Chapter 16 | The dress strike of 1999

Between the year 1999 and 2001, I refused to wear dresses. No matter where we went: weddings, funerals, the beach; I wouldn’t wear a dress. My mother was upset, she kept telling me “but, you used to love dresses”. I no longer did and I knew exactly why, but I chose to tell myself lies.

Dresses are inconvenient, I told myself. How was I supposed to play outside when wearing a dress? Play with my dog? Ride my bike? Today I can admit that I stopped wearing dresses because I thought I was ugly. I hated my thighs and my “love handles” (a word I still despise). I was convinced dresses and shorts accentuated them. I wanted to be invisible, to hide my body behind dark baggy clothing.

How did the dress strike happen? I hit puberty and gained weight. The magazines told me I should look different and the people close to me pointed out my weight gain. For years, my birthday wishes were spent on, “I wish I was skinnier”. Every day after my shower I would look at myself in the mirror and cry. “Why can’t I be pretty?” I would stare at my reflection, tears running down my face and repeat to myself, “I am beautiful, I am beautiful”.

How did I get over the dress strike? I accidentally lost 25 lbs (11.3 kg). It happened on a summer vacation with my best friend and her family. We camped in a holiday trailer, so my daily habits changed completely. I spent most of my time outside exploring nature and listening to Blink-182. I even rode horses a few times. It didn’t occur to me that I could ask for more food, so I was polite and ate whenever everyone else ate. When my parents came to get me they were shocked by my appearance. They kept asking me if I was okay. Had I been fed? I thought it was weird. I had no idea I had changed. It was only when I got to my aunt’s house and stepped on a scale that I understood. I immediately bought a few skirts when shopping with my aunts and cousins. I was now thin enough to be pretty.

That story makes me sad. I hadn’t felt any different about my appearance during that vacation. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking about my body. I didn’t even cry in front of the mirror, because the only available mirror was tiny (20 cm x 20 cm). It was only when others told me how skinny I was that I realized what it meant. I could now wear what I wanted, without the fear of disapproving looks. Unfortunately, our fat-shaming society has influenced the way I see myself ever since.

Today, I love dresses and dislike pants—they are constricting. After 20 years of trial and error, I learned to feel beautiful on my own terms. When I look in the mirror, I can feel the body dysmorphia falling away, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. It’s a constant battle.

I thought it was ironic that when I stopped weighing myself and obsessing about my calorie intake, I started feeling better and became fitter. Yoga became more fun, I enjoyed going out because it was about seeing the city, not about walking the calories off. Desserts were more delicious when I didn’t have to figure out what was inside them. In short, I could just enjoy the moment.

Last month, my friend sent me an article called Everything you know about obesity is wrong and I realize that my new found enjoyment is not ironic. Research shows that “discrimination based on weight is a stressful social experience linked to declines in physical and mental health”. (Weight Discrimination and Risk of Mortality, 2015) My personal goal is to be fit and healthy, but torturing and shaming myself into it isn’t the way.

Our society seems to be blind to the detrimental effect of our constant focus on size.

According to a 2015 study, fat people who feel discriminated against have shorter life expectancies than fat people who don’t. “These findings suggest the possibility that the stigma associated with being overweight,” the study concluded, “is more harmful than actually being overweight.”
-Michael Hobbes, Everything you know about obesity is wrong, Huffington Post

I no longer allow people to talk to me about weight (their weight, my weight or someone else’s weight). It’s pointless and toxic, unless it’s to actually confide in me about something they’re struggling with. I’ve stopped consuming mainstream magazines and media. It’s too infuriating to see the ridiculous headlines and the unattainable “beauty” standards we have created. Instead, I fill my Instagram feed with diverse humans, I buy and subscribe to magazines or blogs that are smart and positive, and I seek out content from people who are different than myself. In the end, when self-hating thoughts come up, I try to think “Nothing but love. I love you, body.” So far, my tactics are working; I feel beautiful and happy.

Want more? I wrote about how I learned to accept my Unwanted Body Parts in a previous post.