By Natalie Ann Valentine
Maybe a year ago, I saw something that stopped me mid-second iced coffee of the day sip, mid-social media scroll:
Who profits off how much you hate your body?
I have no idea where I originally saw it, but it popped up again and again over the next few weeks. I thought about the “metabolism-boosting!” pills I bought when I was in college, and how I prayed for them to work. I thought about going to bed hungry. I thought about every fad workout on every page of every magazine, website, and commercial that promised me the world, if I were just a little bit smaller.
Who profits? The companies that sell you not good enough and not skinny enough and you’d be loved if only your waistline were just two (oh, let’s call it three) inches narrower. They sell diet pills and products make that body part bigger and that one smaller; one person’s skin darker and another’s lighter. They say, happiness is within your reach if only you change everything.
And, friends? Screw that.
I grew up skinny. I studied acting in college, where in one class the professor asked upon our fellow students and TAs to look at us, judge our bodies, and say who was “healthy”. They gleefully answered. I will never forget the speed with which my peers raised their hands, naming names (mine wasn’t one) as if they could possibly know — as if anyone could possibly know who was healthy just by looking; as if “health” is all that matters when it comes to the worth of our existence on this ridiculous planet. There are bodies that are judged multiple times over by the world in their intersectionality, many in ways that I will never experience or understand.
We are sold self-hatred, and it’s nearly impossible not to buy.
Not long after that, I started taking some medications that saved my life (yes, literally) but had the side effect of weight gain. A lot of weight. It was fast, and it was, I hate to admit, frightening. I felt as though I had become someone else. I hated it. But looking back, my body hatred only shifted gears. I didn’t hate my body any more than I had before — just differently. But there were boxes and bags and a closet full of clothes that fit Past Me and an imaginary Future Me. Clothes I didn’t even particularly like.
They haunted me: looming specters in the shape of dresses I couldn’t zip up.
Who profits off how much you hate your body?
I decided I was done purchasing self-loathing.
So I let the old clothes go. I donated them, I sold a few things, I gave a lot away to friends who look cute as hell. Sometimes I get pictures of people I love in clothing I used to wear, looking adorable and happy. It is, to put it simply, the best. No longer do outfits of bodies past lurk in my closet, taking up space that could be filled with, you know, clothes that actually fit me. I know, I know — what a concept.
And for a while, that was it. I wasn’t sure what to do next. In one of my poorer choices, I turned to the internet.
I read a lot of articles about how to dress for your fruit-shaped body, and I struggled with knowing what to wear to “flatter” my body. I was frustrated.
Not only did I have to figure out whether I was a true human Pear, I had to figure out how to wear things strategically, to put my best Pear foot forward. A lot of clothing companies, if they have anything beyond straight sizes at all, apparently think that plus size people just want to wear depressing bags. Truly, how many times have you looked at the “plus size” section of a store and they transition from quirkily-patterned, well-cut, cute straight size pieces into swathes of fabric with head and arm holes cut out, in thrilling shades of beige? I personally have lost count. So many companies are in the business of hiding plus size people as much as fabric will allow.
(And I wanna thank Ori for its size-inclusive mission and for selling clothes that people want to wear.)
I decided to try and like my body. Just the way it was in the moment. Not the future, not the past, not lighter, not smaller, not different. Just to see what would happen.
*I want to note here that I don’t think that we can love ourselves into a society that is magically supportive of larger bodies. But I do think it is one part of working towards a world that is more just.
I read Sonya Renee Taylor’s absolutely incredible and life-changing book, The Body Is Not An Apology. I have been to so much therapy. I thought about, and I mean really thought about, the Patriarchal structures that profited off how desperately I wanted to go through the world as small as possible. I thought about the things I’d purchased (and never wore) for some idealized, future, “better” version of myself.
Now I buy clothes that not only fit, but that I love. I’ve always been a lover of the thrift store, but it’s helped me on this journey more than I can say. They frequently organize their clothes by size, rather than item. You never have to fall in love with an item just to find out that, of course, it doesn’t come in your size. I started shopping at places that actually cater to plus size people like me. Personally, I don’t mind the term plus size. I know it is contentious. I usually describe myself as fat in an effort to normalize the word as what it is: a description. I’m also tall. My hair is blue. My eyes are different colors. I’m fat. I’m sexy. (Nope, not fat but sexy. Fat and sexy.)
I love fashion; I use style as a way to express who I am. I use it as a way to combat my ongoing struggle with mental illness. I rock a crop top in world that desperately wants Pears to wear tunics. I love a tight pencil skirt with a blouse tucked in just-so. I love pairing a worn, cozy flannel with a high femme fit-and-flare dress and some leopard print punk rock boots. I wear men’s patterned button down shirts tied in a knot at the waist with a pair of high waisted pants. I love jumpsuits with every fiber of my being (listen, I just want to get as close to that Fleabag outfit as possible, okay?). I’m a little unbuttoned librarian, a little tomboy femme, a little PTA dad, all by way of a burlesque show. Not infrequently, people will come up to me and say “oh, I love that look, but I could never pull it off.”
I am here to tell you that, my friends, you can absolutely pull it off.
If you can put it on, you can pull it off. I hereby give you permission to wear something you love, no matter what any misguided wannabe-fashionista or well-intentioned help column tells you about body types and shoulds and shouldn’ts and blah blah blah. Wear that thing with a lot of patterns and excellent draping with the fabric that feels like the world’s coziest pajamas. Wear the tight skirt. Wear the sleeveless shirt with the high neck that makes you feel like you’re the melancholy but gorgeous CEO in a Hallmark Holiday movie.
The other day my best friend mentioned that, in the past six months or so, I have been more confident than I’ve ever been before. Just having hit the 30 mark, we’ve known each other for all the highs and lows of nearly 18 years now.
I told her the simple and complicated truth: I was so, so tired of hating my body, and something had to give.
When I first started using the term “fat” as a descriptor, people freaked out -- and so did I, a little bit. We are taught from day one that “fat” is a bad word. What if I were to tell you that it isn’t? That you don’t have to listen to that at all?
The thing is … every body is normal. What if we embraced all bodies, in all of their glorious similarities and differences, as worth celebrating? What if we allowed ourselves to be generous and loving to our bodies, just as they are, right now? Worthy of loving, of wearing cute outfits that reflect some little bit of our truth?
What if we embraced all bodies, in all of their glorious similarities and differences, as worth celebrating? What if we allowed ourselves to be generous and loving to our bodies, just as they are, right now?
I know that none of this is easy. I won’t pretend it is. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever made up my mind to do, and I am certain that it will never be finished. Still, something has shifted. And it’s worth it. It’s so worth it.
The world encourages our insecurities and profits from them. I am through with my dedication to shrinking.
My lovelies: you deserve to dress exactly the way you like to dress; and to look the way you look. Your existence, just the beautiful fact of you, is enough to change the world. I know you can do it.
You are the one who should benefit from your body. It’s yours, after all.