When Your Clothes Define You

My struggle with obesity began around the age of 6 or 7.  My father’s abandonment had become a reality by then (he left when I was 5) and my mother had begun dating the man who would become my stepfather. When I was 10, we moved into a house closer to my stepfather’s work, and I began a new school on the first day of 5th grade. I remember carefully choosing my most stylish, flattering outfits: blousy shirts, and skirts that hid my chubby tummy. In those first few days of school, I got attention from a beautiful red-headed girl with awesome fashion sense. She was one of the cool kids, and it gave me so much hope for this new school.  And then my stylish, flattering outfits ran out. 

I had no choice but to wear older, tighter clothes that clearly displayed the chubby tummy – a symptom of the pain I was masking by eating junk food. But when our society sees a fat person, they don’t consider what is hiding behind the layers of fat.  Instead, we focus only on the fact that this overweight person doesn’t fit the standard definition of beauty – and so we either shun them, pity them, or ignore them. I learned this from the fashionable girl in 5th grade. When my flattering/stylish outfits ran out, and I showed up in tight/uncomfortable clothes, she looked me up and down and said, “Oh. I didn’t know you were like that.” And then she turned her back on me from that day on.   

Thankfully, I made other friends at school – friends who weren’t so concerned with appearance. This was a blessing, given that my appearance/size continued to grow as my new stepfather began to point out the “cankles” I’d begun to develop… and my father’s absence was felt more strongly than ever. 

My friends and I were super spirited as freshman. That's me on the right, feeling adorable in my skinny girl pants. 

My friends and I were super spirited as freshman. That's me on the right, feeling adorable in my skinny girl pants. 

My growing size was of great concern at home.  Shopping for clothes was mortifying, and I was constantly taken on walks that seemed to stretch for miles and miles.  As a freshman in high school, I got signed up for Nutri-System.  While my friends were eating hamburgers and fries from the local Foster’s Freeze, I was choking down dry, pre-made sandwiches that I hid inside paper towels. But then, my diet plan began to show results! I was so excited that I could squeeze into the cutest pair of size 14 jeans (these were probably equivalent to a size 4 or 6 in today’s sizing world). People came out of the woodwork to compliment my adorable new outfit and declare that they NEEDED pants like mine. 

Swollen face, swollen body. Embarrassed Girl.

Swollen face, swollen body. Embarrassed Girl.

When I went off Nutri-System, I rejoiced. I was finally a normal person!  I could fit into cute little clothes! I could eat whatever foods I wanted! And that’s basically what I did, for the next six years. By the time I graduated from college, I was a size 22.  Every time I looked at photos from graduation day, I didn’t see the joy and accomplishment of such a momentous occasion. I only saw my swollen face and body, and what an embarrassment I must have been to my friends. 

When I moved to Portland after graduation, I was equal parts excited and nervous to start my fancy new internship (with one of the area's largest PR agencies).  The nerves were because I'd only done phone interviews as part of the hiring process.  I was so worried that I’d get turned away at the front door – once they realized how large I was. This makes no sense in the business world I was about to enter… but it shows the strength of the lies we begin to believe as children.  For me, the dismissal of that girl in 5th grade colored every experience of meeting someone new. Another blow was the various diet and exercise programs I went through as a teenager, without any support to heal emotionally.  So even when my parents said it was because these diets were because they worried about me, I believed they were actually ashamed of me. And so I harbored a belief that my size was shameful, and a deciding factor for whether someone chose to be my friend. 

This photo was taken a few months after my first half marathon. I still love this photo, but have to work very hard not to see this as my "crowning glory."

This photo was taken a few months after my first half marathon. I still love this photo, but have to work very hard not to see this as my "crowning glory."

But I made wonderful friends in Portland.  And I started down the road to health, by joining a gym with a special deal on personal training. I lost 75 pounds before I ran out of money for the trainer.  Once I lost that accountability, I gained back 30 of the pounds I’d lost.  Over the next two years, I got married, had a miscarriage, had a baby, and ended up pretty close to the size I was at college graduation. Looking back, I can see how much anxiety and sadness I must have been struggling with during this time. But instead of addressing my emotional struggles, I dove into Weight Watchers and half marathon training. And I finally achieved my ultimate dream – a single digit size. I’d never felt more proud of myself.  I find this terribly sad now… because I’d accomplished a lot in my life by this point. But I also had no idea how deeply my anxiety ran. And so I became obsessed with diet and exercise, as a way to ensure people would never turn away from me again.

After the birth of my second child, I began to search for a more sustainable approach to health. I began listening to my heart, my soul… I realized that my soul had a purpose. And I chose to build my life around my soul’s purpose instead of the number on the scale or inside my clothes. 

My son is now four, and I’ve never been more at peace in my day to day life. I recently decided to purchase bigger clothes, for the summer season.  Because as I’ve focused more on being happy and less on calories, I’ve let go of controlling behaviors around food/exercise… and horror of horrors, I’ve gained weight.  I faced my biggest fear right in the face… gaining weight and losing friends.  I discovered a couple of amazing things: 

  1. The friends I’ve surrounded myself with love me for exactly who I am. They don’t want to fix me, they won’t rebuke me if/as my clothing size gets bigger. 
  2. When I went shopping with comfort in mind, I bought clothes that flattered my shape and gave me some room (for those times of the month when my belly needs extra space). As I wear these comfortable, flattering clothes I realize that I’ve been purchasing the wrong sizes for years.  I looked for the smallest size I could fit into, believing I’d keep losing weight and THEN the clothes would fit perfectly.    

Despite these wonderful lessons, I still struggle with the fact that I’m back to a double digit size. I catch myself focusing on my flaws – but then urge my mind to see what is underneath the flaws. A body that’s helped me carry/deliver two healthy babies. Legs and feet that have traveled miles in pursuit of joy and happiness. Arms that give some of the best hugs around. And most of all, a heart that resides on the outside – pulsing like a beacon of light. Calling to you to discover your own soul, your own purpose.

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