In anticipation of moving my belongings into storage next month, I recently decided to clean out my closet. The task sent me into a four-hour-long trance that resulted in ditching almost two-thirds of my entire wardrobe: I got rid of my skinny clothes.
In my closet, “skinny clothes” are anything I fit into before a difficult adjustment to Columbia gave way to the Depression-Induced Rapid Weight Gain that doubled my dress size in less than three months. I’d struggled with eating disorders throughout adolescence, but I started playing sports in high school and began considering food primarily as a fuel source, which kept my body issues at bay for a while.
I left home in Hawai’i and came here, where I was worried at the outset about a good number of things: my classes, my bank account, my long-distance then-girlfriend, surely. But I found myself preoccupied instead with an unexpected set of concerns: How do I layer for the fall? Where do I buy winter boots? Is long underwear actually a kind of underwear? What the fuck is a glitten?
A lot of money and frustration later, I had updated my wardrobe with a potpourri of warmer clothing that fit my fresh-out-of-high-school-sports body, and I managed not to freeze through my first winter. But after a summer of DIRWG, I found myself starting sophomore year with a much more limited selection of clothes—the ones that would fit—and quickly realized, as winter descended, that I had to go shopping again.
So I did. And I’ve schlepped both sets of clothes from dorm closet to summer storage and back again over the last few years. The smallest stuff lived in duffel bags under my bed. But I allowed a good amount of clothes that I hoped was on the fence of fitting to remain in rotation. Read: I only fit into about half the clothes I saw in my closet every day.
I would sort through my shirt drawer to grab a top and pass nine too-small shirts before finding one that fit. Those nine other shirts were nine tiny reminders that I was big—bigger than I used to be, bigger than I ever was, too big to bear—and, consequently, a failure, and an unattractive one at that.
I kept the clothes that made me miserable in the hope that my fat body would one day spontaneously revert to its toned, thin glory of my two-trimester-athlete high school body. Getting rid of old clothes felt like erasing a memory: A dress seems inseparable from all of the experiences I have wearing it, and I didn’t want to let go of those experiences, either—especially because they were all experiences of a thinner me, a proxy for a happier me. If I got rid of the smaller clothes, would that mean I was ceding to my heavier body—to my unhappier life?
Implicit here is the mindset we know is toxic but can’t seem to abandon: Being skinny (whatever that means) is better than any imaginable alternative. If I am thin, I am a good person; if I am fat, I am the worst person imaginable: lazy, bad, selfish, ugly, gross. In what reality did a successful Columbia woman have any of those traits? This mindset is the crux of the problem, and the most difficult association to rewire—how do you feel good about yourself as a not-thin person when being fat and being good seem so mutually exclusive?
I joke (as many do) that I peaked in high school. But I truly felt that way for years after I came to Columbia—I was haunted by the ghost of my high-achieving, lighter-weighing high school self. She was on top of the world, doing everything and then some to get into this school in the first place, and then came here just to start from square one again. It felt impossible to step out of the shadow my successful past self cast onto my struggling present one. I created that shadow, and the only person keeping it alive was me—by living in it.
I didn’t realize the rewiring had begun until I noticed that two-thirds of my clothes were in bags by the front door. In retrospect, this year has been one of great abundance for me, and being attuned to that has helped me let go of the shame of being a failed thin person. I began striving to express the humbling gratitude I feel for my symbiotic, meaningful friendships; a major I have fallen deeply in love with; mentors who are so giving of their time and expertise; and a city that always manages to give just a little more than it takes, to name a few.
The things I began caring about were the nonphysical. Worrying about my weight, which feels anti-intellectual and antifeminist, didn’t fit into the equation anymore. Whether or not I am proud of my effort on a homework assignment has basically nothing to do with whether my arms looked chubby while I did it. The negative-body-image lens through which I saw myself and my life is slowly being edged out by positive, value-oriented lenses, like what happens to Voldemort’s wand when he duels with Harry Potter. The “good” here has started to win because of the (infinite-difficult-thankless-exhausting-minute) choices I make to nurture those parts of myself.
I wish “good body image” could be a watershed event delineated by “before” and “after,” but it really is ongoing work. It reminds me, ironically, of when I hyperextended both of my elbows as a goalie playing high school water polo. The only thing you can do to help this injury, which never fully heals, is to continually strengthen the muscles and tendons around it. By making the whole arm healthier, the joint is supported and less vulnerable. I am healthier now, too, because I work to support my whole self.
Cut to my closet, which is now mostly empty and only has clothes in it that fit as of right this second. As I now have room in my life for new energy and ways of being, so too do I have room in my closet for new clothes—ones bought out of joy and security, not shame. Cute clothes, more grown-up clothes, maybe funky different styles of clothes. Clothes that I love, and that love me. Clothes that fit.
Harmony is a Columbia College almost-senior who is really grateful you read her column this semester. This one in particular is sponsored by countless hours of therapy. Catch Harmony keeping her opinions to herself for the next few months. If you wanna say bye, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Striking Chords ran alternate Tuesdays.
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