When Miriam, 27, changed her medication a couple of years ago she went up three dress sizes. Being bigger didn’t bother her in and of itself but the combined sense of alienation and the unanticipated cost of dressing her new body made her miserable.
"I was unhappy because my body didn’t feel like my own but the actual practicalities of being bigger didn’t have as much of an impact aside from the cost, which was really depressing." People kept telling her that she shouldn’t worry, she could "lose the weight". This attitude to her new size, she adds, "is so gross and not the point!"
Gaining weight is still, for the most part, demonised in western cultures. No matter what point you start from, society still celebrates bodies that skew slim and you are made to feel ashamed if yours deviates in any way. This is compounded by the practical and discriminatory challenges that present themselves to larger bodies, from lack of access to high street retail to explicitly harmful medical discrimination.
This is why fat liberation activists from the late '60s onwards and, later, body-positive movements have rightly pushed against this stigma surrounding fatness and weight gain in various areas of life.
Beyond the narrative to ‘love yourself’ or even develop an attitude of ‘body neutrality’, there are unavoidable practical problems when you gain weight. Specifically, the financial hit on your wardrobe of finding new pieces to fit your current weight. No matter how accepting you are of your size, you still have to dress every day. As Miriam explains, it can be really hard to reconcile your genuine acceptance of your size with the frustration and alienation of having to spend to dress a version of yourself that perhaps you don’t yet recognise.
"I was a student grappling with multiple disabilities at the time so it hit me HARD and I basically wore the same bra for a year. I just couldn’t really afford anything new but cried every time I tried to wear my old clothes and ended up spending money I didn’t have on new clothes."
Given the somewhat scaremongering statistics on pandemic weight gain published by various news sites, it’s unsurprising that Miriam is not the only one grappling with this mental struggle.
Jess (they/them), 28, in Newcastle started gaining weight five years ago due to a health condition and as a side effect of the medication, they were prescribed to treat it. "Over that time period," they say, "I’ve had to re-buy clothes at almost every size. Weirdly, my feet also went up a shoe size too."
This has impacted their wallet significantly. They’ve had to use an overdraft at various points and consciously cut back on other spending to buy clothes that fit. In a practical sense, Jess also struggles with wearing through clothes faster. "Now I’ve got fatter legs, my inner thighs rub together when walking in jeans and they wear through so much faster."
As they’re unsure about when their weight will stabilise, they’ve felt unable to invest in high price items like Dr. Martens and struggle to navigate the difference in sizes when shopping online.
"I found shopping a lot harder, especially during the pandemic. I don’t really know what size I am in most shops now so I end up spending more on online orders and returning what doesn’t fit, but that obviously requires a larger upfront amount to enable you to order options."
This obviously feels wasteful because of the impact of postage and returns but especially during the pandemic there wasn’t really another option.
Then there are the other restrictions on your ability to shop sustainably. Twenty-nine-year-old Jo (they/them) in London tells R29 that buying underwear in particular is an annoying and unforeseen expense. "It also makes me feel guilty – I buy fast fashion as I can’t afford to shell out on high-end undies every time my weight fluctuates."
Everyone spoken to for this story said they struggle to find secondhand clothing in larger sizes or options which fit their personal style or identity. Ciara (they/them), 25, in Finland would use Vinted to sell their own clothing but the lack of sizing charts would mean that pieces were far less likely to fit well. Similarly, Miriam became hyperfocused on controlling her clothing however she could through fixing and mending. "Last year I tried 'no new clothes 2021', where I only bought secondhand things (except pants and tights, I have my limits) and it made me so conscious of how a) the vintage industry is inherently fatphobic, and b) how HARD it is buying secondhand clothes for a 'bigger' size, even a readily accessible size like mine (16). It sucked for me as I bought probably 80% of my clothes in charity shops or on eBay but now my options are so much more limited."
It makes you feel more of a stranger in your body. Clothes become objective rather than expressive.
Accessibility can be even more complicated when you factor in other elements. Three people who spoke to R29 for this story are non-binary and their weight gain, together with having to leave behind their more fitting wardrobe, has led to some intense dysphoria.
Ciara says that their lockdown weight gain jarred with them coming out as non-binary. "I found that all of the clothing I had now hugged my figure in ways that made me extremely dysphoric, especially when it came to pants [trousers]. It meant I had to replace large chunks of my wardrobe in order to feel comfortable."
Jo deals with chronic pain and struggles with in-person clothing settings, which can compound dysphoria. "My pain level impacts my buying too, especially as this stops me from being able to physically go out and try on clothes so I just have to estimate my size on fast fashion retail websites where the sizing feels just as whack as their morals and ethics. I think also my personal style and sense of identity is affected as I know my style at a certain size and my wardrobe reflects that. But when I size out of my current clothes I find myself buying cheap and easy replacements that don’t echo my sense of identity. It furthers feelings of dysphoria and makes you feel more of a stranger in your body. Clothes become objective rather than expressive."
Our finances and our weight are parts of ourselves that we’re encouraged to bind up with shame. We’re taught to see any weight gain as temporary and that spending on items that won’t last is wasteful. But those two ideas sit in tension with each other: if weight gain is temporary then there’s no point investing in expensive pieces for your wardrobe; but if you buy cheaply, you are not only not living sustainably but also inadvertently implying that you aren’t body positive.
"Despite knowing that my health condition is going to be lifelong, and knowing that most people who try to lose significant amounts of weight don’t sustain the weight loss for long (and often gain all the weight back and a bit more)," Jess explains, "I haven’t gotten rid of my old clothes, so I have a huge number of clothes in my room that don’t fit me. I think part of it is internalised fatphobia – wishing I could go back to my old size – but part of it is definitely financial. If I was able to lose weight I absolutely do not want to have to go through the repurchasing fiasco all over again but it’s mentally unhelpful in the present to be surrounded by evidence of my weight gain."
Despite how personal a problem this is, there are a few practical solutions. We're yet to invent clothes that grow with us but universal sizing or size consistency between shops would make shopping for new pieces that much easier, especially when you’re unfamiliar with your new dimensions. Similarly, better descriptions of fit as opposed to measurements can give a clearer picture of how things would look on you, whether that’s loose, boxy, cropped or fitted.
There is also more demand than ever for secondhand clothing, which will hopefully lead to more vintage and secondhand pieces in larger sizes. Miriam emphasises, too, how learning to mend and alter your clothes is not only a way to curb overconsumption but can help you to adjust old pieces so that they fit. Beyond that, she goes day by day by adopting rigorous body neutrality.
"I don’t have much of a solution but the thing that eventually stopped me from having really intense emotional reactions to my body was to just be completely neutral towards it and pretty much think nothing but Yes, this is a human body, and it’s really helped. I fixate on the aesthetics of it a lot less."
As psychotherapist Dr Sheri Jacobson from Harley Therapy previously explained to R29, it’s natural for humans to struggle with change, particularly around the body. "It's also very hard to accept the way we are right now so don’t beat yourself up for struggling," she said. "But in my opinion that’s probably the best thing that we can do. From that base we can make changes and it's my belief that they should be guided by health and wellbeing, not exclusively by how we will appear to others."
People gain weight for all sorts of reasons and in ways that cannot be clearly tied to the idea that weight gain = unhealthy. Those reasons might include a change in medication, a chronic condition, pregnancy, a global pandemic. Irrespective of the reason, it is not the weight gain that is to blame for the stress and distress around these changing bodies but rather a world that remains resistant to flexible sizing and truly accommodating a range of bodies.