Denim Hell

Body acceptance, social media, and ill-fitting plus-size jeans

Bruno Nascimento / Unsplash

I am terrible at buying jeans.

I think that’s what the jeans companies want me to think, though. Once I hit double-digit sizes, it’s like they cared less and less about how jeans fit. They just demand recognition for daring to offer clothing in those dreaded “plus sizes.” Like, “Do you see the extra effort we went to, with all this extra denim, to produce a single pair of jeans in this size? Just buy it and shut up.”

The problems don’t end at the store, though. After I’ve tried on and come to terms with the fact that this is the best-fitting pair of jeans I can afford — always too big — I’m forced to go out into the world, where fitness and dieting and how much space I take up are top concerns.

I go to work and hang out with friends and I’m wearing these generic “plus-size,” bargain-bin, “we tried” pairs of jeans, and all the people around me see is that my thighs are dwarfed in fabric because this was the only pair that wasn’t too big (or too small) to simultaneously fit my hips. So they go all-in, not just feeling like they have to comment on my body, but thinking they’re framing it as a compliment.

“Wow, you’ve lost weight! Look at that!”

I haven’t lost weight. This isn’t a pair of “fat pants” that I’ve outgrown and now wear as a trophy for conquering my body’s natural size. This is shopping plus-size. This is a brand-new pair of jeans that I bought so I could try to fit in with my straight-size friends, whose jeans always fit.

Straight-size people congratulate me for something I haven’t achieved, something I have no desire to achieve, and it makes me feel terrible, even though I have no reason to feel terrible. It’s not my fault that the only time they see my body as “good” is when I’m unable to wear clothing that fits for the opposite reason they choose to assume.

It’s like when I’m spending an aimless evening scrolling through Facebook, and one of my friends who used to be fat but is less fat now posts a selfie, perhaps even side-by-side photos, “before and after”-ing themselves, reducing their body to something to improve upon by making it smaller. And I scroll further to the comments, and every single one is a variation of, “You look amazing!” because how dare anyone say a fat person looks “amazing” when they’re stuck in the repulsive land of “before”?

Being a teenager just as social media was transitioning from a circlejerk of ’90s nostalgia and MySpace surveys to photos and videos up and down, we knew we had permission to post shitty photos of ourselves that were taken on a grainy camera phone or rotated sideways or displayed our acne in full view, because the point was being brave enough to post a photo of ourselves on the internet at all, regardless of how we looked. It was about getting to be our authentic selves as we came to terms with the fact that other people could see us too, could associate us with an online profile that often deviated greatly from the persona we put up in high school.

I’m not sure if “You look amazing!” existed in the mid-2000s in the pervasive way it does today. If it did, it was reserved for in-person comments on prom attire. I never went to prom, maybe out of fear of never receiving a compliment as I wore a dress for the first time in front of my classmates, but I saw the photos online the Sunday after, where everyone looked pretty and perfect and happy. “You look amazing!” they probably said to one another as they lined up in front of their parents to take pictures. It was the novelty of the thing, prom, that made it all so amazing.

“You look amazing!” is the goal now, in a much different way than it was back then. We’ll live by “calories in, calories out” and stick to an unfathomably strict workout schedule that we won’t maintain and pinch our belly fat until there’s nothing left to pinch, and then we’ll pose for a photo and think we’re finally beautiful when the first “You look amazing!” comes in. And then, in the dark of the night, we’ll zoom in and out on the photo on our tiny phone screens, willing our thighs to stop touching and wondering why everyone who said “You look amazing!” is such a liar.

And then, statistically, we’ll gain the weight back, and we won’t look amazing anymore, and we won’t see ourselves as looking amazing, because how dare anyone tell a fat person they look amazing when the “after” is still so far away?

The frustrating fact of the otherwise empowering “body acceptance” movement is this: At some point, after toiling away, trying to make our bodies into something we can personally accept, we eventually think we look good enough that other people won’t be repulsed by our bodies anymore, that they might even accept them. Not accept us, mind you — we’re already dehumanized by having the gall to enter a public space in ill-fitting jeans that use twice as much fabric as everyone else’s — but our bodies. It’s the objectification of body acceptance; accepting people as the objects they are, the space they take up, and not the person attached who has this body.

It’s so easy to forget that body acceptance starts with our own bodies, that living unapologetically in our own skin can cause discomfort for so many people. Why hurt ourselves trying to put the apparent burden of body acceptance on others, when we can accept ourselves and put the discomfort on those who righteously deserve it?

Someone else will always get to wear better-fitting jeans than I do, but accepting myself in spite of this systemic setback is a triumph I’ll take any day.