hen I was four years old, I planned a photoshoot. I hired my mom as the photographer and myself as the model. The shoot included various dramatized poses and multiple outfits, one of which featured a hot pink sequin tube top and a skirt composed only of long, white nylon fringe. I exuded confidence in every photo. Even now, I can see it written all over my face: I didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought. I felt good and was having fun. I didn’t for one second consider my size.
It wasn’t until I was about eight years old, around the time I realized that I couldn’t fit into the same Limited Too clothing as my peers and a boy in my 4th grade class called me fat, that my perception of my body took a drastic turn: from blissfully unphased to painfully self-aware.
From there, I sunk deeper and deeper into a hole of self-consciousness. By middle school, I was constantly tugging down my shirt sleeves and pulling up my pants, never able to walk into a room without worrying about how I looked. By high school, my crippling awareness of my size sometimes made me so uncomfortable in my own skin that it was painful to get dressed and go to school. I often felt like I’d lost track of my truest self. I didn’t know how to channel that same little girl who posed unabashedly in front of the camera in a sequined tube top.
I was essentially facing two problems: The first being that trendy clothing literally didn’t exist in my size; the second being that even if that clothing did exist, I was already too emotionally damaged and hyper-aware of my size to pursue celebrating my personality in the way I dressed myself, anyway.
The most painful truth of all is that, in those years and in the years since, my size and my awareness of it have affected my life decisions far beyond how I dress myself. Today, as a 26-year-old woman, I often wonder how different my life might have turned out had I remained that blissfully unaware four-year-old who sashayed through the world, showing off her figure, wearing what she wanted without a care for what people thought about her physical appearance.
I was interested in fashion from a young age. I wanted to dress like a Spice Girl. I loved styling my dolls and flipping through magazines in search of the fashion editorial spreads. What interested me most about Disney princesses were their outfits. By the time I was beginning to consider my future, it was no secret to my friends and family that I loved fashion. But being the size that I was, I didn’t feel worthy nor confident enough to pursue a career in it, and eventually, I let it go. I gave up on a dream that might have developed into something more with a little nurturing, with a little self-belief. I spent a long time blaming myself for that, but the older I get, the more I realize my self-image was not formed fully with my permission.
My belief that I was unworthy was the result of years of feedback that confirmed as much: bullying from my peers; no one who looked like me in TV or movies who wasn’t the butt of a joke; no clothing sold in my size; no understanding from my peers that everyone in this world is allowed to come in different shapes and sizes — and that they are worthy of love and respect and dream careers, too.
What the elementary school version of me needed to hear was that size is not a reflection of your value and worth as a person. Everyone deserves to be here in this world and pursue their dreams, goals and best selves, no matter their size, and regardless of their ability to dress or express themselves in the way they’d like.
So where does that leave me now? It has taken me years of therapy and so many words of encouragement from friends, family and co-workers to even get me to a place to write about this in the first place. It makes me sad when I think of the childhood years lost worrying about my physical appearance and of the dreams never pursued, but I also feel an obligation to talk about it so the next little girl posing confidently for a photoshoot never feels like she has to derail her dreams because her size isn’t deemed worthy in an industry she is passionate about.
Today, as more clothing becomes available in my size, and as I unpeel the layers of shame that have suppressed me for all these years, I am finally allowing myself to express myself again with clothes. The path may be be slow and steady, but I feel like I am finally getting to a place where I am not just able but willing to express my truest self again. And in doing that, I hope that I am reaffirming to myself and to others what I needed to hear all those years ago: I am allowed to love and work in fashion. I have a vision and point of view, too. My self is worth expressing.
Collages by Madeline Montoya; Photo provided by Emily Zirimis.