I learned about sample sizes when I watched The Devil Wears Prada for the first time. Andy (Anne Hathaway) starts working at a fashion magazine and, at a size 6, she can’t fit into the racks of sample clothes in the capacious closet. They are made for sizes 2 and 4. By the end of the movie, with a little creative dieting, she’s a size 4.
I watched that movie years ago. At the time, I was a size 2, on the lower end of Andy’s sample sizes. Although I looked nothing like Anne Hathaway, or any other movie star or model, I remember feeling a tingle of pride that my size was affirmed as special and right, quickly followed by a few lingering questions: If I’m a sample size, why is my tummy poofy? Why don’t I love my thighs? What about my hips?
We all know the images of women we see in the media are idealized. We know they aren’t real or at least aren’t typical. Still, now, even at a size 4, I am tempted to think that if I was just a size or two smaller, or a little bit more toned, I’d feel good about my body. If I were a little less curvy, or just a little less, maybe then I’d be comfortable in my skin, confident about the image I present to the world.
When I was in college, I occasionally joined in the conversation the women in my dorm were having about our bodies. Whenever I expressed discontent with mine, I was invariably met with: “But you’re so tiny.” After that, I would be quiet. I knew a small number didn’t prevent cellulite, or the effects of gravity. I knew each woman is often her own worst critic, no matter her size.
During senior year, I dated a guy for a short time as spring spread throughout the midwest. We were both busy trying to get ready for graduation and dating often looked like short walks in the midst of studying together, or coffee sipped while writing papers in the student union. We frequently ate together, hunched over our respective books.
One night, my boyfriend took me down by our campus lake to talk. He told me he was concerned about me because I had a belly. He encouraged me to go to the gym, to watch what I was eating, to take care of myself. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
But I started going to the gym regularly. I stopped ordering the chicken fingers I so loved to dip in my special mustard/ketchup mixture for lunch. I stopped eating in front of my boyfriend at all, self-conscious. Whenever he was around, I checked my posture and sucked in my stomach. I googled “how to get a six-pack” and started doing planks.
His words stuck with me long after we broke up. I sighed deeply in the morning when I looked at my stomach, wishing that it was flatter. Every once in a while I’d catch sight of the reflection of my body and feel a rush of disappointment, the spring in my step disappearing.
A year or two ago, my body started to change. All at once, I was no longer a size 2. When I talked with other women about what I was experiencing, they often told me their own stories. Many told me about learning to respect their bodies (and giving themselves grace) after going through childbirth, or nursing their children. Some of them told me that I was tiny, that they couldn’t tell the difference. But I could tell, and my changes were not a result of anything so noble as stretching to house and bear a child. My metabolism was simply slowing, my body settling into the next phase of being, this one just as healthy as the growth spurts of my youth (and perhaps as painful).
My adult self hated going through her clothes to find treasured pieces she could no longer zip up all the way. I slid into one dress, only to find it wouldn’t fit around my rib cage. I filled bags and bags with clothes to donate, my heart heavy. I bought shapewear and smooshed myself into it. I hated being a 4.
I’m not exactly sure what changed. Sometimes the work of God is almost silent in our lives. But slowly, I began to fall in love with my own specific body. I still see what doesn’t conform to society’s idealized vision of female beauty (or my own). But when I do, I’m learning to look at my body with love and joy, even with pride. I’m learning to express thankfulness for strong thighs that hold up my torso, for feet that help me get where I want to go, for a stomach that allows me to eat and be satisfied. I’m breathing in the truth that God made me, and that God called me good as He breathed life into me. I’m believing that God made each part of my body on purpose and fitted them together, just as He did for each one of us. I experience the world differently because of the body I’m in. It’s such a big part of my life, I can’t imagine that God didn’t put a great deal of thought into it. Without my specific body with which to experience the world, I would be a completely different person.
Last year I went shopping for a bikini. I wanted to tell myself that my tummy was okay, without a doubt. I ate lunch, so that I would look realistic, and braved the bright lights of the fitting room. When I was little, I had a bikini with brightly colored hibiscus flowers all over it. I couldn’t have loved a swimsuit more. I loved the way it felt in the water, the little ruffles at the back following after me like a train. I was thinking about that little girl as I picked out a bikini with turquoise details, designed to stay in place while swimming and surfing. I put it on and took in my own image. I was many years away from that little girl in the flowered suit, but she was the one who smiled back at me in the mirror.