How I Learned To Stop Lying To Myself With Long-Sleeved Black Sweaters

A photo posted by Kate E Siegel (@kateesiegel) on

The sweltering New York streets were packed with toned Pilates arms, colorful sundresses, and skimpy summer tank tops, and I, as always, was wearing all black — hiding my arms under a long-sleeve sweater. The five-block walk from the subway to the restaurant where I was meeting a guy for a first date had already transformed my back into a swampy marshland. Why would I choose to wear a stifling, black knit in sticky, 97-degree heat? Because when I look in the mirror, I see two hulking country hams where my arms are supposed to be, and I’ve somehow convinced myself that the pros of slender-looking biceps outweigh the cons of sweating so aggressively that it looks like I’ve just gotten out of a Jacuzzi.

I almost cried sweet tears of relief when I pushed open the Lower East Side wine bar’s doors and discovered powerful air conditioning, but joy quickly turned to despair when my date informed me that he had reserved a special table in the garden. Outside. My first impulse was to punch him in the face. I could feel the stress hives erupting on my forehead, as I contemplated two to three hours of rage-sweating under my dark dress and long sleeves, trying to make small talk about my sister’s boyfriend’s pottery business while hiding my pit stains. As the hostess guided us to our table, I fantasized about waterboarding him with the perspiration pooling in my butt crack. (I’m really good at dating.)

Oh, how I dread the summer every year! The crop tops, the miniskirts, and of course, the total lack of temperatures that justify my all-black uniform. I’m self-conscious, though, so I stick to my dark, slimming dress code no matter how high my annual deodorant budget may become. But what I dread most about the summer is the questioning. We sat down at our table (in direct sunlight), and he glanced at the droplets I could already feel sliding down my face. “Aren’t you hot? Do you want to take off your sweater? You must be so warm!” No, I’m actually chilly! Do you have another sweater I could put on? OF COURSE I’M HOT! IT’S 100 DEGREES OUTSIDE. YOU WANTED TO SIT HERE; I’M GETTING EATEN ALIVE BY MOSQUITOS AND I’M SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING BREAKING THIS GLASS AND CASTRATING YOU WITH A LOOSE SHARD! (I become violent when hot.)
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A photo posted by Kate E Siegel (@kateesiegel) on

I smiled, beads of condensation accumulating at the base of my spine, while I discreetly dabbed my slippery hairline. I always try to appear vaguely disinterested and confused when questioned like this:

“Really? You’re hot? I feel great!” I glanced down at my sweater. “Nah, I’ll leave it on; it’s part of the look!”

Listen to me! "The look!" Like, I’m the sweatiest, least fashionable fashion blogger in the history of fashion. Since I can remember, I have had these interactions with friends, with family, praying one unwelcome sweat mustache at a time that no one will call me on my bullshit. Over the years, I have accumulated a few stock responses that deflect questions like these and my tendency to dress, as my mother so lovingly puts it, "like you’re always on the way to some depressing, man-bun riddled, Brooklyn hipster funeral.”

Such as: “I live in New York! Who wears color?”

Or, “I don’t know. Black is just my uniform.”

I think most people have a uniform to some extent, whether it’s a type of dress or a specific pair of jeans that makes you feel like your best self. That said, there's a fine line between dressing to feel confident and dressing to hide. I was dressing to hide.

But now? Now I’m on the internet, and it’s very difficult to hide there. If you’ve ever been on the internet, you’ll know it can be a relatively cruel place. Need proof? Take a look at the comments section under any YouTube video of Malala Yousafzai. What negative thing could possibly be said about a brave young woman who transformed a tragic, near-death, childhood assassination attempt by the Taliban into a global platform for education and women's rights?
As it turns out, quite a few nasty things! Welcome to the digital age.

I run a humorous Instagram account called @CrazyJewishMom, where I post screenshots of the funny things my mother texts me every day. I’m fortunate and have found my digital community to mostly be a wonderful, supportive place, but it has led me to some uncomfortable moments that forced me to confront my body and my insecurities in a way I never have before.

I mostly share pictures of text, and in the beginning I was absolutely terrified about posting a photo of myself on the account. As silly as it sounds, I was worried that strangers online would make me feel bad about myself. And as someone who would wear a sweater to Coachella, the last thing I needed was to be driven into a fleece parka.

Knowing I would never actually share a photo without a hard deadline, I set one for myself publicly, and when the day arrived, I settled on this photoshopped doozy and braced myself for impact. How bad could it be, though? I had already digitally amputated my arms!

I was shocked. Our followers were incredibly kind. So much so, that I had my very own Amy Schumer "Am I maybe GORGEOUS?!" moment. Hopped up on approval and hair-flip emoji, I even opened my personal, then-closed Instagram account to the public a few weeks later.

And that was the end of my very short-lived delusion that it might be time for me to give this whole bikini-model thing a fair shake. As an influx of followers pored over the archive of my personal life, my confidence evaporated. Not only were people criticizing my appearance, they were commenting on my deepest sensitivities, cutting to the core of my ego with exchanges such as:

@Jellybeans01smiles: "Why does this girl wear sweaters all the time? It’s the middle of summer!"

@CarlyCurls01982: "@jellybeans01smiles fat arms. She’s big but she knows how to hide it! Look at her bra muffin top!"

A photo posted by Kate E Siegel (@kateesiegel) on

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And then came eyebrowgate. I posted a selfie, because internet, but also because the shot had accidentally captured my arms at an unnatural angle which made them appear far slimmer than they are. I wanted to prove @CarlyCurls01982 wrong! As I picked a filter, I imagined her commenting, “Oh wow, I shouldn’t have said your arms are fat! It was just an unflattering picture! I should have known! You post goofy shots all the time, because you’re adorkable, and confident, and sexy, and professional, and tough, and cute, and thin but not too thin, and curvy but not fat, and chesty but not like a porn star, and all of the other things a human woman should be!”

Well, @CarlyCurls01982 didn’t comment at all. In fact, no one said a thing about my borderline deformed-looking arms! Instead, the comments section devolved into a shouty, all-caps screaming match about my eyebrow “fleekness.” Before this debate, it had actually never dawned on me that my eyebrows were something about which I should be self-conscious. Sure, every few weeks, I pluck a few wandering strands from my vestigial unibrow, but I’ve certainly never stressed about them. I was almost offended that no one told me this was such an important thing to feel bad about! Had I been walking around for the last 26 years, bushy eyebrows first, totally unaware that the blistering, judge-y looks I imagined about my arms, were actually directed at my Grey Gardens-status eyebrows?

I clicked through to the profile of one of the most vocal women commenting on the photo. From the first picture on her account, I could see that she and all her friends favored razor-thin eyebrows, purposefully crafted into tiny lines, perched above their eyes. They thought it was beautiful, and it was! Not for me, but it was beautiful, because it gave them confidence. I realized that this girl wasn’t even trying to be hateful, she was genuinely trying to help me be more attractive, based on her personal standards of beauty. And that was really the key moment for me, the moment I had a two-part epiphany:

1. Not everyone is going to love me.
When you are in the spotlight, with 800,000 people reading your words and looking at your photos every day, you very quickly realize that there is literally nothing in the world you can share that everyone is going to respond positively to, and that is because people are just fundamentally different. Hey, if Malala has critics, my @CrazyJewishMom and I certainly will. This is something I learned, accepted, and embraced early on, posting our conversations on Instagram — a text from my mom that I find hilarious might not appeal to 95% of our followers. And this led to the second part of my epiphany.

2. Why do I care more when the criticism is directed at my body?
Why was I surprised that this same concept should apply to my appearance? And why on earth was I letting nasty comments about my eyebrows upset me more than people accusing my mom of being a child abuser, or the occasional white supremacist monster telling me to "go find a gas chamber"? Hitler enthusiasts aside, you can’t even please every sane person with a given post, so why was I trying to make my face and my body into a homogenized vanilla, palatable to a mass audience so diverse it didn’t even have one ideal to aim for?

A photo posted by Kate E Siegel (@kateesiegel) on

So, to use an internet phrase, I now live a zero fucks given life! No. Realistically, I still give far too many fucks about my appearance. Today, it’s 42 fucks, but that is far fewer fucks than I once gave. With the knowledge that my looks are not and cannot be for everyone, they have become much more for me. The internet has opened up a world where clothing and makeup can be more than just a means to shape an external presentation for others, an attempt to stuff my body into a mold that pleases everyone who looks at me. Instead, it can be a creative space where I run the show, where I can choose what I want to see when I look in the mirror, a place where I can express myself.

I’m not perfect, and I don’t always act on this. I’m still self-conscious. I still wear a lot of black. I sometimes still see two ‘roid-raging Thanksgiving turkeys where my arms are supposed to be. But the knowledge that I can’t make everyone happy, even if I try, makes me much more inclined to try to just be happy with myself. So, tonight? Brace yourself @CarlyCurls01982, I’m posting a sleeveless, bushy-browed selfie!
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