My family members come in all shapes and sizes, but more than a few of us are plus size. Still, my body has always stood out from the rest. At 5-foot-11, I'm much taller than the bulk of my relatives. And although a generous butt, big thighs, and soft belly tend to run in the family, I seem to be the only one who inherited my grandmother's ample bust to boot.
I never found anything wrong with my body when all of these features started sprouting and spreading around 11-years-old. But for the bulk of my teenage years, my curves earned me more attention than I asked for — from playful teasing on the schoolyard, to various forms of street harassment from older men. But it didn't just stop there, family get-togethers at the holidays were also an opportunity for older relatives to scrutinize my body parts — which sometimes felt like an annual inspection.
I remember one Christmas gathering in particular when I was 12. Thanks to R&B songstress Aaliyah, the "street-but-sweet" look was in, which made it cool to rock oversized denim and heavy Timberland boots with tight t-shirts or crop tops. That year, I was excited to wear my version of the look: a pair of baggy jeans with a mauve, collared tunic that opened into a subtle "V" right at my navel. The shirt bared my belly button and nothing more — a daring move for me at the time.
Showing this tiny shred of skin made me feel trendy and grown up. It was an empowering feeling! But I remember all of those good feelings splintering in a second, however, when an uncle approached me with a disapproving stare. "Aren’t you a little chubby to be wearing that top?" he asked. The harsh way in which he made this comment felt like a slap in the face. Then all of a sudden, it didn't matter how good I looked or felt in my clothes anymore — I just wanted to hide.
I figured hiding my body behind layers of fabric would help hide it from people's cruel comments.
That uncle’s remark led me to chuck the once beloved tunic to the corner of my closet as soon as I got home, and I never wore it again. That night, at only 12-years-old, I learned there were people like my uncle out there who only saw big bodies as inherently bad, unsightly, and meant to be hidden. So I learned to dress not for style, but instead in a way that shielded me from people's critiques.
As a teen and young adult, I carefully curated a wardrobe to render myself invisible. I bought all my clothes a few sizes bigger than what I needed so that nothing clung to my shape. Bright colors were out of the question, shorts and dresses too. I'd double up (or sometimes triple up) on minimizer bras in a vain attempt to make my breasts look smaller as well. And showing skin of any kind was an absolute no go — I'd wear hoodies even in the blistering heat to make sure I kept myself hidden from anyone's gaze. It was to the point where I'd prefer to take an in-school suspension than wear my high school uniform kilt to class.
But it wasn't that I thought these tactics made me look smaller — they didn't. I just figured that hiding my body behind layers of fabric would help protect me from people's cruel comments.
Looking back, I now realize how much time I spent during my late childhood and adolescence so preoccupied with what others thought about how I looked and my body, and not enough time considering how I felt about myself. I didn't ever stop to realize that I never found anything wrong with myself until someone told me there was a problem. But once I reached my early 20s, I learned to stop hiding my figure, and instead started to embrace it.
Model Toccara Jones was major catalyst for this. I remember I was in my first year of university when she competed on America’s Next Top Model, and seeing her on the show was like an awakening for me. She was vibrant, confident, and absolutely stunning. She was comfortable in her own skin and wasn’t at odds with her body — a body that looked similar to mine! I thought she was gorgeous. But it made me wonder why I could see the beauty in her but not in myself.
From that point onwards, Jones inspired me to challenge the flawed beliefs I had inherited over the years. Before her, I’d never really considered creating my own beauty rules for myself, but rather, absorbed whatever I was told they were or weren't by others. She gave me the much-needed permission I needed to define my own standards. It was liberating, and eventually inspired me to change my wardrobe and wear what made me feel good for a change.
In my junior year of university, I wore an above-the-knee dress for the first time in my adult life! Then I started playing around with the bright colors I used to avoid. I even wore a form fitting, glittery sweater to Christmas dinner one year that broke all of my past self-imposed "rules." It boasted a keyhole at the chest, which was much more skin than my jerk of an uncle would have deemed appropriate. Thankfully, he wasn’t at that function — but I still felt vindicated nonetheless.
In hindsight, I realize that I personally never really had an issue with my body. I always found myself pretty cute, actually. But incidents like the one with my uncle at Christmas made me question why I liked the way I looked at all, as if I wasn't allowed to feel good about myself at my size. Thankfully, I no longer feel like I need anyone else's permission to embrace my own body. I now love and respect myself from head to toe. I'm grateful that I'm healthy and my body functions the way it needs to, and I enjoy dressing it however I please.
So whether I throw on a dress, jeans, sweats, or a burlap sack — I feel confident in whatever I wear now, because the only person whose approval I seek these days is my own.