I can tell you the exact moment I felt shame from that tiny label in the back of my clothes, down to the second. I was at the mall, with my mother, and I was about 12 years old. We were shopping for trousers and we were in the brightly lit fitting rooms of The Gap. Around me hung pictures of American teens and twenty somethings, happily frolicking on the beach or running through a giant cornfield. I thought nothing of it, except for momentarily fixing my sights on one outfit of a girl wearing jean shorts and a polo shirt. I innocently wondered how I’d look in such an outfit on the beach this summer. My mom had grabbed a pair of women’s size 12 trousers for me to try on in the fitting room that day, not the jean shorts! Just to note, at the time, I do believe Gap only carried up to a 14 in select sizes, as did most other retailers in the mall in 1992.
I went into the fitting room as my mom waited just outside. I slid off my stretchy waisted trousers and hung them on the peg as I listened to the shop attendants fetch sizes for the other girls in the fitting rooms. “I need a size 6, please, the 8s are too big.” ” Do you carry a size zero yet?” “Do you think the bigger 6 makes me look cool or should I take my usual size 4.” Back in the 90s, the mall was THE place to shop, so the fitting rooms were always full and alive with conversations between shoppers and runners fetching new sizes. Again, I didn’t think anything of it. And then…. I pulled on the size 12 trousers. I hiked them up and felt the hug of fabric I know now means “there ain’t no way in hell these are fitting.” I tried again, managing to get them up over my bum and at least in place, but there was no way the button was ever meeting it’s intended space of closure. I whispered, “mom, I think I need a bigger size.” Just as I did, an attendant with superhuman hearing came running and said, “what size do you need hun?” My mom asked, “do you have these in a size 14?” and the attendant responded, “let me nip out and see if we carry them that large.”
My palms started to sweat, my cheeks flushed. Within seconds the shop attendant was back with the bombshell. “Sorry, darl’, we don’t carry that big in that style,” and off she went thinking nothing of it. I was tall enough, at the time, to see over the door, and I made eye contact with at least three of the other girls in the fitting rooms. Two were trying on clothes together and they sniggered as one of them pointed to me and made a gesture like she was Violet from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. The other just looked away quickly. I looked at the same posters around me, which moments ago had seemed harmless and fun, and I hated every single one of the girls in those pictures. I put my trousers back on and off we went. We tried a few other stores and I can’t remember much of what happened after that. I do remember I didn’t want anyone to know I was upset, so I held it together. But, when I got home I excused myself to my room and escaped to the bathroom, where I sat on the cold tiled floor, toes tightly clenching the strands of a long bathmat, as I cried and cried. In that moment, I set myself on a course to hate my body, with every ounce of strength I had. Every extra pound was a curse. Every extra size in the my garments a sign that I was more worthless and just an overall waste of space.
That was 28 years ago. And do you know how many years after that I cut out tags from the back of my dresses, trousers and more? For the next 25! I couldn’t bare to see the size in anything I bought. I was embarrassed. So embarrassed. It didn’t matter what I was wearing. Knowing that it was above a size 8 made me miserable.
I wish I could tell you now the exact moment that all changed. I can’t. You would think such a change would be forever tattooed in my brain, just like the hurt I felt all those years ago, but that’s not how life works is it? The things that scar us are the things that cut deep. Healing those wounds and learning to wear the scars with pride is a gradual lesson learned, not one marked by one moment in time, but in many days working towards a better acceptance of self. And it took many many days. But here’s what I wish I could say to my younger self… word for word… and wish that I would have listened (as I’m almost certain this is exactly what my mother told me for decades).
Style has absolutely nothing to do with size. Not a single thing. Style is 100% a confidence game. You know that old saying, “she’d make a garbage bag look good”? If you really think about it, that says it all. Now, back when I was growing up, that was used to describe people like Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington. Today, the same could be said for Ashley Graham, Tara Lynn of Candice Huffine, just three of the hundreds of plus size models shaking up this industry at the moment. They way in which they wear it is what gives a garment life, style. The garment doesn’t wear them, they wear the garment!
In the 90s, larger ladies most definitely found their style challenged by the fact that 99.9% of designers didn’t recognise plus size women as people that were worthy of chic clothing. In America, a woman over a size 16 had about a handful of places she could shop and they were mainly filled with shapeless garments that were absolutely horrendous. Times were tough, but damn were women resourceful. You had to work ten times harder than a girl that was sporting a single digit dress size, but you made it work.
I found myself thinking way outside the box when it came to style. I wore men’s jeans… making boyfriend jeans chic before they were chic, when in reality I was simply looking for something that would fit. I borrowed varsity jackets from the boys. I shopped men’s big and tall shirts to make shirt dresses. My mom even got her sewing machine out more than once to make me wide leg trousers that were perfectly tailored and long enough. Yet, I was still missing the biggest slice of the style pie… confidence.
I felt good about myself when I made something work, but I still felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb, and not in a good way. I was an outsider and I hated it. I absolutely hated it. Every night I went to bed crying, asking God why he had to curse me by making me fat and 6’2? Wasn’t it enough to carry one physical characteristic that made my stand out? Why was there a double helping of hurt here?
So, at this point I’m sure you’re asking, “when does this story shift from sob story to style confidence?” Well, dear friend, it never shifts entirely. I am a woman that has to exercise this confidence muscle daily. And yes, it is a muscle, your confidence. I have learned to accept that my body isn’t just here to be a clothes hanger. It’s here to do so much more, to carry me through life, to allow me to travel, to hug people, to help people, to enjoy good foods without shame, to enjoy healthy foods that make me stronger and to maybe if I’m lucky, one day, take care of a family. That’s one element, and as important as it is, it’s still only a piece of the puzzle.
I have also, after 40 years on this planet, finally had enough time in this body to know it, inside and out, and all around. I know what shapes, styles and colours look good on me, but I’m also never afraid to try something I haven’t tried before. I see fashion as something fun, mostly since the world has awoken to the idea of extended sizes and we are truly spoiled in the selection that’s available. Only someone as old as I am or older will truly understand this. We see young women everyday complaining about the lack of extended sizes and want to shout, “try living in the 90s and get back to us…”. There is still a long way to go, but baby we’ve come a long way already!
So we have loving your body and knowing your body to aid in styling it, which are two very important things. And I can’t stress the knowing your body enough! You should eventually get to a point, with much trial and error, where you can simply look at the cut of something and inherently know if it will work or not. And you can only get to this point with work, ladies. The number of hours I’ve spent trying clothes on, my God, it’s ridiculous. They say doing anything for 10,000 hours makes you a pro. Well, I consider myself a doctor of style after the time spent in this arena. But, I’m an expert on myself. I know what works for me and what doesn’t and truly you have to devote the time here to yourself. I’m not saying you shouldn’t look to others for inspiration, but you’ll never know if something will work for you until you’ve got it on YOUR BODY! TRY EVERYTHING!
Now, what’s the third slice of this style confidence pie? This is something I consider to be the most important! COMFORT! If you aren’t comfortable, you are going to look uncomfortable. I don’t just mean comfort in the sense of comfy. I mean comfort as in you feel “confidence comfortable.” We all know those outfits that you throw on and go and feel miserable in. Maybe the waistband keeps rolling down or the shirt keeps riding up. Maybe the jeans are so tight you can’t breathe or the sweater is so heavy you feel like you’re sweltering. Unless you are attending a Red Carpet event where your stylist is insisting you cage yourself into a couture gown in the name of extreme fashion, you should be able to leave your house daily feeling comfortable in the outfit you’ve chosen. Just think of the outfit you wear when you feel you look your best. Is there anything that snags, grabs or hangs funny? Most likely, no. That’s because it’s comfortable, you feel confidence comfortable. Please never overestimate that power of an outfit that fits you properly and comfortably. Also, please know this can mean different things for different people. Some women feel most confident in a skin tight Roland Mouret dress. They love the way it hugs every curve and gives their body structure and height. Other women love a great pair of tracksuit bottoms, but rock it in a uniquely fabulous way that is both stylish and comfortable.
So we have comfort confidence, loving all your body can do and knowing what looks good on you versus what doesn’t. That’s building confidence in your style. But we’re still left with what size you are, that little number in the back of every piece of clothing you own, the identifier for so many of us throughout our lives. And here’s what I have to say to you on that, after everything else we’ve discussed and I hope you’ll truly internalise this. Size is just a number. It truly is. But, it’s an important number. It’s not there to shame you. It’s there to help you find garments that will fit you correctly so that you can look your best. So try, just try, to look at it as a guide to dressing well and to making sure you buy things that fit. That’s it. It doesn’t mean anything else. And anyone on this earth that tries to shame you for it isn’t worth having around for one minute longer in your life. Not one single minute.
I’ll tell you a little story that shows even I’m not over the stigma attached to size, but it has an ending which shows that the stigma starts and finishes with me these days. It’s all in my head… as it is for many of us.
I put a reel up on Instagram this morning titled, “so you think a size 18 can’t be stylish.” I put the whole thing together and then shared it with Steve to make sure the music worked with the video. I then pulled the phone back quickly and said, “oh God, is it embarrassing for you that I tell the whole world I’m a size 18.” Yup, old habits die hard. He just rolled his eyes and said, “Don’t be silly. That’s who you are.” He’s my people.
This is all just to say it can take time. But more than time, it requires compassion, love and appreciation for yourself. Please, don’t do as I did, if you still have time. And if you’re a living, breathing, reading person right now, you still have time. Don’t let a number in the back of your pants tell you who you are or how you should feel.
Ps. I’ve turned the comments on below if anyone would like to join in on this conversation!