Objects and Relationships: The White Flannel and My Body 

(Trigger Warning: Body Image, Food Insecurity, Weight) 

I was 19 years old when I got an L. L. Bean flannel from an Eddie Bauer in an outlet mall. It was white, with a gray and brown striped flannel pattern. Size: large. My mother had seen it while we were looking for winter clothing over the college break season, and I begged her that it would be absolutely essential for the harsh New England winters.  

I loved the way it looked, it felt, but mostly, how I felt in it. It became a consistent piece in most outfits I wore during my freshman and sophomore year of undergraduate school. I paired it with so many outfits, it would be rare to see me out of it. A quick note must be made of the outfits I wore at this point in my life, they never fit right. The clothes were always too small and too tight for the largeness of my body. I remember when for a time in high school, for two years, I would alternate between sizes medium and large. I hated the way my body looked, and this could be seen through the clothes I wore. I squeezed myself into smaller sizes, because in my head it was easier to imagine myself as thin and lean like the other boys if I wore the same clothes. I spent years “dieting” as a vegetarian, an excuse I had come up with so my family wouldn’t look twice when I ate smaller to smaller to near extinct portions of food. 

We grow up in a world of performativity, developing a sense of self in relation to the expectations of the outside world. How do you tell a child that the body they occupy is one worthy of love, while that child will inevitably develop their identity in a space that prioritizes a singular image of the body. I remember being maybe five or six years old and being shown the type of body I should grow into. It was 2006, in a Boston shopping mall, and as I waddled next to my mother, I saw up ahead an Abercrombie & Fitch store. Outside of this store, there were several men hovering at the entrance of the store, taking pictures with all sorts of people as if they were the mall Santa during the Holiday season. They were all wearing the same outfit, a red winter coat exposing their shirtless chests with blue A&F jeans. Their bodies were all the same, chiseled in a way a child couldn’t conceptualize being unattainable. I couldn’t seem to look away from these models. As a child seeing these bodies, I had dreamed of what my life would look like with that body, and especially how the positive attention given to these models would be the same attention I would receive if I only looked like that. As I grew older, my body looked less like the childhood dream I had imagined it would. 

This memory is not one I share alone, it can be seen in how a generation of people learned what their bodies should look like, and so I (as well as many) took up the unrealistic expectations required for such a performance. 

This flannel was the largest piece of clothing I had ever allowed myself to own. Looking back on the outfit, it was rather embarrassing. I wore skinny jeans from American Eagle, because all the boys my age seemed to shop there. The irony of choosing to wear skinny pants (which only accentuated the unwanted space of my body for the world to see) is not lost on me, I actively chose to wear these pants because I thought that’s what was expected of me. A fashion trend built around the skinny body image, one in which I was swept up with for a large part of my life. Skinny jeans paired with the L. L. Bean flannel, just like how cartoon characters always have the same outfit for every day of their lives. This combo of skinny jeans and flannel also worked doubly as camouflage. The heteronormative masculine outfit: skinny jeans and a flannel. Flocks of men wearing this could be seen travelling in packs in the fall/winter New England seasons. It was an easy, simple outfit, and I can’t blame them for gravitating towards it. I guess I also wore it because I wanted desperately for other men to like me, and the first step in this I decided was to dress like them. 

During my junior year of undergrad, while working for one of the college’s clubs, I had let a coworker borrow the flannel. Borrow is not exactly the correct word to describe this transaction, it went more like this: I had left the flannel on a coat rack while grabbing food, she grabbed it on her way out the door to walk home in the cold and asked me once she got back to her place if it was okay to return it tomorrow. She didn’t return the flannel for three months. 

Everyday going into work, my coworkers would suggest I bring it up with her, to just ask for it back, because at this point she was wearing the flannel consistently and it had become a staple piece in her wardrobe. I always would respond that I would, and yet, I never did. At the time, it was because I didn’t enjoy her very much, and seeing her wearing this article of clothing as if it was her favorite had put a negative effect on me whenever I pictured it. I couldn’t picture myself wearing something that she had made a part of her identity.  

In the time I lost the flannel, I realized I would need new clothes. I don’t know what changed, whether it was some grandiose epiphany or if I had just grown tired and worn down from adhering to skinny standards of clothing. Whatever the reason was, I had finally bought clothes that made me feel more comfortable in my body.  

This was the real reason I had not wanted to ask for my flannel back, I didn’t want to be reminded of how I used to view my body. I was finally dressing for myself, and I figured that if she just kept the flannel then I wouldn’t have to acknowledge that part of me and I could try and move on. A coworker I was closer with, who meant well but could never understand my relationship with this flannel, had fought with the thieving coworker for the flannel and won it back for me. She gave it to me as a victory, and I took it back in defeat. 

I think often of a recent documentary on the harmful practices of Abercrombie & Fitch’s marketing, titled White Hot: the rise & fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, released in 2022, which highlights how the company pushed beauty standards to the point of blatantly only making clothing sizes for thin adolescents. The chief executive of the company at this point, Mike Jeffries, has made comments about who he is marketing towards such as, “That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.” If this is the standards of the man running one of the most sought-after fast fashion companies of the early 2000’s, then how are children, who don’t fit into the image he has laid out, supposed to live in peace with the bodies they have. This is not the only company to practice exclusionary marketing to plus sized individuals, the process of othering bodies can be seen in almost every aspect of the world we live in. 

The flannel has been hung in the back of my closet for over a year now, hidden behind winter jackets, out of sight, collecting dust. I occasionally try to wear the flannel, but after putting it on, I can never make it farther than my bedroom. I hate the way it feels, how the fabric seems to squeeze my body, how I see myself in the mirror, imagining how others see me how I see myself, and what it represents in regard to my body, a part of my identity I was hoping to forget. My journey with how I see my body cannot be boiled down to learning to love my body, this essay is not simply a pre and post flannel metaphor for accepting my weight. I still feel like parts of me are living in the world of the two sizes too small flannel, while other parts of me want to keep moving away from the flannel. I still struggle with the space in which my body takes up. I can’t say that I love my body, just yet; instead, I have grown more accepting of the body I occupy. 

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