The first time I wore a crop top, I was surrounded by my oldest friends on a Costa Rican vacation. Fueled by a little liquid bravery, I slipped on the shirt and waited. I’m not sure what I expected. Outrage? Congratulations? Instead, my friends kept playing cards and sipping Coronas because what I’d done was not a radical act worthy of awe. It just a woman wearing clothes. But for me, it felt like a personal revolution and a joyous middle finger to everything I’d been told to believe about my body.
Since I was ten years old, I was told I should lose weight. Pleas weren’t made on behalf of health reasons, but rather appearance. I was given a girdle in fourth grade, and learned quickly that I should feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I lived within a narrative in which I was a fat girl perpetually struggling to lose weight. Food was an enemy, exercise was punitive, and clothes were meant to conceal.
A teen in the era of Gwen Stefani and Fiona Apple, I felt like a schlub. Lithe fashionistas were on television and in magazines, and I wanted so much to be like them. I dreamed of baby tees and belly chains, but wore oversized concert shirts and baggy jeans instead. I tried some ill-advised trends like plaid bondage pants and combat boots, but always felt like I was trying way too hard. Rather, I think that I didn’t know what to try or how to try it. I kept up with what was trending and knew what I was drawn to, but had no idea what to do with that information.
At 24, I sat in a beachside restaurant with my friend, Jen, begging her to tell me about the latest diet she was trying. I asked her which foods I could eat, and how much. She sighed, looked down at the table, and said “I wish you liked yourself the way you are right now.” I admitted that I wished I did, too. I can’t say this conversation changed anything, but it felt very much like an intervention. I was given encouragement to accept the body I had, but didn’t take it. I thought that losing weight was the answer to everything. In this skewed fantasy, being thin would improve my relationship with my mother, help me find love, and let me wear the clothes I’d dreamed of. Despite all of this, I wondered what it might be like to stop thinking of my body as a constantly under construction or failing.
A few years ago, I stopped obsessively counting calories and trying and failing at fad diets. I stopped Googling juice cleanses and disparaging my looks around friends. I was liberated from the news ticker in my head that reminded me 24/7 that I was unworthy of contentedness. Now, I know which foods make me feel good rather their calorie content. I indulge and restrain based on my own judgment. Despite that progress, I’m still a 31 year-old woman with a long history of body issues. Those feelings haven’t disappeared, but I have better tools to grapple with them. The memes are true, you know. Sometimes seeing a photo of myself from the wrong angle makes me want to jump off a building. Sometimes seeing a flattering photo of myself makes me feel like I’m Instagram famous. I want to live in the space between these two binaries, between self-loathing and self-aggrandizing.
It’s been sixteen years since the days of body glitter and platform flip-flops, but it’s taken this long for me to fully emerge from the mindset that clothes exist to hide perceived flaws. Until recently, my sleeveless dresses were covered with jean jackets, shorts were reserved for the gym, and Spanx hid underneath nearly everything. One day, my boyfriend said “I feel like you want to try certain styles, but aren’t sure if you can pull them off. You can.”Something clicked. I gave myself permission. I tried. Turns out, experimenting with fashion is crazy fun, and offers a whimsical respite from my work as a writer, which can be heady and often ventures into the morose. It’s another creative outlet, which is necessary for a woman often stuck in her own brain. And just like words, outfits can be tweaked, revised, or hung up and never worn again.
Written by monthly columnist Anna Claire Hodge. Follow her story on Instagram @anna_claire_hodge.