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Weight loss, body image, and girly-ness

I grew up half girly and half tomboy. I’ve always liked cute things, and I’ve always liked dressing up and looking nice, but I’ve also always enjoyed getting my hands dirty, wearing comfortable clothes, climbing things. As a child it always irritated me that my dad and brothers could go outside shirtless on hot days and I couldn’t.

me in middle school
Me at age 12

I tended toward comfortable and eclectic clothes in middle school–pink sweat pants, high top black or white sneakers over two pairs of alternating-color socks, large untucked T-shirts cinched with a thick leather man’s belt and giant belt buckle, brown trenchcoat. I don’t think any color pictures from that time have survived, but here’s one from when I was in the 7th grade, age 12. I was in the paper for participating in an English Composition competition. (One year I made it to state.)

It was funny after the summer between this year and 8th grade, when I put my belt back on for the first time in months and discovered I had suddenly developed curves. I vividly recall looking at a picture of myself from the previous year and thinking that my waist looked like a tree trunk by comparison.

It was probably at that point that I started thinking about looking more girly. Maybe Mom gently nudged me in that direction; I don’t remember. I do know that in middle school I was extremely arrogant. I got along better with teachers than with most other students, and that (plus my wardrobe choices) caused me to be shunned by the general school population. Food was thrown at me in the cafeteria, for example. I did have friends, but I didn’t respect them as much as I should have. I felt that I was above it all. I was, of course, achingly lonely, and to balance this I decided to passive-aggressively talk about people in front of them…to walls. This did nothing for my reputation and also caused some hell for my younger brother, unfortunately.

By the time high school rolled around I was ready to reinvent myself. Toward the end of 8th grade I visited the high school for some function–I think it was probably related to French, which I’d started taking that year–in a cuter outfit than I’d normally worn throughout middle school: jeans, a knit red sweater over a beige blouse, and earrings. While there I met a guy who knew nothing about my wall-talking, crazy-dressing, antisocial behavior, and we got to talking. It was not the first time a guy had expressed interest in me, but it was the first time it wasn’t someone I’d known since elementary school. It was exciting.

I dressed better in high school, and kung fu kept me in relatively good shape. I was convinced I was fat, though, and then one day my dad, trying to be helpful, told me I was “a little overweight.” This drove me to screaming tears. I had always suspected it, you see, and the outside confirmation just made it worse.

One time I was sexually harassed during gym class. A boy touched me on the backside, and when I spun, startled and scared, he was leering. I fled to the locker rooms and wouldn’t come out. The female gym instructor came to talk to me, and I told her I didn’t think I was pretty. Somehow, I had conflated the incident with my insecurity and concluded that only “ugly” people got touched inappropriately. The instructor didn’t figure this out, though, and simply assured me, “You’re not the most beautiful girl in class, but you’re certainly not the ugliest.”

(Later, I was getting a soda from a vending machine, and as I bent over I felt something touch my bottom. I freaked out and accused the boy in line behind me of touching me. He swore up and down that he hadn’t done it, and he looked angry to even be accused, so I immediately changed my story. After all, why would a cute guy like that want to touch my bottom? I must have just brushed up against something.)

I had no boyfriends in high school. I had likes, and I had crushes, but I could never get close, or never let someone get close. The boy I’d met at the French event ended up in my freshman year French class, but while at first I’d found his behavior flattering and chivalrous, eventually it became tiresome and oppressive and even embarrassing. I wasn’t attracted to him, and I didn’t know how to handle it, especially given the long love notes he would continually write me. Somehow, eventually, I told him I wasn’t interested, and he turned his attentions to one of my friends instead, much to her chagrin.

That, unfortunately, was about the best I would do in high school. I spent most of the rest of my time crushing on a boy who wasn’t interested, and occasionally attempting to pursue other boys. No boys pursued me, with the exception of a senior who wanted to take me to prom my freshman year (my parents said no) and a guy who was already dating my friend (and who I therefore cold-shouldered mightily, with restraint I should have shown later in college). I met someone really nice and interesting at the BETA Convention one year. He saw me alone at the hotel restaurant and invited me to eat with him and his friend, and then we explored around the hotel together, and after that we were going to go out on a real date and everything…but I bailed at the last minute out of fear. I was afraid we hadn’t really made a connection, that he was just trolling for a chick. I didn’t know how to trust. I never saw him again.

My first actual boyfriend, therefore, didn’t happen until college. My husband doesn’t like hearing about him (for obvious reasons, but also because they are very different people), but I am pretty thankful I had him in my life. He helped me to accept my body and be comfortable with the way I look, and that change was extremely powerful. I wish I had been a better person then, had been able to treat him better, especially given everything he did for me. I don’t think we should have ended up together, not by a long shot, but I should have broken up with him and stayed broken up when I realized that the first time. At least I know he’s happy now.

When Sean and I first got together, I weighed around 150 pounds. I’d lost a lot of weight due to cancer. I looked pretty good, I was dressing well, and a lot of local guys were noticing me. Sean and I were dating, but he lived nine hours away, so sometimes it didn’t feel real, and I’d entertain the notion of having a local significant other. Ultimately, I didn’t act on these ideas, but I did tell Sean about them; reading the chat logs later, I couldn’t believe how heartless I’d been. I suppose I was coming into myself as an attractive woman who was aware of that fact, and not thinking about the consequences to those around her…not even the man who had already professed his love.

me in 2000
Me in May of 2000

As time passed, I started gaining weight, and when I’d buy new clothes, they weren’t cute. They were comfortable. I had a lot of stretchy pants and big t-shirts. Every now and then I would “dress up”, but for the most part I was, well, slovenly. I was in a relationship; I didn’t need to find anyone. My guy was two states away. There was no one to impress. Really, I wasn’t thinking about these things at all. I was just putting on clothes.

It was actually Sean who got me started dressing nicely. I’d gone through the “I’ll dress how I want because I’m better than you” phase; I’d gone through the “I’ll dress to hopefully please guys, but I hate myself” phase; I’d transitioned into accepting my body; I’d gone through the “Hey, I’m thin! Look at me!” phase; and now I was in some sort of “Whatever” phase. Then there came a time when I was visiting Sean, and I threw on my normal t-shirt and stretchy pants and went to go say hi and bring him a snack at work.

And he was so cold to me. He got rid of me as fast as he possibly could. And he made it perfectly clear that it was because of what I was wearing, that he was embarrassed to be seen with me.

I went back to his parents’ house and sat down at the desktop computer I had lugged down there and just cried. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about this at all. It was shocking to me because it had never occurred to me. I was that comfortable with myself; I just assumed that he was my boyfriend and he would like how I looked no matter what. What a difference from just a few years prior–I never would have assumed such a thing in high school!

A lot has changed in the intervening years. Sean has become far less brusque with me than he used to be. Where once he was abrupt and cool, now he is gentle and supportive. Warm. Tender. Meanwhile, I have become far more attuned to how my actions affect him: how I dress, the things I say. We each enjoy doing things that make the other happy, and we’ve learned a lot about that in the nine and a half years of our marriage.

Now Sean can tell me that an outfit doesn’t really work for him, and it’s fine. I may choose to wear it anyway, if I like it. Or not. And I can express to him what sort of support I need when I need it.

me in February 2009
Me in February 2009

Sean’s fondness of dressing well started to rub off on me fairly quickly after that work incident. I began to choose prettier, more flattering outfits. I started to rise out of the mindset that being overweight or obese meant I didn’t need to worry too much about how clothes looked. Fortunately for me, stores were starting to come out with some plus-size fashions that I really liked. I tried to avoid wearing a lot of plain black, because although black is slimming, it’s not pretty. I started to get a good idea of the types of fabrics and the clothing styles that flatter my body type versus the ones that make me look awful. I embraced “work casual”, nice blouses with black slacks, on weekdays, and wore t-shirts and jeans on the weekend. I kept this up even as my weight ballooned.

I looked at other people as inspiration, people who always dressed well and looked great despite not fitting some arbitrary shape requirement for beauty. I didn’t work on my appearance hard enough to be on their level, but I did work at it a lot more than I had before I realized it was something worth working on.

I don’t want to undercut the epiphany I had in my post on beauty, but I’m realizing that I already felt beautiful, and still do. I knew I didn’t look like a model or like my ideal self-image, but at the same time, I knew I could make myself look nice, and that was powerful. I also knew, and know, that at home, there is a man who loves me, who finds me appealing. While I can dress up for him, and enjoy doing so, I can also just be completely naked, and he’s happy. It isn’t an ideal he wants, it isn’t the image I create by putting on certain clothes. It’s me, and everything that I am.

So now I’m losing weight. I have so much more energy, and I’m finding myself pouring more and more of it into being girly and cute–new outfits, pedicures, trying different things with makeup. Maybe I’m becoming more “acceptable” or more attractive to the world at large. But that was never the point. This weight loss was never about that. It was also never about me finding happiness in myself, because I already did that. This is about getting healthy, living longer, being able to do more, just enjoying life. It’s stirring up so many memories as it happens, though, so many thoughts about my body that I haven’t really worried about in years. I suppose I’m losing some emotional weight too.

I’ll let it all slough off me and emerge stronger and even more vibrant.

me on April 1, 2012
Me on April 1, 2012

One reply on “Weight loss, body image, and girly-ness”

I wish that beauty weren’t so confusing for women, but it is if we let the outside world and its judgments become part of the choices we make. Your post covers a lot of territory and lot of these permutations.

But I really feel like clothes and makeup and femininity can be a pleasure, and a way of expressing something personal. At least–that’s how I choose to relate to it. And I think it can be healthy–and I think it’s healthy that you are embracing your body and that you have more energy and that you want to express all this in some way. These things–clothes and makeup and hair–should be fun, just as lots of things in life (food, money, travel, work) should be fun. We let these things get out of control, but if we can make them fun, then they enrich our lives.

I’m really proud of you!

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