The store was unusually dark, but it was just lit enough for me to see rows and rows of beautiful dresses. I was just weeks away from turning 16. I had a cake, a venue, invitations, everything I needed but a dress. My mother (who swears I was the birthday version of a Bridezilla) and I were going from store to store looking for the perfect dress. At 15 I was overweight, sure, but certainly not nearly as big as I am now. Let’s just say my doctor would have been happy for me to lose a few pounds.
At the back of the store, there was a girl in a beautiful pink, sparkly, fitted dress standing on a pedestal surrounded by mirrors. I guess that detail sticks with me because of how regal she looked. The woman helping her looked up at my mother and I and announced that she would be right with us. I couldn’t tell for sure, but she sounded a little annoyed. I ignored it. My mother and I waited a few moments for her to come to the front of the store to help us. She came rushing to the front of the store and in what couldn’t have been more than one breath and one motion, she coldly scoffed “we don’t carry above a size 6, we have some books you can order from.” *Thump* went two giant catalogs on the counter. The way she plopped those catalogs down you would’ve thought they were as heavy as I am.
She was gone as quickly as she appeared. Back to the girl in the pretty pink dress. The girl on the pedestal. The girl who mattered. I flipped a few obligatory pages in the book placed before me. A book full of dresses far too big for me and far uglier than anything she sold in the store, anything she sold in a size 6. I was not a size 6. I have never been a size 6. I would look ridiculous as a size 6. But I was not a size 26 and I was not about to wear a mother of the bride dress to my sweet 16. But that was how she saw me. Too big to be wanted. Too big to be beautiful. Too big. I imagine she saw anyone larger than stick size as a monstrosity. A disgrace. A pig. Messages girls like me have internalized because of media portrayals and experiences just like this one.
My mother was having none of it. Not her attitude. Not her flippancy. Not her insult. As I flipped pages my mother put her hand on mine. She was stopping me. Her face was saying words my mother is too classy to speak. All she said was ‘unh-uh.’ It was quiet, simple, clear: I’m not buying anything she is selling. We walked out. I’m sure my mother said something encouraging as we got in the car. I don’t remember. That detail didn’t matter nearly as much as the hurt I had just felt. Eventually, I found a dress. Green. Pretty. But not beautiful. Not special.
It would be 2 more years before I felt beautiful for the first time in my life. I know this because I wept. I was in a fitting room trying on my senior year prom dress. We’d searched everywhere. I’d put on a few pounds. We were in North Carolina looking for the perfect dress. I was ready to settle on the next dress that fit. My father disappeared for a few moments then came rushing back into Dillards. He’d found a quinceañera store in the mall. Beautiful dresses lined the walls. Dresses not unlike the ones I’d seen in the ‘size 6’ store. Someone picked a blue dress for me to try on. My mother and sister weren’t done lacing me into the dress before I started crying. I felt beautiful. Honest to goodness beautiful. By the time we saw the price tag, I was in a full-on ugly cry. My tears did the begging. My dad negotiated a bit and the dress was mine. As far as I’m concerned, it was worth every penny for the way it made me feel. (Thanks mom and dad!)
That was six years ago. It’s been 8 years since the dejection I felt for being bigger than a size 6. I haven’t forgotten. I won’t say I learned it then, or even that I’ve mastered it now. But if my little affirmation helps you decide to buy that outfit or believe in yourself for just a moment, then here it is: the girl on the pedestal was beautiful. She mattered. She deserved her moment of happiness. But so am I. And so are you. I was am beautiful. I matter. I deserve happiness. You are beautiful. You matter. You deserve happiness. At size 6. At size 26.
Your brand of beautiful will always come in exactly your shade, your shape, your color and always in your size. Accept it. Own it. Love it. And maybe one day it won’t take a dress to make you feel that way. Hopefully one day you’ll own your beautiful because it’s your truth.
Love, light, and yours in activism,