The first time I cried in a clothing store, I was nine. It was the night before picture day, and after begging my mother for weeks, she’d finally taken me to Justice to find the perfect outfit. Back then, picture day was a big deal. I didn’t dress up much. My go-to outfit was a t-shirt and jeans, but I always imagined that one afternoon spent in the gymnasium to be something special. I’d seen The Princess Diaries countless times, and to me, picture day was my chance at a glasses-off, makeup-on, Anne Hathaway Cinderella moment. I needed to make it count.
After an hour of my poor mother gesturing at various sequined shirts while I rejected them, I finally found it – the outfit. Looking back, I can’t remember what it looked like (probably sparkly, glittery, and covered in unicorns, as was the fashion those days), but I do remember the feeling of excitement. I knew that when I showed up to class in that number, heads would turn. I would no longer be Carly, the weird tomboy who asked way too many questions in math class. I would be Carly, fashion extraordinaire, beauty queen, and master of style.
My heart pounded with excitement as I dragged my mother over and watched her file through the rack. I didn’t really know what she was doing, and I didn’t really care. I was too busy fantasizing over tomorrow’s grand entrance. Should I enter the classroom with confidence, proudly strutting to my desk? Maybe I should pretend the be unaware of how good I look. I wouldn’t want to come off as cocky–
“They don’t have your size.”
My daydream came to a screeching halt. I looked up at my mother as she walked over to the next rack of clothes, confused by what she’d said. Her face was blank, except for a slight frustration at the promise of more time spent shopping. She didn’t seem upset or disturbed by what was obviously soul-crushing news. After looking at a few more clothes, I saw her turn to an employee.
“Do you have a plus-size section?”
The employee shook her head, and my mother turned back to me and took my hand. She pulled me away from my beloved outfit, saying it was time to go home. I couldn’t believe it. My perfect look was right there. Why couldn’t I have it? I could see the shirts on the rack. There were plenty left. Why weren’t we taking them? I pulled back against my mother. I didn’t have much strength, but it was enough for her to look down at me and see tears welling in my eyes. She knelt down to where I stood, whispering as she tried to explain to me. “These clothes are too small,” she said. “You know how sometimes we grow out of our clothes? You can’t wear these anymore.”
That didn’t sound right. Every other time I’d grown too big for my clothes, it had been something to celebrate. I was getting older, stronger, and smarter. I was growing up. This didn’t feel like that. All the other kids in my grade were still wearing these clothes. Even the kids older than me. Why couldn’t I?
“You can wear one of your other outfits. I’ll even do your makeup! You just can’t wear these.” She said, tucking my hair behind my ear. “You’re too big for these.”
The tears spilled over and my breaths quickened to short, gasping sniffles. I finally understood what she meant. I was growing in the bad way. I wasn’t like the other girls anymore. I was too big. I was an ‘other’.
That was the first moment I remember hating my body. I’d developed faster than the other girls, knocking me into the ‘overweight’ category. Until then, I hadn’t cared. We weren’t allowed to use words like ‘fat’ in our house, so it wasn’t even a concept to me. I just knew I looked like my mom, with a belly and thighs, soft, squishy, and comfortable. After that night, though, these were no longer things I wanted to be.
A few months later, after being diagnosed with ADHD, I was given a prescription for Vyvanse, and my body was suddenly flung into the ‘underweight’ category, eliciting praise from my family and doctors. I got to shop at my favorite stores. Five years later, as I entered high school, I stopped my prescription and gained the weight back. I spent years trying to lose it all again, eventually leading to a an eating disorder diagnosis.
The influence that clothing companies and sizing have on our relationship with our bodies is often overlooked. My first experience with body negativity was not staring at a Calvin Klein billboard or Victoria’s Secret magazine. Things like these contributed to a toxic mindset, yes, but this is not where it began. My first experience of hating my body was with clothes.
My New Year’s Resolution this year was to eliminate fast fashion from my life. I had a lot of reasons. The main ones were sustainability and stoping my unhealthy ‘retail therapy’ shopping sprees. Both of these, of course, are valid enough causes on their own, but what I wasn’t expecting was how this choice would redefine my entire relationship with clothes, sizing, and my body.
My first trip to the thrift store post-resolution was underwhelming. I hugged the women’s plus size section closely, occasionally venturing into men’s, but nothing below a 2X. I left disappointed. As always, the women’s plus size options were limited to shapeless shirts with strange, unflattering patterns, and the men’s section only offered plaid button-downs that looked like rejects from the wardrobe of The Office. I felt ashamed that I, a fat person, would dare to think that limiting my already small clothing options was even a possibility.
I tried a few more stores, mainly more upscale vintage, in the coming months, but finding plus-size options in vintage seemed near-impossible, and they were always priced at least double their straight-size counterparts. I tried online, but Depop didn’t even list my size in their filters. Poshmark and ThredUp seemed more interested in a target audience of fifty-year-olds and 2000s time travelers with poor taste.
I even tried online boutiques, recommended in long threads of “sustainable alternatives to fast fashion”. So many stores and shops listed, some of them had to offer plus sizes – right? After all, these were the people who were supposed to be aware of that type of thing – the woke, environmentally friendly, “screw beauty standards” types. Surely the sustainability movement wouldn’t exclude me in the same way fashion companies had for years.
I was incredibly disappointed.
I was close to giving up. I’ve never been one for resolutions anyway, and Forever 21’s recent stock was starting to catch my eye. One night, however, while binge-watching DIY fashion channels and thrift flips, a beacon of hope shone down upon my phone. For a long time, these words had held a pretty negative connotation in my mind. I was pretty sick of straight-sized girls buying up all the plus-sized clothing just to cut them into crop tops or oversized sweaters. I was angry (and a little bit jealous) that they didn’t have to stay in their little size-defined box. They could have any clothes they wanted, regardless of size. They’d never have to experience the pain of seeing something in the store and know it wasn’t made for them. They would never have to think that they didn’t exist in the thoughts of designers. If they saw a plus-sized shirt they liked, they could just buy it and call it over-sized. That wasn’t an option for me.
But as I sat in bed, watching a girl deconstruct an entire dress, cutting out fabric panels and ripping seams, I realized that everything I thought I’d known about clothes had been wrong. I listened as they said “my chest is a bit too big for this, so I think I’ll change the neckline” or “it doesn’t quite fit me in the waist, so maybe I’ll take it in“. They threw around phrases like “I’m usually a large, but this dress is a medium, so I’ll just turn it into a skirt” as if sizes meant absolutely nothing – because they didn’t.
The very next day I went to a thrift store with a new mindset. Suddenly, the racks upon racks of straight-size clothing were no longer a reminder of what I couldn’t wear, of the body I couldn’t have. They were opportunities. I spent ten minutes in the plus-size section before moving further down the line, starting with the XLs and slowly working my way to the larges and mediums. It felt amazing. I could’ve cried right there. I don’t know how to explain this to someone who hasn’t spent their entire life limited to one corner of a store, constantly staring at the main floor and telling yourself that if you just tried harder you could shop there, sort through those racks, look at sizes actually expecting to find yours. The best I can do is say is that it felt as if a literal boulder was lifted off of my back.
There wasn’t a single piece of clothing I couldn’t wear. For the first time since I was nine, I didn’t walk into a store with a number hanging over my head. I brought home pants and skirts and t-shirts, all things I actually wanted, and none of them in my size, and it didn’t matter. I stayed up nights hand-sewing nightgowns into dresses and jeans into shorts. I planned outfits out of all of them. Looking back, most of those original projects came out terrible, all sloppy and puckered, but I didn’t care. I felt gorgeous. Most importantly, I felt like me. My style wasn’t dictated by what Torrid decided was in fashion. I got to decide what I wanted to wear, and no label was ever going to stop me again.
It’s been about seven months since that original resolution was made, and I can proudly say I haven’t bought a single piece of clothing that wasn’t pre-owned or handmade. In about a week, I’ll have my own sewing machine. For my first real project, I’m hoping to transform a thrifted sheet into a dress, like in this video. I bought the sheet for USD 2.99 at my local America’s Thrift, so if I mess up, it won’t be too much of a loss. No matter how it turns out, I’m just excited that having a pretty spring dress is even a possibility.
A year ago, I would’ve been looking at floral spring dresses and hating myself for not being able to fit into them. Now, I can have my own.