat the salami rose. (I did, it was delicious.)
So what to do instead? I think we need a pact. As we prepare to stagger out, blinking and confused, into hot vax summer, we need to agree that we’re all going to lean into compassion. For each other, but especially for ourselves. We’re re-learning normal. We’ve survived a collective trauma. It’s going to get easier but it’s not particularly easy right now, even though there is so much joy and relief. And if you’re someone who turns to body checking (or body shaming, restriction, and so on) when things are not easy, this is a high trigger time. So if you can, check in with the friends you’re going to see before you see them. Maybe even say, “I can’t wait to see you but I’m feeling really weird about my body right now.” I bet so many dollars that they will say the same thing, and you can agree to let yourselves off the hook for looking like you’re somehow coming out of the pandemic more gorgeous than ever. (Even Will Smith isn’t doing that. Yes, we can acknowledge the amount of thin/male/celebrity privilege he has there, and still appreciate the sentiment.)
If the people you’re seeing are not the kind of friends who will be open to that conversation, then make the pact with me, and the other readers of this newsletter right now. You can post something in the comments if you want but this isn’t a ploy for comments or anything! The pact can be just in your own mind. I AM PINKY SWEARING WITH YOU RIGHT NOW: We will be compassionate with ourselves and our bodies. We will not treat re-entering the world like a high school reunion. We can come out of this imperfect. We can always be imperfect.
Now let’s talk about what to do when your clothes don’t fit.
This list is just a starting point. Next week, I’ll be interviewing Shira Rose, an amazing eating disorder therapist, activist, and body positive style blogger (who is also a friend; we met when I interviewed her for this piece) who REALLY knows fat fashion. (More than me who shops at the same three stores over and over and over.) If you have questions you’d like me to ask Shira, drop them in the comments, and make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss Part 2 of this conversation.
1. Yes, get rid of what doesn’t work. If you can’t fully part with it just yet, at least box it up and get it out of your closet so you’re not confronting these wardrobe ghosts every time you get dressed. Be very ruthless. Keep only what absolutely does fit and feels good on your body and then see where you are.
2. Identify a few holes to fill. Maybe you have a few tops you feel actually okay about, but you just don’t have jeans that fit. Or you have jeans but need some basic tanks. I am notorious for buying lovely flowy cardigans and then not actually having the plain white top I need to layer underneath. Make a list of a few things that would make what you have wear-able, and focus on shopping for just those things.
3. Plan your outfits in advance. This sounds a little...something...but ever since middle school, the thing that helps me the most with wardrobe stress is to decide what I’m wearing a day or two before the event. Then do not revisit that decision, under any circumstances (even surprise guests, Last Friday Virginia). You’re just not going to make a better decision 15 minutes before you need to be somewhere when tensions are already running high.
5. Find a uniform. I squirm a little saying this because it’s a popular concept that is usually celebrated by thin people who are so proud to say they’ve been wearing the same amazing vintage coat or whatever for 15 years. And for most of us, body size is just way more of a moving target than that. So when I say find a uniform, please know I mean, for the place your body is right now. I personally find myself revisiting my “uniform” at the start of every season because what worked last year just often doesn't quite. I think my spring uniform may be these overalls? Stay tuned.
All that said—one very nice thing about being 40 is that I don’t have to worry about whether every new trend is for me. I just know they aren’t because they are invented by clothing companies that market to 20-year-olds. And it’s so liberating not to try to make myself like cold shoulder tops or ruffles or normcore. I would love to go back and find 25-year-old me and say, actually, you don’t need to love trapeze dresses or whatever other nonsense we were wearing in 2006. (I remember owning a lot of tape that was supposed to stick my boobs into tops that didn’t allow me to wear a bra. Dear god, I’m so happy I now just wear bras!) Figure out a few basic outfits you like, and then just wear the heck out of them. It really does not matter if people are seeing you wear the same thing. Scroll up to the start of this newsletter to review how my husband only changes his pants once a month and ask me how often anyone notices. Pants Of The Month! They’re not just for thin white men!
I’ll wrap up by saying: Not every strategy here will work for everyone’s body. I come at this problem from a place of privilege, both because I can afford to buy new clothes when the old ones don’t fit, and because as a small fat person, I can find clothes that fit at an increasingly long list of brands. It’s still a hassle (I buy and return A LOT) but I have options. Fatter people don’t because the fashion industry discriminates against them. So if you have the option of supporting more inclusive brands, please, always do that (even if you’re thin!).
Again, we’ll get into all of this more next week when I chat to Shira, but in the meantime, if you need more resources, or just general style inspiration, check out:
Corissa Enneking of FatGirlFlow
Thamarr of musingsofacurvylady
Rosey Blair of roseybeeme
Lisa of mustangsallytwo
How to Not Pass On Your Eating Disorder: I joined Jamilah Lemieux on Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting, to discuss how to help kids develop healthy relationships with food and their body—especially if mom and dad struggle with those issues, too. (In the same episode: A debate that might be of interest to Burnt Toast readers, on whether an indoor-loving mom needs to suck it up, sign her kid up for soccer, and actually go to games.) Listen here.
Book Research Call-Out! My next chapter is all about thin privilege. To be clear: Just growing up thin doesn’t mean a kid will be spared body image anxieties. But it does mean that they will internalize different messages about their body than a kid in a larger body. They may feel pressure to preserve their thin body at all costs because they’ve learned it’s one of their most valuable attributes. They may also engage in weight-based teasing of larger peers. If you are a thin kid (ages 10-20) who has bullied someone else for their weight, I’d love to talk to you. Or, if you’re the parent of a younger kid who has done this, or even just dabbled in using “fat” as a slur—I’d love to chat about how you’re handling this issue. (I will be changing all names for this one.) Hit reply or email email@example.com.
You’re reading Burnt Toast, a newsletter by Virginia Sole-Smith. Virginia is a feminist writer, and author of The Eating Instinctand the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia. Comments? Questions? Email Virginia.
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