Photographed by Melodie Jeng.
I stood before the bathroom mirror brushing my teeth, quick and sloppy. I'd be late for the bus if I didn't leave soon, so I scraped my hair into a ponytail, pressing the bumpy parts down, as if that did anything, ever. My ritual last look in the full-length mirror revealed my best attempt at sixth-grade fashion in 1996: maroon Skechers, pilled knee-highs, my school-uniform skirt, and a polo shirt borrowed from my stepdad's college days. The shirt was the key element and the real reason I was in a hurry to get out the door and on the way to school. It was perfect: wide, horizontal stripes in faded red and blue, short sleeves, a slightly oversized cream collar — and, best of all, vintage.
I was thrilled with the find, sure this would be my in, if only for a day. "Yeah, I just found it in the back of a closet," I'd tell Sam, the patron saint of middle-school blondes. She spent weekends on mother-daughter shopping trips in the Village browsing Antique Boutique and Cheap Jack's for flared corduroys and chunky, Lucite rings. Look what I'd turned up just digging around the attic for my copy of The Devil's Arithmetic?
My mom walked past the bathroom door, catching my reflection, and paused. Not yet dressed herself, just faded silk pajamas and a cup of coffee, she leaned to take another look at me. We rarely saw each other on school mornings, and so, despite my lateness, I paused and put my arms down to my sides, unsure of how to stand or what she might be looking at.
"Honey." She closed her mouth, eyes on my top. "Sometimes it's best not to dress the way you feel. If you put on something that looks better, it makes you feel better." She raised her eyebrows at me, Get it?, and headed back to her room.
I looked down at the striped shirt and saw how snug it was around my middle. I noticed the odd looseness section above my stomach and the top so tight around my chest that my breasts looked bound, about to burst from the aging fabric like the Hulk's pubescent daughter. I was trying to look like a dELiA*s model, but instead I just looked like a fat girl who couldn't even fit into a man's shirt. What I really wanted to look like was nothing.
Photographed by Melodie Jeng.
Normally, I wore sweaters to school. I wore oversized button-downs, aiming for somewhere between Angela Chase and invisible. Every fashion trend of the time seemed to work against me: baby tees exposing the un-flatness of my stomach, cap sleeves giving me Popeye arms, and Doc Martens showing off the calves of a professional soccer forward, despite my barely passing gym grades. Among other lessons, this is where I learned that clothes were not made for people like me. I'd give it a shot every now and then, trying out a crushed-velvet baby-doll dress at Sam's black-tie bat mitzvah. "When are you due?" asked Jessica M, flicking the bow of my empire waist. And, I sat back down at the empty table while the rest of my class tried to sexy-dance to the Gin Blossoms. The shoes were hurting me anyway.
I kept my seat for the next decade or so. Why bother? Why bother buying new clothes only to turn around in the dressing-room mirror and find myself pinched and squeezed in all the wrong places? Why bother wearing real outfits when I could just wear yoga pants every day and let the world assume I was perpetually on my way to the gym? Why bother dressing up for a date, only to embarrass myself when the Spanx spontaneously rollled down under my dress and I had to hobble sideways to the bathroom like a crab in Lycra? Jesus, why bother dating?
And, still, somehow along the way, I met Harry. After years of half-assed dabbling in OkCupid, I bumped into this dry, funny guy at a birthday party, had a five-minute chat, and never looked back. That was it. Since our first date, we've never gone a day without talking. He was fun, kind, and ceaselessly adorable — I made up for 10 years of gushing to my friends in about a month. Right off the bat, it was great. It was gushy and sweet and passionate and TURN OFF THE LIGHT, I'M NOT DRESSED YET!!
Turns out, love doesn't actually fix everything. Or, anything. In fact, it kind of makes your problems more problematic. Harry loved me, and that was great and all. But, he also loved my body. To be clear: He didn't love me in spite of it. He loved it, in and of itself. The man was clearly a maniac. That was my first explanation. You have fallen in love with a very smart and attractive lunatic. Your shrink is going to be so disappointed in you. But, he wasn't a lunatic. A year in, I had to admit that. He had a job and a 401(k) and an amateur mixology hobby — the ideal specimen of the 21st-century Brooklyn male.
But, surely he had a fetish. And, heeeey, I'm cool with that. I'm a 21st-century Brooklyn lady. I listen to Dan Savage and stuff — go ahead and fetishize me, I guess! I poked around his social media, looking for possible chubby-chaser clues. (Had he perhaps pinned a head shot of Miss Piggy? Cartman?) I inquired, not so subtly, about his previous girlfriends, as if he might say, "Yes, I dated this enormous girl in college." Nothing.
He sighed, "Can't I just like you? Can't I just like the way you look? Why does it have to be a thing?"
Because, it was a thing for me. My body wasn't really me — just my cross to bear, an object I went to constant effort to forget existed. I averted my eyes from plateglass windows, stood behind friends in photos, and wore clothes that hovered loosely around me, as any physical contact served as a reminder: Here I am, the real you. And, the real you is hideous beyond measure.
Finally, I gave up on pestering Harry over this inexplicable tolerance and decided to wait it out. Either he'd wake up one day and realize what a beast I was or, fingers crossed, I'd just get skinny and that would actually solve everything.
Photographed by Melodie Jeng.
Last summer, we went on our first road trip, a drive down the coast of California ending in Los Angeles, where we'd attend a friend's wedding. I'd packed my usual nice-event frock, the same purple, puff-sleeved peasant dress I'd worn for the last six years. It was a miraculous Anthropologie find, and if I ever stained or tore the thing, I'd have to simply skip all weddings or else attend them in yoga pants.
While spending the weekend in San Francisco, we stopped at Jeremy's. (I'm clearly not a shopper but cannot resist browsing a store with such wild, end-of-the-universe discounts. The last time I was there, I found a blazer marked down from $275 to $7. Like, just because.) While Harry picked through the men's section, I did my usual look through the dresses, just in case there happened to be another miracle item I could wear for the next decade. I grabbed a few, headed for the dressing room, and turned away from the mirror. What kind of psycho likes to look at themselves in department-store lighting? Not this psycho.
I undressed and put on the first dress. Yanking it down hard over my broad shoulders, I already knew it was a no-go. I pulled it back over my head and reached for the next. It went over my shoulders okay but squeezed my ribs so hard I could see them expand and contract with each breath. The third dress looked great — if I didn't have to zip it up.
And, then, I reached for the fourth. It was a simple, grass-green frock dotted with an eyelet pattern. At once, I saw the red flags. It was sleeveless, the bane of every plus-size shopper. And, the skirt was full and swingy, the kind of cut that usually made me look like someone's sister-wife. Still, I was already in the dressing room. And, it was really pretty.
I pulled the dress over my head and felt a rush of excitement as it skimmed down easily. No pinching, no seams digging into my sides. I pressed a hand to my stomach and turned around. It fit. The dress fit absolutely perfectly. I let my hands come to my sides and looked at myself from head to toe. The skirt hit just above the knee, and the waist came in right at my, well, waist. My shoulders were round and lightly pink from our day in the sun. In fact, I could see every inch of soft-shaped arm. I didn't mind it. I actually kind of liked it. Those arms looked pretty good, long and strong and right where they belonged. I turned around and saw the dress settled right above my hips, highlighting their width and curvature with subtlety. The dress didn't hide anything. It flattered me. And, when I say "flatter," I don't mean "hide" the way we typically use that word when we talk about clothes on not-skinny women. It showed me off. It made me want to look at me.
I stepped out of the dressing room where Harry was waiting. "What do you think?" And, I twirled. I did that. He looked up at me and smiled the same way he looked up and smiled whenever I walked into a room. "So pretty."
I didn't break down in that dressing room and cry for all the years I wasted on self-loathing. I wish I could say it was a revelation and that I flew out the door and told my boyfriend he'd been right all along — I was lovely and lovable and let's go skinny-dipping forever! The dress was good — just not that good. But, it made me see the work ahead that I needed to do. I loved it. And, for a real moment, I loved my body, too. The dress pointed me in the right direction, but I had to adjust my pace and walk it.