The other day, I loosened my grip on a guarded secret.
I’m a textile artist who’s been posting to Instagram for a decade, and somehow, I’ve convinced almost 50,000 people to follow along as I chronicle the adventures of making clothes for my fat body. I use the app to talk about my plus-size experience and occasionally show up in my underwear. I let it all hang out, and am proud to do so as a fierce advocate for body diversity and acceptance.
I was testing a pattern for an indie designer, a frock inspired by vintage nightgowns with Western details. Thrilled to have been selected as a tester for such a fun dress, I quickly chose a brightly striped fabric and zipped it through my sewing machine. The collar construction was finicky, more complicated than anything I’d done, and when I finished, I was proud of what I’d made. I dragged my tripod across the crusty ice in my backyard and posed for Instagram with my paint-chipped shed as backdrop. The dress was flowy and felt good.
But when I went to edit the photos, dread sank heavy and hot in my gut. The pattern featured a full skirt, rounded yoke, and a high, ruffled neck gathered with elastic that pushed up toward my jaw. The neckline was the issue. It threatened to reveal my biggest secret: I have a double chin.
I’ve carefully concealed its existence for years. When I pose for social media posts, I hide it carefully under scarves, via camera angles, behind my hair. Even in the hottest summer months, I don a bandana, and I would never, ever, photograph myself from below. The irony of this is immense—I’m known for my body-positive content, yet I’ve never felt comfortable showing my full face.
It’s obvious why: Our society frowns upon double chins, relegating them as symbols of dejection and sloth, siphoning off their representation for villains and loafs. They’re quick lazy signifiers of negativity in media: miserable (Brendan Fraser in The Whale), hilarious (Monica on Friends), evil (Ursula from The Little Mermaid), or grotesque (Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal). A brisk Google search of the term brings up tips on how to get rid of the “dreaded” condition, nearby doctors who can freeze or burn it away, and photos of celebrities who maybe—shamefully—could be developing one as we speak.
My own shame can be charted to my grandmother. I revered her, loved tucking my toes under her warm, plump thighs, curling against her on a white loveseat as she snorted and giggled through What’s Up, Doc? She was stubborn, fierce, and headstrong, intimidating her pastor and alarming small children with her exuberant opinions and volume. During her life, she’d been cast as a fairy in the New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake, studied oboe at Juilliard, learned Italian in Perugia, lived in a nudist colony, graduated from Dartmouth, and was a prolific painter and poet. But instead of celebrating these achievements, what I remember her discussing most often was her hatred for the fat on her body. She’d flap at her neck with the back of her hand, making the loose skin undulate. “It’s disgusting!” she’d cry. I took that to mean there are parts of your body so unforgivable that they can eclipse your accomplishments and dreams.
After she died last year, I was tasked with wrangling photographs from our sprawling family and compiling them into a slideshow. I was honored to do it, to walk through her wild decades of cross-country shenanigans, the rearing of six children, and her passion for art. But after her 30s, the photos dwindled. I received a few candid shots from her later years with hastily typed caveats: Maybe don’t include this one, she would hate it. As my grandmother aged, she refused to pose, fearing the camera would reveal the part she detested most. For over 40 years, her image is elusive.
When my Instagram account began growing in traction, my body was smaller than it is today, though not by much, and mostly in my face. I was unhappy, experiencing workplace sexual harassment that made me withdraw from food and other people. I assumed that my followers liked this smaller version of myself, and was cautious as I gained weight, worried that revealing too much would scare people off.
But I’ve always been bigger-bodied, and within the last five years, it’s settled into something comfortable. Pregnancy, in particular, taught me to embrace weight gain as miraculous: My growing body could sustain another. I’ve arrived at a place in which I love my particular sack of flesh and bones: the way it rounds at my hips, the softness at my belly, the rise and fall at my chest. These are the attributes I highlight on Instagram, but I haven’t yet learned how to extend this adoration to my double chin.
This feels fraudulent, of course. I preach to my kindergartner how all bodies are different, how no single body can have inherent worth over another. I tell her that no one has control over their genetics, that we’re born with various features and sizes, and they’re all neutral. I believe this. My Instagram teems with shared posts on how to unlearn anti-fat bias, how fat discrimination is pervasive, and how body neutrality is liberation from the white-supremacist patriarchy. When I read Lindy West’s recommendation to combat internalized anti-fat bias by immersing oneself in photographs of fat bodies, I did exactly that. My Instagram feed brims with glorious plus-sized people, pocked with cellulite, punctuated by stomach folds.
Yet, so few of them have double chins. I still don’t see myself. I can preach body neutrality from sunrise to sunset, and yet here I am, carefully holding my phone so it covers my jawline for a mirror selfie.
Body acceptance continues to omit face acceptance, and I’ve bought into that exclusion. “There’s good reason we’re afraid of our double chins,” writes author and activist Virgie Tovar. “We live in a culture that is openly hateful toward fat people. Friends, family and social media reward us for appearing as close to the (thin) standard as possible in photographs.” Thus, I dread spring’s arrival, knowing I’ll have to start shedding the layers of scarves and balaclavas that hide my secret. As daffodils push from thawing soil, my neck returns, white and tender as a hellebore’s first leaves.
When I saw the photos of myself in the dress I’d pattern-tested, I was horrified to discover how the high, elasticized neckline pushed at the fat on my chin, accentuating my worst part. I considered wrapping my neck in a scarf, a trusty go-to. But a scarf would cover the star of the show, the complicated ruffles of the dress’s neck. I stood in the snow, zoomed in on my jawline, cursing myself for the lack of foresight. How could I have failed to recognize how unflattering this dress would be?
But then I caught myself, stumbling over the word “flattering.” I’m immersed deep enough in the hadal trenches of body neutrality to know better than to care about what’s flattering. Who does flattering serve? Not me.
My thumb still hovered over the delete button on my phone for longer than I’d like to admit, but in the end, I posted the photos. Not to the permanent record of the grid, but to my Instagram Stories and their promise to disappear after 24 hours. A baby step. I braced myself for trolls to flood my inbox, pointing out the obvious, but they never showed.
Someone replied to compliment the garment, though. They liked its fraught, frilly neckline. They called me an “influencer,” which made me laugh. “Can you believe it,” I asked my husband. “Me, an influencer?” He shrugged before pulling up the Merriam-Webster definition of influencer and reading it aloud: a person who inspires or guides the actions of others. “I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what you do,” he said.
I sat with this for a few days, chewing on it like gum that’s lost its flavor: not good, but not bad enough to spit out. I realized that if I am indeed an influencer and I’ve been hiding this part of myself, then I’m contributing to the problem. I’ve helped stigmatize double chins, and I can’t expect others to jump on board for acceptance if I’m not on the ship myself. If I can start normalizing my own double chin to both myself and my followers, maybe some of them will finally see themselves and do the same.
My complicated feelings toward my double chin will continue to vex me, but I don’t want my posthumous slideshow (or whatever A.I.-laden mess is happening by then) to have swaths of lost decades, of moments I chose not to capture because I happen to have genetics predisposing me to fatty tissue under my jawline. I’m aware that my skin will do what skin does as it ages, that the epidermis will thin and the elastin fibers will sag and stretch. My double chin will likely only expand, just as my grandmother’s did. But I never looked down on my grandmother’s chin the way she did. She was a regal woman dressed in bold colors and animal prints, heavy brass earrings dangling under silver-streaked black hair. I only ever saw her beauty.
We all have biases that need unlearning, but I can only start with myself, and I know what I need to do. I have a chin that needs some likes.