Gaining Weight Made Me Care About Fashion

Twenty20 / sheenamariemanuel
Twenty20 / sheenamariemanuel

A tunic with an empire waist. Add to cart. A “baby doll” blouse. Add to cart. Skinny jeans in a dark wash. Wrap dress. Circle skirt. Top with three-quarter-length sleeves. Add to cart.

Back in high school, I gave minimal effort to my appearance. Certainly, my insecurities could fill an entire Microsoft Encarta disc. I was a flagpole: thin, too tall, broad shouldered, flat chested. I had monkey ears and frizzy hair. Mammoth feet and sweaty man hands. Nevertheless, others complimented and even envied my leggy look, so I felt no need to decorate my body with the latest trends. My “style” consisted of jeans and volleyball league tees.

But then college happened. I felt zero pressure to compete with my fellow female classmates, who showed up to class in pajamas or college hoodies. I wasn’t trying to appear more sophisticated for my professors. And I certainly wasn’t trying to impress the three men in French 101.

In truth, I had gained weight. A lot of weight. Fast.

In just the first two months of college, I accumulated 35 pounds. Being thin my whole life, I suddenly felt trapped in someone else’s body, and for the first time, I experienced the hell of fat-shaming.

Yes, Ethan mocked my gorilla hands in front of all of 10th grade English class, Curtis called me “flat” in front of the varsity football team, and Jake called me a monkey whenever he had the opportunity; however, those scarring moments in high school were sporadic, and those insecurities were easy to disguise—it’s not like my man hands appeared in my Facebook profile pictures.

But fat-shaming followed me everywhere, and the inescapable message was for me to hide my figure with flattering shapes in flattering colors. Implicit in phrases like “cinches you at the waist!” or “masks your trouble areas!” is the painful message that your body is subpar and must be concealed. So as I invested in a wardrobe to fit my new frame, I looked for “flattering” pieces to hide behind. If nobody could see my rolls, they didn’t exist.

My efforts appeared futile as I heard endless punch lines degrading women for their weight. If comedians weren’t critiquing fat girls for not “dressing for their figure,” they were mocking them for wasting their efforts: spending more money on lavish manicures, more time on mesmerizing hairstyles, more energy on assembling the most “flattering” outfit.

I could not win. According to these relentless jokes, beneath those waist-accentuating dresses, I was just a fat girl—nothing more.

Today, I see women of all shapes unapologetically dressing as they please, snubbing society’s arbitrary rules of how women should dress. Sites like ModCloth display and celebrate diverse models in their retro garments—and these women look breathtaking. However, these images were absent when I needed them. All I internalized from the fashion industry was that if I could hide that “repulsive” belly beneath a flowy tunic and my “flabby” arms beneath a longer sleeve, nobody would see my apparently disgusting body.

I did eventually lose the weight, but I never lost my obsession with fashion. From a cynical perspective, one might say that I am akin to one of those I-just-lost-200-pounds brides on Say Yes to the Dress. Despite being trimmer than ever before and wearing exquisite designer gowns, this bride stares at her reflection and complains about how she can’t pull off a mermaid silhouette and should try a more “flattering” cut, much to the bewilderment of her friends and family.

Or you could say that fashion simply became a hobby that I fell in love with. I like to think I’ve moved past “hiding my body” behind fabric and now focus on dazzling the eye with interesting color and pattern combinations. But somewhere deep in my memory sit the scars of someone who—whether right or wrong—used clothes to camouflage herself, to make herself acceptable to society’s unforgiving gaze. No matter my figure now, or twenty years from now, I’m not sure those scars will ever heal completely. TC mark

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