Some people style themselves with natural ease, as though they have a congenital intuition about the colors, shapes, textures, and patterns that signal their aspirations and hang gracefully from their bodies. I was never one of them. For most of my life, I gave little thought to clothes—or, if I did, those thoughts came from a place of frustration and intimidation. “Looking good” felt like an impossible ideal.
Then, two years ago, I volunteered to write a piece for the INDY’s 2016 Style Guide—our first ever—that sought to demystify clothes shopping for people who hated it as much as I did. Ashley McIntyre, a personal shopper, taught me some basic outfit-assembly skills and kindly encouraged me to try new possibilities for myself.
I expected the assignment to be a learning experience, but two years later, I now see that it actually changed my life.
I was a skinny child, to the point that it attracted regular comments from my family. I vividly remember my grandmother’s frequent exclamation: “Thin as a rail!” Then puberty hit, and as I started putting on weight, I could see myself becoming The Fat One among my middle-school peers. I became ashamed of my body, so I started to hide it under boxy crewneck T-shirts, loose-fitting jeans, and oversize hoodies. I sought to repel anyone who might look my way.
For years, most of my decisions about clothing revolved around what I thought would make me least repulsive, least likely to attract the cruel comments that I heard about fat people everywhere in my life. I refused to wear shorts or tank tops during some summers because I considered myself too corpulent to enjoy such comforts in public. It seemed delusional to consider myself physically desirable or attractive, so feminine items like short skirts and flouncy dresses appeared to be absolutely off-limits to someone with a body like mine.
Following a serious illness and a lifelong autoimmune diagnosis in the summer of 2013, I gradually started easing up on myself. I could continue my active self-loathing and make myself sicker or accept my body as-is and focus on healing it. But my adventure with McIntyre ushered in a new era of how I felt about my clothes and my body. I realized I could like clothes and like how I felt in them. Unusual prints and cuts began revealing themselves to me in ways that felt like magic, as with a homemade jungle-print dress I found at a thrift store. It fits as though a stylish angel with my measurements made it, as does an astonishing black-and-gold vintage jumpsuit I discovered during a recent procrastination-driven bout of thrifting.
At last, nothing feels like it’s off-limits: bright colors, high hems, velvet, accordion pleats, even sequins. Dear god, do I love sequins—the way they glimmer in any amount of light, the way their hushed rustle sounds like reverent whispers.
I’m still fat, and through these bold sartorial choices, I feel like I’m making up for all of those years of diminishing myself. I take up as much space as I want, delighting in the prospect of disgusting those who might take offense at a fat woman daring to flaunt herself. Learning how I want to dress myself—along with the understanding that I can do that however I fucking please—has carried the same wonder and thrill as learning a new language. I can translate my inner values, moods, and personality into an outward manifestation that tells the truth about who I am.
When friends have commented on my noticeable change in style, I joke that I’ve lost my mind. But it feels more like finding a part of myself than losing one. My weird, outrageous clothes feel like a genuine reflection of my weird, outrageous self. I still wear T-shirts and jeans to work most days because I like them, not because I hate myself. I feel free, and not just because it turns out that skirts and dresses can be as comfortable as pajamas.
Changing my wardrobe hasn’t completely eradicated the body-image issues I’ve wrestled for more than fifteen years. There are still days where I face myself in the mirror on the edge of tears, wishing it were possible to live some sort of shapeless, bodiless existence. But now, I have far fewer days of where regarding my body as a demilitarized zone feels like as good as it’s ever going to get. Developing my own style has helped me find a place where I can fully, finally enjoy being myself. I wouldn’t trade that for all the sequins in the world.