N. Alysha Lewis | Essay
Last year, I made an insane discovery: I can fit into size 12 jeans.
This is a size I haven’t seen since high school—a time when all I wanted was to escape double digits. So, in essence, this should’ve been a really spectacular discovery. But, upon sliding into that inaugural pair, one of the first emotions I felt was an overwhelming sense of guilt.
My recent journey to lose weight, which brought me down from a size 20, had been intentional and medically necessary. In 2015, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome and told that my weight—a semi-surprising 240 on a 5’2” frame—needed to drop if I wanted to get my symptoms under control. Considering these symptoms included a period that lasted for three-plus weeks after ghosting for several months, I couldn’t say “If it’s cool with you, I think I’ll consider my options.” So, actively get better at managing my weight it was.
My struggles with weight and how my identity tied into it, though, have been around for a lot longer than a few years.
We could go back to college, when I fully blossomed into a depression and anxiety that helped me gained the 100-plus pounds that brought me up to 240 in the first place. But, in all honesty, I’ve been struggling with my weight since . . . oh . . . first grade? I have a distinct memory of taking a survey to see if my classmates liked my best friend better because she was pretty and thin. Ooof.
I’ve always been a little bit bigger—a touch over what was deemed the right weight for my age and height. My mom told me not to worry about it; as black women, those numbers “weren’t for us” because they didn’t take into account our “naturally curvier” body types. And I carried it well, so who cared? (I cared.)
It didn’t feel good to constantly hear that there was excess me. The fact that I was fairly active—I took dance, played league soccer, and loved riding my bike—seemed to do nothing to change how I was shaped. I remember being weighed in the fourth grade and having to hold back tears because I was 101 pounds while classmates clocked in around 80. It didn’t matter that I could easily touch my toes or had the most powerful kick on my soccer team. I was fat.
Now, you have to keep in mind, “body positivity” wasn’t really a thing when I was growing up. I feel like the 90s focused on the importance of who you were on the inside. This is obviously a good thing to teach kids, but let’s be real: The book cover that we judge the harshest is our own. And all those “Be a good person” lessons didn’t stop me from seeing the plethora of lithe-bodied supermodels and actresses plastered on magazines as I waited in line at the grocery store with my mom. (The fact that they were overwhelming white never crossed my mind.) So even though I knew I wasn’t obese—the scary word used to make it seem like you’d die if you ate a single French fry—it was obvious I wasn’t that ideal body type either.
I wasn’t naïve enough to think I could force my body into looking like whatever famous person was gracing People that week without some serious nip/tucking. And, honestly, I didn’t want to look like anyone else. I never have. I’ve argued with people who said I look exactly like my mom, and my prom night is forever tainted by the memory of a hairstylist asking if my sister and I were twins—she’s five years younger than me! I’ve always just wanted to look like me, but, you know, better.
This brings me back to college and the years after, when I realized I was filling out. My jeans were getting tighter. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a weird sensation in my chest and throat (hello, heartburn). While I never had an overabundance of stamina before, I was getting winded way faster. But I couldn’t face it. I’d spent years hovering on the border of “regular” and “plus size,” and no matter how beautiful I thought the models were when I passed a Torrid in a mall, I didn’t want to be a customer.
Cut to a visit from my mom and sister, when my mom noticed that I needed new clothes and took me to Torrid without question. I tried on jeans in a size 16. They fit, and I started crying. After a lifetime of feeling like there was too much of me, there was even MORE, and here was concrete proof. I was going in the wrong direction, and since past efforts to lose weight never seemed to get results, I felt extremely defeated.
As if feeling bad about myself wasn’t enough, my appearance began to take a toll on my relationship with my husband. Not on his end—he repeatedly told me how much he loved the way I looked, no matter what I seemed to see in the mirror, and how my beauty was just too good for the standards society had set. But I felt gross and unattractive, and I didn’t want him to touch me or even look at me if I didn’t have all my horrible areas covered. My sex drive plummeted, naturally. And the few times I could muster up even the semblance of interest in sex, I got exhausted before the main event was even done and had to call an indefinite time out. Because I married a good guy, he never once made me feel guilty for ending things before he’d gotten his . . . but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d become the worst wife in the world for not being able to fulfill his needs.
Suffice it to say, these were dark times.
Thank God for my best friend, whom I’d originally met while working for the college paper. A fellow plus-size lady, Christina got me to embrace the identity. While we did our fair share of complaining about this or that flabby bit—we’re only human!—she helped me feel my fierceness. That tear-filled Torrid experience was eventually replaced when we found the perfect wrap dress (in my signature green, with gorgeous black lace applique on the back) that I wore the night of my first wedding anniversary.
We championed famous women who spoke out about unrealistic body expectations and railed against stories of disgusting men and women who tried to perpetuate those same expectations. In those moments, our “big and beautiful” identity was something to be worn proudly, not feel ashamed of.
So, despite my occasional internal woes, I was getting to a place where it didn’t upset me to say I was plus size. Even after my PCOS diagnosis, my only thought was getting healthy and being in a good weight range to eventually have a baby, not to leave the group completely. There was a moment when I was texting a close friend from high school, another warrior in the weight struggle, after I’d gotten back to a size 16 and told her that I could envision a life where I was okay with being that size . . . provided I toned up a bit.
But that happiness and comfort was short-lived. As the weight continued to drop, all sorts of things began to irritate me. I hated all my clothes. The way they hung off my body made me feel sloppy and unkempt, but I didn’t want to buy new clothes just to have the same thing happen in a few weeks. I worried constantly about how I looked. I felt guilty because, even though I was losing weight, I didn’t feel I was losing it the right way. It just seemed like a product of the way my medications messed with my appetite—never mind the fact that I was getting a little bit of walking in every day when I walked to work from the train and back, or the solid group of months when I actually worked out at home. All I could focus on was how my body was still soft all over. When I looked in the mirror, I thought I looked exactly the same.
When I became a size 14, things really got complicated. That’s a size a lot of “regular” stores carry—at least online—so for the first time in years, my shopping options opened up beyond Torrid and Target’s Ava & Viv line. But I was paralyzed. Where do I start shopping? And if I start shopping there, am I turning my back on the plus-size community?
More importantly, would I be abandoning Christina? Our shared size identity was a pretty big part of our relationship. As superbly intense fans of author Rainbow Rowell, we judged skinny girls who claimed to relate to her Eleanor & Park protagonist (Eleanor, obviously) because she was expressly described as a big girl. How could they possibly know the struggle? Yet here I was, losing weight. If I didn’t stop, I could end up being judged just as harshly because strangers wouldn’t know it’s taken me my whole life to get to this point. How would they possibly know that I still suck in my stomach and tighten my entire body when I pass people because I imagine I’m taking up twice as much physical space than I actually occupy?
This fear isn’t unfounded. People actually talk about how women in the more acceptable plus size ranges (like sizes 10 and 12, even 14) have privileges that women in the upper ranges (26, 28, etc.) don’t, and as a result, that first group’s voice shouldn’t count as much in the movement. I won’t disagree with the first part because privilege is everywhere, but it’s the second part that rankles. Hearing that, it seems I’ll be shunned as a traitor if I drop below a certain waist measurement, no matter how much time I spent in the plus size realm or the fact that I deeply understand many of the struggles.
Being a bigger girl is part of my DNA. But I’ll be treated as if I cast it off like an ill-fitting coat. And if I’m not a plus-size woman, then who the hell am I?
To be honest, the whole thing just makes me really angry. Understandably, I’m angry at the world for holding up one version of beauty and deciding it was the right one. But I’m also angry at the plus-size community for giving me a safe space with an asterisk. While attempting to say #effyourbeautystandards, advocates have created their own rules that exclude people who don’t fit them neatly. And wasn’t that what created our community in the first place? We were spilling out of society’s generic box, so we made our own. Now I’m getting pushed out of this one without so much as a gold pair of shapewear for a parting gift.
The whole thing is reminding me why I never wanted to be in anyone’s box to begin with. At some point, they realize they want it all to themselves.
So, to go back to my jeans. Yes, I deal with guilt now that I’m sitting comfortably in a size 12 (provided I haven’t just gorged myself on French fries, but I can make no hard promises). And I suspect that it’s a feeling I’ll just have to deal with, considering I’m someone with a predisposition for guilt.
But when I think about what my “new” size really means—my health journey and getting back to a place where I’m at least 75 percent comfortable with my body—I realize all the amazing new doors that are opening for me that have nothing to do with the number on my clothing labels. So, with that in mind, eff everybody’s beauty standards, regular AND plus size. Because my new jeans feel good, and you know what—so do I.
N. Alysha Lewis is a full-time editor who lives in Boston with her husband, his terrible cat, and her much cuter puppy. You can find her on Twitter @bibli0pHage, where she’s probably ignoring an overly ambitious writing goal she set for herself.