Dressing Myself For The First Time

Photographed by David Cortes.
Those of us with body shame often carry it around like a secret — but it always finds a way to sneak out. The way we present ourselves to the world is a mirror of our self-esteem, and Michele Filgate's story reveals that fact with such poignancy, pain, and self-awareness. Anyone who's ever felt the need to hide in plain sight will hear this, loud and clear. — KM

First, I chop off their hair. Then, I cover their plastic bodies in fluorescent, puffy paint, tattooing them with crude words. When I'm finished, their stiff outfits are crumpled beside them, perfect representations of what I hate. Gone is their long, crimped blonde hair; now it's short and spiky, like a hedgehog. Their stylish dresses in hot pink, purple, and lime-green swirls are cast to the side. I am controlling beauty instead of letting it control me. My Barbie dolls are no longer pretty. I revel in their ugliness.

I'm in middle school, and I'm sick of pretty things. When I look in the bathroom mirror, I pretend I'm Baby in Dirty Dancing. But what I see is a girl with chipmunk cheeks and unwashed hair, with a lazy eye and huge, round glasses. Unlike my plastic Barbies, I am flat-chested and flabby; there's nothing sexy about my not-overweight but not-shapely self in overalls and a forest-green turtleneck.

Is it just me, or do most girls go through a phase where they destroy the beautiful things around them?

Mike, my "boyfriend" (in the sense that we occasionally hold hands), writes me a long, multi-page letter on wide-ruled composition paper. In it, he lists the reasons he has a crush on me, including: "Though she has a large eye problem, I still like her." Compliments wrapped up in awkwardness are something I'm very familiar with.

Growing up, we look to our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and older sisters as sophisticated examples of what we could eventually be. I played house and turned myself into a raccoon with old, gaudy blue eye shadow and magenta lipstick. I wrote short stories in which the characters exuded coolness with their side ponytails, knotted T-shirts, and leg warmers (the very definition of "cool" to a bookish girl in the early 1990s).

I played by the rules in high school, attempting to care about my appearance, letting my friends dress me in JNCOs, and begging my mother to take me to Contempo Casuals instead of TJ Maxx. I wanted to look like a woman, not a gangly teenage girl. Sometimes I'd sneak into my mother's closet and borrow her clothes without asking her. I liked that we were the same size; it seemed significant to me. I was obsessed with my weight to the point that the school nurse asked me if I had an eating disorder. But even though I constantly stepped on the scale and stared at the bold numbers, I kept eating as much food as I could fit in my stomach: french fries slathered in ketchup for lunch, foot-long Italian subs from Subway with sour-cream-and-onion chips. As a kid, I'd vandalized those plastic, perfect Barbie bodies, but now I turned that rage on myself.

Clueless
came out when I was 12 and proved to be especially relevant when I switched school systems twice after my parents divorced. Both times, I thought I could change myself just by changing my wardrobe — that I would go from a girl who didn't quite fit in to one who exuded confidence. But after the first week of wearing a short schoolgirl skirt and pristine white sneakers, I recognized myself as an impostor. At home, I'd change out of the clothes that were supposed to make me feel sexy, and I'd relish the comfort of worn pajamas: frayed, over-washed T-shirts and gray leggings that were so stretched out, they hung off of me. I didn't want to express myself externally. For the rest of the year, I wore the same jeans and shirts to school over and over again, not even bothering to put on makeup most days.

As I grew wiser to the cruelness of teenagers, I started to associate trendy clothes with mean girls. They were the ones who took time to make themselves look pretty — and I felt that, in doing so, they were buying into the cultural norm that girls had to look pretty. In my mind, I decided they were vapid, anti-intellectual, and narcissistic.

Perhaps that's how I found myself, in my mid-to-late 20s, actively rejecting clothes as something I couldn't be bothered with, aside from sheer necessity. I wanted, in some way, to be ugly. That's how I felt on the inside — underneath the baggy, ill-fitting sweaters and stretched-out jeans, misshapen reminders of the body I would never have. I armored myself with the belief that those mean girls in their fitted Abercrombie & Fitch sweaters were shells of people, nicely decorated, but empty on the inside. I admit that bias still lurks beneath the surface inside me; it bubbles up when I'm at a party with pretty people, downing a glass of cheap red wine to take the edge off. I sense it, too, as I skim through Instagram, liking photos of beautifully made-up girls while also feeling a twinge of jealousy.
Photographed by Sean Fitzroy.
My first job out of college was working at the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. Surrounded by women who took extra care in how they looked, reapplying lipstick after lunch and wearing clothes tailored for their physiques, I felt even more adrift from my own body. I wanted to look like them, but I also didn't. I didn't like myself enough to even try. I compared myself to everyone, because that's what you do when you're depressed and unmedicated and haven't yet sat through years of therapy, picking apart your self-esteem issues until they're shaped into a smooth ball you can cradle and nurture in your hands.

I was deeply unhappy. I quit my job, went through a breakup, and spent evenings comfort-eating at restaurants I couldn't afford. I ate and ate, cocooning myself in ugly floral dresses and ruffled skirts with T-shirts that were too big for me. Just as I'd done as a child, I was deliberately destroying my own aesthetic — but I now took it further than ever before. I chose to wear uncomfortable fabrics, boots with broken zippers, and an ugly, pleather, pink jacket that my friend took one look at and said, "You have to get rid of it."

Finally, I decided to try and snap out of it. I started going for walks with a friend around Prospect Park. She was elegant; clothes, on her, looked like pieces of art. While I'd once judged well-dressed women as shallow, I truly admired her refined taste. Something began to change in my mind — and my body, too. As I stuck to a regular exercise routine, I felt more and more at home in my own body. At last, I realized that my clothing wasn't the problem. It was me.

My walking routine turned into running, and soon I was a regular runner. As a high schooler, I couldn't even run a mile in gym class. I blamed it on my asthma, but really I just never believed I was capable. Only now did I realize I had never even tried. But a good therapist and Wellbutrin can really motivate a person. I shed some pounds thanks to my new exercise routine, but I also shed some of that anger I'd been carrying around, buried in my body, which was in turn hidden in clothes.

One day, I walked by a cute boutique in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I ducked in for a second and looked through the bright summer outfits until I came across two beautiful dresses: one a lacy turquoise and the other a white, form-fitting dress that would show off my legs. Trying on clothes used to be an emotional experience that inevitably led to crying. But this time, I saw that the dresses looked nice on me. They looked as if they were made for me.

We are all naked underneath our clothes. That vulnerability is a beautiful thing. But in clothes, we can be whoever we want to be: our mothers, our peers, even ourselves.

Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and VP/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in Slice, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, The Rumpus, Salon, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @readandbreathe.


The Anti-Diet Project
is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Ant-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at kelsey.miller@refinery29.com. If you just want to say hi, that's cool, too.
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