In my life, the department store has been the great emasculator.
I don’t consider myself an anxious person. I tend to be level-headed and independent, driven and focused to a fault, but something happens when I step into an H&M. My blood pressure begins to rise, my sweat glands open like flowers in the sun, and it’s all I can do to not collapse in on myself like a dying star. It’s not because of the tailored chaos of the store, the far-too-compactly arranged racks pawing at you like the apple trees in Oz, the color-coded aesthetics which trick you into thinking a $14.90 neon pink shirt is a practical purchase, or the thumping music that drowns out the warnings from your voice of inner financial restraint, it’s because shopping for clothes is one of my least favorite activities in the world.
Shopping for clothes is a necessary part of our lives, something everyone has to do many times over, but I’ve always found it to be the living worst. I walk in with the best of intentions, my outlook on life both sunny and optimistic, but all it takes is one jacket to screw my outlook sideways.
You’re familiar with that jacket. It’s the one that calls out to you saying, I’m a sexy black leather jacket and you know you want me on your body. You approach slowly, reaching for the soft leather of the sleeve and imagining how amazing you’ll look and feel wearing it. This is it, you say to yourself, I’ve found the jacket of my dreams and today, it will be mine.
I’ve met this jacket on more than one occasion and when I do, I feel like Harry Potter when his wand chooses him. A light from heaven shines on me, there’s a wind of excitement and I can visualize myself leveling up when I put it on. So I begin flipping through the far end of the rack, mentally and spiritually ready to parade the jacket (which by that point represents goodness, wholeness and the meaning of life) to the register.
Small, small, small. Medium, medium. Large, large, medium. Extra small.
That’s when I discover my size isn’t available or worse, it is but I’ve sized out of what that store deems normal, forcing me to back away slowly in defeat. As I do, the jackets turn on me, shouting back, Too bad fatty! The voices of the sexy jackets are mean and spiteful (and completely in my head) but nevertheless, I sulk away to the accessories and shoes, broken and despondent while seeking relief in the departments that know no waistline restriction.
I don’t want this for myself but more often than not, I feel trapped in the claustrophobic cage of shopping-induced emotions. Whenever I have to shop for everyday items like jeans or khakis for work, I tell myself this time won’t be like the others. “Maybe this time I’ll win,” I sing to myself in earnest as I boldly walk into the men’s department, telling myself I’m fabulous regardless of my pant size. That’s what we’re supposed to tell ourselves now right? I try to cut myself some slack being that I’m a work in progress and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about my appearance. I mean, I pep-talk myself into a frenzy but inevitably, I somehow wind up cowering among the hats and scarves and socks embroidered with pineapples and dinosaurs.
The other day, two of my girlfriends needed to go shopping for dresses to wear to a wedding. Usually, I prefer to shop alone in the privacy of my cone of shame but since I wanted to spend the day with them, I tagged along. Aware of my proclivity to self-destruct in these situations, I made a deal with myself to stay close to them, refusing to allow myself to venture into the personal minefield that is the men’s section. That day would be about dresses and halter tops and high heels and cheap jewelry and as long as that was true, I’d be clear of anything that could make my insides feel like a cartoon character who swallows a stick of TNT.
But wouldn’t you know it, they found the perfect dresses at store number one, a miracle signifying God was real and had clocked in for the day. That meant the rest of the afternoon shifted into a leisurely day of shopping wherever there was a sale sign. Within minutes, I found myself perusing the men’s sections and as if some sort of sick autopilot had taken over, I was looking longingly at clothes I loved but was too large to fit into.
Well, like clockwork, I spiraled into an anxiety-laden frenzy. I was trying to keep a smile on my face but inside, I felt like a trapped animal, feral and hissing at anything that moved. Other men strolled through the aisles appearing stress-free and breezy, picking out shirts and shorts and pants and underwear with all the grace of a ballet dancer. Meanwhile, I was the steaming pile of goo in the corner, subhuman and gelatinous, a mere fragment of the men around me.
The department store: The great emasculator.
I became aware of the fact I was not skinny during a trip to Tennessee. I was in elementary school and our friends there had a pool in their backyard so my siblings and I were content with swimming through our entire visit. Of every aspect of my All-American childhood that I look back on with glistening fondness, we never had a pool in our backyard. That made anyone else who did have a pool instantly cooler than us. It was Texas, it was always hot, and our standards weren’t very high.
I’d gotten out of the water and was lounging in a chair next to the pool, enjoying my lazy hazy crazy day of summer. It, to me, was a perfect day. Lots of photos were taken of us during that trip and once they were developed, we clamored to see them and relive our adventure in the far away land of Tennessee. Within the stack was a photo of a person who might be confused with a pug puppy, still wet from the pool with rolls of flab hanging off of him like candle drips. I stared at the photo and realized the lumpy, roly-poly person was me.
It was the first moment I knew I wasn’t thin like the other kids at the pool. Was I enormous? Not even remotely, but there were little boy folds of fat on my stomach the other kids at school did not have. As defeating as it is to admit, life has been a blur of body issues ever since, a long series of comparisons to other people—both men and women—and subsequently feeling less-than. While that self-destructive outlook hasn’t parlayed into every aspect of my life, it’s been the thorn in my bear paw I haven’t been able to fully pluck out. I know I’m worthy and funny and loved and supported and at least smart or consistent enough to have two college degrees, but when it comes to buying clothes, my world turns to quicksand and I’m sinking fast.
So I plot. I wait and I plot.
When I’m thin, I’ll come back and get all the jackets.
When I’m thin, I’ll find the sluttiest tank top in the store and wear it in public.
When I’m thin, I’ll be the world’s most breezy shopper.
Those thoughts were meant to spur me to work harder at the gym and to put down the nachos, but they didn’t. I was stuck in a dark cycle.
I have felt like a temporary conqueror before when I spent months refusing carbohydrates and going to the gym to do cardio every day. I felt so poorly about myself that when my stomach roared with hunger and I refused to shut it up by feeding it, I felt like I was winning and the fatness was losing. That’s not good mentally nor healthy physically. Still, I did shrink and when I walked into an Old Navy dressing room and pulled on a size 34 pair of shorts, I burst into tears like a pageant queen. I vowed to never let myself gain the weight back and to walk in the victory of my awesome size 34 Old Navy camo shorts.
Yet, those shorts became a problem in that they provided me such a high, I lost track of what I was doing. I allowed it to settle inside me that I’d reached my goal; I was on top of the world and didn’t need to pay attention to myself anymore. I’d won but in doing so, I forgot the work had only just started. Not only would I have to keep working to maintain where I was, but I still had a ways to go before I could sport that slutty tank top in the New York summer.
You see, summers in New York and slutty clothes go together in a way for which I was not remotely prepared. I knew the gals on Sex and the City wore their barely-there ensembles with confidence but actually being in New York during the summer, you’re never more aware that the driving force in this city isn’t the subway system, Broadway, the fashion industry or even Wall Street. The driving force in New York City is its gym memberships. Toned arms, abs you can play like a xylophone and chests that belong on statues at the Met are what summers in New York consist of and it’s all on display anywhere and everywhere.
As such, when the beautiful denizens of the city shed their winter coats and the streets become a sea of skin and skirts and chest hair and man nipples, I’ve recoiled like a bear who woke up too early and just wants to go back into a Netflix-filled hibernation. Between the toned chests protruding from under tank tops, the grapefruit calves which rest on the top edges of socks, and the Popeye biceps which sit nicely under the capped sleeve of a fitted tee, it’s a sexy fitness warzone out there.
A few weeks ago, Spring decided to show up. It was 70 degrees outside, the sun was shining, and all of New York came out to greet their old friend, Spring. I was meeting people for dinner and basked in the way the city bloomed to life so abruptly. Buskers played music outside, sidewalk seating appeared at every restaurant, and half of New York descended on every spare inch of green grass in the park. This is a perfect day, I thought to myself. Seconds later, a man, shirtless and toned, rollerbladed past me and without saying a single word, his presence screamed “Summer’s coming fatso! Time to get moving!” His presence also told me roller-blading is apparently still a thing, but hey, he’s thin and toned and had a shirtless day in the city being ogled by New Yorkers. All I had was fat. He wins.
It only took about ten seconds before I began to reckon with the fact it was me who gave voice to his presence, not him, and that voice is actually the rumblings of the shame gremlin who took up residence in my mind the day I saw that photo of myself at the pool. Realizing this was perhaps even more shameful than the nonexistent voice of the innocent roller-blading man.
Today, I’m a month into deliberately eating right and working out on a consistent basis. A month into my body feeling better than it did this time last year. A month into having to do an embarrassingly large quantity of laundry because I’m sweating through all my clothes. I also bought a scale yesterday, the first scale I’ve ever owned, and though stepping on it this morning was an almost debilitating experience and I thought I may just poof into oblivion out of sheer terror, I’m 7 pounds down from where I started. That’s not a lot, but it’s enough to keep going.
There’s a chance some readers didn’t get this far in the essay. It doesn’t read as body positive, it doesn’t read as owning what you’ve got no matter what size you are. It goes against the inclusive narrative on social media and reads as inner fat-shaming in a problematic and destructive cycle. But it’s honest. This is where I’ve been but it’s not where I’m going.
I decided a month ago to dedicate the next year of my life to this specific part of myself because it’s the faction of my existence in which I’ve never been fully in control. I’ve got two degrees, moved to my dream city, started an online magazine which ran for eight years and amassed over a million readers, self-published two books of essays, I have a good job, people I can count on, and a great beard. But this, my body and perception of it, I’ve never mastered. So a month ago I started walking that road with intention. No goal weight, no visions of becoming an Abercrombie model circa 1998. Only a stronger, more confident, shame gremlin-less me who refuses to allow a department store to make him feel emasculated. I’m doing it for me. And maybe for that slutty tank top.
There will be more to come…