Warning: This article discusses disordered eating in a way that some readers may find distressing.
Looking at my wardrobe today, I feel a sense of pride. Not because it’s packed with tons of vintage designer stuff (I wish) but because on every hanger I see something that 20-year-old me would’ve labelled 'confident'. A bright blue minidress here, a skintight velvet jumpsuit there. A mesh dress that reminds me of a sunset and a pastel green suit that I plan to wear with a lace bralette underneath and nothing else, thank you very much.
My friends and boyfriend laugh at how much time I spend scrolling through Depop for 'strange' (their word, not mine) clothing that’ll never go with anything in my already colourful wardrobe but there’s a deeper reason behind it. I spent my late teens and a small part of my early 20s hiding the evidence of my disordered eating behind baggy, shapeless clothing. Back then, my style was anything that helped me blend in; baggy items that armoured me against attention. Six years on and feeling healed – not without my body image issues, I must note – things have changed.
I no longer want to be forgettable. Or wear a forgettable outfit. I have a wardrobe that – bar the few pre-socialising grumbles that I’ve got nothing to wear – brings me joy and comfort. Not panic. If you've ever experienced an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, you'll know this is an achievement. So how did I get here? When did a tight velvet jumpsuit become my go-to office wear? More importantly, are there lessons that could be useful for anyone else? The answer is yes, and here they are.
Figuring out your style isn’t straightforward
Before going any further, it’s crucial to state that no two people's experiences are the same. Just because you’re not comfortable in a mini skirt or a tube dress doesn’t mean you’re failing at your recovery, or that you’re not confident. In fact, the key to finding your style in the first place is knowing your limits.
Imogen Ivy, a model I look up to because of the confidence and joy she exudes through her clothing, tells me that the two most important aspects of her style are fun and comfort. "When I pick my clothes for the day, I ask one question: Does it spark joy?" says Ivy. Comfort factors into that because, as she says, she's not having fun if she's uncomfortable.
There are plenty of ways to experiment with style within your boundaries, according to Amanda Taylor, founder of healing platform The Unplug Collective. Taylor's experience with an eating disorder led them to create the forum, which focuses on body healing support and centres the stories of Black women and Black gender-expansive people. If super tight clothing isn’t for you, embrace what Taylor calls the "Billie Eilish-style liberation of wearing huge, massive sweatshirts and sweatpants".
At the height of their eating disorder, Taylor would never have felt comfortable in an oversized look. "I used to only wear clothes that were very tight. I have wider hips but a smaller waist, and I also have boobs – and it was really important to me that people knew I was curvy."
The more Taylor explored this, the more they realised that perfectionism and outside opinions were influencing their style. They weren’t dressing for themselves. Now, after going through therapy and making a concerted effort to let go of that "type A, perfect fashion girl", Taylor's style is all their own. "Right now I love that fashion has the ability to be very gender-affirming for me. Depending on how I want to present – masculine or feminine – my style allows me to switch it on or off."
The process of recovery allows you to tune into your sense of self in ways that you might not be able to during your illness. For Ruthie Friedlander, this meant looking at fashion in a childlike way. Friedlander was working in fashion when, at 29 – after 20 years of struggling with an eating disorder – she sought treatment. Her experience inspired her (together with Christina Grasso) to create The Chain, a peer support platform for people in creative industries.
If you ask Friedlander today who her style inspiration is, she’d say her 5-year-old niece. "I see how pure and organic her fashion choices are," says Friedlander. "She just wears what she likes. That's what I try to do. And when in doubt, add some pink Chanel."
How to cope with toxic body standards
Clothes, and the fashion industry itself, can be the biggest enemies to those who are struggling. Friedlander says she works to combat that as much as she can. "I still take steps every day. I have to constantly remind myself of the difference between real and fake, filtered and unfiltered, and also remind myself what my body feels like, looks like. All those things are different every single day," she says.
Similarly, Ivy and Taylor take steps to limit the often destructive power of the fashion industry’s beauty standards. "Growing up as a fat kid in Australia, clothing was not size-inclusive," says Ivy. "But what I did get out of that experience was my passion for accessories. You’ll never see me without a bold bag or sunglasses."
Taylor copes by getting creative. They love to surround themselves, both online and IRL, with people of all different sizes who explore the fun side of fashion – without making it about bodies and thinness. Taylor's all about curating a style that goes beyond the body, from their tattoos to their bleached brows to their dyed hair.
Finding a healthy dose of inspiration
Personally, I’m still figuring out what I want to see on my social feeds. Do I want body positivity? Body neutrality? Do I just want to forget about bodies completely? Then again, we all have a body so surely we should talk about it? These questions constantly spin around in my mind and my answers change every day.
Today I can say that I want to see people having fun. I don’t want picture-perfect everything. I spent so long worrying about how my body looked at every angle, in every picture, that I’ve come to really appreciate those who don’t care what others think. Ivy dancing in her pants on a London street is a prime example. Taylor discussing their decision to let their body decide what feels comfortable is another. We don't need people to be perfect.
Friedlander told me one thing during our conversation that really stuck. "Don't hold onto clothes that no longer fit," she said. "Keeping things from your past, from when you were sick, is like having your eating disorder living in your closet."
She’s right. Even if you haven't suffered from disordered eating, so many of us are guilty of hoarding a pair of jeans with the aim of squeezing into them one day. But in order to find true freedom in our style, we have to let them go. Thrift or recycle those jeans. Make yourself a blank canvas that's ready to decorate in a way that excites you. And only you.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.