My awakening started with the clothes.
As a performer child, I loved creating a character through costume. This was no mere dress-up game but a careful application of hair, makeup and clothing to capture a nuance or signal a mood. Initially, my inspirations were caricatures like ‘fading Hollywood star’ (to practice my wrinkles) or ‘ski accident victim’ (I loved doing bruises). As I grew up, the characters became more subtle; sometimes an expression of my mood, sometimes an optimistic projection of what mood I wanted to be in (my famed poncho of happiness – rivalling the technicolour dream coat for its loud, clashing colours – is a winter staple to forcibly inject joy into Canberra’s grim winters). When I dressed each day, the question I started with is ‘who am I today?’, and I enjoyed that my costume would provide hints to the person within.
But then I got fat.
I was a weird shape already. Very short, skinny arms and waist, and an arse that heralded the Eastern European dumpling I would become. A size 6 (unless I wanted to buy pants in which case I tried on the largest size in every store and ended up throwing a tantrum, crying, leaving, binging, purging). I wore a lot of skirts. So when my narrow bits started catching up to the wide bits the clothing options rapidly receded. As a size 12-14, there was no room to move. If it didn’t do up, you got nothing. I was still smaller in weight, size and measurements than the average Australian woman and yet fashion was clearly telling me its doors were not open to the likes of me. Keep walking past those well-lit storefronts and find the shop where everything is draped and baggy. For once you’ve fallen off the size 14 cliff you are to shroud yourself in loose fabric. I did. I hid.
I hid in the clothing fat people are told to wear to look slimmer but actually just render us bland. It was all that was available, serving as a sartorial dunce’s hat to publicly shame us for our grotesque shape. My technicolour wardrobe was crammed to the side as black, beige, more black went on high rotation. I was background while fashion took place on more deserving bodies. The fashion equivalent of playing a tree in the school play. For the odd occasion where I needed to haul an old character out of the wardrobe (the role of glamourous wedding guest, for instance, cannot be played in a jersey wrap dress), I would cram and fold myself into layers of horrible shapewear that would line my body with cruel, red indentations, and give me painful stomach cramps from holding in my soft pudge. I look back at the few photos I permitted at that time and the character I’m portraying is the invisible woman. I didn’t think people like me could be seen, should be seen, let alone celebrated.
I recognise that regardless of what I look like on the outside, I will always carry these seeds of a distorted relationship with my body. Even though I have now made peace with my body, I still struggle to shut out the cruel whisper that life would be different if I weighed twenty kilos less. I’m still pulling myself up on my perceptions of health. This is how I’m meant to be. But society, with its warped perception of what ‘fit and healthy’ look like, and an obsession with ‘health-shaming’ people (which is really ‘fat-shaming’ reimagined for the 21stcentury), doesn’t get that, and it’s hard to fight that society off and keep it out of my mind. Every day is and will be an internal battle to quieten that instinct. I still look at old photos and trace my protruding bones with a smile (mmm… sexy clavicle). My closest human helps me through the bad days with compassion and forgiveness that I struggle to show myself. I’m ok, and I’m safe.
Psychologists, nutritionists, personal trainers, doctors and gyms aren’t what got me to this place of begrudging acceptance. Not even Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth cut through my conditioning. My awakening began with Instagram. And it went back to the clothes.
I’ve always liked to look at aesthetic things, so when I first got Instagram it was filled with models and celebrities ostensibly marketing incredible fashion. But, as I had with fashion magazines, I had to block these out as they were also marketing a body shape and ‘health’ aesthetic (health is running! And gymming! In lycra! And look at the salad I’m eating! Wow!) that was so far removed from what I needed for my own recovery and reality.
Somehow, I started following a few ‘plus-size’ bloggers, and I thought they were magnificent. There was no baggy jersey here but colour, and texture, and skin, and TIGHT FITTING CLOTHING that showed dimpled thighs, soft bellies, and jiggly arms. I curated my feed so every time I looked I was inundated with something that made me joyful – creative fashion – and that recalibrated two decades of social programming of what visible bodies are supposed to look like. Of what active bodies look like. Of what clothes should fit like. It was revolutionary.
And then slowly, I started making myself visible to the world again. With the help of online brands with more sizing options, I started choosing costumes again instead of disguises. And if felt bloody amazing. So I would take a photo of it, and I would share it, because I wanted to be seen again. I wanted to capture that moment of creativity and confidence so I can revisit it on my shit days. I wanted to insert myself into a landscape that I thought I had been denied entry into.
The rest of the world is slowly catching on, though for now fashion for all bodies remains a side show. And risks abound even in this intended safe space: the curve fashion industry risks being co-opted by brands who want the social cache of concealing naked consumerism behind messages of empowerment, and the ranking of bodies’ worthiness is sneaking in, with tall, white, hour-glass bodies most likely to be deemed acceptably curvy.
We must be awake to this and we must keep critiquing what is put in front of us. But now, because of my curated Instagram with its celebration of diverse bodies wearing whatever they want, I can look more critically at ‘fit inspiration’ images, ‘health’ marketing, fashion only ever displayed on tall, thin bodies and see them for the constructed forms of control, exclusivity and branding that they are.
As an Eastern European dumpling in a world that values conformity and striving to achieve that conformity, to be seen, even if only in a curated digital world, is an act of political protest. It’s an act of radical self-love in a world that tells me to starve and purge and hide. And I love being part of the revolution.
Experiences of body shame and eating disorders are unique, but you don’t have to feel alone. If you or someone you know needs information and support, please contact a specialist organisation like The Butterfly Foundation for guidance. Be gentle with yourselves. x