How Shopping for Clothes in Tokyo Helped me Love My Body

Clothing size labels were left behind when I moved to Tokyo.
Clothing size labels were left behind when I moved to Tokyo.

Seven years ago, I moved to Tokyo ― the land of effortlessly slender beauties who were at least a head shorter than I.

Shopping for clothes was a challenge at first because it seemed like most of the clothing - even for adults - were designed for the body of a prepubescent girl. But oddly enough, the experience of shopping for clothes where my options were limited made me feel more secure with my body.

Before I lost 40 pounds and moved to Tokyo, the size label on my clothes held powerful value. I always wanted to be smaller than what the size label reflected, and trying on clothes in the fitting room always brought about a wave of anxiety in anticipation to see if those jeans - in what had been my current size - would really zip up.

I would have rather purchased a tight pair of jeans that zipped up than purchase a comfortable pair in a higher size.

The size of my pants controlled how I felt every day. When I woke up, I needed them to zip up so that I could feel this inner confirmation that the day would go well. And when I’d reach for something I’d want to eat, I’d think twice because of the fear of not being able to stay in those pants.

I’m not quite sure exactly where this need to obey my preferred clothing size came from, but I think it was from a mixture of the fact that I had been higher than the recommended weight for my height, and also because I spent years yoyo-ing within 20 pounds.

Fitting into my pants was like a pat on the shoulder for controlling my eating habits and overexercising at the gym. I can’t say that I felt good on the inside from all the controlling and the stress I put on my body, but it all seemed worth it when those pants zipped up.

But then, I moved to Tokyo.

I remember the first time I walked into a shop and admired a cute dress. I asked the sales clerk if they had a bigger size, and she told me that the dress I was holding was the only size they had.

At first, I assumed she meant that they were sold out of all of their other sizes, but I soon learned that many shops and boutiques have what’s called “Free Size,” which is their way of saying “one-size-fits-all”. So for every blouse and dress, they only carry one size that is meant to suit all customers.

Other shops I visited sometimes had sizes in small and medium, and I soon learned that “small” was really a US size extra small, and “medium” was a US size small. I felt like I stepped into some parallel fantasy land for tweens who want to play dress up.

You might think that my experience in a country where I couldn’t find my clothing size would add more anxiety to the desire to be smaller. But it did the opposite ― it freed me.

I remember going into a fitting room just to see what I was getting myself into and laughing at how ridiculous it felt to put on something that was not meant for me. For some reason, instead of feeling disappointed that I couldn’t fit into the size that was clearly not fit-for-all, I felt more comfortable in my skin.

Comfortable that I, as a foreigner with extra height and a different body proportion, was not required to fit into the clothes from the start. Kind of like walking into a clothing store for toddlers and knowing that it’s not for you - it’s not disheartening, rather, it’s clear. And empowering. There is no pressure nor expectations. You’re different and that’s perfectly fine.

Since I was already aware that none of the sizes would fit at all, I started searching for clothing options in boutiques that carried brands imported from Europe. And that brought up another adventure with clothing labels, because they were all in completely different numbers from what you would find in the United States. I had no trouble telling a sales clerk that I might be a “size 30-something” and to bring several to the fitting room so I could just select whichever one fit the best.

It didn’t matter to me what the number on the label said, because it wasn’t in a metric that I understood nor judged. For the first time, my focus was detached from the size label and onto how I felt in the clothes.

My world of being controlled by the size on the clothing label was gone. In it’s place, I found myself selecting clothing based on how it fit and how I felt. And I felt better. There was no longer this need to squeeze my belly into a pair of uncomfortable pants for the sake of keeping to a smaller size. Because I didn’t really know what these foreign sizes entailed. And I started to enjoy shopping for clothes and just focusing on what looked and felt good to me.

And if you think about it, that’s really what shopping for clothing is all about - finding those pieces that enhance your beauty and make you comfortable. And getting comfortable with going into the fitting room could be as simple as ignoring the size on the label.

I’ve lost a total of 40 pounds and have kept it off without much effort for the last 6 years. I know that a huge contribution to my physical change and confidence in my body came as a result of not having to worry about clothing size labels. And I sometimes wonder where I’d be with my health and self-perception if I had never had that experience - would I still be worried about my pant size? How many decades of diet anxiety have I been saved, simply from not having a clothing size label?

In the West, most of the information we receive on diet, exercise, and health comes with some form of measurement for success, be it the number on the scale, the amount of calories you consume, the portions you eat, etc. But in my case, measuring and weighing and counting and verifying size labels created a perception that I had a problem that I had to monitor all the time.

Once the attention was taken away from what I thought I was supposed to be, I realized that I didn’t have a problem with my body that I thought I had. I’m just me.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.