For the longest time, cleaning out my closet was a stressful event. There’s the top I purchased because I thought I should try something new, but I never reach for it. And the dress I bought for a wedding, and now I can’t wear it to another wedding because OMG what a faux pas, but I can’t just get rid of it because I paid how much for it?!
Piles of t-shirts I wear to bed, not because I particularly like them but because they’re there. Mounds of glittery jewelry I’ve collected because they’re pretty, despite the fact that I wear the exact same earrings day in and day out.
And then there’s that pair of cropped boyfriend jeans, with the rips down the legs just so. They’re soft and worn, and they go with everything. They’re like a security blanket. They’re perfect.
Except for the fact that they don’t fit anymore. I’ve gained weight, and my body’s changed since having a baby. And those jeans have sadly stayed folded away in my off-season storage bin for over a year.
Why do we hold on to clothes that don’t fit?
Growing up, I was very aware of the amount of space I took up. I knew that I was bigger than other girls my age, and quickly learned that this was a BAD thing. And I kept getting bigger.
The clear message that I received as an adolescent, from all sides, was that this was unacceptable. Your body should apparently stay the same size it was when you hit puberty. Forever and ever. And so the endless cycle of dieting, losing, and gaining began. And with it, the habit of outgrowing clothing and hoarding them away for the day the weight loss industry continues to promise: the day I’ll fit back into my skinny jeans.
Let’s leave aside for now the fact that expecting your body to stay the same size past the age of 13 is complete insanity.
This kind of behavior is sabotaging your happiness.
Research has shown again and again that diets don’t work.
In fact, within five years one third to two thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets.
Dr. Traci Mann says this is because dieting causes biological changes that lead to rebound weight gain. In other words, weight gain isn’t your fault. It’s your body working to protect you against what it sees as a food scarcity situation.
Dr. Mann explains:
From an evolutionary perspective, the bodies that were best able to survive in times of scarcity (and then pass their genes on to future generations) were those that could use energy efficiently in order to get by on tiny amounts of food. Another quality that would have helped you survive was psychological: a single-minded pursuit of more fuel – and once you located it, the overwhelming urge to eat lots of every type of food you found.
When you restrict your eating, your body doesn’t know that there is literally food everywhere. So it slows down certain processes (like your metabolism) to conserve energy, and sends signals to your brain telling you to FIND FOOD NOW. Your body is literally trying to keep you from starving.
And weight loss doesn’t even improve your overall health.
Research shows that changes in health indicators (blood pressure, cholesterol, fasting blood glucose, etc.) are unrelated to weight change, fat people live just as long as “normal” weight people, and weight loss doubles your risk of depression and lowers overall well-being.
Plus, long term dieting can lead to nutrient deficiencies, slow metabolism, altered mood, headaches, constipation, gallstones, and menstrual problems.
A thin body is not necessarily a healthy body.
What does improve overall health?
Develop healthy behaviors. Exercise, eat your fruits and veggies, moderate alcohol intake, don’t smoke, lower your stress levels, get some sleep … and so on. Healthy behaviors improve longevity.
Might these behaviors also result in weight loss? Maybe, maybe not, depending on your individual body. A healthy body is not necessarily a thin body.
Research has also shown that clothing affects your self image.
Adam Hajo and Adam D. Galinsky, of Northwestern University, use the term enclothed cognition to describe this phenomenon. They say this influence “depends on both the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes.” Basically, that means that when you wear something, the symbolic meaning that you attach to that particular piece of clothing actually affects the way you think and act.
Professor Karen J. Pine puts it this way: “When we put on a piece of clothing we cannot help but adopt some of the characteristics associated with it, even if we [are] unaware of it.” Her findings included evidence that women do worse at math tests while wearing a swimsuit (so avoid wearing your bikini to your final exams).
To illustrate, imagine your favorite flowy kimono (or whatever your favorite piece of clothing is). When you wear it you feel more elegant, graceful, and confident (or whatever). Like a willow tree, waving in a soft breeze (wave wave wave). And you’ve noticed that when you wear it you also tend to act more elegant, graceful, and confident (am I right?!).
You’re experiencing enclothed cognition, or the adoption of characteristics associated with the piece of clothing. You’ve ascribed a certain symbolic meaning to that piece of clothing, and when you wear it you take on that meaning as part of yourself.
What’s more, you don’t even have to wear the clothing for this to happen. Identification with the item is enough to influence your thinking and behavior. The clothing that you keep laying around, or shoved into the deepest recesses of your closet, are still affecting how you feel about yourself even if you don’t wear them.
So what is the symbolic meaning of my too-small jeans?
Well, for one, those are my pre-baby jeans. They made me feel relaxed and confident, like I could handle anything thrown at me that day. They were a perfect fit before my traumatic entrance into motherhood.
And now they don’t fit. And it’s been a very long time since I’ve felt relaxed, or confident, or in control of damn near anything.
Now, I’m not trying to say that those jeans have caused my lack of control. I’m pretty sure that’s the screaming infant that turned into a pinball toddler.
But those jeans, even stuffed under my painting clothes and tucked into an out-of-the way closet, make me feel like I don’t fit into my old confidence anymore. And they serve as a constant niggling reminder that I once was (could be? should be?) smaller.
Then why do we hold onto clothes that we hate or don’t fit right??!!
I think we have a tendency to squirrel those clothes away for three reasons, both symbolic and practical.
1) We don’t want to lose the qualities we’ve ascribed to the clothing.
Whether we realize it or not, we ascribe those positive qualities to the clothes. Just like Maui and his hook, we believe that our power rests in the object. And when you take it away, we are nothing.
But those clothes aren’t making you feel very good right now, are they? They’re not making you feel confident. They’re taunting you. And I firmly believe that you shouldn’t keep anything around that makes you feel bad about yourself.
Plus, that isn’t the only article of clothing that will ever make you feel that way. I promise there’s a replacement out there, but you’re never going to go looking for it if you don’t let the old shit goooooo.
Not too long after I got rid of my old perfect jeans, a very similar pair popped up while I was shopping online so I grabbed them. And they’re perfect! They’re almost exactly like the ones I had before.
2) That shit cost me money! And replacing it will cost more!
I think this is especially true if you’re fat.
Depending on the size you need, you’re probably limited to stores that specialize in plus size clothing. And those may or may not be available in your area, which leaves you shopping online and the added cost of shipping and return fees.
And many non-specialty stores that do offer plus sizes charge more for them (we call that the fat tax), and don’t actually carry them in stores. So once again, we’re forced to shop online.
But the money’s gone, yo. Holding onto something just because you spent money on it is supremely pointless. Marie Kondo would tell you to thank it kindly for teaching you lessons on financial responsibility, then kick it to the curb. Well, she puts it much more eloquently. But you get the point.
Plus, you might be able to sell it! I help fund my own shopping by selling my gently used clothes on Poshmark. (Use the invite code alwaysaby during sign-up, and we’ll both get a $5 credit to spend on any user’s closet. Cool, huh?)
You may also be able to find local thrift, consignment, or resale shops that buy used clothes, although this can be another tricky one for the plus sized crowd. I sometimes sell things to my (kind of) local Plato’s Closet, which takes up to a size 22.
There are also other online resale shops, but Poshmark is the only one that I’ve tried AND would recommend.
3) But WHAT IF.
Even with a body positive attitude, I struggle with this. I have no plans to try to lose weight, but what if my size fluctuates back down? What if some of my health issues resolve and I’m able to be more active, and my body changes again? What if the weight I put on as a side effect of medication changes comes back off? What if some day I fit back into those jeans?
First of all, I will freely admit that there are times when you absolutely should hold onto clothes that don’t fit right now. Pregnancy is one of those times, because you have absolutely no idea how your body is going to change over the course of your pregnancy and postpartum period.
But ask yourself this: Just how long have you been holding onto those clothes… just in case?
My general rule is one year. If I pack something away, and a year passes, and I still don’t feel like pulling it back out during my seasonal wardrobe switcharoo, it has to go. It doesn’t matter if it’s still there because of fit, or I just don’t like it. It goes away.
(Note: I would actually make a couple of exceptions here. You may have things that you don’t wear every year, but you know you will use again eventually. Like maybe a fancy gown or a ski suit. And clothes that have sentimental value get stored away with memorabilia. These exceptions should be minimal.)
So, are you ready to clean out your closet?
Holding on to clothes that are too small, or even clothes that you just don’t like, can affect the way you think and act. They remind you of social rules that you’ve broken, and make you feel like you can’t live up to an unattainable standard.
This is why you should get rid of your “skinny” jeans, or whatever item(s) of clothing plague your closet. Because when you get rid of them, you release these expectations. You make room, in your closet and in your mind for clothes that fit correctly and make you feel amazing.
And with that, you’ll find a happier and more confident you!
Looking for the Closet Clean Out Guide? You can still download it right here.