by Rachel A.G. Gilman
Content warning: body shaming
It started when I was eight years old, with my tonsils.
The year before I had them taken out, I was ghastly white, except my nose, which was usually bright red. The cases of strep throat and the common cold were plentiful. In a video from my performance as Shprintze in Fiddler on the Roof, my voice is as nasal as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I was also quite thin.
After it was determined that my swollen tonsils had caused my illnesses, the tissues were removed. My two weeks post-op were spent in bed with a sore throat. I was unable to eat much or say anything but gradually things improved. The illnesses dissipated. My coloring came back. My voice cleared out. And my body changed into something I did not like.
My face was shaped like a ripe, juicy tomato in my yearbook picture. My frame had expanded; first vertically, then horizontally. When I wanted to wear outfits that matched my American Girl dolls or the Disney princesses, I found the sizes stopped before my body did. I did not understand. Everything felt more complicated.
I quit ballet lessons a year later, having grown tired of being put in the corner because I was ‘too big’ and spending productions of The Nutcracker at the back of the stage dressed up as a tin soldier, a reindeer, or a hungry chef. The costumes for the maids and snowflakes would never fit me; these, I understood, were small, and I was not.
In fourth grade, when I danced in my school’s talent show, I had to wear a tank top with an elastic shelf on the inside beneath my clothes in order to hide my budding chest.
In fifth grade, I hit 100 pounds before any of my other friends.
My body was too big for the dosing instructions on the medications I would take when I got sick, too big to go down the slide on the playground comfortably, too big for every Halloween costume in children’s sizes. I couldn’t identify with my body. Inside, I was still a rail thin little girl with the sniffles.
For a while, I wondered if keeping my tonsils would have allowed me to keep my original body chemistry, would have allowed me to stay the same. The change, I realize now, was inevitable.
We understand puberty as the period during which adolescents reach sexual maturity and become capable of reproduction. Of course, this definition and its marketing counterparts (take beinggirl.com and girlshealth.gov, for example) with their bright colors, smiling faces, and many flowers don’t explain that everything about this time sucks.
Instead, these websites break down the process into fun steps of growing breasts and body hair, developing pimples, and, eventually, getting a ‘shape’. Apparently, you were a formless lump of clay before. Who knew? And don’t fret if you skip a step. There is no ‘normal’.
These elements were glossed over in an explanation I received at the end of fifth grade when the health teacher had all of the girls watch a video from the 1990s detailing the importance of keeping a calendar to track our cycles and how we were going to start feeling attracted to boys. More importantly, we should not be upset when it happened. I had always loved keeping a calendar and felt attracted to boys, but I did not want those things connected to a cheesy video and awkward feeling I got from the nurse’s talk. It made me upset (though not as upset as the girl the nurse embarrassed for having already gotten her period), in part because during the video, all of the boys got to play kickball. They never had an equivalent lecture, and I have never let that go.
The last few years have brought attention to the question of whether or not girls are reaching puberty too early. Mothers of daughters as young as three years old worry on blogs and message boards about their girls already showing developmental changes such as pubic hair and breast buds. The emotional changes are likely there, too, though discussed less frequently. The doctors have labeled any such signs as ‘precocious’ and ‘a new normal’, even though they said there was not a ‘normal’ to start. They are awfully endearing labels.
Every year in school, the nurse would record our height and weight measurements, as well as blood pressure and vision. We were told that it was state-mandated; however, if we went to the doctor the summer before and could show that these checks had already been done, we would not be called out of class.
I always went to the doctor, brought in the signed papers, and handed them directly to the nurse. Still, she called me in without fail.
In middle school, it went alphabetically by your grade. My last name happened to be sandwiched in between the popular kids. These were the boys with the toothpick legs in basketball shorts whose voices had changed. These were the girls who flat-ironed their hair, wore push-up bras and make-up, who had just started weighing a hundred pounds and who would never weigh much more. By comparison, my frizzy hair was hapless, my glasses rendered eye make-up pointless, and wearing a push-up bra would have suffocated me under my too-big breasts. I had not been 100 pounds in years.
The nurse read all of the measurements aloud. I know I was 5’5″ in height, but I have since blocked out how much I weighed. I was not so lucky to forget her shouting the number for everyone in the vicinity to hear and informing me that I was ‘overweight’. She said it like she had never seen someone my size, someone wearing a large Abercrombie sweatshirt instead of a small.
I was sent out of her office with pamphlets about exercising and eating healthy snacks – each one featuring a series of tubby children inside – feeling worthless. I had already subconsciously felt that way, but I never had it delivered so unequivocally to my face.
I cried a lot in middle school, like when I got my period before the mile run or when my bra broke in math class or when the boy with the rocker style hair and skinny jeans told all of my friends that I was ugly. But I never cried about this incident. Instead, I went on weird diets and exercised profusely. And after it all, I still looked the same.
My body had the power, so I gave in and blamed it for my other problems. I knew that how I looked was somehow wrong – not petite, not pretty, not feminine – but I couldn’t find a solution.
Skater skirts. Cocktail dresses. Boyfriend jeans. The way we talk about women’s clothing is a vocabulary of hybrid words that form a new language. As part of the dialect, one needs familiarity with the way these things are sized. There are numerous articles on the subject.
‘The absurdity of women’s clothing sizes, in one chart’.
‘It’s Not You. Women’s Clothing Sizes Make No Sense’.
‘Proof that women’s clothing sizes are bizarre and inconsistent’.
Most people, it seems, are quite puzzled on the matter.
In the 1940s, the Works Progress Administration began implementing the ‘ready-to-wear’ clothing model by conducting a study with 15,000 American women (specifically tiny, white women). This study involved measuring fifty-nine parts of the female body and resulted in the creation of twenty-seven unique dress sizes. A decade later, the National Bureau of Standards simplified the information, and in 1958 made the system mandatory for commercial pattern makers. The mandate was dropped by 1983. Maybe they realized that it was too complex, or that they shouldn’t have tossed out the measurements from the women of color, or that there was something at fault with what was called in ‘A Size 2 Is a Size 2 Is a Size 8’, Julia Felsenthal of Slate’s 2012 article, ‘the ever-expanding American woman’.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that women today weigh as much as men did in the 1960s. I’m not sure what disease this research is trying to control or prevent; anxiety, paranoia, and depression certainly aren’t their concerns.
There have been attempts to revisit this standardized sizing system in the U.S., but clothing companies nearly always disagree. It’s far too good a marketing campaign to make the garments dissociate from the norms of numbers.
Look in any woman’s closet and the sizes will confuse you. Mine includes the following: a size 8 denim mini skirt from J.Crew, a size 5 Ted Baker fit and flare dress, a size 44 vintage wool blazer with a label written in Japanese. And let’s not forget my jeans in their many variations, their sizes as convoluted as any statistical research.
“They’re just random numbers,” one professor of fashion said when discussing this matter for the 2016 article, ‘It’s Not You. Women’s Clothing Sizes Make No Sense’ in the Huffington Post. “They don’t mean anything.”
The ‘random numbers’ of clothing sizes also makes me think of all of the other numbers women encounter with their size: the Body Mass Index calculator, what is an appropriate average daily caloric intake, and the number of times when I feared a store wouldn’t carry my size, whatever it is, because they had isolated it to ‘online only’ – heaven forbid people with my body type shop in actual stores.
The numbers may be random, but they certainly do mean something.
My Catholic high school had a ‘business casual’ dress code. The boys were expected to have collared shirts tucked into chinos, but conversations concerning the girls’ clothing choices were, of course, far more complicated.
The first week of my freshman year, I wore a madras plaid dress that came down to my knees with a cardigan. My homeroom teacher (the religion teacher) asked me if I could step outside the classroom for a moment. We stood by the open door as she proceeded to loudly tell me that my outfit was inappropriate, that it was too revealing. I looked down, confused, and then saw the dress’s bodice was boned around the bust. No skin was showing, but this was clearly the ‘revealing’ problem.
She didn’t appreciate my response of, “I don’t think the dress is saying anything that isn’t already obvious.” I was right. Even in a turtleneck, I had noticeable breasts.
“You need to compose yourself,” the teacher yelled. All of the boys in my homeroom leaned forward, hovering over their desks so that they could see out the door.
“I’m fine,” I replied in a calm voice. “You’re the one shouting. Maybe you need to compose yourself.”
This response went over even less well and, as a result, I buttoned my cardigan to my neck for the rest of the day.
Throughout high school, there were morning dress code checks from the Dean of Students, and my name frequently ended up on the list. My hemlines were wrong because they went up in the back thanks to my butt. My V-neck sweater was – again – suggestive, thanks to my breasts. My lacy tights were inappropriate since you noticed my fuller thighs. These were not problems for the girls whose bodies didn’t look like mine. Those girls went unnoticed during the dress code checks. Those girls, like everyone else, noticed my clothing. They told me I could not ‘pull off’ my outfit.
“I can’t help it if I have an ass,” I finally stated to the Dean after a year of complaints that always led me to his office. “It’s not something to be ashamed of, and it’s certainly not the most important problem in this school.”
This was true, but I still hated the attention my body drew. I had hated it since I was eleven and mistaken for sixteen, when I was hit on at the beach or in stores by boys twice my age. I did not want the boobs or the butt that my friends joked came along with my brains to make me the ‘full package’. I wanted to be able to walk into a room and not think that the giggles coming from someone were in response to my entry.
There’s a test you can take online for almost anything, including helping you determine whether or not you have a variety of psychological conditions. One test is for Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), ‘a preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in appearance, which is unnoticeable to others’. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, at least 1 in 50 people suffer from BDD.
The questionnaire for BDD is less complex than most Buzzfeed quizzes: nine questions, including how often you deliberately check your features, how unattractive you feel, and how often your features preoccupy your thoughts. It’s scored out of 72 points, and anything above 40 suggests that you might want to speak with a doctor about the condition. Anything above 30, they say, is also iffy territory.
It’s all a result of the culture. American media is plethoric with images of perfection that women are meant to strive toward.
You should be tall. You should be thin. You should be poised and perky and pleasant. And you should pull off this image naturally, just like the women wearing the Lululemon yoga pants in the window ad or the blogger who is always eating pasta in Italy with ornate make-up and the perfect outfit.
But nothing about this is natural, not even the images themselves. They are hyped, staged, worked. Yet this is what we are taught to idolize, what we are pressured to emulate.
The pressure is part of the reason people go on thinking they are not good enough. It contributes to why the National Eating Disorders Foundation found that 79% of girls and 85% of women admit to opting out of important events because they do not feel their best. It’s why 44% of girls in high school, according to Dosomething.org, are attempting to lose weight. It is undoubtedly the worry at the back of the minds of parents who have actively Googled, ‘How to improve my daughter’s self-esteem’. The figures are even more upsetting if you’re a woman of color or identify as LGBTQ.
Some companies say that they are working to fix this ideal with campaigns to embrace your actual self; and some of these are actually delivering, with labels such as Aerie, Modcloth, and Dear Kate featuring a greater diversity in models and sizes. But most that claim they are on board, who go round blindly regurgitating the adage that ‘every body is beautiful’, actually do little-to-nothing to enact this change, rendering the sentiments in these movements hollow and meaningless.
You still walk down the street and see willowy white women on billboards wearing clothing that doesn’t come above a size 12. You still read articles about how to be ‘sexy, sculpting and slim’ when you are just looking for an exercise for more energy. You still know that while a lot of people are telling you that you are just fine, really you’re not. You can see it when you look in the reflection of the storefront window for the deliberate twelfth check of your appearance that bumped your score up a few points on the BDD questionnaire.
During my freshman year of college, I reached my heaviest weight at 235 pounds and wore size 18 jeans that fit snug on my hips. I hardly ate, ironically, but what I did consume was sugar and fat. At my lightest, during my junior year, the scale finally read something considered ‘healthy’, even though I was going weeks on only electrolyte-enhanced water, bites of granola bars, and bottles of children’s Motrin to ease the hunger ache (it didn’t matter if I was too big to take it anymore). I was not healthy. The feeling of emptiness, I thought, would lead to a bigger reward. And yet, it was something I never discovered.
I eventually decided to work on figuring out how to be happy, on how to work toward greatness while finding acceptance. I didn’t discover where these things come from, but instead identified from where they do not.
It is not from online articles giving steps on how to be ‘healthier’, or working yourself into the ground on four hours of sleep and 300 calories a day, or keeping an article of clothing simply for the sake of thinking that one day you might again fit into it. It is not from measuring your limbs to see if they have shrunk when the scale reads the same number after weeks of working out, or blaming it on stress, or telling yourself that there must be something wrong. It is not from an outside source. The change to accept, to find greatness, comes from within.
I still struggle to remember to eat three meals, to go to bed on time, and to wear whatever I feel comfortable in without thinking of criticism. I constantly remind myself that I am and am not the past versions of my exterior, both those that I loved and those that I hated. I am instead the culmination of everything. I am all I can be, and that, I must remember, is great.
The positive feeling in acceptance comes from removing the outside world, from realizing that anything worth being is not weighed against something else. True greatness exists on an immeasurable scale. Only you can determine when something feels good. And after good, it will eventually become great – it is a process, but a rewarding one, I am choosing to believe.
Rachel A.G. Gilman founded the femme arts journal, The Rational Creature and hosted the award-winning podcast, “The Write Stuff” on WNYU-FM. Her writing has been featured online and in print throughout the U.S., U.K., and Australia including TV Guide Magazine, Minetta Review, and Popdust. She holds a BA from NYU and is reading for an MFA at Columbia University and an MSt at Oxford University. You can also follow her on Instagram or visit rachelaggilman.com.