June 16, 2021

Dear Marissa,

I’m drinking herbal tea, a mix of fresh peppermint from the garden and ginger root, sitting at my kitchen table, where I do most of my writing, my olive-green elastic waist pants resting comfortably over my stomach, nothing digging in, no constriction.

I’ve thought a lot about what you said about beauty and how validating it was for you to carry around a comment you received from a stranger when you were younger, like a prophecy, waiting to become beautiful. Reading that made me realize that I don’t hold onto compliments, except for the one that my first boyfriend paid me about my ass. He said it had a lovely shape, like a peach. Most compliments roll off me completely, like raindrops on a Gore-Tex jacket. I do remember all the negative comments people made about my appearance, though. Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hansen says that our brains act like Velcro with negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. Any compliments I received from men were in passing and mostly, if not all, were about my breasts. Like my mess of curls, my breasts were a defining feature, and not by choice. 

I love that you feel the older you get, the more you can appreciate your own beauty. For me, the older I get, the more comfortable I get with being comfortable. In addition to my elastic waist pants, I currently have no make-up on and a bra without an underwire. I never liked the physical restriction of tight clothing. I thought I had to wear it in order to be beautiful. I haven’t always believed that, though. I had grown up rejecting dresses and pink frilly things, preferring to shop in the men’s section in thrift stores. In high school, my grad dress was black, long, and flowy with short sleeves一basically it covered my entire body. It was the closest thing I could find to a large garbage bag. I had received so many unwanted comments about my body growing up that I was still hiding it. I got my hair and make-up done with my two best girlfriends for the first time. When my boyfriend saw me, his eyes bugged out, his mouth dropped open, and his tongue rolled out like in cartoons. I don’t think he’d ever seen me in a dress before. He gave me an orchid corsage, which I wore on my wrist, and I pinned one on his suit. We were playing the roles and doing so happily. After the fancy hotel dinner, when the coast was clear, I met my best friends in the bathroom at the prescribed time. We ditched our frocks and put on our men’s jeans, which were ripped and frayed at the bottom (a look which we didn’t have to pay for, unlike today), and skater t-shirts (even though none of us owned a skateboard), beer bottles clinking in our school backpacks (we stood outside the liquor store and begged some dudes to buy us beer which we safely stowed in a dark corner of the ballroom). While we were changing, our socials teacher, whom we loathed, with feathered hair dyed a fluorescent shade of reddish-orange, snuck into the bathroom.

“What’s in your backpacks and where do you think you’re going?” she said as we opened the stall doors.

We glanced at each other and then took off, hopping down the escalator and shooting out the lobby doors into the fading sun. We didn’t owe our teacher an explanation—we were graduates! My body was buzzing, and my skin felt all tingly as we danced our way down to English Bay to drink on the beach for a final night together.

I started wearing tight clothes in university around the same time I began trying hard to please men. I thought I was gaining power, the power that came with being attractive, getting noticed. I remember when Jeremy and I were first dating, he bought me this itty-bitty red scoop-necked halter top. I ignored the initial feeling of discomfort of squeezing myself into it, the feeling of not really wanting to wear it because it showed off major boobage but feeling obligated to because he bought it for me. I felt I was supposed to please others, specifically men. 

I remember buying thong underwear that rode up my ass so high it gave me a rash, and bras from Victoria’s Secret that would press my breasts together and push them up like they were oranges sitting on a shelf just waiting to be squeezed. I remember the relief I always felt when I huffed these costumes off at the end of the night. How free my body felt.

I’d like to say that I don’t think about how I dress anymore. And mostly, this is true. I do tend to dress for comfort. Recently when I walked into a clothing store, a young woman who worked there said to me, “Wow, I wish I was dressed like you. You look so comfortable!” Although I think the young woman was being genuine, I didn’t take it as a compliment. 

Mostly when I dress comfortably, I don’t feel beautiful. Sometimes I tell myself this is what “giving up” looks like. In these vulnerable moments, I’m choosing to buy into the patriarchal idea of beauty. That as a woman, I must look a certain way (young) and dress a certain way (sexy) to be beautiful.

Recently, I had planned to meet a dear friend for lunch at an outdoor bakery, followed by a hike. We were both middle-aged and knew we didn’t need to dress up, yet we changed into different outfits multiple times before meeting. I changed out of my dog walking shorts that were long and frumpy into more sporty short shorts that you might see runners wearing (FYI, I hate running). I checked out my ass in the mirror and pictured myself at the outdoor bakery. What would people say if they saw me, a forty-three-year-old woman in grey shorty shorts, eating a roasted vegetable and goat cheese sandwich? Fearing the worst, I changed out of them and into comfortable black quick-dry Bermuda shorts. I checked myself out again and nodded. I was safe. No one could accuse me of showing too much middle-aged leg.

I’d like to tell you that I don’t care what people think, but the thing is that I do. I just care way less than I used to. I don’t wear (as many) tight things anymore. I heard that skinny jeans are going out of fashion (Yes! Cartwheels! High fives!), and so I won’t feel obligated to peel them off myself after a night out like Sandy in Grease. I’m hoping that one day I will realize my physical beauty and appreciate it more, not just in hindsight when I’m looking through albums at my younger self.

When I see a woman wearing rubber boots and overalls or cut-off jeans shorts and a t-shirt, I think she looks beautiful. If I think she looks beautiful wearing what I enjoy wearing, then why is it so difficult for me to see myself as beautiful too? Maybe the young woman in the store who commented on my clothing really wanted to be able to dress comfortably like me. Maybe “giving up” doesn’t mean not caring anymore what I look like, but the opposite. Maybe it means that I care deeply about myself, so much so that I can feel good and sexy in whatever I choose to wear as opposed to having it prescribed for me. Maybe it’s about (mostly) choosing not to participate in this constant pressure anymore. Maybe “giving up” is actually a radical act. Maybe it’s freedom.

With love,

Xo Claire.

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July 1, 2021

Dear Claire,

Hazel really loves clothes and has a lot of ideas about what is and is not “fashion.” They have a sense of style that I don’t remember having at six. I think my mother dressed me until I was in middle school. My mother loved garage sales, and we would head out early on Saturday mornings with the paper folded neatly to the classifieds and the local map book on the passenger seat. She’d circle the good listings with a pen and map them out in advance, using start times and location to make her own little plan of attack. I’d sit in the passenger seat and my brother would be in the back, and we’d drive from address to address cruising to see if the sale was worth stopping at or if it was a “bousy (lousy) one.” 

The summer after fifth grade, I was twelve, 5’2,” and wore a women’s size six. I was my mother’s dream doll, as I fit into adult clothing that she couldn’t (my mother was a size sixteen) and I was docile enough to put on whatever she told me to wear. We went to a garage sale at a house up in the hills. There were lake views peeking through the trees. It was a mountain morning, cold, but it would be warmer once the sun had time to do its thing. We knew this woman whose garage sale it was, but not well enough to have been to her house before. She was pretty and her clothing was always very nice. My mother was thrilled because she offered to give us a deal. My mom picked through piles and piles of this woman’s 30-something clothes and tossed them at me for approval. I didn’t know my own mind well enough to know if I liked these things or I didn’t. I simply took what my mother selected and integrated it into my closet.

One of the items was a bathing suit: a pastel ombre tiger-striped high-waisted bikini. Think Lisa Frank pattern only pastel instead of neon. The tiger stripes were black, and the suit had black accents like the tie strings and the waistband and the little piece that split the top into two cups. My mother threw it in the bag of things, along with a number of tiny sundresses with spaghetti straps, off-the-shoulder loose-knit tops, and acid wash jeans with embroidered pockets. It all looked fine on the hangers, fine in the bag. It wasn’t until we got home and I tried everything on that I realized what these clothes would do to me. 

At twelve, I had a body like a teenage girl. I was a solid C cup. I had a tiny waist. I had thick thighs and full hips. I looked fifteen, sixteen. I heard it all the time from the gross older men that would leer at me when they thought my mom was out of earshot. This happened no matter what I wore, but in these 30-year-old woman’s clothes, it was so much worse. The adorable sundresses had boning and cups. The jeans that had looked like innocuous pants clung to my voluptuous hips and their embroidered pockets accentuated my ass. The loose-knit sweaters looked slutty. These clothes made me look like a young woman, like fair game, like fresh meat. 

The clothing was bad, but the bikini was a disaster. First, because it was the only item in the whole bag that I had picked for myself and loved, and second because it was undeniably sexy. I didn’t know how to feel about that. I loved the print; it reminded me of my favorite school folders with the big-eyed animals and the magical-looking backgrounds. But I also knew what I saw in the mirror when I put it on. I looked older, cooler, more like a woman than a child. I wanted that and I was embarrassed of it. I couldn’t decide.

Yesterday I left the house in compression activewear and a hoodie. I was only going to drop Hazel off and then go by a homewares store to get a gift for a friend. I felt fine when I got dressed; I actually like compression. But on the drive to drop Hazel off, I felt the waistband digging into my stomach. Soon my whole lower stomach was cramping. I knew it was my period — I knew I was due any day now and that was probably what was happening. But I also was in a sort of soft denial that it was happening. Maybe one more day. Maybe a few more. Maybe I was sick. 

I went to one store and they didn’t have what I needed. I remembered Anthropologie was around the corner and tried there next. It’s too expensive, but they sometimes have exceptional sales. So I wandered into the saleroom and found myself pawing through racks of super soft flowy clothing. This jumpsuit caught my eye. It was summer weight cotton, so soft it felt like air and it was a beautiful print and I couldn’t resist trying it on. And then once I was in that fitting room and those compression leggings came off my body and I slid that gentle fabric up my thighs, tucked those soft straps over my shoulders I knew I was done for.

It’s not even that the jumpsuit is particularly flattering. Flattering is a dumb construct anyway. It basically only means “makes me look better than I think I deserve to look ” and I reject it. But it’s not traditionally flattering at all. It’s a loose, flowy jumpsuit with harem pants. And yet. I couldn’t take it off. I wore it out of the store like a child who finds a new pair of shoes. I find that I can no longer bear the thought of being compressed, metaphorically speaking. I need space, I need room, I need people around me that want to see me expand. 

My mom was here last month for a long visit. She asked me at one point if I thought she’d harmed me with her obsession with diets and thinness as I was growing up. I considered it. I told her it’s not her fault that society is so anti-fat and awful, and honestly, when we were kids, it was so much worse. At least now there’s Instagram and plus models and some public conversation happening about how harmful it is to equate fat bodies with unhealthy bodies. And my mom was a plus-size all of my life. It must have been awful for her, trying to live in a world that shamed her just for being who and how she was naturally. 

I told her I loved that I grew up around a lot of zaftig women in my family who would shamelessly rock a bathing suit and lay out at the beach or the pool slicked in baby oil, comments be damned. My mom, both of her sisters, and some of her cousins, all of them thick in different ways, tossing their clothing off like it was nothing and parading themselves around in their brown skin and cellulite, gave me a confidence and a peace that I might not have otherwise had. I told her the hardest thing was that she used to put me on the spot as a child, pointing out other people’s bodies to me and asking me to compare hers to it. 

“Am I as big as that lady over there? What about her? Do I look like that from the side?”

Mostly I knew not to say yes. Sometimes I would agree, and then she’d spin into a weird anxious place. 

“Really like that? As big as her belly? Really I look like that from the side?”

I told her that what I didn’t like about it was there was no right answer. If I said yes, she fretted. If I said no, she thought I was lying. And the practice got ingrained in me, took me years to break out of in my own head, comparing myself to everyone around me, looking to see who was the thinnest and the thickest person in the room, and worrying if I was the biggest girl, feeling bad, like everyone was looking at me thinking the same thing. It took years, and sometimes it still sneaks in. I don’t wish that inner monologue on anyone. I try very hard not to give it to my own child, who is every day becoming more and more aware that some bodies are fat and some are thin and asking questions and trying to sort out if there’s a bad way to be.

I caught Hazel the other night standing sideways, looking at their belly in the mirror, displeased. I know that look. I asked what they were thinking about and they told me their belly was sticking out. I said, that’s normal. You’re a child. Your belly will look like that for a while and then one day, it will change shape. That bellies and bodies are magical things, meant to grow along with us, meant to stretch and change and show the passage of time, the things we have done, the accomplishments like childbirth or surgeries. 

I wore that tiger-striped bikini by the way. Back when I was twelve and my body didn’t match my brain, I put that bikini on my body and sauntered around a crowded hotel pool with my friends, and I tried not to notice all the stares. I tried to just swim, to just be a girl in a new swimsuit enjoying her afternoon in the sunshine. I wore what I wanted, and I loved myself enough to keep going, but I also experienced the response from the world to my body. And that response stayed with me. I’m still feeling it all these years later, writing to you.

With my whole fat heart,

Marissa.

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About the Authors:

Marissa Korbel is a critically-acclaimed, queer essayist and Managing Editor of The Rumpus. She also regularly interviews authors for literary magazines. Her essays have appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch Magazine, and in Burn it Down (2019), an anthology of women’s rage. 

Claire Sicherman is the author of Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation (Caitlin Press, 2017). Her publications include the anthology Don’t Ask: What Families Hide (forthcoming Spring, 2022), Hippocampus, Entropy, The Rumpus, and the anthology Sustenance: Writers from BC and Beyond on the Subject of Food (Anvil Press, 2017).  Find her at https://www.clairesicherman.com/