How Body Shame Can Affect Clothing Choices

Clothing on hangers are packed tightly in a closet.While working in my office in the summer, on a hot day, I had cause to consider the clothing I was wearing. My office is on the second floor, and by mid-afternoon the sun had moved over to my side of the building. Even with the AC blasting, it gets swelteringly hot.

I wear sleeveless tops and skirts or capri pants, and sandals. This isn’t so for everyone. I know lots of people who do not like the heat. I find that people who come to see me for help with eating disorders have their own unique set of concerns, activated by the hot weather. I know that folks who have larger bodies, or are obese, often will feel hotter, simply because the adipose tissue provides insulation, in much the same way that very thin people or people with anorexia are more sensitive to the cold.

And I’ll digress here a moment, and say that when I make reference to people with larger-bodies, I strive to use language that isn’t charged with judgment. To refer to a person as fat is usually considered an epithet rather than a statement of fact. Webster’s Dictionary defines fat, when used as an adjective and applied to a person, as “having large amounts of excess flesh.” To people who experience eating disorders, it goes beyond that, to a sense of being unlovable, unacceptable, unwanted, and, ultimately, in danger of being utterly alone.

Which brings me back to hot weather and clothing: some of the large-bodied people I work with come to sessions in jeans in 95°F weather. This looks horribly uncomfortable. There was a time when I was  in the throes of a binge eating issue. My body was much larger than it is now. The inseams of my jeans would develop holes where my thighs rubbed together. The waistbands and snaps pressed painfully into the flesh of my belly. I hated cool weather because it meant I couldn’t wear light, loose clothing. So when I sit in my office across from some one whose body has large amounts of “flesh” and see them in jeans, I can’t imagine that they are comfortable. When appropriate, I ask why they are dressed so heavily in such heat.

People give varying answers. Some have to do with their dislike of shopping due to how disheartening it can be to find plus-sized clothing in stores. Others can’t stand dealing with the difficulty of finding appropriately-sized clothes. One such person I work with wears plus-sized petites, another wears a much smaller size on top than on the bottom. Clothes shopping makes them feel at odds with what is “normal.”

Shopping for clothing brings up shame some people spend lots of energy trying to ignore. Webster’s defines shame as, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior,” and, “a loss of respect or esteem; dishonor.” In this case, the “wrong or foolish behavior,” as decided by social norms, is the size and shape of their bodies.

This body-shame isn’t limited to people with a large body in our society. I often hear complaints about finding satisfactory clothing from people who have bulimia or anorexia. They reportedly try on several outfits before they can leave the house, because everything makes them “look fat.”

People with anorexia routinely say that they can’t stand the feel of clothing that lays against the skin of their hips and legs, so they buy pants that fit loosely and might wear a belt to hold them up. Conversely, I know people with bulimia who tell me that wearing baggy clothes makes them look as big as the clothing, so they only feel comfortable in clothing that is form-fitting.

Body-shame is commonly focused on specific regions of the body. I’ve had people tell me, “I don’t show my legs,” or “Nobody sees my arms.” One individual with life-threatening anorexia told me that no matter how much weight she loses, her thighs are too big. Another said that, although everyone tells her she is emaciated, she has “rolls” on her stomach and waist that are “disgusting.” When she and I discussed this further, I discovered that these were the skin folds that appeared when she sat down. Yet another, whose anorexia manifests most prominently in compulsive exercise, is quite muscular with a very low body fat percentage. She said she sits up very straight because she is so self-conscious about the size of her stomach.

Clothing and vanity are both normal parts of human life. But there’s a fine line between “normal” (there’s that word again) attentiveness to appearance, and serious obsession or shame. For a person who experiences shame, their body image is inseparable from his or her character and worth.

Consequently, clothing choices aren’t based on physical comfort but, rather, psychological comfort: the comfort that comes from knowing their legs or arms or stomach are covered, even if it means wearing jeans in 95°F weather. I’ve been encouraging the people who are larger-bodied to go shopping for light, pretty summer clothing. My hope for everyone I work with, is that they choose clothing in the spirit of physical comfort and body acceptance.

© Copyright 2010 by Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, CEDS, therapist in Durham, North Carolina. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • tanner

    tanner

    August 2nd, 2010 at 5:13 PM

    plus-sized people often have this inferiority complex when it comes to clothes and their bodies, just because they think they cannot match up to their ‘normal’ sized peers. I have a friend who is much bigger than me and he is always worrying that he might look embarrassing. but what I want him to know is that no matter what I am still his friend, that I still value him, not for his body or clothes, but for his nature and friendship.

  • Harriet R.

    Harriet R.

    August 2nd, 2010 at 5:45 PM

    Not using the word fat when you intend to use it the way it was meant to be used, as a statement of fact, is a joke. You really felt it necessary to say “the adipose tissue provides insulation” instead of body fat provides insulation? I can’t believe that.

    Why tiptoe around the word when it’s a statement of fact? Do fat people believe calling it adipose tissue changes the fact that they are fat because it sounds more medical? It’s getting that we can’t open our mouths for fear of offending even when the usage is proper and accurate.

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    August 2nd, 2010 at 6:54 PM

    Oops! I left out a word in the last sentence of the 7th paragraph. It should read, “Conversely, I’ve had *clients* with bulimia….” My apologies!
    -Deborah

  • Chantelle

    Chantelle

    August 2nd, 2010 at 7:51 PM

    Strangely I never even noticed the word was missing and read that as meaning clients, Deborah. :)

    I’ve been very overweight and can vouch for summertime being horrendous. I always said I liked my jeans too. The truth is I hated them and couldn’t wait to get out of them when I was in the privacy of my own home. The alternative of baring my legs in public was even worse than wearing the jeans. People that have never been heavy don’t understand what it feels like to be stared at. The more flesh you have on show, the more stares and nasty comments you overhear. I would rather sweat. Great article!

  • tudor a

    tudor a

    August 3rd, 2010 at 2:43 AM

    @chantelle:I would suggest you not to bother about what others think and concentrate only on what you want yourself.People are going to have something negative to say even if you are perfect!So its just not worth it to listen to what others say,just do what you like and do it without a regret! :)

  • logan

    logan

    August 3rd, 2010 at 4:28 AM

    There are many girls who hide their bodies no matter their size. For them and for even me sometimes the clothing feels like your protection, if you can’t see skin them maybe you won’t jusdge about how big i am underneath all of that material.

  • P Erica

    P Erica

    August 3rd, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    Is it not better to spend sometime everyday to work and tone your body and slim down rather than hiding yourself and always suffering from an inferiority complex?!

    I am surprised at how far people go to hide themselves yet do nothing to actually fix the problem!

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    August 3rd, 2010 at 5:44 PM

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments! All of your comments speak to what I was writing about: the complexities of body shame, of fear of judgment from others, of the challenges of using the word “fat” as a factual, non-judgmental term, of beliefs about what it takes to feel OK about our bodies.
    Tanner, keep on supporting your friend!
    Harriet, I explained why I worded things the way I did in the article.
    Charlotte and Logan, I encourage you not to let others’ looks or comments influence your clothing choices (if this is still an issue for you). At the end of the day, you don’t have to go home with people who judge and criticize like that– they have to live with themselves.
    Tudor a: ditto!
    P Erica: healing eating disorders and the accompanying body shame goes way beyond daily toning and the reality of one’s body shape and size. The problem that needs to be fixed has to do with the beliefs about what bodies mean, and the fear of judgment, not the size and shape of the body.

  • vivian

    vivian

    August 3rd, 2010 at 8:52 PM

    I have a friend who is very obese and suffers ridicule from complete strangers and kids. They share unkind remarks loudly as if she couldn’t hear them and stare. Even children accompanied by adults that should know better aren’t reprimanded for their rudeness. She’s had to tell me not to say anything to these unpleasant people more than once. Why can’t they just keep their opinions to themselves?

  • Jessica

    Jessica

    August 4th, 2010 at 3:52 AM

    This is to all those who are over-conscious about their body and are ashamed or are not comfortable of their body:
    If you don’t respect and like your own body,then you can never expect others to like it and not ridicule.So buckle up and be confident!

  • Jenna

    Jenna

    August 4th, 2010 at 4:34 AM

    @ P erica: way to be open minded about the issues that other people are going through. I am sure it is hard for you to be empathetic about the struggles that others could be facing but just know that for many of us, issues with food and body image really are a hurdle that we have to deal with every day, and we get scared and sometimes quite frankly the thought of doing anything more than covering up is hard to even conceive of.

  • Loretta

    Loretta

    August 4th, 2010 at 7:00 AM

    Well I’m big and I ain’t going to spend a summer in jeans for nobody! I wear baggy sleeveless t-shirts and loose lightweight shorts and if y’all don’t like it, you can look away. I’m not gonna get heatstroke because of ignorant idiots, no sir. I’ve as much right to be comfortable as Lil Miss Size 6. I refuse to be ashamed of my size!

  • Chloe

    Chloe

    August 4th, 2010 at 12:54 PM

    Good for you Loretta! You go girl. :) You’re absolutely right. Why should you be indeed?

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    August 4th, 2010 at 6:26 PM

    Vivian, I think that fatness is the last frontier in which bigotry is publicly acceptable. Racism and homophobia were once regarded as culturally acceptable, and while racism is now generally not tolerated, and homophobia is in some circles still condoned, even people who hold racist or homophobic views know better than to make racist or homophobic comments about others in public, or to allow their children to. But big bodies? They’re open season for bigoted remarks.
    Jessica, developing respect and liking for one’s body is a difficult but necessary process!
    Jenna, I agree that dealing with food and body image issues is hard and scary. What matters in doing the best one can and being gentle with one’s self.
    Loretta, I echo Chloe’s affirmation! You go, indeed!

  • May

    May

    August 5th, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    Very good article, Deborah. Thank you. My size is not who I am. The people who don’t choose to look past that and find out more about my personality are losing out, not me. I buy my clothes online. Online shopping is a boon if you don’t want to have to use a store’s changing room. I think that’s why some fuller figured women don’t buy summer clothes too. Search for “plus size clothing” and you’ll find them.

  • emily

    emily

    August 5th, 2010 at 3:38 PM

    Nice to see the challenges faced by larger women being discussed!I appreciate that-thanks Deborah. Many plus size ranges in high street stores are expensive. Overstock.com has an excellent range online of plus size clothes at bargain prices including designer stuff. The clothing is gorgeous. Amazon.com also carries plus size clothing too in their clothing section and it’s often at clearance rates. When you wear something you feel good in, it makes you more confident.

  • Paulette B.

    Paulette B.

    August 5th, 2010 at 6:54 PM

    I like to try clothing on in my own bedroom in front of my own mirror. In-store changing rooms can be tiny! There’s plenty I wouldn’t even be able to turn around inside and get a good look at the outfit. They don’t think about us bigger girls much. If we’re lucky they might have one larger changing room and that’s it out of a dozen. A significant number of the US population occupy the larger size ranges. It should be proportional. Good article.

  • jillian

    jillian

    August 6th, 2010 at 1:35 PM

    That breaks my heart to hear there are heavy set people who feel they can’t wear summer clothes. I would hate to have to wear anything but shorts in summertime. Please know that we are not all rude. I certainly wouldn’t be staring! That wouldn’t even cross my mind. I hardly notice my own wardrobe, never mind anyone else’s. :)

  • kate

    kate

    June 1st, 2012 at 6:26 PM

    i noticed no one is speaking for the smaller end of the spectrum. i can say that being smaller and wearing comfortable clothes in the summer i’ve been judged for looking not ;normal’ enough. ive been told to put clothes on to cover up and compared to coat hangers. being called ‘bony ass’ hurts but if you they like the bones they don’t have to look. usually i wear stuff that’s too big because petite clothing is not available in the town that i live in

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    June 4th, 2012 at 7:31 AM

    Kate,

    Yes, body shame isn’t limited to large-sized bodies. I’m not clear whether you are saying you like your bones but are hurt by the insensitive comments that people make, or whether you feel shame about your size that is reinforced by those comments.

    If you have a healthy and loving relationship with food and your body then I agree, people don’t have to look or if they do, they can keep their opinions to themselves. There is no justification for rude comments about anyone’s appearance.

  • This girl

    This girl

    April 26th, 2015 at 6:04 AM

    I’m anorexic and I can’t stand the feeling of wearing anything remotely tight and most types of fabric even if they are baggy. I freeze myself over winter because I just find it so hard to feel so much fabric and weight to be touching my skin. I can usually manage to wear tighter skirts, shorts and jeans but I can’t ever wear anything remotely tight on my upper body. I think I look good In tight clothes and I buy them hoping to wear them but it just makes me feel like my skin is crawling

    I hate it. I’m not an anorexic that thinks I look fat I’m happy to show off my body when I think I look thin but the feeling is so unbearable.

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