Do you remember the Hula-Hoop dress? It was a dress for little girls, pretty basic in almost every way except that there was a Hula-Hoop sewn into the hem. When you sat down, the Hula-Hoop would make the dress flower around you, creating a princess-like experience of dainty feminine magic. I loved the Hula-Hoop dress from the first time I saw it when I was 8 years old. I begged for a Hula-Hoop dress of my own, until finally my mom and grandmother took me to the mall. I remember holding my grandma’s hand as the three of us approached the girls' department at J.C. Penney. There was always a little bit of a spiel given to the sales lady: “This is what we are looking for. Do you have it in her size?” Each time we went shopping for my clothes, they acted as if it was the first time, and so did I — even though I don’t think a single item from the J.C. Penney girls' department had ever fit me. I come from a fat family. If you were to look at the pictures of my mom, my grandparents, their parents, and all my extended relatives, you would notice that everyone is big. I was born a fat baby to a fat mom who had dieted and hated herself just like I would. Clothing would become one of the earliest signs that I didn’t fit into the culture around me — that I was too big to be a girl at all. That day at the department store, the saleswoman looked down at me, up at my mother, then down at me again, and frowned. (As usual, her face bore a prescient expression that augured the failure about to come.) She took us to the right section, helped us find the biggest size, and sent us off to the fitting room.
My heart was beating so fast, I remember, like when I was near my crush. I had picked out a Hula-Hoop dress in light peach. The material had zero give and a plastic zipper up the back (a combination that, to this day, still makes me cringe). I stepped into the dress. All good so far. Arms in. Dress up. Then my mom tried to zip it. She tried and she tried and she tried. I can’t imagine what it was like for her, willing that zipper to close with the urgency of a woman who wanted this not to end in heartbreak, who herself knew what it felt like to wish for a different body. Finally, she gave in. “I can’t.” And then the tears came. It was the most overwhelming feeling I’d ever experienced. The dress represented everything: It was a tender wish, my permission to exist, a single moment of belonging, my proof that I was really a girl — all gone. In the years that followed, I got a daily education in fat-hatred at school, and had it confirmed each time I stepped into a dressing room. My inability to find anything that fit me underscored the clear, cruel message I got from peers: that I needed to change my body by any means necessary; I was a monster, I was ugly and unworthy of humane treatment, and I didn’t belong anywhere. Ten years after the Hula-Hoop dress, I was about to graduate from high school. It was prom season. I had spent years watching teen transformation movies, feeling shut out of every milestone moment in my own adolescent life. It is difficult now to imagine how much going to the prom meant to me then. It was the ultimate normal-teen experience, and my desire to “be normal” had supplanted any loftier goals I could have imagined. Despite how badly I wanted to go, I was sure I was too fat to find a date or a dress. Still, my friends encouraged me to attend, and so, about one week before the actual prom, I managed to get tickets and a date (the guy who played clarinet next to me). The only thing left was the dress. Again, I went to the mall with my mom, looking for something — anything — in my size. I was a 14/16 then, and nothing fit me. I didn’t dare have preferences about what the dress might look like; all I needed was one that would zip. None of them had give. All of them had plastic zippers. Two days before the prom I was ready to surrender my tickets and tell my band friend, Andrew, that I couldn’t go after all. But my determined mom pushed me to go shopping one last time, and it was on that trip when we finally found a dress: an A-line gown in Easter-egg purple. Looking back, I can’t believe how close I came to giving away something that mattered so much to me just because of a dress. But, like always, that item of clothing meant much more to me than its constituent parts.
For another decade, I actively hated my body because it just never seemed to fit into anything. I tore the tags out of my clothing (destroy the evidence), laid on the floor squeezing into too-tight pants, felt the euphoria of going down a size and the failure of going up again. I bought “inspirational” clothes in a size 2, wore all black, and refused to go sleeveless or wear anything that would garner attention. Then, at 28 — 20 years after the Hula-Hoop dress — something massive happened: I was introduced to fat activism. That’s when my body began to mean something different to me. I met people who taught me that I wasn’t to blame for those painful, shame-filled experiences in the dressing room. No longer was it my job to change myself, and instead I became an outspoken advocate against diet culture and fatphobia. I began lecturing all over the country, even writing a book on size and style. For the first time in my life, I wore short skirts and bright lipstick. In the midst of this emotional revolution, Forever21 unveiled a plus-size line. So, I went shopping with a friend at the location near my home, in downtown San Francisco. It was spring, and the store was full of new summer clothes. Walking in, I stopped dead in my tracks; it was one of those cinematic moments — which sometimes actually happen. What I saw before me was a wall of brightly colored two-piece bathing suits. And all of them were plus-size. Just like all those years before in the J.C. Penney, I cried. I cried because I never thought I would see this day. Yes, intellectually, I knew it was just a bunch of fabric. But, to me, it still represented so much more. This was a moment of healing and of visibility. It was my invitation to join the world, just as I was. Virgie Tovar is a writer, activist, and one of the nation's leading experts on fat discrimination and body image. She is the author of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion, and the creator of the #LoseHateNotWeight campaign.