Disclaimer: This piece deals heavily with the topics of disordered eating and body dysmorphia. Please only continue to read if you feel it is healthy for you to do so.
The first time I thought to myself “I’m fat,” I was five years old. My great-grandmother, well past her years of filtering her speech, told me I was “plump.” It was in passing, and probably something she didn’t even think twice about. I was giving her a hug as her bony fingers wrapped around me, pressing into my flesh, when she said it. No big deal. Just, “You’ve gotten quite plump,” before turning towards our other family members to discuss the weather, the state of her garden, and their own personal “downfalls” with the flick of her vicious tongue. Funny, back then, that five-year-old girl would have never imagined she’d have her first plus-size shopping spree years later, in the middle of a global pandemic nonetheless. Then again, I’m not sure any of us thought this is where we’d be in 2020.
I can’t say it was solely that interaction with a 90-year-old that started my lifetime struggle with weight loss, eating disorders, and body dysmorphia. That would be giving one person way too much credit and the rest of society not nearly enough. Still, from that moment on, I took notice of how much space my body took up. I saw the stretch marks on my thighs and the way my legs dimpled when I sat.
While my elementary and middle school days were spent feeling ashamed of my body – covering my seven then 10 then 12-year-old frames with baggy T-shirts and stretchy pants — it wasn’t until I was 15 that I decided to do something about it. Without the knowledge or patience to learn how to healthily monitor my weight, and without the support of a friend or loved one to make me feel beautiful at my size, the eating disorders kicked it. Just before my 16th birthday, I started binging, purging, and restricting. When I was 20, I switched it up and instead, became obsessed with counting alcohol calories and substituting rum and Cokes for sandwiches and shots for salads. At 22 my BMI (a completely outdated tool to measure your ‘Body Mass Index’ and overall health, FYI) said I was obese, and when I was 23, I dropped 50 pounds by eating purely deli meat and celery sticks, chicken breasts, and undressed salads. The long and short of it is: My weight loss journey has been a f**king saga, and never once was the purpose to feel healthy and strong and beautiful. It was only ever to be thin.
At my wedding in 2018, I felt amazing in all the wrong ways. I was finally what society told me I needed to be: My collarbones could be seen above my sweetheart neckline and I didn’t have to worry about how I’d pose my arms in pictures because I knew they wouldn’t look “fat.” The seemingly important checklist items were accomplished. Skinny? Hungry? Size 6/8? Check, check, check! Still, I felt like I finally had control because, in truth, that’s all I’ve ever wanted from my yo-yoing weight loss journey; I wanted to feel in control of my body because if I had that, it didn’t matter if everything else fell apart. I could handle breakups and deaths, mental illness, and a corrupt political system if I could just control my size. My weight. My appearance.
Over the next few years, I slowly gained the weight back. After months of restrictive dieting, my body craved calories and treats. However, it wasn’t until the pandemic hit, that I found myself back on the bathroom scale, ashamed of my BMI and the numbers that flashed below me. After decades of being in this exact position — naked, hunched over the scale, and trying to figure out what to cut out of my diet so I could fit into my size 6 shorts again — something inside of me snapped. I had been trying to fight the “I’m fat” notion so long, I forgot what I was even fighting for. The idea that it was to be “hot” by whatever the diet industry told me I needed just didn’t seem worth it anymore. I was exhausted and honestly, I was kind of just bored of hating myself. Then, the pandemic hit.
COVID-19 reaching the United States has had a detrimental effect on our economy, our health, and our lives, overall. Additionally, it’s proven to have caused a mental health crisis (with over 50% of Americans saying their mental health has been negatively impacted). We were staying at home. We weren’t seeing our friends and family. We weren’t showering or getting dressed or going anywhere other than from our bed to the couch and back again. We were moving less and eating more. For plenty of people, gaining weight had been a side-effect of the pandemic, which then resulted in a spiral of depression. We’ve been told forever that if we gain weight, our value decreases. An extra roll? You’re no longer attractive. A dimple here? Might as well pack the swimsuits away.
“I had been trying to fight the ‘I’m fat’ notion so long, I forgot what I was even fighting for.”
This is how I’ve measured my self-worth since before I could write my name in cursive or lost my first baby tooth. The crazy thing was, something about seeing other people gaining weight too (a lot of other people, at that), made me realize not only how normal it is for our bodies to fluctuate, but how utterly bullsh*t it is to hate ourselves when the scales inch forward.
For the first time, I was mad, but not at my calves, my waist, or my arms. This time I was mad at how society has warped my perspectives on beauty, health, and worthiness for so long. So, I decided that, for the first time ever, I was going to stop placing so much value and emphasizes on my weight and dress size. Instead, I was determined to find ways to feel good with how I am right now — 40 lbs more than I was at my wedding.
Granted, I still want to feel healthy. As a married woman in her late-twenties with plans of having children someday (once I can process parting ways from my IUD, that is), prepping my body is important. My sedentary lifestyle mixed with my history of binge-eating isn’t exactly the vision of health. I only recently started determining how healthy I was by how I felt, and not by the numbers.
Most recently I even got a FitBit and started taking long, daily walks. I’ve incorporated more fully loaded fresh salads and fruit into my meals, in place of fewer processed foods. Most importantly, I shoved the scale under the sink beneath the travel-sized soaps and dusty hair tools; a place where it’s sat for months.
While I was finally feeling better in the sense that I wasn’t constantly on a cycle of scale-related downfalls and victories, there was one problem: I might have felt better about moving my body more, but I didn’t feel better about how it looked in the mirror. It didn’t help that when I posted pictures from my wedding (since what else is there to post during a pandemic), I felt like a liar – like a false advertisement for beauty. So similar to my newer eating and “moving” habits, I needed to do a complete makeover regarding how I viewed my beauty.
First, I stopped following accounts that made me feel bad (weight-loss accounts, fitness accounts, generic “hot girl” accounts). It seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many weight loss or “before and after” accounts I followed as “motivation: to finally lose those pesky extra pounds. In their place, I found people and brands who made me feel beautiful, but not in a “bless your chubby heart” kind of way. More so in the strong, attractive, sexy-women-who-know-that-their-size-10-12-and-14-jeans-don’t-them-any-less-attractive, type of way.
In fact, as I watched these accounts highlight their curves, share shopping tips, and pose with the best of them, my thoughts started shifting. I’m a size L (large), a size 12/14. A person who can no longer fit into her S/M dresses or her size 8 jeans. Yet for once, I wasn’t wishing I could squeeze into my former size. I liked how the size 14 girl looked in her form-fitting dress – curvy and confident. I didn’t even like it in a “she looks good but she’d look better if she dropped a few pounds” kind of way. She just looked damn good – period!
So I clicked the link (of course she had a link) and was brought to a plus-size shopping page. As someone who has squeezed into too-small dresses instead of sizing up and canceled plans because an outfit didn’t fit, seeing the words “plus-size” on my screen initially felt like a failure. It’s what we’ve been trained to think, after all. But in all honesty, I truly didn’t have jeans or shorts or simple slip-on dresses that could be dressed up or down anymore. I had a few stretchy staples that I could pull onto my body and that was about it. That’s where my wardrobe ended. I wasn’t consciously trying to punish myself, but that’s exactly what I was doing.
As I watched this size 14 girl flaunt her hips and her body shape, she didn’t seem remotely pathetic or unattractive to me. In fact, she looked sexy, which is a feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time, and a feeling I’ve never organically felt, well, ever.
Before I could think twice, I added a few items to my cart. Some high-waisted jeans with a line of buttons that reminded me of a sailor suit and a black, form-fitting dress with puffy sleeves and built-in cups. A pair of distressed jean shorts and a yellow fit-and-flair dress that reminded me of sunshine soon followed. Soon my total was just over $50, which qualified for free shipping, so I clicked “buy” and quickly closed my computer. I could return it all. I would return it all. This was just a silly test to see what plus-size clothing looked and felt like. Nothing was final.
Then the packages came in. The sunshine-colored dress was soft like butter, and the jeans were bold, blue, and unapologetically flirty. The pieces were real and tangible and right there for me to try on, and it had been so long since I felt beautiful, so I tentatively shut my bedroom door, stripped down to my undies, and reached for the first piece. Avoiding eye-contact with my mirror, I pulled the jeans up slowly, waiting for them to stop at my thighs, like most of my clothes now do. Instead, they fluidly went up, past my knees and my hips, and clasped easily above my belly button. They felt tight, yet comfortable. Secure, yet-breathable. They felt like how a good pair of jeans are (rumored) to make you feel like. It wasn’t long before I couldn’t help myself, so I looked in the mirror.
I wasn’t prepared for what looked back at me. I wasn’t just some “fat girl settling for plus-size” clothing. I was a babe in a pair of chic jeans that hugged and highlighted my curves. I tried on each piece thereafter, marveling at the way the items would clasp and zip. How they fit without squeezing or hurting or pinching. How they made me feel when they’d fit without a fight, like maybe I wasn’t unworthy of attractive. Maybe I was just shopping in the wrong section.
“Maybe I wasn’t unworthy of being attractive. Maybe I was just shopping in the wrong section.”
For years I avoided shopping for larger sizes because it felt like surrender. It felt like giving up. I had a bag of clothes labeled “someday,” full of smaller sizes that no longer fit. They were there to give me motivation, but for what? To feel bad about all the days that went by that I still couldn’t pull those size 8’s up? We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. We’ve gone to hell and back and back again, and I’m over here making myself feel bad because I can’t fit into the same pants I wore in college. It’s not only unhealthy and unrealistic, but it’s just no longer interesting to me. It’s no longer something I feel like spending my mental energy or time over. In all the hours I’ve wasted detesting myself, I could have just loved my wider hips, fuller breasts, and curvier form. I could have spent that energy learning to finally embrace the person I am, whichever size that is today.
In short, I got tired of hating myself, as simple as that. And it wasn’t until my first plus-size haul that I even realized it. It was such a relief to buy cute clothes that fit, that I wondered why I waited so long to make myself feel good. So, I started selling those “someday” clothes and in their place, I’m buying “these clothes make me feel like a boss ass bitch right now” clothes. I’m following accounts of women who aren’t hiding their stretch marks or showcasing everything they eat in the day, in search of validation for the fewer calories they consumed. Instead, I’m liking posts about helping others, accepting ourselves, and feeling fine as hell in whatever size our bodies feel like being right now, be that a 2, 12, or 22!
For the first time, my value isn’t based on the number on the scale or what size I’m buying. It’s based on the fact that I now have a closet full of clothes I can actually wear, a mindset that cares more about taking walks with my pups instead of workout for hours on end, and learning that whatever my body looks like, I’m still worthy of love and space, value and attention. I’m still worthy of feeling hot, and for the first time, my brain is actually believing it.
Rachel Varina is a social media, digital marketing, and editorial expert living in sunny Tampa, Florida. When she’s not creating content or collaborating with brands, you can catch her devouring thriller novels and supporting pineapple in the great pizza debate with her husband and two rescue pups by her side. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Images writer’s own