I’m not gonna lie: I have great legs. They may not be my best feature—I like my eyes and freckles and curly hair a lot—but they carried me up a mountain yesterday without much complaint, so I’d call that a decent set of stems. My husband says he likes them, and that makes me happy.
I haven’t always felt that way, though. I was in junior high, maybe younger, when I first looked at my thighs and thought “sausage.” That was without any outside influence that I remember, just my own insecure judgment on myself. My very fair skin that creates a canvas for freckles is also somewhat translucent, and produces a mottled look at times. I felt like my legs looked like pork fat stuffed into thin casings.
Thanks to women’s magazines that I read secretly, I learned what cellulite was, and I learned that it was unattractive. (A few years later, these same useful periodicals introduced me to sagging bottoms, a possibility I had not considered or worried about.) I inspected my legs, always of the ample variety, and found the “dimpled skin” was indeed abundant.
I’ve always hated the heat, but with the new knowledge that my legs were grotesque—especially after seeing myself in pictures that I found unappealing–I stopped wearing shorts. Permanently. I never intended to put on another pair of shorts, and I never—or almost never—did, for nearly twenty years. The exception was at the beach or swimming pool, when a pair of shorts was certainly preferable to acres of meaty, mottled cellulite exposed to plain view in a swimsuit. Instead of shorts, I wore heavy jeans that stuck to my sweaty skin all summer, or sometimes cooler, floaty maxi skirts.
Much to my surprise, this changed last year. The weather wasn’t particularly hot, so that doesn’t explain it. I had not lost weight or misplaced my cellulite—in fact, I was back at my heaviest weight, where I hadn’t been since high school. What happened was that I saw another plus-size woman (though not quite my size) wearing shorts regularly, without any apparent anxiety about it. In fact, she pulled it off stylishly; the shorts looked good on her. I started to wonder if my size was a poor reason not to wear shorts on occasion if I wanted to. I started to think that maybe my legs were just legs, a rather useful mobility tool in my case. No one is evaluating them for display at the Louvre. They look more or less like many other pairs of legs. No magazine selling leg-firming gel was going to restrict my freedom to wear shorts if I wanted to!
I whispered to my sister and one of my oldest friends that I was actually thinking about wearing shorts again, and they nodded gravely, wide-eyed. I tried on my first pair of shorts in two decades nervously; they were beige linen with white flowers, and they hit mid-thigh, not just above the knee. It’s hard to explain what a big deal this was to me. I questioned whether it was a good or necessary move, and I wondered at my need to do it. But I liked them; I wanted them. I liked the feeling of freedom reclaimed that I had when I bought them; I liked the hint of defiance I felt. When my legs stuck to a hot seat in the car, I giggled like the eleven-year-old I had been the last time that happened. It was 60 degrees on Christmas Eve in Maine this year, and I wore my newly acceptable shorts just for the novelty, and then did it again the next day, joined by several family members. My favorite shorts look became wearing them with a sweater and high heels.
Although it is popular to say that no one is paying as much attention to your flaws as you are yourself, I know this might not be true. I have scrutinized many a pair of legs in my own days of not wearing shorts. My grandmother has ropey varicose veins and wears nylons with her shorts. My aunt has a large scar on each knee. My mom doesn’t have the stocky legs that I have. I have nieces; they might be taking a good hard look at my legs and wondering why I would wear shorts. They might be thinking about calling “What Not To Wear” on me. But I’m choosing not to let that bother me, because I’ve learned something about criticizing other people’s bodies: it’s not about them, really, it’s about me. I used to study legs closely for one of two reasons: I wanted to find legs uglier than mine, and I had spent so much time thinking about all the things that could go wrong with legs. How could I not notice?
Accepting my own body has made me less critical of other people’s bodies, but if my middle-aged legs make any insecure young girls feel better about their own by favorable comparison, I guess that’s a gift I’m willing to give, too. Shorts are not my favorite fashion any more than they used to be, but on hot days, they’re a danged convenient one, and sometimes, they even suit my mood. Life’s too short not to wear shorts if I want to.