Too many of us have the experience of going into a store or shopping online with the intent of finding cute clothes and, instead, winding up feeling ashamed of what we see in the mirror.
Sadly, an activity that’s supposed to be fun too often brings shame. I, myself, have felt that shame from a young age. In a society that constantly values a singular body type over any other, it’s hard to escape that phenomenon. While the body-positive movement has become more accepted and supported, a new wave of beauty influencers promoting diet products, an onslaught of Photoshop apps, and big brands who haven't changed much can make being positive about your own body quite difficult. I, like many, have grown up in a culture that promotes a body type impossible to attain.
When I was fifteen years old, my mom took me to the mall. For me, this was an exciting experience. Almost all my shopping had to be done online. I grew up in a rural community with very few clothing stores, so when we went on vacation, going to the mall was as thrilling to me as going to a waterpark. I remember, so vividly, the feeling of being fifteen, walking into a store and immediately being struck by just how homogenous the models looked. I was hoping it would be a bit different than my online shopping experiences. All of the models were so slim. It made me feel like my wide hips, plump thighs, and broad shoulders were abnormal, undesirable, unlovable. This wasn’t an unusual sight, but at fifteen, comparing myself to these women became painfully easier.
I saw a photo of a model wearing an adorable off-shoulder shirt with a slight crop, decorated with moons. Mom went to investigate some handbags and I went straight for the shirt area. When I picked up the top, I was greeted by a sales associate. Through what appeared to be a friendly smile, she said something to me that would change the way I viewed my body for a long time:
“I don’t know if that would be flattering on you. Maybe try this.”
She handed me a plain black tee sitting close by with ruffled sleeves. It’s funny how such a simple, non-confrontational sentence did so much harm. In the dressing room, I looked at myself in the mirror, studied my body with a far too critical eye under the harsh light. It took me years to like my stomach. Years to unlearn all the damage done by the beauty standards I was raised in.
For generations, women have lived through changing eras of unrealistic body expectations, fatphobia, and being told we aren’t good enough. Parents often unwittingly pass off this message to their children. I, for instance, was told I’d have to start worrying about my figure when I was twelve.
Fashion brands pass it on. Social media influencers also pass it on. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t see the promotion of diet pills. It’s a problem that’s engrained itself into many facets of society. It’s taken years of advocacy to get any large companies, politicians, and health professionals to pay attention.
When I was younger, I had no source telling me my body was beautiful the way it was. I existed at the dawn of modern social media. I’d go home after school and go on Instagram and Tumblr where I was further fed images of women who looked nothing like me, often Photoshopped to the point where they looked nothing like themselves. Worse off, social media had a huge surge in “thinspo” accounts, promoting unrealistic body standards and posting photos of only incredibly slim women. Lots of these women, concerningly, were fashion models.
About four years after the incident in the department store, I was a college student studying all the way across the country. My friends and I decided to go on a shopping spree. The cold New York City winter was beginning to end, and we wanted to get some spring clothes. One of my friends was plus sized, so she went to her section. My other friend was naturally skinny and only five feet tall. I, on the other hand, was mid-sized.
For my smaller friend, the pants were too long on her, the clothes were hard to reach, and the store's models, while slim, still didn't represent her, as a black woman. For me, finding clothes that fit me was, like always, a challenge. Due to brand names making sizes smaller than they traditionally were, the sizes that I usually fit in I couldn’t even get around my waist. It made for an incredibly degrading experience in the dressing room. My plus-sized friend faced the most challenges of all of us.
There’s a shame in being separated from others. The plus size collections are always so much smaller and only have a few clothes to choose from.
Our spring formal was around the corner, and she got through all the dress options in under a minute, none of which were formal enough or her style. My smaller friend and I both found dresses (though mine didn’t fit quite right). She, on the other hand, walked out empty-handed. Too many websites and clothing stores alienate plus-sized women by separating the plus section from the women’s section. I’ve seen it before, with plus size friends like her having to break from the group and go to the tiny little section of clothes in the back corner.
Ultimately, it was a degrading and uncomfortable experience for all three of us. While these problems may seem small, they’re coupled with spending our entire lives subjected to the messaging that tells us we aren’t good enough. Stores like that, even though they may sell toiletry bags that say, “love yourself”, do the opposite of promoting any sort of body positive mentality.
We didn’t walk out of that store feeling like it was a good time, we walked out of there all having our insecurities a little more deeply rooted.
Our experience there is such a clear example of the fact that the current way many shops function harms everyone. The body-positive movement won’t succeed unless shops offer more than performative actions. You can’t advocate for self-love when people leave your store or leave your website feeling worse about themselves. This is why it’s so crucial we see more brands and influencers that tell you to be yourself rather than change yourself.
It’s taken me years to get to where I am today. Years of calorie counters and weigh-ins and fad diets and heartache. While I don’t quite love my body yet, practicing radical self-acceptance has done wonders for my mental health. I don’t dread looking in the mirror. The other day, I told a family member I had gained a little weight during quarantine. When she suggested a diet, I told her that I like how I look. It’s the first time I’ve ever truly meant it.
I no longer shop to be “flattering.” I shop to express myself. That makes all the difference.
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