Trigger warning: diet culture and disordered eating.
The story of my all-time favorite denim shorts started the way all good jean short stories do: with a pair of hand-me-downs.
During after-school rehearsal for the year’s spring musical, my classmate Natalie tossed me a pair of black Guess jeans, high rise and tapered at the ankle. She said she couldn’t fit into them anymore, and I was "one of the skinniest people [she] knew;" so, they were mine for the taking.
In hindsight, I’m sure she couldn’t wait to give them away, regardless of size. In the aughts, high rise jeans could only be found at thrift stores, likely sent there by moms and aunts distancing themselves from the ubiquitous SNL skit.
On stage of TRL, in the pages of Teen Vogue and on the racks of Abercrombie & Fitch, the pants were pelvis-skimming. They were almost always being showcased by the slim-hipped stars of the era: think Keira Knightley in hip huggers and a tulle top at the premier of Pirates of the Caribbean, or Paris Hilton’s ubiquitous, corset-detailed, gravity defying denim.
At the time, I was slim, but not slim-hipped. I measured myself obsessively (under the guise of attempting to become a fashion model), and the numbers didn’t lie. I was the most “dreaded” shape a woman could be in the aughts: a pear (as if our bodies could be classified as fruits).
In these jeans, I found a much-needed sartorial friend. Instead of cutting at my most vulnerable point (the hip), they came in just below the belly button, a silhouette that made me feel seen in a sea of hip huggers. These were jeans of another era, made for a body better suited for another era.
I took a pair of scissors and slashed off the legs, and the rough hewn, vintage shorts of my dreams were born, ones that paired perfectly with my Chuck Taylors and polyurethane jackets.
Throughout the 2010s, these jean shorts moved with me through the world––through bright days lounging on lawns in college, to magical first dates that felt like the beginning of something great, to awkward breakups that felt like a welcome end to a painful lesson.
As the years passed, the trends, as they are wont to do, began to change. In mainstream (read: white) culture, thicc became the new thin, Paris Hilton faded from the spotlight as her former closet organizer took center stage, and rises in jeans began to, er, rise. By the time I graduated college, my shorts had gone from eclectic style choice to de rigueur.
I wore them during the four years I spent in Richmond, Virginia learning how to be an adult, working my first professional job, and getting my heart broken by a series of men in skinny jeans. The shorts served as a connection to who I had been, literal threads tying me to my past and easing me into the future.
When I moved to New York City in the fall of 2017, I was almost immediately forced to re-examine this relationship with my clothing–and my body.
First came the bedbugs, which had apparently moved into my apartment before I had. Between days spent at a job with a screaming boss and evenings spent as a barfly avoiding the insects in my home, I couldn’t bring myself to perform the exhausting de-bugging routine on my entire wardrobe. Several garments and accessories were thrown into large green trash bags never to be worn again. The shorts survived massacre, albeit a tad faded thanks to numerous stints in the dryer. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor for my mental state at the time in there somewhere.)
A year later, I started feeling pain on the right side of my abdomen. Soon the pain was joined by tingling sensations in my extremities and feelings of tightness in my chest. After a series of tests performed by numerous specialists, a cardiologist passed down a single referral: to a psychiatrist. New York wasn’t killing me, but apparently, it was making me extremely anxious.
During the ordeal, I shed even more weight than I had when I initially moved to the city and drastically increased my walking (and, thanks in part to a minuscule salary, decreased my meals).
But as soon as I recovered, my body began to change. After heading home for the holidays— where I was greeted by an empathetic family and enough Ferrero Rocher to feed an army of 1990s candy aficionados—I gained at least 10 pounds. For the first time since elementary school, I slid on a pair of pants only for them to stop resolutely mid-thigh.
Even though my body was coming closer to the one in fashion, embracing my new figure was challenging. I had gone through my life occupying what Anne Helen Petersen coined “the gray area of disordered eating.” I didn’t have to strive to stay svelte throughout the lean years of the 2000s and 2010s, but I didn’t exactly have a healthy relationship with food and my body, either. I had gotten used to drunk girls at parties telling me how they wished they were as thin as me, and to sober girls in restaurants telling me how my body could pull off even the most finicky fads.
But perhaps more than anything, thinness gave me a sense of control. I couldn’t control the emotions of a man who didn’t want to be with me, how delayed the L train was going to be, or whether or not I’d get the job I was interviewing for. But I could control the number on the scale, and the size of my jean shorts.
By the beginning of 2020, I had spent two years in a steady cycle: sometimes my clothes fit, sometimes they didn’t. The summer months would come, and I’d get a bit more active and shed a few pounds; winter would roll around, and the sedentary lifestyle would have a pair of pants feeling a little tighter than they had a few months earlier.
Then the pandemic hit. Soon, the excuse I had used for skipping out on physical activity (“I live in New York! I walk everywhere!”) was no longer viable, and I found myself going days on end without walking any further than to my bathroom. Add in a substantial increase in pasta intake, and by June, it was official: much like the 23 Chicago Bulls jersey and Cameron Diaz’s acting career, my Guess shorts were headed into retirement. After a decade of service, they now live in the top of my closet.
In 2020, I hit a number of significant milestones. Three years after moving to the city, I accepted a job (this one!) doing what I came to the city to do; January 2021 marked both a year in therapy, and my 30th birthday. During a year where change was unavoidable, I began to see the importance of having a less adversarial relationship with my body, and in seeing it as something to take care of instead of control. I started to reframe exercise as a way to curb anxiety, instead of a tactic to fit the same size 24 pants. I started to view food as a tool for maintaining my health, not an enemy standing between me and an unchanging body.
Now, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see my widening hips as a failure to keep myself from eating that extra cupcake; I see the hips of a woman who spent her 30th birthday celebrating a year she survived a global pandemic, and had the courage to make the career move in the process. When I had to buy a new bra in a bigger size, I chuckled a bit internally–a decade ago, this would have felt like I was moving one step closer to having a body worth celebrating. Instead, it almost felt as uneventful as when I got an at-home office chair; simply an adjustment to the life I live now.
I’ve found the shift in perspective—one that’s more rooted in acceptance—to extend beyond my physical body, and into my relationships. On the few (socially distanced!) dates I’ve gone on, I’ve become more attuned to my own wants and needs, and the importance of articulating them even if the other person can’t, or won’t, meet them. A relationship, like a pair of shorts, isn’t worth trying to force yourself into.
I’m still at the beginning of this journey. I haven’t left my apartment for a few days, and yesterday I chased my green juice lunch with a greasy takeout dinner. I am making moves, but my health transformation is definitely a work in progress.
In my last therapy session of 2020, we reflected on my growth over my year of sessions, and the preceding decade. At one point, as the conversation turned to being at home for the holidays, I half joked that I was only wearing stretch clothing, primarily because I no longer fit most of my denim.
I told my therapist that I was okay with that; I’ve outgrown them.