A Month of Clothing Philosophy: History, Honesty, and Body Acceptance

Today for Me Made May I’m wearing a highly modified April Rhodes Staple Dress, though it’s mostly buried under an eShakti cardigan. Sorry, I was chilly today!

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Five
History, Honesty, and Body Acceptance

At my thinnest I weighed about 125 pounds and measured 35-25-37. I remember this clearly both because I sewed and because I was — to my eternal, only half-joking sorrow — never a perfect 36-24-36 Brick House. I was never quite mighty, mighty, and I was never allowed to forget it. “Just lose 20 more pounds,” they said.

No matter how small I got, that’s what they said.

I had been, as I explained previously, a chubby kid. Not enormous, of course, but big enough that I was sometimes the butt of jokes — and big enough that my aunts often lamented that I “had such a pretty face.” I started studying acting seriously when I was 15 years old, and I was accepted into a prestigious regional program for young actors. One day one of the instructors pulled me out of class to tell me that I was both too fat and ugly to make it in show business, so I should go ahead and give up now. She said this to my face. She pulled me out of class to say this to my face. I’ve never really understood her motivations, but I can tell you that it wasn’t an act of kindness.

I was 15 years old, and maybe a size 10.

I went to college on a drama scholarship, though. Talent was never my issue; it was always my appearance. I realized, of course, that I would never make it as a performer if I didn’t somehow get thin. So I started to do just that.

I had been dieting since I was 14, but this wasn’t dieting. My relationship to food got more and more disordered, but I seriously didn’t care because for the first time in my life I was getting small — really small, socially acceptably small, almost real actor small. I started getting leading roles instead of supporting roles. I was finally doing it.

What I was not doing was eating.

My main trick was to eat when people were paying attention, so it seemed like I ate fairly normally. But most days I was eating one very small meal a day, often consisting of celery and a quarter of a sandwich. Some days I didn’t eat at all. I also exercised a lot, but I had to cut back on that because it exacerbated my tendency to faint. But I was getting thin, and that was the only thing that mattered.

During a period of unusually high stress I stopped eating altogether. It had been about 5 days since I’d eaten anything and I couldn’t get out of bed. My Mom had figured out what was going on by then, and she gave me an ultimatum: either I ate something immediately or I was going to the hospital.

My fear of doctors won. I ate a cup of yogurt and spent the next three years being watched like a hawk by my family. But as I ate that sugar-free low fat yogurt — it was Key Lime Pie flavored — I knew that I had failed. I was never going to stay thin. I was never really going to be an actor.

I wish I could say that I had been wrong.

I never actually got thin enough to meet the BMI qualification for an anorexia diagnosis, but my behavior was definitely anorectic. An EDNOS diagnosis was tossed around by an early therapist — that’s Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified — but I never received treatment for it. I barely got treatment for my depression.

The pounds came back, of course, and brought some friends with them. Roles dwindled as my dress size got larger. I eventually gave up.

I never stopped dieting, though. I lost the same 50 pounds at least 4 times, but I could never keep the weight off for more than a few years. No matter what I did, it always came back. The last time I tried to lose weight I started to regain when I was eating 1500 calories a day and exercising a minimum of 90 minutes a day — and usually more like 2 1/2 hours. I was eating fewer calories than what should have been a maintenance level for my goal weight, and exercising strenuously, and I was still gaining weight. I cried a lot.

And then I gave that up, too.

I gave the universe a great big existential middle finger and said, “Fuck you, universe. I’m just gonna be FAT.” I stopped dieting, and I will never diet again.

I cannot understate how freeing that was.

It has taken years, but I genuinely don’t hate my body anymore. I am 5’2 1/2” tall (though I always round up and say I’m 5’3”), and given how my clothes fit right now, I probably weigh somewhere between 195 and 205 pounds. (I can’t say for sure, because it’s not safe for me to have a scale at home with my history.) My measurements are 45-39-51 and I no longer care that I’m not a Brick House.

I do relapse into disordered eating sometimes, particularly when I’m stressed, but I don’t hate myself now. I love my creaky, socially unacceptable fat body. I’m not a separate entity living inside a corpulent meatsack, you know. I am the corpulent meatsack, and I’m much more fond of it than the name implies.

Now, what the hell does this have to do with clothing? A lot, actually. When you stop hating yourself and thinking of your body as an enemy, you find that your relationship with clothing changes. Treating my body with respect not only meant feeding it when it was hungry, but also included covering it with clothes I genuinely liked, instead of just hiding it with whatever was handy and sort of fit.

Sewing really helps with this, but in order to be a successful sewist you have to be honest. You have to take accurate measurements or the clothes you make won’t fit. On the one hand, looking at the actual measurements of your body is more abstract than looking at a simple dress size, but it can also be a scary, confrontational process. Sewing pattern sizes often have little to do with ready-to-wear sizing and that can be daunting if your self-esteem is wrapped up in wearing a specific size.

But I think it’s more difficult to feel ashamed of yourself when you’re wearing something you’ve made with your own hands — something beautiful that you really like. And maybe if you do that often enough you’ll come to love the body inside the clothing, as well.

It has definitely helped me.


As a quick aside, I don’t do Fat 101. It’s not my job to convince you that fat people are real people worthy of respect, but I will say that it’s virtually impossible to make a fat person thin. That’s the actual science of the matter, regardless of how much you want to wring your hands about “calories in, calories out” and “won’t someone think of the fat children.” All forms of dieting (even when you call them “lifestyle changes”) have something like a 95% failure rate over time. I can recommend some reading, though:
Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata
Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon
Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby
Two Whole Cakes by Lesley Kinzel

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: Beginner’s Mind

Quick selfie for Me May May yesterday. I was wearing one of the very first successful t-shirts I ever made, a Greenstyle Centerfield Raglan sewn from seemingly indestructible space dye knit. I think it’s about 4 years old, but it barely has any signs of wear at all. This was the first knit shirt I ever made with a neckband that set in correctly.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Four
Beginner’s Mind

I’ve been sewing for many years, but I’m still learning new skills. For instance, I only started sewing with knit fabrics about 5 years ago or so. For all of my fearlessness in my teen years, knits were the one thing that stumped me — and before the magic of the internet, I had no idea where to turn for advice. There weren’t sewing blogs or YouTube tutorials, and (believe it or not) my main sewing reference was a vintage book I found in a thrift shop: McCall’s Complete Book of Dressmaking, copyright 1951.

So I knew how to make fancy bound buttonholes like a high end tailor, but had no idea how to make a simple t-shirt.

Knits really are more difficult to deal with than woven fabrics in some respects. They’re easier to sew with specialized equipment, and although you can sew them on a regular sewing machine, you still need special needles and sometimes a walking foot attachment — and not all sewing machines have settings flexible enough to sew knits without stretching them out.

Still, perseverance and practice go a long way towards mastery, even when your tools aren’t perfect.

My first several knit projects were abject failures, but my only regret is that I wasted so much fabric. I’m not ashamed of those early efforts. I practiced and let myself fail and eventually I got the hang of it. Even now my knit garments are far from perfect, but they’re good enough to wear — and that’s enough for me.

I took a kind of sewing hiatus for several years in the early 2000s. I was working multiple jobs, and had almost no free time. Aside from the occasional hem or pair of pajama pants, I didn’t sew much at all. When I took up sewing again, I was a much different shape and size than I had been. I had been a standard misses size when I was a teen and younger adult, and clothes in the late 1980s and early 1990s tended to be loose and somewhat boxy, anyway. I never needed to make many changes to make my sewing projects fit. I discovered that I couldn’t just pick a size from my measurements, blend to a larger size at the hips, and expect it to fit any longer. What worked for a size 12 trapeze dress in 1993 did not work for a size 20 fitted sundress in 2007. I had to learn a whole range of pattern adjustments, and I’m still learning new ones even now. But the result is so satisfying. I may have more work upfront than I used to, but in the end I have garments that fit better than ready to wear ever does. All of that time spent, even the frustration of the learning curve — it’s all worth it in the end.

There are so many other things I have yet to try, too. I’ve never made a winter coat or jeans — and I’ve just started a Craftsy class in pattern drafting for perfectly fitting underpants. (Can you imagine?) I could go into how learning new things can help to expand neural networks in the brain, and can contribute to a protective sort of neuroplasticity, but keeping a beginner’s mind can simply be satisfying in and of itself.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Comfort of Repetition and the Repetition of Comfort

Today for Me Made May I’m wearing a silver pin dot print Comino Cap Dress accessorized with a DVD of “Fire Walk with Me” from the library. And yes, this is a dress made from the same sewing pattern as the shirt from Monday. You haven’t seen the last of this pattern yet, and may well be sick of it by the end of the month…but I won’t!

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Three
The Comfort of Repetition and the Repetition of Comfort

I have very mild OCD. It doesn’t affect my life the way my anxiety and depression do, and my therapist agrees that although it’s definitely there, it doesn’t really require treatment at this level. (Unlike the rest of my craziness, is what she means. I have always admired her tactful honesty.) I do exhibit some ritualized behavior, though, and I find some forms of repetition very soothing, especially when stressed.

There’s a specific form of repetition I find especially pleasing when it comes to sewing: I can make as many versions of the same sewing pattern as I want. I’ve always tended to sew multiples of well-loved patterns, but since fitting has become more of an issue, it’s especially soothing. After putting in the initial (and sometimes lengthy) effort to make a pattern work, the second or third version of a garment can be pure pleasure. By that point only an ill-chosen fabric or a real lapse in concentration can ruin a garment. It’s nice to just enjoy the process when you can be fairly secure in your final product. It’s relaxing.

I would say that my favorite sewing pattern right now is the Comino Cap top and dress. Even at my size the top only takes one yard of fabric — the dress only two yards — and including cutting I can make either one in less than two hours. Two hours! Sewing is in many ways the opposite of fast fashion, but when you have limited time or energy, a fast project is definitely easier.

The Comino Cap also has the benefit of being very comfortable — the phrase you usually see amongst sewists is “secret pajamas.” I love having a closet full of comfortable knit tops and dresses, all in different colors and prints, and it never bothers me that many are from the exact same sewing pattern. No one ever notices, either — unless they sew themselves, and then they usually just want to know which pattern you like so much. I am kind of a repetitive sewing bore, but no one has ever said so to my face!

Not every garment I sew is worthy of repetition, but I definitely enjoy those that are.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Power of Frustration

Today for Me Made May I’m wearing a modified Made by Rae Washi Dress in an excellent fat cat print. And yes, I specifically matched my accessories to the cats’ glowing eyes! The fabric was part of a Halloween collection of prints, but I wear this dress all the time. It’s always Halloween in my heart, you see.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Two
The Power of Frustration

I realized something in kindergarten: I didn’t dress like the other kids. There were only six of us in my class, but five out of six — boys and girls alike — wore jeans and t-shirts almost every day. I always wore a dress. Always. Rain, shine, snow — it didn’t matter. I usually wore shorts under my dresses for the sake of modesty, because I was just as likely to jump, climb, and run around like any other kid, but I don’t think I owned a single pair of pants from ages 4 to 12.

This wasn’t something my parents forced on me; it was just a preference. And seeing other kids dressed differently didn’t change my habits one bit. I genuinely didn’t care that I stood out, and if you think peer pressure eventually changed my stance…you would be very wrong.

I was already a pretty eccentric kid, but in my teen years I eventually went a little…well…goth. Size wasn’t as much of an issue yet (though I was always near the top of “straight” sizes, usually a misses 12 or 14), but living in a rural area in the late 1980s limited my clothing choices pretty severely. My family was also, frankly, rather poor — which was also a consideration. So even if Hot Topic had existed, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to shop there.

I was already thrifting some of my clothing, but except for one trip a year to the city, all of my new clothing (and that wouldn’t amount to much) came from JC Penney and Walmart. So, yeah — I could find a black t-shirt, but not a cool black t-shirt. Not the black t-shirt I really wanted.

I love to explain to people that I very nearly failed the sewing module in home ec in junior high, but only four years later I was working in theatrical costuming. This is all true. The difference is that at 13 I didn’t care about sewing, but at 15 I did. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t find or afford the kind of clothes I wanted to wear that I became very motivated to learn how to sew.

I started out with simple projects, using my grandma’s sewing machine. I finally convinced my family that I was serious about sewing, so my parents and grandparents went together to buy me a sewing machine for my 16th birthday. My grandma worked in a garment factory that made postal uniforms, and could get lots of scrap fabric for free — some of it uncut yardage — so I had plenty of material to practice with. My main problem at that point was stretching my allowance to buy other fabric.

I was fearless then. No one told me how hard zippers were or buttonholes — I just jumped in and practiced until I could do them correctly. And it really paid off. I was finally able to make my dreams of sartorial darkness a reality.

One early success was a pair of black (of course) crushed velvet shorts that I wore with tights and chunky boots. I remember how hard I worked at getting the buttonholes just right on a princess seamed floral sundress that had red roses on it the exact same color as my favorite lipstick. And I remember the first fitted skirt I made (also black, of course) because it was the first skirt I ever owned that fit at both my waist and my hips. Even at that size, there was a 12 inch difference between my waist and hips — and almost no ready-to-wear garment would work for that, unless it had an elastic waist.

Sure, sometimes my skills fell short of my imagination, and sometimes I just plain failed. But just trying was satisfying, and when things really did work, it was amazing.

My frustration had opened a window of almost endless possibilities.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Metaphorical Elephant in the Room

I’m wearing a Comino Cap top for Me Made May today. The fabric is a tentacle patterned knit from Spoonflower.

This is my second year participating in Me Made May, and I want to do something a little different this time. I will spend this month not only wearing my own handmade clothing, but also examining my relationship to clothing in general, and why it’s so important to me, in a series of essays.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part One
The Metaphorical Elephant in the Room

Long ago, in the halcyon days when my beloved E.K. lived right down the street instead of across the country, she once called early on a Saturday morning with some spontaneous plan for the day. She said she would be right over to pick me up and I said, “Give me 30 minutes — I have to get dressed.”

E.K. laughed and said, “You actually do that, don’t you? You ‘get dressed,’ but I just put on clothes!”

It was true then and it’s true now: I get dressed. I dress with thought and purpose, and spend more time thinking about, making, altering, and spending time with clothes than many do. (You’ll notice I don’t spend much time shopping for clothes, but we’ll get into that later.) And yet I’m not a fashionista. I don’t usually post OOTD snaps on social media, and although I often receive compliments on my outfits in real life, I’m not especially flamboyant or colorful. It’s likely I’ll never sport the candy colored hair and exquisitely chosen accessories necessary for social media success amongst the clothing elite.

I do get derisive looks from strangers, however, and have been on the receiving end of unpleasant stares far more often than I would like.

You want to know why? It’s simple enough: I’m fat.

I’m what I think of as “medium fat” — mammoth by Hollywood standards, of course, but completely functional in the real world. I’ve never needed a seat belt extender on an airplane, for instance — and being spared that particular indignity may be what brought home the concept of relative privilege for me. I may get less abuse than many fat people, but I still get some — you know? I “read” as thinner than I am, which also gets me better treatment. I have a strong jaw and prominent chin, so my double chin is less apparent. I’m not very busty (and am in fact three dress sizes smaller at the bust than at the hip), so I seem smaller than I might otherwise. I’m pear-shaped with a definite, smaller waist. I have a lot of relative privilege. I know that.

But I am definitely, demonstrably fat. I am plus sized, if you want a coy term. I am not euphemistically curvy, “overweight” (over what weight, exactly?), or — god forbid — fluffy, a term I despise more than almost any other. I’m simply fat, and when I use that word to describe myself I mean it just as a physical descriptor — like short, or pale. I don’t mean it as an insult.

It took me years to find this level of self acceptance, but fat is finally a neutral term for me, and it’s what I call myself.

So, now that we have that out of the way, we can begin to examine why I come to clothing with a different perspective than many, and why dressing well is both a creative and a political act for me. I’m not only here to shock the bourgeoisie (as fun as that can be), but I’m here to be visible, to represent an unfairly vilified segment of society.

Clothes can be a serious business, and they’re serious to me. Representation is important.

Clothing is important.

Gearing up for Me Made May…

Gearing up for Me Made May today! Clockwise, starting with the fox print, these will eventually be: a Cashmerette Concord T-Shirt modified with the Jennifer Lauren Handmade Gable Top neckline, Style Arc Ethel Designer Pant, a self-drafted swing tank, and a Seamwork Kenedy dress.

Odds are I won’t actually get all of them finished by the end of May, but I’m going to try!

(Can you tell that I’m too lazy to change the thread on my serger? There is a definitely a specific color story happening here.)

A sophomore effort.

me-made-may'17

 

 

I’ve decided to do Me Made May again this year. Here’s my official pledge:

‘I, Sarah L. Crowder of codenamesarah.com (and @codenamesarah at Instagram), sign up as a participant of Me-Made-May ’17. I endeavour to wear at least one self-made garment every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday for the duration of May 2017.’

Once again, I’ve chosen a Monday / Wednesday / Saturday schedule because I usually only leave the house on those days, and also because I have less self-made clothing than I used to have. I only made a couple of things from last May until now, and have changed sizes (again!), so several older things no longer fit correctly. Several other garments are almost worn out, too — so I am having a bit of a shortage!

I’m going to use the month as an excuse to sew as many things as I can — not in a high-pressure sort of way, but in a “let’s see how much I can get done without stressing” sort of way. I hope to make a couple of knit tops, a knit dress, at least one skirt, and a pair of lightweight summer trousers. That seems ambitious, I know — but it’s barely more than one thing a week — and I plan to start my sewing in April, anyway.

I’m not promising photos, but I’ll try to post some either here or on Instagram. I may repeat garments, too. I want to be productive, but also…relaxed. Here’s to a fun Me Made May!

Wrapping up Me Made May.

I’m not sure I’ll participate again — I may, but it will depend on my energy level next spring — but like most participants, I did learn a few things during Me Made May.

I do a good job making things I actually like to wear — and I sew clothes that work with my existing wardrobe, and that are practical for the actual lifestyle I lead. No fancy party dresses with nowhere to wear them, that’s for sure! As I mentioned earlier in the month, I tend to stay within the same color palette to keep things simple, and that helps, too.

Though my favorite purchased garments are mostly all fit-and-flare dresses from eShakti, I really do like pared back styling. I like simple lines and knits, and although I’m certainly capable of sewing more complicated items, I really do like the stuff I make. So far, so good.

However, I’ve realized that many of my sewing expectations are bananas. I have a ton of fabric, hundreds of ideas, and almost no energy to sew most of the time. I didn’t write a single word on my novel re-write this month, simply because I was focusing on finishing sewing projects I had already cut out. I need to be more realistic about my limitations. That being said, I can knock out a simple tee or a Mabel skirt in just about an hour. So it’s good that my fashion instincts lean toward simple projects.

All in all, I had a really good month and I’m glad I gave it a shot. I only repeated one garment the entire month, and only failed to get a picture one day. I managed to wear something I’d made every single Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday — and one bonus Sunday. I actually wore a couple of other things on other days, too — my infamous bunny print lounge pants, yet another Mabel skirt, and some linen shorts — but I didn’t bother to document them.

I made my pledge, and followed through. I call it a success.