The Best Time I Stopped Wearing Tight Clothing
Ever since I was very young I have been fastidious about my wardrobe. I recall a volcanic tantrum before second-grade picture day that nearly ruined my relationship with my mother—I merely wanted to look my best, and though I ended up before the camera in a matching turtleneck-and leggings-set in a fuschia paisley print, I still believe I could have looked better.
Or rather, felt better. The look on my tiny face in that picture says: I am uncomfortable because I am wearing an outfit that constricts my body. The elastic in these pants is digging into my skin. This turtleneck is slowing choking me, like the hands of a murderer.
I’ve long had an irrational hatred of tight clothing. A bandage dress? I’d rather actually be in the hospital. Lululemon Apparel? As John Galt once said on a Lululemon bag, “don’t tread on me.” By far the worst phenomenon of the last decade has been “skinny jeans,” designed by a male sadist, miniature pairs tested on dead lab rats.
Women are expected to wear tight clothing to be “sexy,” which is bullshit, and similarly many women say that tight clothing makes them feel sexy. The word “tight,” in our current parlance, has positive connotations, as in describing someone’s excellent and modern style or the fine intricacies of the female sexual organ. But tight clothing is threatening to the body. It strangles you, it leaves marks on your skin. It is an undertaking: a person is restricted in a tight garment, and even simple tasks are difficult to accomplish.
Conversely the words “loose” or “baggy” both have negative connotations. A woman should not be loose, or dressed loosely. She certainly should not be dressed like Baggin’ Saggin’ Barry. And yet I must say that despite all the style icons available to me today—the Kardashian-Jenners, the Carter-Knowles, Amal Clooney—I still identify most with Kenan Thompson’s erstwhile “All That” character who pulled large objects out of his giant pants. At least he was comfortable, and he had fun while he was at it.
My distaste for tight clothing has been marked by several defining events. The first was my diagnosis with, and treatment of, a growth disorder that saw me go from growing a quarter of inch a year to four. In the six years I took medication for the syndrome (and grew nearly two feet), clothing became an issue. I was experiencing things I never had before, such as height and weight gain. Anything I bought loose soon became tight.
Complete wardrobe changeovers happened on a yearly basis; nothing fit for long. As I blossomed into a young teenager with a preference for watching Dateline and playing with dollhouses rather than hanging out with contemporaries at the mall, I began to resemble a small lesbian in my oversize-sweatshirt and elastic waist-shorts ensembles (I preferred a Cape Cod color palette). But such easy-wear essentials were necessary to accommodate my ever-growing frame.
Matters pertaining to the costuming of my young body were complicated by puberty. I would catch a glance of my dear mother—all 4’10 and 36D of her—emptying the dishwasher and begin to quake. Breasts, I was sure, were not for me. I wasn’t a tomboy, per se. I was just a little person, and my stature made me somewhat androgynous. I was able to achieve things because I was adorably undersized for my age. At 15, I played the seven-year-old Marta von Trapp in my high school’s production of The Sound of Music. Boobs would ruin my scam.
So I layered. Some days I wore up to six layers: sportsbra, undershirt, long-sleeve shirt, polo shirt, second polo shirt (yeah brah), sweater. The goal was to hide my transmogrifying body, and it almost worked. But the true salvo ultimately came from science. My endocrinologist noted that with puberty my growth plates would begin to close, and my growth trajectory would meet a premature end. The only solution would be a drug to halt puberty. It was truly a miracle. I couldn’t believe my luck. I took the drug for two years, and got my period on the opening night of The Sound of Music.
Once my odyssey with growth drugs ended, I “tried” to “become” a “normal” teenager. But, as we all know, teenagers are horrible, and even though my height and weight had stabilized and my mother’s boobs never developed on my chest (hurrah!), I still didn’t quite understand the sartorial vagaries of my John Hughes-esque high school outside Chicago.
There was a year, I think it was 2003, in which thong underwear was all the rage. For some reason I took gym class at 7:30 a.m. so I could take more theater classes into the evening (high school: will I ever work that hard again?); a bunch of other theater kids did this as well. And there they all were, in the girls’ locker room, at 7:30 a.m., in their thongs.
I had so many questions: Didn’t that strip of fabric hurt your asscrack? What about poop? But my dear peers seemed only concerned about panty lines, and what high school boys thought of them. Me, I wore giant underwear, Hanes Her Way, two sizes too big, underneath my favorite pair of French Connection sailor pants.
“Leah, your underwear is SO big!” a girl named Abby would exclaim every day as we were changing. “How do you even BUY it that big? Look at how it hangs down in the back! Oh my god!”
Um, it’s cool, bitch, future me would say. But at 17, I said nothing. My mom and I went to Bloomingdale’s and bought a thong and it was what I thought a medieval torture device might be like. So I hid it in the back of my sock drawer and continued to wear my big underwear.
This bothered Abby. As members of the theater clique, we also had lockers near each other. One day as the final school bell had rung, I was squatting down, gathering my textbooks, when I felt her come up behind me. I sensed the air change as her hands reached for the band of my Hanes Her Way. “BIIIIIIG UNDERWEAAAAAAAR!!!!!” she screamed, grabbing the band and yanking it so violently into my asscrack that I jumped up and yelped in the middle of the crowded hall. I stood straight up, looking Abby in the eye. She was laughing like she was a mad genius. The band of my underwear, and most of the underwear itself, spilled over the waist of my pants. The hall went silent. My friends stood in a circle around us, mouths open. I felt venom in my blood. Purely by instinct, I slapped Abby cold across the face. “Never do that again,” I said. In my mind, I sounded like Clint Eastwood.
But perhaps Abby was onto something: There was no way I could possibly wear underwear as baggy as I would like beneath pants without it being bulky. So a few years ago I stopped wearing underwear altogether.
Despite what fashion publications promise, dressing in baggy clothing—and looking good—is not as simple as throwing on your romantic partner’s castoffs and swiping your face with red lipstick. Nor is it a given that the more billowy trends of the moment—jumpsuits, rompers, and other pajama-like clothing—will do justice to the voluminous aesthetic. Baggy clothing can look absolutely awful on anyone, but especially small people. It’s a fine balance between wearing your clothes and being subsumed by them, or just looking like a circus clown.
The point of fashion, as Coco Chanel once didn’t say, is to be comfortable, and comfortable with yourself. It took me a long time, many pairs of discarded skinny jeans, and an unfortunate dalliance with wearing skirts over pants, to find out what this meant for me: vintage T-shirts so worn they have a sheen to them, a pair of roomy jeans I keep buying over and over from Acne, and a rotation of oversized cashmere cardigans from Lord & Taylor (“once you go cashmere you never go back,” as my grandmother says).
This is my outfit I have honed over the years. I look and feel good in it. It is what I will get married in and what I will be buried in. Everyone else will have to deal. I am grateful that I am now free: from fashion, and from clothing that only wants to kill me.
Leah Finnegan is a writer and editor.