There were dozens of dresses. Swishy, colorful gowns, hanging in the bridal shop, waiting to be plucked by giddy bridesmaids. I sorted through them, and paused at one I liked. I glanced around to make sure no one in my bridal party was nearby. I picked up the tag and quickly scanned the size: four. I lifted the hanger off the rack and examined the dress. After trying to negotiate the size — the flowing skirt isn't fitted anyway, I thought, so the size won't matter! I'll have to get it hemmed regardless of how long it is! — I concluded that it was definitely going to be too big. I put it back on the rack and opted for a size two. I scurried to the fitting room, while carefully concealing the size tag.
As the other bridesmaids paraded in and out of the fitting rooms in the dresses they'd selected, the other women ooh-ed and ahh-ed. Their support was unwavering and genuine. I stepped out of the room in my dress, pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. Who said all bridesmaid dresses were terrible?! I received a mashup of praise from the bridal party — "It looks so great!" said one. "Wow, what a beautiful dress!" said another.
Then, an employee of the boutique paced in a circle around me, took a few measurements, and scrutinized the fit.
"It looks good," she said slowly, "but …" She grabbed the paper tag hiding under my arm. "I think you could go down a size for a cleaner fit. I'll grab you a zero."
I felt my face pale. I tried to strike up an unrelated conversation with the bride, but not before I heard her mother loudly whisper "ZERO?!" to one of the bridesmaids. When the employee brought over the smaller dress, I grabbed it and hurried back inside the fitting room, emerging seconds later hoping only she would notice. "Yes, much better!" she said loudly, circling the "0" in pencil on the order form.
"That's too skinny," the bride's mother said, to no one in particular.
I had thought I looked nice in the dress, but suddenly, I felt incredibly guilty. Should I explain to her that I eat a healthy diet? Not too healthy — I like a good burger. Should I assure her that I don't work out very much, and that I don't manufacture my size? Or would that sound like I was bragging? My thoughts raced. I'd been in this situation before, as I've endured weight-related body shaming my entire life. I've had an unwavering petite build, short and slender, at every stage of development, and changes in diet and fitness routines don't do much to change it. It's just how my body is made.
In her 2017 book Beauty Sick, Renee Englen explores, through anecdotes and data she's gathered as a psychologist, cultural and social pressures that North American women feel in regards to their appearance. She notes that "though we often think of fat shaming as the primary type of negative body commentary women receive from others, the truth is that few women haven't been targeted for their appearance at one time or another, so narrow are appearance ideals for women. A study of almost 5,000 adolescents in Minnesota found that although overweight girls receive the highest amounts of body-related teasing, underweight girls weren't far behind."
My shape and size, and my lifestyle, have been scrutinized from every angle. "You're so skinny, just wait until you're older," a co-worker once told me, unprovoked. "You won't be that way forever."
One time, while I was eating a salad, someone sniped, "Oh, that's why you're so skinny." When I've ordered dessert, I've been told, in a condescending manner, that it must be "nice to eat whatever you want."
When I share stories from my barre class, I've heard "that's a skinny girl workout, isn't it?" and "you don't need to lose more weight."
In moments like these, I'm always torn between feeling guilty and apologizing for my size, or being defensive, explaining my actions with long, convoluted stories.
I'm usually pretty confident about my body, but comments policing my weight and my lifestyle — what I eat or don't eat, what I do or don't do to stay fit, what I wear or don't wear — often leave me second-guessing my choices in the moment, and anxious about what others notice when they look at me. Am I eating enough? Should I be wearing a form-fitting dress to work? Should I buy the size two just so I don't seem so skinny?
Recently, I realized I don't want to change the way I look. I'm happy with my body. I realized that what I want is to not be made fun of. It seems sad that gaining weight should be the only way I can stop being made fun of; others should just stop making negative comments about my appearance. As Englen says in Beauty Sick, "Cruelty toward thin women because they are thin ought to be just as unacceptable as cruelty toward fat women because they are fat." Amen.