Unpacking the Clothing Challenge
By: Masha Sardari MS, RD, LDN
Published: June 11, 2024

It’s important to remember that clothes are just clothes. They don’t define you. 

“What should I wear today?” 

For a person with an eating disorder (ED) or serious body image challenges, the answer to that question doesn’t always come easily.  

That’s because for many people who struggle with their body image, the stakes are really high. They often believe the clothes they wear directly reflect their self-worth, rather than just being the clothes they wear. 

With this article, I will look at what’s behind this clothing challenge. I’ll also offer suggestions for how to think about the clothes you buy and wear to hopefully make those choices a lot easier. 

Three ways to make peace with your clothes 

One: De-emphasize the “wrapping.” 

People with EDs are often hyper concerned about their appearance. This extends to the clothes they wear. Therapists and others describe this as placing more value on your “wrapping” than what’s inside your head. 

Relatedly, many people with EDs perceive that their brain is completely separate from their bodies. That it somehow “floats” above it. By extension, they believe that others only see (and judge) their appearance, and not them. 

So it’s no surprise that with this way of thinking, clothing becomes overly important. Their clothing becomes … who they actually are. 

Two: Keep clothing in its place. 

As mentioned earlier, people with EDs tend to imbue their clothes with outsized importance. It’s as if there’s a direct link between their clothes and their value as human beings.  

It doesn’t have to be like that. A more helpful, less charged way to see it is that clothes are necessary, but not that important. We wear clothing for comfort, protection, warmth, and yes to look nice and to show our personalities. But we don’t need to wear clothes to prove our worth. 

Three: Don’t let our superficial culture tell you how to look. 

By no means is it only people with EDs who are obsessed with looks and clothing. That obsession is everywhere in our culture. 

Every day we are bombarded by media and marketing images of slender, youthful, fun-loving-yet-somehow-wealthy people with perfect bodies and seemingly even more perfect lives.  

All of that is a trigger minefield for those who struggle with EDs. The answer? We need to see these perfect people with their perfect lives as the make-believe, through-a-lens fantasies that they are.  

It’s important to not be manipulated by these images. In terms of the clothing we wear, we need to follow our own path, what feels right to us, not some idealized version our culture thrusts upon us.  

A Five-step clothing makeover that works 

Let’s start with an assessment of our current relationship with our clothing, and proceed from there.  

Step One: Get the lay of the land. 

With the clothes you wear that are in active rotation, set aside some time to consider each piece. You might also compare them to pieces that definitely fit you now, and that you feel good about.  

With each piece of clothing, ask yourself these sorts of questions:  

  • Is this article of clothing truly helpful to me, or do I like it because my ED tells me I should like it?  
  • What is my relationship to this piece?  
  • What is its function?  
  • Is it comfortable?  
  • Do I feel good and feel like myself when I wear it?  

After this assessment, if it’s clear a piece of clothing isn’t working for you anymore, and likely never will, put it in the give-away pile.  

Step Two: Create space for change. 

Here I mean “space” both literally and figuratively. Hopefully the weeding process in step 1 creates space in your dresser or closet, so you can start the transition to more appropriate clothes.  

Figuratively, the idea is to make space in your head for a new way to think about your clothes. Clear out the old beliefs and perceptions. Leave the old way of thinking behind. Try to get your head around the idea that your eating disorder (if you’re living with one) is no longer calling the shots on these matters.  

Step Three: Make an acquisition plan.  

Before you buy anything, think where you’re going to go, or what websites you will check if you prefer clothes shopping that way (online can be less stressful).  

Look into companies that carry inclusive sizing, versus those that use unrealistic mannequins arrayed in the storefront window.  

Happily, more and more companies (Target, Loud Bodies, Athleta, Universal Standard, etc.) are seeing the light on inclusivity, and that is reflected in their marketing and selection. 

Step Four: Move forward with clarity and confidence. 

After clearing space in your dresser and brain, and getting a sense of what items you want to acquire and where you’ll find them, it’s time to shop. Either in-store or online, whichever feels right. Having a list and knowing how much you want to spend are good strategies, too.  

And as we know, clothes aren’t cheap. Search secondhand online stores for better prices. Many of them now allow you to sort by brands and styles you like. 

If you’re going to a store, bring a supportive friend or family member with you. You’ll want someone who will give you constructive feedback if needed, and who can help you make good assessments.  

If you decide to shop online, a smart strategy is to order multiple sizes of the same item. This might be (1) the size you think is best, plus (2) the size above, and (3) the size below. That will make deciding on a size less stressful. It makes sense regardless, as sizing can be so inconsistent even within the same brand.  

Step Five: Try to stay positive and non-judgmental after you buy. 

When you’re trying on new things, be open to the experience, and be curious. Try to be okay with the novelty of wearing clothes that may look and feel quite different from what you’re used to wearing, especially if you’re new in ED recovery. 

Going forward, stay in touch with how you’re feeling about the things you buy. Consult that list of assessment questions listed above. Do these pants feel helpful to me? How am I relating to this dress? Is this shirt making me happy when I wear it, or does it make me feel anxious? And so on. 

If it becomes clear that a piece of clothing keeps failing that assessment, remove it from the rotation. And remember, that clothing failure is not a negative reflection on you. The piece in question simply isn’t working, period. 

Final thoughts on clothing 

For people with eating disorder challenges, clothing can be complicated.  

But just as people can fully recover from their EDs and related body-image issues, they can also fully recover their healthy relationship to the clothes they wear.  

Clothes get back to being important, but not that important. 


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