On Learning to Love My Body: Because Summer Is For Fat Girls, Too

Here in Michigan, we often joke that we really only have two seasons: cold and hot. It’s actually more true than I will usually admit. Within just the last few days, things here in the mitten have finally made their transition from “risking frostbite” to “risking sunburn,” and I’ve been incredibly excited to finally pack away my thick sweaters and thermal tops and break out the summer wear. After spending a day out running errands in shorts and a tank top, I was struck at just how absurd the very idea of going outside dressed like that would have felt for me just a couple of years ago. The obvious broadness of my shoulders, presence of arm chub, and bit of thigh cellulite would have had me covering up instead of basking in the warm spring sun. It made me appreciate just how far I’ve come in learning to love the body I have.

As a fat transsexual woman, the world isn’t exactly lining up to tell that I’m beautiful. On the rare occasion that beautiful trans people are celebrated, it universally seems to be those who fit within standard cisnormative beauty standards, which include the preference for thinness. In growing “diverse”-bodies-in-advertising movement, like Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” we’re starting to occasionally see women of larger sizes. But even then, those women always seem to be selected for a certain socially-acceptance kind of shape — wide hips, large breasts, full bottoms, and narrow waists. I have precisely zero of those traits. My hips look narrow on my non-petite frame, my breasts are small, and my middle is round and squishy. Yeah okay, I’ve got kind of a big ass, but even that is dimpled and square. And yet, most days I can look in the mirror and love what I see, and that’s a pretty huge step forward from where I was just a couple of years ago.

One of the most deeply damaging parts of dysphoria for me was the profound way it warped how I saw my body. Over the course of my adult life before I decided to transition, my weight varied by nearly 150 pounds. I felt the exact same way at the low end of that range as I did at the high end — ugly. I cringed when I looked in mirror; I felt physically ill from my own image. Despite being aware that I’m not cis since my early adult life, I never really connected that sickened, disgusted feeling with the concept of dysphoria. I just thought I was a really ugly person. Given that I felt exactly the same way about myself at 215 pounds as a I did at well over 300 pounds, it hardly seemed worth it to put any effort into keeping weight off. I hit my peak weight right about the time I decided to transition in 2011, still not really making the connection between my dysphoria and my terrible self-esteem.

When I first started to transition, some of that self-hate finally started to fade. Even as I was still learning how to girl properly, the alignment between what I expected to see and actually saw did wonders to convince that wasn’t actually anywhere near as ugly as I had spent 20+ years convincing myself that I was. But that surge in confidence was pretty strictly limited to my face. I still hated my body. I wore long sleeves and jeans at all times, even when Michigan summers made their inevitable climb into the temps that feel like you’re being smothered with a hot, wet blanket. I wore Spanx and obnoxiously padded bras pretty much constantly to shove my body into some semblance of an acceptable shape. I was convinced people would recoil at uncovered arm fat, or that my bare broad shoulders would be an instant tell that I was a trans woman and would cause a scene. Even on our annual summer camping/canoeing/drinking trip — made up entirely of awesomely supportive and accepting friends — I kept covered as much as humanly possible at all times. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to have bare skin, because it wasn’t socially acceptable.

I basically learned to hate summer. Summer meant being hot and sweaty and gross because I was too disgusted with myself to dress for the weather. At least during the winter, I had an excuse for covering up. I have a distinct memory of a date with my partner two summers ago where I was walking miles around downtown Detroit in 97° July heat wearing jeans and a ¾ sleeve shirt, literally soaked through with sweat. I’m not sure if I’ll ever understand why I decided that being soaked with sweat would be less unattractive/repulsive than exposing enough skin to stay cool, but it somehow seemed reasonable at the time.

Really, it was a tank top and a new tattoo that started me down the road to loving/embracing/flaunting all my squishy bits. I had always owned copious numbers of tank tops, because, as a friend once told me, fat girls gotta layer. But, I always wore them with something, be it a sweater or button up or another top. While having my extensive shoulder and collarbone tattoos done last spring, a tank top always seemed to be the most convenient thing to wear to my tattoo appointment; it offered maximum access to the skin to be worked, without requiring me to sit and shiver mostly-shirtless in the middle of a tattoo shop. So, a win for everyone. Generally, I’d wear a cardigan to and from the appointment, because I’m the kind of lesbian who wears a lot of cardigans. But, after one particularly gruesome touch-up session where it felt like half my body was covered in vaseline and gauze, I opted to keep my sweater off. Well, I say opted, but really… I just couldn’t get the damned thing back on. In shocking news: the world did not end and I was not chased through the streets by a pitchfork mob for daring to be chubby in public. People were far more concerned about the excessive bandaging than about a fat girl in a tank top.

Look at all these fucks I'm not giving.

Look at all these fucks I’m not giving.

During all that tattoo aftercare, covering up just wasn’t an option. I had open wounds that could be measured in square feet, and I ruined four shirts with blood and serum before I gave up and stuck to tank tops. There was a moment during one of those days where I did my usual vain “last check in the mirror before I leave the house” thing, caught a look at myself with my broad shoulders, wide-strap tank, and tattoos and thought, “Oh… wait… I actually look… okay.” Nothing had really changed about my body in that intervening year. I had lost a little bit of weight, but it wasn’t something you could see in that part of my body. But, somewhere along the road of transition, I had stopped hating my body. It had finally become my body in a way that it really hadn’t ever felt before, and I loved every bit of its imperfect, fat-in-a-not-socially-acceptable way skin.

Around that time, I also really started to let go of the idea that I owed the world anything with regard to my appearance. I had stopped shaving any part of my body with any kind of regularity, embraced the art of messy hair, and stopped wearing foundation every day. Not worrying that I was dressing in a manner that was “acceptable” for a fat girl followed right along with it. It was fucking freeing. I got my share of asshole comments, of course. We live a in a shitty world where people say awful shit to fat people, and I’m pretty used to it. But I didn’t really get any more douche commentary than I usually had. No one spontaneously started misgendering me. No pitchfork mobs started; no rotten fruit was thrown at me. My bare shoulders and arms (and eventually even legs!) completely failed to cause an apocalyptic tragedy.

Bombarded with a steady stream of shame and objectification, learning to love our own bodies can be a serious challenge for just about anyone these days. But trans women and fat women (and especially fat trans women) have their bodies so constantly denigrated and ridiculed that it often feels like we’re not even allowed to love our bodies or see them as beautiful. We’re told that exposed skin is something that’s reserved for those who have bodies others want to see. If you don’t believe me, ask any fat girl how many times she’s been told “no one wants to see that” by friends, family members, or random strangers. But, my body and skin are just as beautiful and just as worthy of being exposed as any thin cis woman. Given where I was with my dysmorphia just a few years ago, it feels so good to be able to say with confidence that I think my body is perfect and beautiful just the way it is. Every time I step outside in shorts and a tank top, it feels like a little victory and my own personal fat rebellion. Maybe I’ll even try and figure out how to work this new crop-top trend.


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Profile gravatar of Mari Brighe

Mari is a queer lady scientist and educator from Detroit, who skillfully avoids working on her genetics dissertation by writing about queer and trans life, nerd culture, feminism, and science. You can frequently find her running around at science-fiction conventions giving panels on consent culture and LGBT topics or DJing at fantastically strange parties. She is a contributing writer for TransAdvocate, maintains a personal blog at TransNerdFeminist, and can frequently be found stirring up trouble (and posting selfies) on Twitter.

Mari has written 36 articles for us.

51 Comments

  1. 0

    You do you! I’m a cis female, who has lots of extra fat and stretch marks from having three babies, and I’m learning to love my “new” body. My wife says she loves how I look, but you know how it is, always hard to believe it. Good on you for finding some acceptance about your body. In a side note – tattoos rock!

  2. 0

    Summer meant being hot and sweaty and gross because I was too disgusted with myself to dress for the weather. At least during the winter, I had an excuse for covering up … it often feels like we’re not even allowed to love our bodies or see them as beautiful. We’re told that exposed skin is something that’s reserved for those who have bodies others want to see.

    This is a huge part of way I loathe summer and often get depressed during the hot months, which sounds so ridiculous. But this is so real and something I experience every day. Things are getting a tiny bit better, but I still can’t show skin, even in the company of close friends and family.

    When I started dating, it SHOCKED me (still does) that someone was willing to look at and touch my body.

    Is this dysphoria? I’ve never given it much thought because I just assume that what I see is what everyone else sees too?

    • 0

      Hey there, I think you mean dysmorphia rather than dysphoria (unless I misread your comment and you’re trans). Those words look alike, so lots of people get them mixed up 😉

      And it sounds like it. Dysmorphia is when you can’t see your body as it really is, i.e. as others see it. In other words, your sense of anguish comes from how you “morph” or alter how your body actually looks in your mind, from “totally fine and awesome” to “gross and appalling”. It’s tough getting back to “totally fine and awesome”, mentally-speaking. Hang in there.

        • 0

          Just thought I’d throw in that dysphoria is not inherently a trans-related term. In fact, it just means “dissatisfaction,” the literal opposite of “euphoria.” So yes, a cisgender person could say they are dysphoric their body. It it is logical and, from an etymological standpoint, totally not appropriative.

          “Gender dysphoria” is the complete phrase that refers to the physical and/or social dysphoria trans people often endure. In most casual parlance, this is shortened to the simpler “dysphoria”- which can create some confusion. But yeah, saying you have “body dysphoria” is not gender-referential in any denotational way, although it may conjure up certain connotations based on its contemporary usage.

          The only reason “dysmorphia” is often used instead is because it’s in the DSM, plain and simple: the term psychiatry collectively but ultimately arbitrary decided to use. That doesn’t mean it is the only word to express what you’re talking about (I actually think “dysphoria” makes more verbal sense). Or that it is somehow ‘off-limits’ when it comes to describing gender dysphoria, either.

          I suppose my point is: the linguistic division here is mostly artificial. Both are applicable to a wide variety of experiences and realities.

      • 0

        To clarify the etymology and definitions a bit further, “-morph” as a Greek root doesn’t actually mean “alter”, even though we use it that way in modern English; it means “form” or “body”. So the stand-alone term “dsymorphia” is an actual medical condition of having a body part that is abnormal in shape or size. “Body Dysmorphia Disorder”, then, is a psychological condition where one believes their body is abnormal in shape or size. The stand-alone term “dysphoria”, as D. explained, is defined as “a state of unease or dissatisfaction”, so a person might feel dysphoria due to their Body Dysmorphia Disorder. They are related, but not exactly interchangeable.

  3. 0

    So much of this resonates with me as well. The first noticeable shift for me was when I realized at a recent garden party that I wanted to be included in pictures others were taking. Whereas for most of my life I have loathed having my picture taken and often gone out of my way to avoid it. (Because ugly, ungainly, etc.) Having that fear/loathing vanish was a real, pleasant shock for me.

  4. 0

    I have been fat for most of my life (since elementary school). I’ve never felt comfortable with my body, except for three times. The first was my first sexual experience. I’m not super proud of this, but someone finding me attractive did help me find myself attractive. The second was when I went to a plus size clothing store for the first time. Clothes finally fit me (for the most part). The third was about a month ago. I wore a crop top. When I tried it on in my apartment, I got so nervous just having my roommate see my tummy. Then I wore it to a party, and I felt so confident and sexy. I’m definitely working towards total body love. I hope to find it.

    Thank you for your honesty and beautiful words. Every body is deserving. Even if we don’t believe it, it is true.

    • 0

      I read this article about how a fat woman found self love through fatty retail, and a lot of it reminded me that the “you have to love yourself first” narrative isn’t necessarily true/helpful! Like you, it took having someone else see me (not just because of or in spite of my fat) as worthy of love/desire/pleasure to see that I was. Obviously you don’t have to be proud of your first experience being comfy w/ your body, but I just wanted to say that it’s nothing to be ashamed of either if you don’t want to be <3 <3 <3

    • 0

      PLUS SIZE CLOTHING IS A REVELATION!!! also seeing plus sized clothes online on plus sized bodies (even if yes only one bod type is still repped) has been so great!! Also when I realized that women’s extra large tshirt was equal in size to a men’s small 🙁 that was a sad realization but made me realize that i didn’t have a “wrong” body for not being able to fit into straight sizes

  5. 0

    <3 <3 <3

    This was so good. Thanks for sharing something so real and so personal!

    I related a lot to the parts about the general journey-to-body-love. I used to hate my arms so much. SO MUCH. And my belly. And my flat butt. And it was further complicated by being Asian around a lot of white people and having the only model of hotness be skinny white women. And I guess sometimes skinny Asian women on TV. So yeah… It is hard work to love yourself, but it is so rewarding. And much less sweaty and sad.

  6. 0

    That’s a nice top! Would go great with black cut offs, and flip flops too! 😀 summer is coming! btw, you look great!! i love your attitude! 🙂

  7. 0

    There were years when I never wore shorts or skirts or went swimming because I have really dark, thick hair on my legs. I can now wear shorts with pride but somehow I’m still struggling with the idea of wearing a cute dress with visibly hairy legs. But this summer…

  8. 0

    I working on peeling layers and layers of body shame, first from my family (and extended family and aunts — the brown people are serious about their fat shaming), then from my ex, but always from myself.

    I think on somedays I dress more masculine because my internal sizism is mixed with my internal sexism and fat butch seems more intentional (solid? acceptable?) than fat femme. But playing with clothing over all and saying fuck it, I’m having fun no matter what it is I’m wearing, has really helped me break out of some of those negative thoughts.

    I remember the first time, as an adult, that I wore a tank top even in the comfort of my own apartment, around my roommates, and how years later, I still need to fight back the voice that tells me I’m not allowed to do that.

    “But, my body and skin are just as beautiful and just as worthy of being exposed as any thin cis woman.”

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

  9. 0

    Is it terrible that I read down to the picture, and was surprised to think “Oh, she is pretty”? I was expecting quasi-modo from your build up. This is terribly off topic, as I realize that my opinion of your body is irrelevant to you feelings. But youa re beautiful, I am sorry the world sucks so much sometimes that it makes you feel less than.

  10. 0

    YES! Thank you, Mari for putting to words what so many of us have felt. I too have never been a fan of the summer in the past based on my size (amongst other factors). However, this summer I have the task of being a full-time, over-night cabin leader for teen girls at a Leadership Training Program–and I have never felt more inspired to live and breathe this sense of body love that we are all trying to acquire. Realizing how many young girls actually live in absolute fear of being called “fat,” let alone being a person of size, it has become clear to me how incredibly important it is to take the time to just embrace and love my body for what it is and what it can do. Having this responsibility to model body love, for some reason, has been easier for me to take on than loving myself from within (this can fluctuate far too easily for me, unfortunately. have no fear, I am working on it).

    that being said–I am always so thankful to hear someone talk about their journey so candidly and openly. thank you so much for this piece 🙂

  11. 0

    I loved this article. Thank you for sharing your journey to self-love.
    Question for everyone: What is the best way to support someone who is struggling with these issues? My partner (who is incredibly beautiful in every way) despises summer because she also thinks that she is not allowed to show her body. It’ll be 100 degrees outside, and she’ll insist on covering her arms. It makes her absolutely miserable, and it makes me miserable to watch her suffer.

    • 0

      I’ve been with my partner for three and a half years now and it has taken about that long for her to believe that she is cute and sexy. Sometimes logic helps- like she is sexy because I like having sex with her, but a lot of it just took time. She started transitioning a bit before we met. I love her and I love her body because it’s a part of her. Good luck Tippibird to you and yours!

  12. 0

    You go, Mari!
    I am one of the only ladies I know who doesn’t hate my body. I have many incredibly beautiful friends and they all think they are ugly and fat, even the ones who are far prettier and far thinner than me. (I’m a petite US 2 so that’s saying quite a lot).

    Of course we all go through rough times with our bodies and we need to love and support each other to get through that. YOU are BEAUTIFUL. F*&$ the haters. They have arm fat too ;p
    Your tattoos look stunning on you btw 🙂

  13. 0

    Thank you for this fantastic article! I just wanted to comment and say that i know crop tops are so scary, but start small with a not-very-cropped-top and some high waisted shorts, and work your way up to whatever you want! I thought crop tops were a fucking joke (while I secretly longed for them) until I cut up some of my nonflattering band t shirts last summer, and I’ve never looked back.

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