How Abercrombie and Fitch helped aid my eating disorder, and left me with the question, to whom did my body belong?
**Trigger warning this essay includes details of disordered eating**
One Saturday evening I found myself glued to the television watching White Hot: The rise and fall of Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F) and I sat there transported to my past. Dimly lit stores that blasted Yellowcard over the loudspeakers, watching MTV Spring Break and all of my childhood insecurities were packaged right before me into an hour and 48 minutes.
Before watching the documentary, I hadn’t thought about Abercrombie and Fitch in years. But the memories had replayed in my mind and when it was over, I could not turn them off; Because not only did the documentary remind me of my tumultuous relationship with A&F, but it also reminded me of the once failed one that I had with my body.
Growing up no one talked about eating disorders or fatphobia. In the culture I came from, commenting on one’s weight was a normal way to greet each other. Instead of “Hi” or “How are you?” it was “You put on weight” or “You lose weight”. And usually when you were told “you lose weight” it was an indication that you were doing something right. Being told that you put on weight, means the opposite.
At age 13, I was warming up a slice of pizza and an older half-sibling stopped me in my tracks and said to me “eating this late, makes you fat” and then she went on to explain carbs. At this moment something clicked in my brain much like when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, she was explaining this to me because of how I looked. I was already a bigger girl with a broad nose and thick lips in a world that idolized Eurocentric standards of beauty. I was in a society that brainwashed me into thinking that thinness and Whiteness were hot.
That’s when the Bulimia started. I had restricted myself and when I did eat, I purged. When I lost weight, this is when I was introduced to Abercrombie and Fitch. I had a cream Abercrombie and Fitch Parka Coat and because I could fit a size 4, I possessed a couple of pairs of their jeans. As it was mentioned in the documentary, A&F was exclusive not only because of their aesthetic, which was mainly “WASP, Ivy League, and Preppy” but also because of their sizes. The clothes were not made for plus-sized people. So, the message was clear, you had to be thin to fit in.
When I lost weight, the people around me wanted to know “what did I do?” And because Bulimia was my secret, I hid the disorder behind “working out” which became an obsession. And because I lost weight, the person who taught me about the “dangers of carbs” became resentful towards me since she struggled with trying to lose weight, herself.
My weight loss had become the topic of conversation and the question of “Did I lose too much weight?” came up. Eventually, I gained the weight back. What no one explained to me was when you starve, your body goes into panic mode and holds on to anything you consume out of fear of being deprived again. And rather than lose weight, you gain it.
The Abercrombie jeans had laid on the floor, as I stood in the middle of the bedroom looking at my large brown thighs with stretch marks at the sides. Tears streaked down the sides of my face and my heart pounded in my chest, deep thuds that echoed throughout my body. I could hear the Ice Cream Truck jingle outside, the same blue and white Mr. Frosty truck that always went up and down the narrow street in the summer. Ice Cream that I could never bring myself to eat without feeling guilty.
Even after I had restricted myself from eating, the jeans did not fit. Even though I only indulged in soft foods that I can easily bring back up, the jeans did not fit. The Diet pills that made my heart race at ten o’clock at night, as if I had just run a marathon, still could not help me fit into those dang-on jeans. And because I was naturally thick the jeans were never meant to fit. The “Abercrombie Aesthetic” was not for people who looked like me. I was not thin nor White. I realized, Like the way the sizes of the jeans were constructed, the hunger that I had to fit into a world that excluded me, was by design. As it was mentioned in the A&F documentary, “Exclusion is a part of our society”.
In her book titled Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia
Sabrina Strings writes:
“The phobia about fatness and the preference for thinness has not, principally or historically, been about health. Instead, they have been one way the body has been used to craft and legitimate race, sex and class hierarchies.”
Existing in a fat body was looked at as a failure. The reason why being thin was looked at as being “good” is that it signified that a person had discipline. In pop culture, over the years, I have noticed that the more successful a person has gotten the more slender they’d become.
Strings also writes:
“The fear of the imagined ‘fat black woman’ was created by racial and religious ideologies that have been used to both degrade black women and to discipline white women.”
Fat Women of Color, more specifically dark-skin fat Black women, in society, were looked at as “unattractive”. Being fat meant that you were “out of control”. The body was used to reinforce what “success” looked like and in other words, what control looked like. The “Mammy” archetype created in the 1800’s, was used to reinforce that fat Black woman were not attractive and most importantly were not a threat to white women, it was used as a way of policing their bodies.
In High-school I worked in retail, and the plus-size clothes had cost more. I remember having a customer who happened to be fat, ask me why? And I went on and explained that it was because they used more material to make the clothes. My manager at the time nodded his head in approval and walked away. Being fat meant that it would cost more, just to exist.
In the 2010’s Nicki Minaj had dominated Pop Culture and my having a “Fat ass” became an “in-thing”. In High school, a song was made about my ass by my classmates and I received offers from men on the street to do printed work, along with an offer to work in the Adult Film Industry. One day as I headed to catch the B-12 bus in Brooklyn, I overheard two older men having a conversation behind me. While one stated through his groans, that I am “his type”, the other stated aloud “she’s too fat.” My body felt like a curse.
Men and women appeared to have a ravenous appetite for me, whether it was following me when I walked down the street, approaching me on the train, or grabbing me by my hands or waist. Or having a Russian-Jewish man in Rego Park, who followed me in his car, roll down his window to let me know, “I am Russian-Jew and I like to F#%k.” This body in all its complexities left me with the question to whom did this body belong?
I did not have autonomy over this body. I wasn’t “small” enough to be valued and I was “big” enough to be objectified. I had lost close “friendships” because their romantic partners were attracted to this body or if I wasn’t willing to give this body away my punishment was abandonment. A body that I did not understand. A body that I had never loved. I found myself stuck.
Growing up, I never had conversations about Desirability Politics or The Male Gaze. It took years for me to even realize that there were moments when I benefited from Desirability Politics; because I was still looked at as “attractive”, even if I never looked at myself as being desirable. And in “romantic” relationships I was something to “conquer”.Nothing more.
The eating disorder started when I was 13 years old and it stuck around for 13 years. I walked around with the weight of not only my adult self but also my younger self. I had to come to terms with the fact that my thirst for weight loss had nothing to do with “health” and it had everything to do with the desire to be thin, something that I see quite often. Because the societal acceptance of existing in a smaller body can feel better than eating, it can appear to be more fulfilling than food.
In therapy, I realized that I held on to the eating disorder because it was the only thing that was consistent in my life. It was the longest relationship that I was able to maintain. Bulimia didn’t abandon me. But, being an adult and walking around with my 13-year-old self became too heavy. It weighed me down and it was time for me to put her down. She deserved grace and rest. In the picture above, a young girl, whose pelvic bone protruded out of the sides of her jeans, found herself caught up in the middle of a world that she did not fit into. Smiling to mask the pain from within. Trying to be like them.
This body did not belong to them anymore, I had finally realized that it belongs to me.
I appreciate aspects of the “Body positivity” Movement. However, “Wellness culture” I find, is fat-phobic and anti-Black. Anytime the goal of “Wellness” is to lose weight it goes back to, what body type is always looked at, as being “well”? Shouldn’t we all be afforded wellness without weight loss as the goal? Aren’t we “well” enough? And with the influx of the “curvy” yet “skinny” (aka slim-thick) aesthetic that has dominated social media, and has found itself as being in the intersection of “Wellness Culture” masked as “Body Positivity” is a movement that I find to be harmful, specifically for marginalized Women of Color.
As someone who struggled with an eating disorder, I understand how hard it is to be “okay,” okay with yourself, and “okay” in your relationship with food. What helps me is over the years I changed my language around food. For example, When I eat foods that possibly did not have the most nutritious value, I no longer say I “ate badly.” In my mind, I say to myself “My body wanted it so I didn’t deprive myself, tomorrow I’ll incorporate more greens.” I do this to help change my relationship with food by focusing on the language that I use when I talk about it. I try my best to pour as much positivity, love, and grace back into myself.
I do not shop at places like Abercrombie and Fitch or support those kinds of brands, even though the brand itself has tried its best to change its reputation, unfortunately, the damage has been done. As Robin Givhan said, “You don’t want your brand to be ‘White hot’ because eventually ‘White Hot’ burns out.”
I support brands that promote true body diversity, and that make garments, for not only “one body” but everybody. And I don’t follow certain “influencer” accounts on social media. I stopped idolizing the quote when Carrie Bradshaw said she eats Vogue Magazines rather than food. And when stories regarding a certain celebrity who lost 16 pounds to fit into a dead woman’s dress by crash dieting pops up, I click “not interested”and I try to make sure that the algorithm does not show me these kinds of stories. Some days are better than others, but fighting for true happiness within ourselves while pushing back against the system will always be worth it. We are worth it.
If you or someone you know are struggling with an eating disorder please see the following links:
National Eating Disorder Hotline:
Listen to Sabrina Strings talk about her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia
Follow me on Instagram: @Scarlet_Fitzgerald
Follow me on Twitter: @k_beautifully