I used to identify as a skinny person. You know what separates a skinny person from a person who happens to be skinny? Smugness. “Exercise” consisted solely of a Sunday morning gentle yoga class that I used as an excuse to wear leggings to brunch, and yet my body somehow maintained a svelte but healthy 115 pounds. I never worked to achieve thinness, but I sure acted like it was an accomplishment. I felt a buzz of pride when I had to ask a salesperson to bring a smaller size to the dressing room, or when someone could not believe my pudgy brother and I were related. “Isn’t it wild?” I’d ask rhetorically. “We look nothing alike.”
In retrospect, I wonder if my naturally lower weight was a sign that I had been sick all along, before I was formally diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2010. Three years later, my Crohn’s flared up and I suddenly gained 43 pounds as a side effect of treatment.
Crohn’s is not a sexy disease. You’ve probably only heard of it if you know someone who has it because nobody wants to watch a Grey’s Anatomy story arc about a patient who poops blood. The gist is it’s a type of chronic inflammation of the digestive tract due to an abnormal immune response. The cause is unknown, but genetic and environmental factors are believed to contribute. Stress can be a trigger. There are periods of remission between periods of active disease. Sometimes it’s just like a stomachache that comes and goes. And sometimes it can have serious, gory complications.
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In 2013, mine turned into the latter kind. It was a rough year. Work was busy and I was going through a hard breakup. Then a trio of careless hipsters moved into the adjacent apartment, bringing with them second-hand furniture and a tiny, itchy army of bedbugs. I had to move unexpectedly into a cold basement, and where it lacked furniture, I filled it with worry: project deadlines, sofas I couldn’t afford, and an impenetrable loneliness. I should have been less surprised when the stress triggered my symptoms.
My doctor prescribed an aggressive course of the steroid Prednisone. It’s cheap and highly effective, but there are many side effects. My muscles burned. My chest and forehead broke out in a dense layer of acne. I slept at most two hours per night, compensating every third night by popping half a benzo my gastroenterologist prescribed to take the edge off. And I gained weight. Gobs of it.
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I racked up approximately one pound every 63 hours, and my wardrobe could hardly keep up. My first strategy was to buy unfitted pieces from fast-fashion stores, since I knew my body would outpace them. I bought the largest sizes they carried, but this was before inclusive sizing became part of the fashion zeitgeist. By month two, I had outsized Zara’s offerings, and I was at a complete loss for how to dress my rapidly expanding body.
I completed my Prednisone treatment in four months. My body had settled into its new shape, and my clothing size had tripled, which, though below the national average, still felt foreign to me on my not-quite-5’3” frame. I sent away for elastic waist pants, oversized tunics, and muumuus that swallowed me. I looked like a black, linen sack of potatoes. I told myself this was a deliberate, practical choice—that I was prioritizing new furniture over clothes that would soon become irrelevant. I told myself that I would lose the weight as fast as I’d gained it because I was a skinny person in my core. I tried to frame my schlubiness as an empowered decision, but if I’m being truthful, I had simply given up on achieving personal style. I could not see a way to celebrate my body with the resources available to me, and the body I was in didn’t feel like it was mine to celebrate anyway.
Dating again seemed impossible. In addition to acne and rapid weight gain, Prednisone redistributes the fat in your body to create a “moon face.” My cheeks were so swollen that one colleague asked if I’d had oral surgery. I’d had a hard enough time finding commitment-ready men when I was conventionally hot. I was newly single, and this body change was the opposite of the prototypical post-breakup haircut. I wondered who could fall in love with this blemished, misshapen person.
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So I called my mom and asked. Well, I called her and sobbed. I was completely overwhelmed by self-consciousness and self-pity. My mom has been overweight her entire life, and she has found confidence as a self-described “fat girl.” She was patient and generous while I fell apart over insecurities she has been brushing off her shoulders for decades.
Later that night, she sent me a sagacious, real-talk email titled “Fashion Tips for Feeling Like a Fat Girl.” She told me to stop feeling sorry for myself and to start taking care of myself. “Don't put off buying clothes for when you get slim. You have to look good today, tomorrow, and next week.” She reminded me that overweight and attractive are not antitheses, which TV and movies make easy to forget. She cheerfully pointed out that overweight women “get laid and married a lot” and suggested I take pride in features other than my waistline. She told me to be kind to others and to myself, recommending massages, walks in pretty neighborhoods, and yoga.
My mom’s email taught me how to dress around a body to which the fashion industry was less accommodating. She introduced me to new silhouettes and encouraged me to accessorize. She showed me how to find new assets that inspire confidence (I went up a full cup size, and I am not mad about it!). And, like any mom would, she told me to brush my damn hair. She gave me permission to invest in the self I was in that very moment. I did not have to wait until some fantastical day when I clawed my way back to the body I’d had before.
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The best gift of all came in the mail a few weeks later. My mother often bought her clothes online, since most brick-and-mortar stores don’t carry her size. She had ordered a See By Chloé wrap dress in an XL—too small for her, she knew, but she’d hoped the tie closure might have enough leeway to reach around her waist. Instead, it sat in her closet until my histrionic phone call. She passed it along to me, and thus the Botero sisterhood of the traveling XL wrap dress was born.
The dress was a shade of ballerina pink that can only be described as assertively pretty. It had a soft jersey base with light chiffon that gathered at the shoulder, draped across the bodice into alluring folds, and cascaded gently down the skirt. The wrap closure was adjustable, cinching wherever felt comfortable to me. With each step, the airy layers of the skirt billowed flirtatiously, just barely grazing my thighs. I felt like I was starring in a fragrance ad. More importantly, I felt like myself.
This dress did not change anything about my body, but it transformed the way I saw it. I relearned how to feel womanly. The sensuality of chiffon is undeniable. A breeze would flutter the sleeves and I would remember that my skin likes to be touched. But it was more than just the material. Clothes change the way you move through the world. A pair of heels will straighten your posture, and you sit differently in a miniskirt than you do in a pair of jeans. I had been rushing past everyone in my baggy, black clothes, staring at the ground. But if you walk too quickly in an unstructured dress, the skirt will fold itself uncomfortably between your legs. My dress forced me to slow down and smile at people. When I hit the right stride, the fabric would swing out to the sides and accentuate my wide hips. It was the sartorial equivalent of a trilled R, and it was all very sexy.
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A pleasant byproduct of my renewed confidence was that I felt ready to put myself out there again. I sashayed from OkCupid date to OkCupid date until I met John, almost exactly one year after my first dose of Prednisone. He fell in love with all of me, every inch and stretch mark. Now, I am looking forward to wearing another transformative dress—still chiffon, but ivory this time—when we marry this October.
I accept that I will probably never wear a size small again and, instead, strive to be as healthy as possible. I’ve tried boot camp classes, weight lifting, low-carb diets, and various iterations of cardio, encouraged by my doctors. My current regimen involves high-intensity interval training, a weekly hip-hop dance class, and a food scale. My BMI is still above the overweight mark, but I have lost enough that the dress was a teensy bit too loose to hang onto it. I sold it online, and I like to imagine that it now brings another woman the same poise it brought me.