On this weekend’s episode of This American Life titled “Tell Me I’m Fat,” feminist author and fat acceptance activist Lindy West took to the airwaves to discuss her relationship to the word “fat” and to her body. When I was first dipping my toe into the world of the body positive movement, West was one of the first authors whose words seemed to engulf me. Her swearing, her refusal to use euphemisms, the way she seemed to invert the world, making the conventions of our body shaming culture seem ridiculous and naked. She gave me words I didn’t yet have and pride that the world had tried to destroy. I eagerly looked forward to this episode, and what she would share. I wasn’t disappointed.
As usual, Lindy was succinct, blunt, and brilliant, but it was perhaps the timing of the episode that made it feel so much like a clarion call to step more fully into the word “fat” and subsequently more fully into my own body.
I got married on the last day of April of this year in a touching ceremony, made all the more moving by the fact that it was the first time my husband had seen my wedding gown. The tulle and satin and layers of gold embroidery on the dress were truly dramatic.
But what my husband was most shocked to see? My arms.
Prior to my wedding day, the last time I exposed my arms in public in anything other than a swimsuit was at my Junior Prom in 2006. For the next year’s prom, embarrassed by how my arms had shown dimples in the photos, I searched store after store for something to wear over my dress. I finally found an overpriced and forgettable and only-a-little-ugly black bolero jacket made of polyester satin at Torrid. I bought it, balled it up inside the hot pink bag, and walked out of the mall, past all the stores with clothes that I couldn’t fit into.
If you’re reading this and you are a fat girl, you know the drill: Constantly editing your choices, angles, and layers in order to minimize the appearance of your fluff. Like many other fat girls out there, my arms are one of my many problem areas: Two appendages that no Spanx, no corseting, and no boning can hide.
So when I went to David’s Bridal (a place I knew would have the Size 22 dresses I would need to try on), I went with a long-sleeved gown in mind. I had already saved the dress to my wedding Pinterest board and had a screen grab and call number ready to help the attendant find it quickly. I was lucky; the dress I was looking for was there, in my size, ready for me to wear it with arms covered into the next chapter of my life.
Only I hated it, hated how it made me look like I was hiding, how it looked like a concession prize or a compromise.
I jumped out of it and wound up buying the fifth dress I tried on. I didn’t have a venue, date or bridal party, but I had a dress that thrilled me. It looked expensive, romantic, and a little bit bombshell. It felt both retro and current, and I could imagine showing my hypothetical future children pictures of me in it, and them going, “DAAAAAAMN, mom!” The only detail that gave me reservation was perhaps the most ubiquitous and signature feature of wedding gowns, aside from the color: No sleeves. I purchased an elbow-length veil that I might use to hide my arms in photos and during the ceremony, another cover-up for another day.
Move forward to about eight months later, and I was starting to feel doubtful. It was deep into the summer, and I was still picking outfits to skillfully hide my arms, just as I had all my summers since childhood. I hadn’t planned to go on any kind of weight loss regimen, and certainly was not losing weight or getting toned by some happy accident. What had I been thinking? Spending so much money on something that no one else had seen me in — I had deliberately gone without friends and family so that I wouldn’t hear the very familiar rounds of well-intentioned, but ultimately demoralizing “It’s sooo flattering!”— and banking on the fact that I would just magically look good in it. I had been through a decade of covering my body. Why would I stray from the practice that had served me so well on one of the most important days of my life?
I’d been attempting to challenge those habits in myself for a few years. I was doing a bang-up job of surrounding myself with positive images of women of size via social media and the internet. I followed Georgina Horne of Fuller Figure, Fuller Bust, Tess Holliday, Garner Style, Gabi Fresh, the Curvy Fashionista, and dozens more plus size women, body acceptance activists, and fatshionistas in an attempt to alter my perception of what “normal” and “beautiful” bodies look like, in addition to reading the work of bloggers like Lindy. I was grateful for the bodies that looked like mine, some bigger, some smaller, but all of them encouraging my boldness and a widening of the lane I was expected to stay in as a fat lady.
However, after spending hundreds of hours mining Pinterest inspiration boards, Wedding Wire, and The Knot, the world of perfectly plump plus size representation that I’d constructed for myself in my life pre-wedding all but disappeared. There was little to no representation of bodies like mine to be found. Instead, everywhere I turned, I found the opposite, explicit signposts indicating that I was not okay the way that I was. I noticed local gyms offering “bridal boot camp” packages to help brides shape-up for the big day. Every dress pin was a straight size model, and even the plus size designs were shown by women who were size 12s and 14s, a far cry from my 48-38-51, solidly 265 on a good fucking day frame. “Begin a weight loss and fitness regime” was a legitimate step listed on multiple wedding planning apps and websites. I was at a loss and feeling the familiar tendency to shrink the parts of myself that felt unacceptable.
And at the exact moment, as if a fat lady bat signal had been emblazoned across the night sky, Lindy West published a piece about her wedding to Aham Oluo entitled, “My wedding was perfect — and I was fat as hell the whole time.” As I read West’s words, I felt as if she were skewering every fear, every societal norm, every deeply-ingrained and explicitly taught insecurity that had been chasing me.
I needed to read these words she shared from a previous piece:
“When I think back on my teenage self, what I really needed to hear wasn’t that someone might love me one day if I lost enough weight to qualify as human – it was that I was worthy of love now, just as I was. So I’ll be fat on my wedding day. Because being fat and happy and in love in public is still a radical act.”
I needed to be reminded that being loved and being in love was enough. That my arms were as much a part of me, and as much loved by my fiancé as any other part of me. That it was fucking rad that I was standing next to a man who looked down the long barrel of life, and said, yes, let’s do this.
And I also needed to read this:
“But ‘beauty’ is a fraught concept. There’s an awkward three-way tension between wedding culture and feminism and fat acceptance – because of what ‘acceptance’ demands of women in our culture, a lot of fat activism takes the form of fat women trying to ‘prove’ that they can wear the trappings of male fantasy and traditional gender roles just as well as thin women. Fat women can be pretty. Fat women can get married. Fat women can ‘get’ conventionally attractive husbands. But how is that constructive? Male approval isn’t where my self-worth comes from – and that realization was a huge part of what made my current relationship healthy and fulfilling. Respectability politics might boost mainstream attitudes toward fat people in the short-term, but what does it do for women in general in the long-term? How can I simultaneously fight for women to be free of patriarchal standards and for fat women to be allowed to participate in those standards?”
A reminder that I and my body didn’t need to look like anything or be worthy of love in order to be worthy of respect, or to be treated as human was necessary. In the haze of wedding mania, these words reminded me that this work was complicated. Wanting to be seen as beautiful while also rejecting what is deemed beautiful and just plain feeling good about myself on this special day often felt at odds, and that I was not alone in that confusion. I was under absolutely no obligation to reconcile that confusion for myself or for anyone else.
Over the ensuing months, I would go back and forth on whether or not to wear a corset to cinch my waist to a more acceptable hourglass shape. I had my dress taken in, let out, and taken in again over the course of six separate fittings. And wouldn’t you know it? The veil I’d purchased to cover my arms went mysteriously missing on the day of the wedding. I still can’t find it. For a second, I thought, this is the universe telling me to be bold and show my arms, and revel in this body. But, nah. I had a friend run out to buy tulle, and with leftover lace and gold thread from my dress alterations, I put my mom and grandmother to work sewing me a new one forty-five minutes before the ceremony. It was imperfect, a little lopsided, and scarcely covered me up. But I did ask my photographer to use it to cover my arms in some of the photos anyway. Lord, if the crushing grind of the wedding-industrial complex didn’t destroy me, vacillating between two poles of not giving a shit about what people thought about my body and giving the biggest shit humanly possible certainly would.
Now, with a few weeks behind me and listening to Lindy’s words as a married woman, I can look at all the indecision and worry with both forgiveness for myself and gratitude to live in a world where I am not the only one having to reconcile those choices. I can thrive in the shadow of braver women than I, narrating the struggles of being simultaneously invisible and thus unlovable, and hypervisible. So I don’t punish myself for what I look like in the un-retouched photo. And I don’t mind the occasional airbrush. I think that’s self-forgiveness, too.