When I was younger, I was athletic, lithe, and confident. I also had trouble eating properly – though it never amounted to a full blown disorder I would skip meals and often lived on Ramen noodles and coffee, then later on vodka, cigarettes and eating one or two meals at erratic times – usually as I worked nights it would end up being two pieces of vegemite toast during the day and then a kebab at 5am on the way home. As I careered into my late 20s, I amended my diet – I began eating more like I used to in my teens again, and began to cook properly. Naturally, as I aged, my lifestyle slowed down and I ate more, I not surprisingly gained some weight. When I turned 30, I quit smoking and began taking a mild anti-depressant for a chronic anxiety/panic disorder. Mostly sedative, the only side effect I had was increased appetite, which coupled with the no smoking led to a dramatic weight gain of over 2 dress sizes. I also lost a lot of the muscle tone I had due to going from physically active jobs and anxiety to university and the dubious delights of sedentary study and the very real delights of getting solid sleep each night.
Too depressed to properly contain it with regular exercise, I simply ate more – a response not helped by the constant hollow shaky feeling of hunger i’ve had since being on the meds. Comfort food, baked treats and wildly oversized portions added to anxiety, depression and self image issues created a pretty special vicious cycle.
I could see what I was doing. I am fairly intelligent and observant, but it felt like I was looking at my own life as if it were a window display or @$%! forbid, a reality TV show. Removed from myself, hating what I was doing, knowing full well what I needed to do and yet finding more and more elaborate ways to avoid it.
I began buying clothes that did not fit my reality in any way, as even though I was aware of it, I was still thinking that i’ll revert back to my 23 year old shape and size. For example, I watched a movie set in sub-tropics with a fit actress who wore mostly linen cargo pants, singlet tanks and beautiful cotton collared shirts over the top in neutral earthy shades. I love that look, but I am bordering on an hourglass – pear shape: broad shoulders that used to be muscle from tennis and rowing, now my upper arms have run to flab. Tiny waist, but huge hips and thighs. Linen pants do not look aesthetically rumpled (“oh hello darling, i’ve just stepped off a plane from Ibiza to do a short doco on the local inhabitants of this remote island village, before jetting off to Southern France to pretend to be provincial for a weekend”) on me (it’s more “oh hello darling, I was late as usual so ran to get sweaty and rumpled and flushed red, I also took a shortcut and fell through a hedge backward on the way”). No matter how many times reality shows me, I still fall for the no-stretch pant trap. My body shape just does not suit having even a slight give, and beautiful natural fabrics do not fall off my hips gracefully, but tend to wrinkle unflatteringly at the crotch and bag in all the wrong places. So why the hell do I keep impulsively buying something in this category even when I know better? Simon Amstell had a great little piece in his stand up routine post-Nevermind The Buzzcocks on how he still buys a vest every few years even though he knows they look terrible on him. It’s the same sort of practical override for me.
Why do I keep doing this? I did not grow up reading women’s magazines, my mother did not contribute to any self image issues (which is rare, I know), I have never really been skinny but I liked to be strong and capable and was ok with being ‘bigger’ than willowier friends. But the changes as I got older hit me harder than I saw coming, and I kept trying to fit a 31 year old body into what I could wear at 21, even though I knew the practicalities were laughable. I don’t want to dress in a way that garners attention or even in anything outstanding, I just want to not hate what I see in the mirror and be confident enough to just leave the house like a normal person without constant anxiety over feeling like I look stupid or fat or old or mumsy. Seriously, an off switch on this would be great.
The mythconceptions of body type ‘rules':
My shoulders and hips are the same width, my waist is 12″ smaller. I have biggish boobs but they don’t balance my lower body proportionately, although at the rate they’re going, they just might – i’ve gone from being a C cup most of my adult life to a DD. I don’t know what to do with them! Well, I do, but i’d be arrested if I walked around all day copping a feel. I have chunky upper arms and chunkier thighs. Many people suggest the following for me:
Pencil skirts: I never met one that works in reality for me. They are always too tight across the thigh, and if I go up a size, they fall off the waist. If I do find one that seems to work, I can’t walk properly in it – I stride, and I tend to walk a lot which means this skirt style ends up riding up which makes me both self conscious and annoyed to have to stop and constantly adjust. I refuse to be, essentially, hobbled. The Mad Men looks are great, but I just don’t have the temperament to bother with this style. For me at least, it is too high maintenance. Christina Hendricks is stunning, and if I had a little more going on in the chest department I may be able to do it, but I usually look more pear shaped than I actually am, and tend to feel too self conscious to be comfortable in such tight fitting clothing that constantly needs adjusting, so the effort and upkeep doesn’t really work for me.
Tunics: Due to my shoulders and hips, tunic tops and dresses tend to leave me looking boxy, dumpy and shorter. Not a great look.
Bootcut and wideleg pants: No. Just no. Due to having wide hips and really big thighs, having pants come in at the knee then go out again make me look shorter and wider. I have had numerous salespeople insist i’ll suit these styles but go quiet when I come out of the change room, so it isn’t just a case of body dysmorphia. They and I tend to agree on straight leg cuts with stretch – having them not hug the knee seems to work for me, and I can get away with ankle boots or wearing taller boots over them – I favour chunky boots so it balances me out.
My hall closet and my bedroom are stuffed full of pieces that I fell in love with but never wear. Wrong shape, wrong colour, and all too often wrong size. Why do we do this to ourselves? It’s a self perpetuating cycle of doubt, despair and resorting to the sort of casual sportswear that on anyone bigger than Maria Sharapova simply says “i’ve given up”. It got so bad that I became a shut in for a while, coupled with dealing with a lot of anxiety stuff, I ended up avoiding social situations after hours of trying on things and never feeling comfortable or looking right. So i’d cancel in tears, making up a lame excuse, and then go and eat chocolate in stretchy exercise pants and a baggy sweatshirt and kicking myself, instead of going for a walk or heaven forbid, buying a plain dress that fits me and forcing myself to leave the house. The walk thing would mean leaving the house, and oh yes… the anxiety.
Clive James once wrote about his unfortunate footwear buys in his youth, and how with shoes, the first thing that captures your attention should be the last thing you should put on your feet. Though I never bought raspberry brothel creepers, I am guilty of having owned an extraordinary amount of items that are beautiful to look at but I either did not have the confidence to wear them out, or they did not suit me. I used to have jobs where wearing this of thing was second nature so I kept doing it long after my routine – and my shape – changed. I also bought striking pieces in red – a colour i’d love to wear but even with the confidence thing aside, my colouring means I should never do it – i’m very pale, I burn easy, and tend to go mottled red with one glass of wine, a brisk walk, etc. Red honestly makes me look like an alcoholic training for a marathon. It is not the flattering healthy flush across the cheeks, but a mottled mess.
As I got fed up with the cycle of owning a stupid amount of clothing and never having anything to wear, and started getting a borderline hoarding tendency borne out of a nomadic and poor (and no, not a middle class poor ‘we couldn’t afford a second car’ thing, more along the lines of going hungry at lunchtime at school as we had no food kinda thing as my mother wasn’t not in the best shape to raising kids) upbringing that resulted in me thinking that amassing a 300+ piece wardrobe build up was an ok thing to let happen during my twenties when I had jobs that gave me a vast pile of disposable income, I packed it up and gave it to charity.
So now i’m back to how i’ve viewed most material possessions most of my life: bare necessities and stuff that gets used only. It’s just stuff, and none of it is important. And sometimes, it’s masking a deeper issue.
This is a very distilled summary of a difficult period, and I probably sound like a crazy person, but it was a hard thing to face and I wanted to put it into words as a reminder to myself to not lose sight of what matters to me and to not be so damn hard on myself.
Because ultimately, for all of the internal mess i’ve spewed forth here, life is grand.