One of the joys of breaching the boundaries of what’s “personal” is discovering universality. A person’s conceived most private and unrelatable parts typically turn out to be what makes them most deeply human.
This month, as we’ve worked through the theme of can I ask you a personal question?, we’ve been moved by the intimate and personal submissions in our inbox. We have been humbled to share vulnerable and truthful work that delves to the deepest and messiest parts of our contributors — and all of our audience.
This week, we’re proud to share The Wedding Shirt, an essay by Jenna Sylvester. The piece meditates on all the ways a body may not align with its owner’s own ideas about their weight, shape or presenting gender — as experienced through a non-binary person attempting to find an outfit that makes them feel good for a wedding. Although the piece is indeed deeply personal, we’re confident that anyone who has felt a space between their head and their own body will relate.
Submissions for can I ask you a personal question? close at 11:59 p.m. this Friday, July 31. We’re accepting all digital forms of submission including — but not limited to! — stories, music, photography, drawing, film, comics, essays, etc. Please keep file sizes under 5mbs and 1,500 words, though!
The Wedding Shirt
By Jenna Sylvester
It’s summer, and I’ve been invited to a wedding. It’s the first formal event I’ve been to since coming out as non-binary. It’s the first formal event I’ve been to since gaining thirty pounds in recovery from an eating disorder. And it’s not just that it’s summer, it’s that there is a massive heat wave hitting the entire east coast. I despise the heat. I hate the way sweat pools between my breasts, the way my thighs rub together so every step worsens the red, chafing rash. I hate the way shorts make me feel like I am either a Christian camp counselor or put my cellulite-marked ass on full display. When my sister asks me what I’m going to wear, I panic.
I gave up dresses early on in my quest to become readably non-binary. They made me feel false, like I was claiming an identity that wasn’t my own, even if they were comfortable and beautiful in their variations and fabrics. When you google non-binary, the people you see are thin and white and wear men’s clothes, donning blazers, and binders even in the summer. To be read as non-binary by people who don’t know my pronouns, I knew I had to fit that bill.
What I didn’t understand about androgyny was its impossibility. I thought starving myself would give me some semblance of control over my gender presentation, but all it did was ruin my body image and my health. I thought binding my breasts would erase my femininity, but diminishing my curves didn’t suddenly make me happy with my weight. All I knew about hormones and surgery were the horror stories trans friends told of navigating insurance, therapists, and side effects — too many cons to balance out the unlikely possibility of these things “fixing” me. I went through a phase of thinking it was a medical ailment that caused the weight gain, maybe my birth control or a secret thyroid condition. I went to doctors, got tests done, and when the results came back normal, I cried. I tried work out plans, but it led to resurgences in my disordered eating. I Googled liposuction and a procedure where they vacuum freeze your fat cells, wondering if it was worth it to blow thousands of dollars on another false promise of a cure.
Typically, I don’t spend large sums of money. I don’t buy nice things. I buy clothes that kind of fit, or at least fit around my waist in a way where my stomach doesn’t bulge out when I sit down. I buy items that cost $10 or less at thrift stores. They pile up in my closet, unworn.
I buy dress shorts online for the wedding. I can’t decide whether to buy a large size from the “regular” section or a smaller size in the “curvy” section. They are the same measurements, just with different connotations. I don’t remember which one I went with. All I know is that I stared at the way the shorts smoothed over the hips of the models, flaring out just slightly at the hem. The shorts were linen and breathable. When they arrived and I tried them on, it was uncomfortable to sit down. The flare made the circumference of my thighs seem larger. The dips of my hips were unflatteringly accentuated. My stomach poured over the waistband, but it was too close to the wedding day to exchange them for something new.
The day before the wedding, I go to Target alone, trying to trick my brain that I am doing errands for my mother and I just so happen to walk by the clothing section. I’m jumpy as I look through the racks, not finding what I’m looking for. I pace the store, even wandering to the kids’ section to see if there’s anything that could work. I’m dawdling, sending texts to avoid my reality. I search Instagram for style inspiration, typing #chubby and #nonbinary but the two never seem to intersect on public platforms. With ten minutes until I need to leave, I grab an off-brand silk blouse from the sale rack and try it on over my shirt in the aisle to avoid mirrors. It’s a drawstring hem with ties at the side, dusky purple, pink and tan vertical stripes. It’s not my usual style, but my usual style is baggy, shapeless, and dark hued, a fit better fit for a funeral than a wedding. The shirt fits, and its shape seems to cover the rolls of my stomach without making me uncomfortable. I buy a set of loafers to go with it, assuming my Doc Marten sandals aren’t the best choice for a formal affair.
At the wedding, it’s hot. I wear a binder beneath the blouse to have some shred of gender comfort despite the heat, but all it does is accentuate my pear shape and make me sweat more. I do my makeup, heavy brows and not much else. I glance in the mirror before getting in the car, and it’s clear that I was wrong about each aspect of my outfit. The shorts are itchy and too tight. The shirt looks like a potato sack, any shape I thought I had seen at the store dissipates with each passing minute. The ties on the side are sloppy, coming apart every hour or so like a cheap swimsuit.
I still have the outfit, buried deep in a trash bag in my closet. Clothes from before I gained the weight, from before I identified as non-binary. I say I keep them to save money, but really, I’m still waiting on the one fix to solve all my insecurities. Then I can go back to my old things, pick out what affirms my gender presentation and what doesn’t. I can’t give away old outfits that I felt good in because they serve as a reminder that clothes could be the answer, that somehow, with unlimited money and patience and resources, I could have a wardrobe that makes me feel good.
I see the pictures from that day, and the strongest memory is one of disgust, both at how I look and how I feel about the way I look. I am furious at myself for thinking such disparaging things instead of remembering a beautiful celebration of my friends. I am enraged at the amount of time I have wasted thinking about my body and its implications instead of enjoying my life. I am ashamed at the lengths I have gone to just for the sake of losing a few pounds.
I don’t know what radical acceptance would look like. I have never understood the reality of my body, and I don’t know how to begin to imagine it. I no longer restrict my food intake, but I still cry in dressing rooms. Sometimes all it takes is one picture to make me spiral into a depressive episode. While I have my eyes on acceptance, as of now my body and I have landed at reluctant tolerance. As best I can, I take it day by day.
Jenna Sylvester is a non-binary writer and gardener living in Baltimore, MD with their cat Zucchini. They've spent their quarantine finding new swimming holes and trying to complete puzzles. You can find them talking about their celebrity crushes on Twitter @Jenna_sylvester or see pictures of their cat and various projects on their Instagram @jennasylvester.
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