The Art of Wearing a Crop Top
I was nine when I went on my first diet.
That summer I became infatuated with the Spice Girls and all I wanted in the world were platform sneakers and a crop top. I begged my mother for both without much success.
Perhaps this would have been as good a time as any for my mother to have a conversation with me about the fetishization and hypersexualization of young female bodies. About why I should resist the media’s representations of beauty because they would, for the rest of my life, continue to dictate what I should buy and wear and do in order to achieve perfection (I’m looking at you, Instagram influencers). She could have said, honestly, that at 9 years old I was just too young for those kinds of clothes and that I had years ahead of me to wear whatever I wanted.
That was not the approach my mother went with.
“Chubby girls can’t wear crop tops,” she told me. “It doesn’t look nice. And you don’t want people to laugh at you, right?”
I know she meant well. I do. I know she said that out of a genuine desire to protect me from what she viewed as the meanness of people. I know that she didn’t fully grasp that attitudes like hers, passed down generation to generation, were precisely why “chubby girls can’t wear crop tops” without fear of being laughed at. This attitude is how each new batch of preteen girls learns from their mothers or aunts or friends that they have something to be ashamed of simply for having bodies, particularly bodies that don’t quite fit into a standard of beauty we’re sold from the moment our eyes first alight upon princesses and pop stars. It is how the bullies my mother so feared first learned how to deflect attention away from their own insecurities and onto the weaknesses they perceived in others and, often, in me.
Being a chubby girl could not be an option.
My mother, who was usually so good at reassuring me of my beauty and worth and never mentioning a word about my weight, told me what would become a deeply held belief for the next twenty years: chubby girls can’t wear crop tops.
She did eventually buy the sneakers.
I’ve thought a lot about my mother’s words, back then and in the years since and they have served as a driving force motivating me to do better, to be better. Being a chubby girl could not be an option.
At the time I didn’t have any real information to work with, though. The internet was around, but we didn’t yet have it in our home, and I didn’t really know how to start making the changes I felt I needed to make. I had a basic understanding that fruits and vegetables were “good” and chips and ice cream were “bad”. But what else?
Not to be deterred, I decided that I would lose the weight through sheer force of will, and by drastic measures if necessary.
“I’m not going to eat until I’m skinny,” I announced to my mother sometime later.
“You have to eat. Everyone has to eat,” she responded.
“I’m going to eat,” I said matter-of-factly, “but not until I’m skinny.” How hard could it really be?
That was the first of many summer diets I would go on with varying, but mostly limited, degrees of success. That summer before fourth grade was the first time I faced four troubling and ultimately harmful thoughts that I came to accept as irrefutable facts: 1) I was too big, and 2) being so big was a personal failure that 3) I was too smart and good to succumb to, and therefore had to address so that 4) once I succeeded (and I would because I never failed at anything), I’d be as pretty and lovable as my smaller peers.
And then I could wear a crop top whenever I felt like it.
Eventually, all the rules became about what I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, eat.
A couple of years later we got our first computer and the internet introduced me to a whole new world of diets and exercise plans. No wonder I hadn’t been successful before! I had been operating without the information I needed to finally lose weight and be the skinny person I knew I could be. Now I was armed with all the resources I needed. I could try out different diets and see what worked for me: grapefruit for breakfast, cabbage soup for dinner, eating normal meals, but very slowly, chewing every bite of food 100 times, eating ice chips instead of potato chips, not eating dessert, not eating “junk food,” not eating meat, not eating carbs.
Eventually, all the rules became about what I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, eat. I gave up one beloved dish after another and had little to show for it.
High school was not kind to me. On top of being the fat girl, I was also painfully shy. I was taking classes with upperclassmen, something that was immediately obvious because my Catholic high school distinguished classes by the color of our uniform polo shirts. My friend group was limited, and my interactions with boys are cringey to think about even now.
The day after graduation I decided there was no way I was going to college in the same body I’d suffered through high school in. Something would have to change.
That was the summer I joined a Weight Watchers meeting. The meeting space was hidden at the end of a long, poorly-lit hallway on a mostly-unused floor of a nearby shopping center, beside some offices that were empty on the weekends. It was a completely ideal location for such a shame-fueled venture.
Each week I’d take a thirty minute bus ride to sit with a group of mostly retired men and women and we’d talk about our victories on and off the scale. For many of these men and women this was a nice social hour, a way to get out of the house and spend time talking about themselves.
I, on the other hand, approached this meeting with the same drive with which I had approached every other class I’d ever taken: with unrelenting focus and discipline and an overwhelming desire to be the best in that room. It was a competition in my mind and I was determined to win.
As someone who defined my worth by my ability to achieve every goal I had set myself with absolutely no room for error or failure, losing weight became another benchmark for success in my mind.
Weight Watchers provided a simple formula for eating and for success, and I loved formulas. I loved clearly defined rules, and I loved knowing the right way of doing something and then succeeding at doing it.
That summer diet would be the most successful and also the most physically and emotionally devastating to date, setting off a decade-long battle with disordered eating and bulimia and yo-yo dieting.
But it worked. The weight melted off.
I became as good at losing weight as I had always been at school. As someone who defined my worth by my ability to achieve every goal I had set for myself, with absolutely no room for error or failure, losing weight became another benchmark for success in my mind.
The problem was I had learned how to lose weight, but I hadn’t learned how to maintain a healthy “normal” weight. And my body was still adjusting to its new size, which meant that I was always aware of where I could do better, what parts I could still tone up or improve. I may have lost nearly fifty pounds, but the physical reminders of who and what I had been were always visible in my loose skin and stretch marks, which became more pronounced the smaller I became.
I began to hate my body more than I ever had before. I couldn’t reconcile the image of myself that I’d hoped to achieve with the person I saw reflected back at me in the mirror. I could comfortably fit into all the clothes I had ever dreamed of being able to wear, but I felt unbearably self-conscious about wearing them.
By the spring semester my ironclad discipline was fading. I was rushing a sorority and spending more time with friends on top of a tougher course load. I just didn’t have the time or emotional energy to dedicate to counting points and planning cafeteria meals and mentally measuring portion sizes the way I had been. It was all just so much effort and I was exhausted.
I began to just eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it. I ate and ate until I felt like I was going to devour the entire cafeteria, the entire campus, maybe the entire state of Connecticut. Nothing was going to satisfy this hunger. I couldn’t stop.
When I saw the number on the scale begin to creep up and felt the familiar tightness in the waistband of my jeans, I became scared, frantic, and finally, desperate.
The first time I threw up I needed the handle of a toothbrush to bring up the large meal I had eaten. Only a little came up at first, but I was persistent. I kept at it until I was satisfied with the size of the mess in our dorm’s communal toilet.
Over time I learned the tricks of the trade, such as they are. I learned the foods that came up easiest, the ways to ensure other foods wouldn’t hurt when they reversed their path through my body. Suddenly no food was off limits because I could always get rid of it later. It was like a magical undo button, a life hack no one had told me about.
But I spent so much of my time thinking about food and weight and what I looked like that I missed most of what my college experience should have been. I didn’t network or study abroad or take advantage of most of the opportunities afforded to me. I didn’t have that kind of energy.
And I was never happy. Not with the way I looked or the way I was living or the choices I was making. I spent the next decade obsessing over weight fluctuations and yo-yoing between extremes because I had no idea how to feed myself. For most of my twenties, friends could always borrow clothes from me because I kept my dresser stocked with jeans from size 2 to 12. There was something for everyone, and something for me no matter what size I was that month.
I realized I didn’t want to miss out on anything anymore.
Then, last year, my grandmother, who I was incredibly close to and who had suffered from asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and virtually every other respiratory disease one can acquire after sixty years of smoking a pack a day, took a turn for the worst. She was moved into a nursing home, then into a hospital, and finally into hospice, all in the course of a few months.
The pain was so deep, so physical, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever move past it. I vowed to be healthier, to take better care of my body in every way. This loss completely changed my perspective on so many things, but especially things that had nothing to do with my physical health at all.
I didn’t want to feel like I was missing out anymore. I didn’t want to waste anymore of my time obsessed with food and pounds to the detriment of all the other things I wanted to accomplish. I wasn’t a smoker, but I had done a lot of damage to my body over more than two decades.
I didn’t want to live in this cycle anymore. I didn’t want to be unhappy or hate my body. So, slowly, I began to allow myself to heal. I stopped counting every calorie and weighing myself everyday. I started focusing more on how I felt than how I looked.
It turned out that the scale wasn’t the purveyor of absolute truths I always considered it to be after all.
I began lifting weights and taking some bougie workout classes that I really loved. I started seeing changes in my body from the weight training, and I could fit into jeans I had only been able to wear when I was 15–20 pounds lighter. Ironically, my weight has settled somewhere close to where it had been when I was in high school, right before I started Weight Watchers, back when I was “fat.”
It turned out that the scale wasn’t the purveyor of absolute truths I always considered it to be after all.
This is not to say that I’m completely healed. Not even close. I still struggle with a need for perfection. I have plenty of self-doubt and I’m far from the perfectly confident and self-assured woman I imagine myself to be in my best moments. Even a hint of disapproval or criticism about how I look can leave me feeling defensive and moody.
I struggle with reminding myself that I’m not going to gain fifty pounds from a few days or even weeks of indulging in nightly desserts or that a missed workout will not actually result in losing everything I’ve gained. I am lucky to have an incredibly loving and supportive partner who is patient and understanding and who has helped me learn to be kinder and gentler in the way I talk to myself.
I try to remind myself daily of how lucky I am to have a body capable of doing so many incredible things. I can run a marathon and kayak and cook dinner for friends and work and write and explore new cities and snuggle my nephews and play with my cats.
I can do so much with this body, loose skin and stretch marks and all. I’m genuinely proud of my body and everything I’ve accomplished with it.
So, how do you go from a lifetime of letting a single article of clothing have so much power over you to feeling worthy of its appearance in your closet?
You start by purchasing a single crop top.
Try it on.
Move around in it.
See how it feels on your body.
Then stuff it in a drawer for a few months.
The first crop top I ever bought lived in my dresser with its tags still attached for a long time. It was there every time I searched for something to wear and every time I put away my laundry, mocking me, daring me to just put it on already.
Then one day last spring I did it. I put on the crop top with some high-waisted jeans (because let’s not get too crazy here) and I met my boyfriend for a walk in the park. I spent much of the day uncomfortably pulling the top down and my pants up higher, but by the end of the night I had stopped fidgeting and just enjoyed the cool breeze on my midriff.
A month later I did it again and went out for dinner with friends in the same outfit. And then again for a casual afternoon trip for ice cream in my neighborhood with several glorious inches of belly on display.
Wearing a crop top is not life changing, but it is like so many other thing we dream of doing but talk ourselves out of because of fear and insecurity about how others will perceive us. It is an act of exposure that most of us are not used to. It leaves us vulnerable and opens us up to a type of criticism that we spend our lives desperately avoiding.
But moving forward, whether that means pursuing a new career, starting a new relationship, or ignoring years of bad advice dictating your clothing choices, means accepting some level of risk, including the likelihood of criticism, whether or not you believe you’re ready for it.
Generally I can accept that risk. Some days I still can’t.
I am, however, very ready to trade in the painful and frankly ridiculous beliefs I’ve carried with me for so long with kinder and healthier ones. I know that:
1) I am not now, never have been, and never will be too big because 2) no body size is a success or a failure or even indicative of anything other than the size of that particular body; that 3) I am far too smart to let myself think otherwise. And, finally, that 4) anyone can wear a crop top, or literally any other article of clothing they want to wear, whenever they feel like it. It is a radical act of self-acceptance and empowerment to do so.
So, at 32 years old, after more than two decades of disordered eating and body image issues and diets and restrictions and disappointments, I finally do.