You Need Help: Will I Ever Feel Comfortable in My Own Skin?

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Q:

I recently gained a significant amount of weight due to medication. It has changed my body in (what I think are) drastic ways. In my old body, I was very comfortable dressing in a feminine manner, and while I felt especially good in pieces that made me feel ‘queer’ I didn’t feel a need to look beyond that. She/her pronouns felt right, dresses and jewelry made me feel good about myself, dressing in 3-piece suits made me feel like I was playing dress-up.

After the weight gain, I looked in the mirror and didn’t feel like myself, no matter what I wore. For the first time in my life, I decided to get a pixie cut. I bought some tie-dye clothing. As someone who works in a very conservative team in a large corporation and with somewhat conservative upbringing, the pandemic (and my good fortune of very few video meetings) was a luxury I hadn’t had before. I started feeling better in more butch/traditionally masculine things like sweater vests and collar chains and less makeup.

But I still feel uncomfortable in my own skin. A lot of it is the way the new weight sits on my frame, but also the feminine clothes that used to make me happy only seem to emphasize how much my appearance has changed.

Is this how gender dysphoria starts? How do I explore these new feelings, without giving in to the urge to cover up my new body in something unrecognizable? How do I explore different styles without feeling like I’m dressing up as a character in someone else’s story? What if I never feel comfortable in my own skin?

A:

Oh, friend, I feel this so deeply. Before we dive in, I’d like to say congratulations on your short haircut! That’s a big step!

Okay, so: Your body has changed. Of course your body has changed — time has passed! But when our bodies undergo significant changes that we did not choose, it can feel disconcerting, to say the least.

I know what it is for your body to feel like a stranger. At twelve, I felt absolutely betrayed when I grew boobs; later, when my body first became what I would one day proudly refer to as fat, I was upset. I just was. Growing up in our world, in the nineties and early 2000s, we were not told that fat was a neutral characteristic. It was an enemy to be vanquished, and I fought hard.

It wasn’t until awhile after I had come out as queer, and fostered some really strong friendships in communities like Autostraddle’s, that I started to learn about Body Neutrality, about the racist origins of fatphobia in the US, and about the ways that commercial diets are designed to fail us. Over time, I was mostly able to stop fighting, to sit down with and be in my body. I was dating the people I wanted to date, finally, and having really good sex for the first time in my life, and I started to sometimes see my body as a miraculous thing, capable of pleasure, capable of strength: a body as the thing that was helping me move through the world. But after all of those years of being taught that my body was the enemy, it’s no wonder that I could not, for the life of me, figure out what I wanted to clothe it in.

I think you’re asking two big questions. The first is: How do I learn to feel comfortable again in my own skin? And the second: How do I find the clothes that will aid in that process?

Your story begins with letting go of the way your body looked before.

You’re feeling discomfort when you see yourself in the mirror because you have an image of yourself in your head, but that person doesn’t exist anymore. The wild, amazing, exciting part of that is that now, in this moment, you can be (and dress like) whomever you want — if you’re able to forgive yourself, and your body, for changing. You exist here, and now, and deserve to find clothes that make you feel comfortable and empowered.

Your body does not exist primarily to be seen.

I know a lot of people who began to have more gender feelings during the pandemic, and I don’t think that’s an accident — for many of us, those early months were the first time in our lives that we weren’t being seen by other people every single day. You describe that freedom as a “luxury.” After all of that, considering how people might view us again can be really jarring! But just because you’re existing in public again does not mean that you have to make a decision about your gender or what you want to wear. Instead, if you can, think back and remember that feeling: the decadence of not viewing your body or your clothes through the lens of how others might see you. What would you want to put on your body if that was how you felt every day?

One of the tenets of Body Neutrality is that you’re not always going to like the way you look, or feel connected to your body, and that’s okay. Your body will still take you through your day. You’ll still use your brain to solve a problem at work, or eat something delicious that lights up all your taste buds. You don’t need to feel at peace with your body to jump into a cold lake, to talk with a friend, to make a big batch of gazpacho (I don’t know your life!). On days when you’re feeling really alienated by the way your body looks in clothes, putting on any old thing and refocusing on the sensations, activities and journeys you can have in your body might help.

Playfulness is important.

Discovering the clothes that will fit well and feel right to you now is going to be a learning process. Just like when we were kids, we learn a lot through play. I don’t think it’s bad that you sometimes feel “like a character in a story” when you put on an unfamiliar outfit, or express your gender in a way you didn’t in the past. On some level, clothes are costumes. On some level, gender is performance. The question is, who do you want to be today?

In my early twenties, I always dressed as a witch for Halloween. I didn’t have a long black dress — instead, I used the day as an excuse to wear all of the things that felt empowering at the time, things that I was too scared to wear in my day-to-day life. Ripped tights, lace up leather boots, fingerless mittens, layers of inside-out shirts, all the stuff that made me feel like a folk singer rock star. I always walked differently on Halloween. I felt like me, but more confident, more powerful, because on that one day of the year, I had given myself permission to exist in my clothes without apology. That’s the energy I want you to take into the dressing room with you. You do not owe anyone an explanation for your body or the clothes you put it in. Walking through a store, scrolling through a website, leafing through a catalog… what jumps out at you when other people don’t matter? What feels playful, what feels powerful? And when you find those clothes, I think you’ll only feel like you’re dressing in costume for so long. One day, you’ll put them on, and they’ll just be your clothes.

Feeling disconnection or dysphoria does not mean you are failing.

There are things about my body that I don’t like, and may not like until a time when I am able to get them changed, and that’s ok. I’ve never liked my chest, and I don’t know what the future looks like there. And even on days that I don’t mind anything about my body, finding clothes that fit well is hard. It’s hard for people who wear straight sizes and it’s even harder for people who don’t. It’s hard because clothes aren’t made for real, specific, human bodies. T-shirts aren’t made to measure. No seamstress is hovering over us with her measuring tape as we try to find jeans we don’t hate. For me, since I’m short with a nice big belly and a large chest, this is a particular problem when it comes to shopping in the men’s department. I’ll find a t-shirt I love, but the shoulders are too broad. I’ll find pants that would work if the waist was just a little more forgiving. Shopping in the “big and tall” sections is never going to fix that, since I’m neither big nor tall! I’m just a fat AFAB person with she/they pronouns who wants some Henleys. Where is that section of the store?

Self (and gender) expression is the work of a lifetime, not a moment.

Maybe in your future there are tailored suits. Maybe in your future there are dresses with a different cut than you wore before, ones that make you feel like a million bucks, instead of reminding you of the past. Maybe there are different pronouns in your future. Maybe you’ll feel masc sometimes and femme sometimes. Maybe you find a t-shirt in the back of your closet that never felt right before and it’s all you want to wear for the next three weeks. Whatever your desires turn out to be, I hope you can honor them.

You’re wondering if you’ll ever be able to move forward in partnership with your body, if your body will ever feel like home again, and I think it will! Even as my journey to find clothes that feel empowering and fit well continues, over time, my body has begun to feel more like home than it ever did before.

Unlearning the idea of our bodies as a constant — the idea of change as the enemy, and the idea of weight-gain as something that must be fought at all costs — doesn’t happen in a moment. It doesn’t happen after finding one dietician that you like on Instagram, or one perfect button-up at Old Navy. It takes a lifetime, and it’s a process I’m always somewhere in the middle of — you may find that becomes true for you, too.

Practical tips and resources for learning to feel comfortable in your own skin:

I would love for readers to jump in with their own tips and tricks for finding clothes that fit well and feel good! In the meantime, here are a few of mine:

Fill your feed with all sorts of bodies.

When it comes to unlearning old biases and starting to learn what might feel good to wear, the internet can actually be your friend, if you curate it right! Instagram hashtags like #BodyNeutrality can have a lot of helpful content. An old favorite for masc inspiration is the Handsome Revolution Project. And specific clothing retailers can be inspiring too — lately I’ve been feeling very good about the Duluth Trading Company catalog, which is filled with powerful-looking people of various sizes gardening and fixing cars in workwear and overalls. It’s GOOD STUFF.

Go to a large department store where you will be left alone and try on everything.

I systematically worked my way through the various men’s sections of Kohl’s in 2017 and discovered that the clothes made for “young men” and the men’s clothes considered “slim fit” in sizes XL and XXL often work for me, because their shoulders aren’t as broad.

Used sparingly, fabric tape is your friend.

If you do end up finding shirts that you love in the men’s section but want to keep the sleeves rolled for fit and ultimate queerness, I love putting a few dots of fabric tape into the sleeves to keep them rolled throughout the day. You can also do a quick and dirty pants hem this way!

For clothes where fit is important, work with a tailor, or use a website that takes your measurements.

I don’t think I truly knew what a good fit WAS before the time I had a bridesmaid dress altered by a nice lady with a measuring tape at David’s Bridal. That thing fit like a glove, and I realized in that moment just how important a tailor or seamstress can be! For dresses and femme clothes, I’ve had good luck with Eshakti.com, which makes each dress custom to your size. Meanwhile, I’m still in search of a well-fitting suit that won’t cost about a million dollars. But with button-ups, suits, and really any garments that don’t stretch, working the services of a tailor into your clothes budget will be entirely worth it.

Best of luck to you on your journey. I hope you’ll keep us posted on what you find! 💙


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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Darcy

Darcy, a.k.a. Queer Girl, is your number one fan. She's a fat feminist from California who doodles hearts in the corners of her Gay Agenda. They're living through a pandemic, they're on Twitter, and they think you should drink more water! She also wants to make you laugh.

Darcy has written 332 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. I could really relate to this question, thank you for asking it, and thanks fo r the answer. I had trouble understanding whether I wore menswear because of gender dysphoria or because I was fat; now, I guess it doesn’t have to be one or the other. “Go to a large department store where you will be left alone and try on everything” is apt advice.

  2. Okay, I just wrote a bunch of quotes from this in my journal but the one that really hit me in heart is “…I had given myself permission to exist in my clothes without apology.” Like, if that could be true for me, I don’t even know what my life could/would be like.

    • It’s the BEST. I don’t feel it all the time but the first time I realized I was programmed to dress for the male gaze (and therefore be uncomfortable no matter what I was wearing) was when I found out I was queer. I started wearing tanks with board shorts to class and simply didn’t care what anyone else thought; I was no longer dressing to please. I felt light and free!

  3. thank you for this wonderful advice! LW, i empathize so deeply with you and one thing that has really helped me is to treat my body as though it’s a friend. not in a dissociative way (well, ideally not) but in a ‘if a friend who looked like me wore this, what would i say?’ because of course i’m going to hype my friends up! we are the people who are the most familiar with our bodies and every perceived flaw is magnified a millionfold by not being able to take a break. you don’t have to become instabffs with yourself, but starting a cordial acquaintanceship is a good start

    also darcy if you ever find that well-fitting suit that doesn’t break the bank pls send up the butch-signal

  4. One thing that’s helped me a LOT in learning to feel at home in my body is the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement. I’d highly recommend Christy Harrison’s book, “Anti-Diet”. It talks about the history of the diet industry/modern western beauty standards, how we are taught to dislike and distrust our bodies (especially when they change), and how to fight back to feel good about ourselves in the skin we’re in. It’s very queer/trans inclusive too, and talks about the ways marginalized identities and gender dysphoria can contribute to feeling weird about your body size! The book is full of interesting history & science factoids, but it also reads like a love letter to anyone who has ever felt bad or weird about their body and is trying to learn how to feel good & to redefine what “good” and “healthy” means for themselves. I recommend it so highly!!!

  5. +1 to trying on everything to find the style/line that fits you best. Thrift stores and bargain stores like Ross are my go-to as my presentation has changed over the years. It’s much easier to justify buying the kids button-down with shoulders that fit but too short sleeves if it’s cheap. Plus you’ll get a lot of different fits and styles and can learn what works for your body right now.

  6. this is late but one thing i really really have enjoyed in bringing more body neutrality to my changing body is following fat sewists on instagram. i don’t sew my own clothes and probably never will but seeing people make the exact clothes they want in the fit they want really highlights how much it’s the clothing/companies that are the problem, NOT the bodies. some of my faves are @munaandbroad and their founders, and you can just scroll through tags of their makes to find people whose styles resonate with you! rooting for everyone in our journeys towards loving our lives and letting our bodies carry us through those lives

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