Warning: This article contains information about eating disorders and disordered eating, which some may find triggering.
Somewhere in a deep, dark corner of my closet is a pair of pajama shorts with polar bears printed on them. Buried under "special occasion clothes" and out of season apparel are these shorts — an item of clothing that has never really fit me. It's possible they almost fit at one point, but the reason they stuck around isn't because I ever wanted to wear them. It's because I was counting on those shorts to be my benchmark. One day, I told myself, I would try on these shorts and they would fit. In the problematic minefield that is before-and-after photo culture, these shorts were a reminder that I was only the before. They were the physical representation of a hope that I would someday be an after. And more than anything else, they were a huge problem.
This problem, often referred to as "goal weight clothes," affects countless people convinced that these pieces of clothing will help motivate them to successfully shrink themselves. If you find yourself in the endless spaces of the internet dedicated to weight loss and dieting, you'll quickly come across talk of said goal weight clothes. Sometimes this is in Reddit threads discussing whether or not the concept is truly motivating, or how-to articles describing exactly how to choose the smaller "dream outfit" you should work towards.
Even more often than appearing on the internet, though, the concept is a stealthily socially acceptable part of everyday culture. It's when you try on a dress that's slightly too small only to have a friend or family member say, "Oh, you can squeeze into that in a month, no problem!" It's when you tell yourself the same thing, and buy something that doesn't fit on the basis that maybe, hopefully it will eventually. I've done the same thing countless times, and have only recently started to realize that the clothes that fit me now are the only ones that make me truly happy.
As I've gotten older, learned about body positivity, and started to slowly dismantle my long-held perspective that taking up less space was always the answer, I can now recognize that seeing myself as a constant "before" is inherently dangerous. It implies that I'm not complete, not whole as is. To some extent, I'm sure I could always rationally recognize the problems in this mindset. But even then (and still, now), the idea of throwing out those polar bear shorts seemed like a failure. Like I was resigning to be the "before" forever, instead of accepting that I was always OK as is.
While the polar bear shorts were my idea of "goal clothes," for others it's a dress, a bikini, or lingerie. For Mackenzie Newcomb, who runs the fashion blog Mack In Style, it's designer jeans. Newcomb tells Bustle that her habit of holding onto dozen of pairs of denim that no longer fits is one that began around the same time as her former eating disorder, and is one that has still stuck with her, even after recovery.
I just feel like giving up these jeans would mean giving up on being a size 6 again.
"I had an eating disorder my senior year of high school [and] freshman year of college," Newcomb says. "I was working retail at the time, so I bought quite a few pairs of $200-plus jeans with my discount. Even after I started eating more normally, I held onto these jeans. I figured if I worked out they would fit again, and I didn't want to 'waste' money."
Newcomb tells me that these feelings of disappointment associated with the non-fitting jeans don't have anything to do with disliking how she looks. But even that doesn't mean the pants are easy to let go of, something she still hasn't been able to do.
"I really like myself and I don't hate the way I look," Newcomb says. "I just feel like giving up these jeans would mean giving up on being a size 6 again."
Like Newcomb, fat acceptance activist and influencer Clare Sheehan, who runs the popular Instagram account Becoming Body Positive, has also dealt with an eating disorder. Openly and honestly discussing her recovery and body politics is how Sheehan has created such a dedicated following and community on Instagram, with her 40,000-plus followers tuning in for memes, tweets, and Instagram stories discussing all of the above. But for Sheehan, someone whose weight has fluctuated "significantly and frequently" for the last 20 years, her relationship with clothes is something a little more complicated.
"My closet (which has housed clothes ranging from size two to size 22) narrates a fabric-woven history of all the ways my body has been seen and received by the world," Sheehan tells Bustle.
Sheehan says she spent her childhood and teenage years living in a fat body, which for many years limited her ability to find clothes that fit — let alone clothes she liked.
Being able to buy “thin person” clothes was cultural validation that my body was finally good enough — wearable proof that I was succeeding at embodying the thin ideal of female desirability.
Sheehan says she became convinced that her weight was all that stood between her and the life of her dreams, eventually developing an eating disorder and losing a significant amount of weight.
"Being able to buy 'thin person' clothes was cultural validation that my body was finally good enough — wearable proof that I was succeeding at embodying the thin ideal of female desirability," Sheehan says, telling Bustle that tag size on clothing became a key part of her understanding of how much more the world valued her compared to when she was fat. And, therein, how much she valued herself.
When Sheehan began her journey of recovery, she quickly found that holding onto clothing that no longer fit her became something that felt like "psychological warfare."
"Keeping the clothes around, my disordered brain told me, meant that I hadn’t yet admitted defeat — that even though recovery had expelled me from the garden of thin privilege, saving the remnants of 'what was' might inspire enough nostalgia for me to someday re-commit to restriction and make a grand return," Sheehan says.
Even for me, as someone who hasn't experienced an eating disorder, Sheehan's words ring familiar. I can recall dozens of closet clean-out sessions that ended in a stand-off with a particular, too-small item of clothing. I picture afternoons spent staring at a set of dresses or tops laid on my bed, mentally battling what it meant if I got rid of them. In the end, one thing would always come back to the front of my mind: This is giving up on being better than I am now. This is failure.
It's really intense to think about how much people are looking into the past or that future body. We don't live in the present moment. And we lose so much because we are past- or future-focused," Sobczak says.
The idea that a smaller size is always more desirable, always prettier, and always healthier is inherently false, and yet present in every aspect of society. It is one that is impossible to ignore, and has personally taken years of hard, painful unlearning. But, as experts tell Bustle, all of the above is not only extremely common. And not only that, but the (often confusing) feelings associated with letting the clothes go are totally natural.
Connie Sobczak is the author of embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!) and co-founder of The Body Positive, a training institute that provides people with teaching tools and curriculum that helps create body positive environments. Sobczak, who herself dealt with an eating disorder and body image issues in her early 20s, tells Bustle that women's tendencies to hyperfocus on their past or future bodies and completely ignore their present bodies is extremely common.
"It's really intense to think about how much people are looking into the past or that future body. We don't live in the present moment. And we lose so much because we are past- or future-focused," Sobczak says.
Sobczak also explains that feelings of grief when throwing out clothing that no longer fits are natural — and something she has experienced herself.
"I remember when I had my eating disorder and being so proud that I could wear clothes that I had worn when I was younger," Sobczak says. "And then when I got over my eating disorder and started putting on weight...I remember really loving letting go of my old clothes — and grieving still at the same time."
Jamie Marnwaring, pHD, is the primary therapist at Eating Recovery Center in Denver, and tells Bustle that the effect this type of clothing can have on people with a history of eating disorders — as well as those who don't have eating disorders, notably — is significant.
The longer they [the clothes that didn't fit] stayed in my closet — mocking me, though my eating disorder would say they were inspiring me — the longer my recovery stayed in flux and at bay.
"For an individual with a history of disordered eating or an eating disorder, unrealistic goals can serve as a catalyst towards unhealthy restrictive or exercise behavior, and can serve to glamorize this disorder," Marnwaring says. "If the unrealistic goal is visual such as old 'skinny' clothes, it is even more powerful and shame-inducing."
As for people like me who aren't necessarily struggling with an eating disorder, but still can't seem to throw out the clothes, Marnwaring's thoughts are much the same.
"Subscribing health to a certain size or weight is never healthy. Even for someone who...doesn’t have disordered eating, keeping 'skinny clothes' can lead to negative emotions and engaging in healthy behaviors for the wrong reasons," Marnwaring says.
Sheehan echoes this when speaking of her own experience.
"Keeping clothes that don’t fit has an extremely distressing effect. It’s tortuous sifting through racks of clothes you can no longer wear day-after-day — getting dressed quickly becomes a toxic exercise that feeds self-loathing and shame," Sheehan says. "The longer they [the clothes that didn't fit] stayed in my closet — mocking me, though my eating disorder would say they were inspiring me — the longer my recovery stayed in flux and at bay."
Sheehan says she can "happily report" that she now only owns clothes that fit her current body, but says it's crucial for people to know that this process of getting rid of clothes is not easy. And she's right. But Sheehan is also an important example that with work, it is possible.
So how do you do it? When most of society is telling you that smaller is better, how do you finally throw out all the clothes? When it comes to expert advice, Sobczak and Marnwaring both say that the key here is consistently asking yourself how these pieces of clothing make you feel every day.
Sobczak tells me her work is all about "waking people up," and making them ask themselves, "'How's that working for you? 'Are you happy, is it fun?' And then helping them see that they don't have to do that, or feel that way." Sobczak's work is based in letting people know that it's possible to see your current body for what it is and feel content, present.
While Marnwaring notes that the best thing you can do is get rid of the clothes ASAP, she also suggests some tips if you can't get there quite yet. "If you find yourself struggling with throwing out 'skinny clothes,' ask yourself how they make you feel on a daily basis. Note the values you subscribe to (e.g., good spouse, reliable coworker), and see whether being a certain size or shape leads you towards these values."
One thing both experts and Sheehan agree on, though, is the same idea that I could never grasp growing up, and why those polar bear shorts still still sit in the back of my closet with so many other pieces of clothing. It's the concept that your present body and your present size is is enough. There is no before and after. There's simply right now. And what you are right now is OK.
And, as Sheehan explains, holding onto those clothes often robs us of that realization. It stops us from being OK with that right now — or experiencing it at all.
"Living a full life in the body you have now is possible," Sheehan explains. "But keeping clothes that make us feel inadequate, ashamed, or disempowered prevents us from leaving the house to go live it."
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, help is available at the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.