Girl Talk: On Summer Clothes And Body Image

If you were to ask me about my favorite season, fashion-wise, I would always say fall. I would tell you how much I love the deep colors, the sumptuous layers, and the rich textures of wool, leather, and tweed. I love getting dressed up in glamorous coats and take-no-prisoners knee-high boots. I love seeing the new trends come down the runways. There is one thing I love about fall clothes, though, that I might not tell you: I love that they cover me up.

Summer style is supposed to be simple and carefree. Throw on a cute sundress, sandals, and a fabulous pair of sunglasses and you’re good to go. For me, it’s never been that simple. Effortless dresses aren’t so effortless when you’re worried about thigh chafing. Sleeveless tops aren’t so comfortable when you compulsively pair them with cover-ups, jackets, and cardigans. It’s embarrassing to throw on a cardigan on a 90-degree day, but apparently it’s an even more embarrassing prospect to show the world my arms.

My relationship with my body has evolved a lot over the years. As a chubby kid in elementary school, I quickly learned that showing any more skin than necessary invited taunts and teasing; I hid in leggings and baggy T-shirts to avoid drawing attention to myself and being called a “tub of lard” on the playground. In high school I went to the gym every day under the exceptionally misguided belief that enough time on the elliptical could transform my short, curvy, Italian body into a tall, skinny doppelganger for Kate Moss (spoiler alert: I’m still 5’3″).

Freshman year of college I moved in with three effortlessly thin roommates. It was the first time I’d lived in close quarters with other women my age (I grew up with three brothers), and there was usually at least one person lounging around in a bra and undies. I couldn’t help but compare myself to them. Why wasn’t my stomach flat like Erin’s? Why weren’t my arms as lean as Kelly’s?

These days I feel better about my body than I ever have, but there are parts of it that I haven’t made peace with yet, mostly the usual suspects: my stomach, my thighs, my upper arms. My body insecurities go into hibernation in the winter, when everyone is bundled up in sweaters and down jackets and I can focus on swaddling myself in clothing that’s both warm and stylish. In the summer months, though, the temperatures rise and the clothing gets skimpy and suddenly my body–and my body issues–are exposed. In the fall and winter I walk down the street and think things like, “Damn, cute jacket!” In the summer it’s, “Damn, cute arms!”

The most ridiculous thing about my summer body issues is that I love seeing women of different shapes and sizes strutting their stuff in sundresses and short shorts. I’ve never thought, “She definitely needs to put on a cardigan” about anyone except my own reflection in the mirror.

A few weeks ago, I was laying on the beach in Maui. It was hot and humid and the sun felt amazing on my skin. I looked around at all the different bodies on the beach, fully exposed except for the tiny triangles of fabric we call swimsuits. There were larger women rocking bikinis and smaller women in conservative maillots. The sun shone down on cellulite and awkward tan lines and scars and fading tattoos, on protruding hipbones and round bellies, and I thought every bit of it was beautiful.

I looked down at my own body, clad in a clingy wet swimsuit. Immediately I had the urge to suck in my belly and critique my dimpled thighs, but I stopped myself. I was surrounded by white sand and crystal clear water and a diverse crowd of happy, healthy people who most definitely were not concerning themselves with the size of my upper arms. Why was it OK for me to hold myself to this cruel double standard? Didn’t my body deserve better than that? Plus, what was I going to do? Throw on a cardigan?

I took a deep breath, dug my toes into the sand, and promised myself this would be the summer I stopped hating–and hiding–my body.

Back in Portland,I pulled out my summer dresses and  kept my cardigan drawer closed. It still freaks me out to go sleeveless in public, but I’m slowly getting used to it, and so far, so good. I rocked some dangerously short shorts the other day and felt totally fabulous. Did I see skinnier women wearing shorts that day? Sure did, but when my old habit of body comparison rears its ugly head, I’m trying a new script: “She looks amazing. And you know what? So do I.”