Today for Me Made May I’m wearing a highly modified April Rhodes Staple Dress, though it’s mostly buried under an eShakti cardigan. Sorry, I was chilly today!
A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Five
History, Honesty, and Body Acceptance
At my thinnest I weighed about 125 pounds and measured 35-25-37. I remember this clearly both because I sewed and because I was — to my eternal, only half-joking sorrow — never a perfect 36-24-36 Brick House. I was never quite mighty, mighty, and I was never allowed to forget it. “Just lose 20 more pounds,” they said.
No matter how small I got, that’s what they said.
I had been, as I explained previously, a chubby kid. Not enormous, of course, but big enough that I was sometimes the butt of jokes — and big enough that my aunts often lamented that I “had such a pretty face.” I started studying acting seriously when I was 15 years old, and I was accepted into a prestigious regional program for young actors. One day one of the instructors pulled me out of class to tell me that I was both too fat and ugly to make it in show business, so I should go ahead and give up now. She said this to my face. She pulled me out of class to say this to my face. I’ve never really understood her motivations, but I can tell you that it wasn’t an act of kindness.
I was 15 years old, and maybe a size 10.
I went to college on a drama scholarship, though. Talent was never my issue; it was always my appearance. I realized, of course, that I would never make it as a performer if I didn’t somehow get thin. So I started to do just that.
I had been dieting since I was 14, but this wasn’t dieting. My relationship to food got more and more disordered, but I seriously didn’t care because for the first time in my life I was getting small — really small, socially acceptably small, almost real actor small. I started getting leading roles instead of supporting roles. I was finally doing it.
What I was not doing was eating.
My main trick was to eat when people were paying attention, so it seemed like I ate fairly normally. But most days I was eating one very small meal a day, often consisting of celery and a quarter of a sandwich. Some days I didn’t eat at all. I also exercised a lot, but I had to cut back on that because it exacerbated my tendency to faint. But I was getting thin, and that was the only thing that mattered.
During a period of unusually high stress I stopped eating altogether. It had been about 5 days since I’d eaten anything and I couldn’t get out of bed. My Mom had figured out what was going on by then, and she gave me an ultimatum: either I ate something immediately or I was going to the hospital.
My fear of doctors won. I ate a cup of yogurt and spent the next three years being watched like a hawk by my family. But as I ate that sugar-free low fat yogurt — it was Key Lime Pie flavored — I knew that I had failed. I was never going to stay thin. I was never really going to be an actor.
I wish I could say that I had been wrong.
I never actually got thin enough to meet the BMI qualification for an anorexia diagnosis, but my behavior was definitely anorectic. An EDNOS diagnosis was tossed around by an early therapist — that’s Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified — but I never received treatment for it. I barely got treatment for my depression.
The pounds came back, of course, and brought some friends with them. Roles dwindled as my dress size got larger. I eventually gave up.
I never stopped dieting, though. I lost the same 50 pounds at least 4 times, but I could never keep the weight off for more than a few years. No matter what I did, it always came back. The last time I tried to lose weight I started to regain when I was eating 1500 calories a day and exercising a minimum of 90 minutes a day — and usually more like 2 1/2 hours. I was eating fewer calories than what should have been a maintenance level for my goal weight, and exercising strenuously, and I was still gaining weight. I cried a lot.
And then I gave that up, too.
I gave the universe a great big existential middle finger and said, “Fuck you, universe. I’m just gonna be FAT.” I stopped dieting, and I will never diet again.
I cannot understate how freeing that was.
It has taken years, but I genuinely don’t hate my body anymore. I am 5’2 1/2” tall (though I always round up and say I’m 5’3”), and given how my clothes fit right now, I probably weigh somewhere between 195 and 205 pounds. (I can’t say for sure, because it’s not safe for me to have a scale at home with my history.) My measurements are 45-39-51 and I no longer care that I’m not a Brick House.
I do relapse into disordered eating sometimes, particularly when I’m stressed, but I don’t hate myself now. I love my creaky, socially unacceptable fat body. I’m not a separate entity living inside a corpulent meatsack, you know. I am the corpulent meatsack, and I’m much more fond of it than the name implies.
Now, what the hell does this have to do with clothing? A lot, actually. When you stop hating yourself and thinking of your body as an enemy, you find that your relationship with clothing changes. Treating my body with respect not only meant feeding it when it was hungry, but also included covering it with clothes I genuinely liked, instead of just hiding it with whatever was handy and sort of fit.
Sewing really helps with this, but in order to be a successful sewist you have to be honest. You have to take accurate measurements or the clothes you make won’t fit. On the one hand, looking at the actual measurements of your body is more abstract than looking at a simple dress size, but it can also be a scary, confrontational process. Sewing pattern sizes often have little to do with ready-to-wear sizing and that can be daunting if your self-esteem is wrapped up in wearing a specific size.
But I think it’s more difficult to feel ashamed of yourself when you’re wearing something you’ve made with your own hands — something beautiful that you really like. And maybe if you do that often enough you’ll come to love the body inside the clothing, as well.
It has definitely helped me.
As a quick aside, I don’t do Fat 101. It’s not my job to convince you that fat people are real people worthy of respect, but I will say that it’s virtually impossible to make a fat person thin. That’s the actual science of the matter, regardless of how much you want to wring your hands about “calories in, calories out” and “won’t someone think of the fat children.” All forms of dieting (even when you call them “lifestyle changes”) have something like a 95% failure rate over time. I can recommend some reading, though:
Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata
Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon
Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby
Two Whole Cakes by Lesley Kinzel