If you spent this summer consistently covering up your arms because you were ashamed to show that part of your body, now is a great time to start working on being ready for next year. You can unlearn the lies that people tell you about how you have to cover up in order to be socially acceptable.
I remember very distinctly an episode of the Oprah show I watched when I was a teenager where she waved her upper arm in the air and spoke derisively about the skin and fat “waddle” dangling there. I turned crimson with the recognition that I already had that “waddle” and that because Oprah was opposed to it then I should be ashamed of it.
I thought I’d do a little flashback Friday with photos of me sleeveless through the last decade. Here is a photo of me showing my arm waddle during a performance at the International Drag King Extravaganza in Columbus circa 2010. This is the dapper and amazing Heywood Wakefield.
Oprah is in a unique position—she’s so influential in US culture that many people listen to what she says with the same kind of attention that we might give to a parent or relative. My parents and relatives were also fatphobic and ashamed of their bodies and it was easy to internalize that the fat body I had all my life was wrong, with a hearty reiteration from Oprah.
We’re all human, though, and I recognize everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. My mom is now super supportive of my work with body liberation and Oprah is definitely much more body accepting in the twenty teens than she was in the nineties.
I don’t understand why our culture is so opposed to fat people’s arms. What is it about the arms specifically that makes us need to cover them up most of all? No fat person’s arm has caused more harm than a thin person’s.
I was on the phone with a body liberation coaching client and told her the story of how I got through my own shame about sleeveless shirts, and I wanted to share that with my readers. This is the same time of year I began that journey, so I thought it would be great to encourage others who are ready to take these steps to begin now for next summer.
I’m outlining here a process of self-acceptance and learning to be comfortable in the body you have right now. All bodies are worthy of love exactly as they are AND they deserve to be comfortable.
1. Get ready to do things differently
I was 19 when I embarked on the journey to start wearing sleeveless shirts. I was at an interesting turning point in my life. After a many years long, often suicidal depression, I had decided to stop hating myself. I didn’t know what that meant and I had no identifiable role models for fat people who didn’t hate themselves, but I knew I needed to do something different. That summer, I met someone who basically made me promise to stop putting myself down and work on loving myself. Grant was a lifeguard at the Girl Scout camp I worked at and he wrote me the sweetest note in my camp yearbook. It meant so much to me. It was the first time I was ever able to hear that I was worthy of not hating myself.
I knew instinctively that I was wrong for hiding my arms. It was uncomfortable and annoying and I wanted to feel the freedom of my skinny counterparts. I had a couple of tank tops as layering pieces and I started to open myself up to the idea of wearing them, and set a goal to be wearing them outside by the next year. I wasn’t sure exactly how, but I was going to do it.
If you want to do things differently, you need only set your mind to it. If you’ve been spending your summers all bottled up under hoodies or wearing pants even though you would be way more comfortable in shorts, you can move past your fear and shame and start being more confident.
You just need to want it. It’s also okay to not want it and spend the next year or however long getting to a point to want to go sleeveless or wear shorts. That’s okay, too!
2. Go shopping
If you already have tank tops or shorts you want to wear, great, skip this step. If you’ve avoided them forever, this is a great time of year to get low stakes clothing that you’re not that attached to.
Now that I’m comfortable with my body I don’t have a problem investing in pieces that are armless and short legged (herstorically I’ve spent a pretty penny on vintage lingerie pieces). But if I wasn’t comfortable in a short sleeved shirt, I wouldn’t want to spend a bunch of cash on them just to see if I could learn to love myself in spite of all the lies people tell me about my body.
Right now Target has summer clearance hanging around—I got two really great sleeveless dresses for $12 recently. And a quick search online yields promising results (like this long tank top, I love a long tank top). I also totally adore Target’s Liz Lange maternity clothes–this sleeveless V neck cami marketed for “sleep” but totally not just for sleep is a great plus size sleeveless first step shirt.
Layering pieces are super helpful for this process, too, if you need some guidance for what to buy. The tank tops I started trying out when I was 19 were meant to go under overshirts. One of my favorite looks when I was in college in the late nineties were men’s dress shirts worn open over a frilly tank top. When I was ready to wear tank tops out of the house it helped to have the layers ready to go whenever I felt shy.
If you’re wanting to try shorts out, there’s a little less layering wiggle room, but it’s a great time of year to get clearance shorts, too.
3. Identify confidence anchors on your body
I didn’t do this when I transitioned to tank tops, but when I came out as Femme I used this a whole bunch. I found the part of my body I felt the most confident about (my cleavage) and I dressed around it. I could try pretty much anything if my cleavage was bangin’. The Lane Bryant Plunge bra was great for this. If your anchor is your cleavage, make sure you have a great bra for stepping your way into wearing tank tops next summer.
For some tips on bra shopping check out this article I wrote about getting a custom bra fitting.
So maybe your favorite part of your body is your calves or your forearms or something. Find a way to highlight it and use it as an anchor.
4. Practice at home
Once you have the will to try something new and the new garments you want to try, start practicing at home. At 19 I was a Resident Advisor in the dorms, so this was an experiment just in my room at Thoreau Hall at UC Davis. I would just use tank tops as my around the house wear. Previous to this I was so ashamed of my arms that I wasn’t even wearing tank tops in the privacy of my own home, not even as loungewear.
What made the tank tops different than loungewear was that I would be all dressed for outside, but in a tank top. This is where layering pieces helped—I was able to just throw on an overshirt and go about my day. But in the house, I was wearing the tank top that I wished I had the confidence to wear outside.
If you’re trying on shorts, wear them around the house and get used to what your body looks like in shorts. I know a lot of folks who are super insecure about hairy legs, cellulite, weird skin stuff and leg size or shape.
5. Identify your body positive allies
This is a really great exercise whether or not you are already a sleeveless shirt and shorts wearer. Who in your life is a body positive ally? Your best friend? A certain group of friends? I sure hope you have some folks in your life who affirm the body that you’re in right now and don’t think you need to change.
If not, start making a list of the attributes of friends who will be body positive allies to you, and open yourself up to finding those friends.
6. Identifiy your “safer” spaces
Once you’ve identified body positive allies, come up with a list of safe(r) spaces to try out wearing new clothes. This is a great technique for any kind of fashion risk. Places I like to try things out:
*Casual hang out with your allies.
*A body positive ally comes over and you just don’t cover up your arms.
*Brunch—this is my favorite petri dish for new fashion. Low stakes and early in the day.
*Going out in public with a body positive ally who can compliment you when you’re feeling nervous.
*Going out in public with a layering piece so you can quickly cover up if you need to. Challenge yourself to go without the layer longer and longer each time.
7. Fake it till you make it and act “as if” you’re already comfortable in sleeveless shirts
When I was trying out tank tops I remember the first time someone came over by surprise and I just didn’t cover up my arms. It was my not-yet first girlfriend and I remember feeling embarrassed about my arms showing but also really wanted to try to be okay with it. I was so crushed out on her that it was easy to forget to be insecure because my mind was absolutely full, and that’s exactly why I forgot to put on an overshirt in the first place!
What I did was I just faked it. I pretended to be okay with my arms showing. The more it happened with folks coming over the more I realized it wasn’t a big deal. No one was going to think differently of me with my arms showing.
8. Instagram or tumblr body positive images
I really like to reinforce positive body image for all bodies. I love Instagram and Tumblr for this. To consistently surround myself with people who believe all bodies are good bodies and who exude self-confidence is a really great antidote for our fat shaming society. Get used to seeing bodies like yours in sleeveless tops or shorts!
By the way—never read the comments. People are gross on the internet.
Remember throughout this process—so many of us have been there. The people you see in Instagram and Tumblr feeds are people who have survived the same body policing and fat hating society. Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. Just because someone seems confident doesn’t mean they are not vulnerable, human and insecure just like you.
9. Do what you need to do about beauty rituals to feel comfortable in sleeveless shirts
Again, this is a process of self-acceptance and learning to be comfortable in the body you have right now. However, if you need to do things to feel good in them that are achievable, maybe you try that. Maybe it’s a spray tan. Maybe it’s an arm tattoo. Maybe it’s shaving your legs every single day to wear shorts until you can get comfortable enough to go hairy legged one summer. Maybe it’s addressing a skin thing keeping you from showing your arms. I’m not saying modification of your body is necessary to body acceptance, but sometimes it’s helpful to baby step your way.
Dolly Parton’s character Truvy in Steel Magnolias says there’s no such thing as natural beauty, and I do believe that everyone should get to do exactly as much “work” as they want to on their appearance. For me, when I’m feeling nervous about something, I throw on a full face of make-up including fake eyelashes and big hair and it definitely ups my confidence.
When I was about 9 years old I started developing bumps on my arms. It looked kind of like chicken skin after feathers were plucked from them. I was super insecure about it, and my paternal Grammy told me it was genetic. Eventually I learned that this is a really typical skin condition and I could just exfoliate three times a week and it would go away. I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable trying tank tops if I hadn’t already addressed this skin issue I was having, but I’d like to think I would have still tried. (Right now I use Lush’s sandstone soap to exfoliate, and also a scrubby washcloth.)
Oh, and once I started exposing my skin to the sun more often, the bumps were way less prevalent.
Being self confident is a baby stepping process. I was 19 when I started trying to wear tank tops and it took me until I was 22 to start to embrace my fat body and fat as an identity. You can get there. Every single day is a great day to start.