Playing the Body

by Matthew Mastricova

When I was 12, I had to draw a scale model of myself in class. I did my best to obscure the measurements from my classmates, writing them as small and crooked as eyelashes. When I shrank myself down to a size that would fit on an 8.5×14” sheet of paper, I thought I must have measured incorrectly. I was not surprised that my model looked fat, because I was fat; I remember stepping on a scale at seven years old and hoping that it would show 66 or 67 instead of 68. When I imagined how I looked, I imagined a person who was thick in the middle and gently tapered out. I didn’t, however, expect my model to look inhuman. His thighs were twice as wide as his calves, his neck half the width of his shoulders. His feet were flippers. Re-measuring did not change much. My model still looked like a Goodwill haul of body parts.

It is impossible to accurately scale a three-dimensional object into two dimensions, especially when that object is just entering puberty and is sloughing and shifting an excess of fat it was not built to maintain. But seeing myself rendered like this still hurt. This was an interpretation of my body based on objective measurements; my model’s ugliness could not be ascribed to someone’s poor artistic ability or carelessness. Its ugliness had to have been my own.

For my entire adolescence, I wore oversize graphic tees and hoodies and boot-cut jeans. I dressed to obliterate my body. If I was able to forget my body existed, I was able to diminish the shame of wrecking it with my crappy diet and insatiable hunger. I was obsessed with what I was sure would be my impending loneliness—if I was fat, then no girl would ever love me. I did not even consider the fact that I might be gay—fat men were not gay. I was convinced that men like me, who were fat and who loved reading fantasy novels and playing JRPGs, were not able to be loved. And I felt like so much more than failure, so much more than what my body showed.

It took a decade to learn how to dress myself in a way that respected the contours of my body. Slim-cut pants. Tailored shirts. Monochromatic outfits in black or charcoal or oxblood or navy. Even if my stomach slumped over my waist or my calves caught on the fabric of my jeans or the ghost of my fatty chest was visible to the person I talked to, I had a shape. I had a body.

***

In the summer of 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a retrospective honoring Rei Kawakubo, the creative head of the fashion label Comme des Garçons. Kawakubo is only the second living designer to be honored with a Met retrospective—the first being Yves Saint Laurent in 1983. Since the early ’80s, Kawakubo has been upending typical tenets of fashion, exploring the space between oppositional ideas and leitmotifs (features at the exhibition included fashion/anti-fashion, self/other, model/multiple, clothes/not clothes) through the use of unconventional materials, colors, and silhouettes. While Kawakubo’s influences include everything from rococo to fetish-wear to kawaii, the most fundamental aspect of Kawakubo’s aesthetic is monochromatic clothing with blown-out silhouettes that disrupt the body’s natural contours. In this, Kawakubo explores the interplay between mu and ma, emptiness and space, respectively. She sees fashion not simply as something worn but something experienced; she sees her work as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”—something lived in, something that transcends notions of shape and function. In a Kawakubo design, the vision is not just the clothing but the body inhabiting it, as well as the culture that has both nurtured and withered it.

The area in which the Met housed the exhibit was prepared especially for the retrospective. There were few boundaries between the clothes themselves and museumgoers, with the clothes displayed in large white cylinders, cones, and arches. Museumgoers were forced through a specially constructed path, looping in and around other exhibits in the retrospective. It felt sterile and labyrinthine, and I spent more than an hour taking in each exhibit and reading the accompanying program. Even though I was surrounded by other people, I walked through every exhibit feeling mostly alone, as if nobody else understood these clothes the way I did, even though I doubt Rei Kawakubo ever imagined designing clothes for a fat American man. I knew little about Kawakubo’s legacy, but I was able to piece together a narrative of an artist who could look at an outfit and think, “There is more to a shape than this.” I read a message in the seams of each outfit: “There is more to you than the shape.”

I had promised myself before entering that I would not purchase any Comme des Garçons clothing from the museum gift shop. What I loved, after all, was not the label’s casual clothing but the lawlessness of its high fashion. And I was a public school teacher and grad student, and every time I spent money, the glut of student loans I had accrued made its weight known. But the retrospective left me euphoric in a way that talking to therapists and nutritional coaches and other fat people never did. I wanted a memento.

I looked through every shirt they were selling and finally found one design I liked—they had a single XL left. It was white. 100 percent cotton, hand wash only. On the front of the shirt was a large heart outlined in black. On the heart were two eyes with blackened pupils. Affixed to the left eye was a felt emblem in the same heart shape, but with the color inverted.

The shirt was also slim-cut, and I worried it would not fit my body. I bought it anyway, even though it cost $100. The only other item of clothing I owned that cost that much was the suit I kept for funerals, weddings, and job interviews. This shirt would be nowhere near as useful or versatile, and I knew I would immediately regret the purchase. It was more of an advertisement of status than style, but I felt it brimming with a power I had not felt in a piece of clothing before. I needed it. I imagined wearing this on the street and, even on the days I felt my ugliest, remembering that someone talented and respected could look at a silhouette and imagine the possibilities beyond my shape. Like a dress made of flowers and metal. Like a body transformed.

***

I had not intended to follow the 2017 Met Gala. I thought I’d see one or two pictures circulate on Twitter and a few round-up articles in the following week. That night, however, Rihanna took over my timeline—hundreds of people extolling her fashion sense, her beauty, her overall excellence.

She wore a dress off the Comme des Garçons Fall 2016 collection, 18th Century Punk, with red thigh-high lace-up sandals and hair pulled into a topknot with a side-parted fringe. Pieces of fabric in the shape of flower petals covered a constructed silhouette, both erasing and reconstructing an approximation of “Rihanna.” Her body was there, but it had been transformed

What truly elevated Rihanna’s look, though, was her ability to “play.” Playfulness is an integral concept to Comme des Garçons, seen not only in the assimilation of wildly disparate influences and embrace of seemingly “low” artforms, but in the naming conventions themselves. Perhaps the most iconic Comme des Garçons brand, which the shirt I bought belongs to, is named PLAY. Rihanna embodied this playfulness: she performed the outfit as if it were a song she wrote.

Rihanna’s ability to beautify a Comme des Garçons outfit shouldn’t be surprising. She is an expert in her own brand, which she has gradually cultivated and maintained since the release of her 2007 album Good Girl Gone Bad. Even though she had already amassed four top ten singles, including her first number-one single with “SOS,” it wasn’t until the release of “Umbrella” that the modern conception of “Rihanna” was debuted, as Christopher Rosa pointed out in his Glamour essay on the impact of Good Girl Gone Bad. Rosa highlights not only the darker tone of the album’s music but, more viscerally, Rihanna’s shift in physical presentation. Where many of her peers have struggled to maintain or adapt a relevant cultural identity, “Bad Girl Riri” has remained consistent for over a decade.

Rihanna doesn’t have the singing background of her contemporaries, but she has an incomparable understanding of her identity and how to leverage it. A Rihanna song is easy to identify and even easier to remember: the best songs mix a (sometimes) coy prurience with Rihanna’s iconic voice and an ability nestle itself in the back of your skull with a scant few lines or sounds, like in “Only Girl (in the World)” or “Umbrella” or “S&M.” One can argue that none of these songs are actually her songs; they are simply songs that have been crafted for her. However, this undersells Rihanna’s talent for assimilating and transforming identities. Think of “Don’t Stop the Music,” the backbone of which is the iconic coda from Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (which is itself taken from Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.”) Think of Rihanna honoring Rei Kawakubo by bringing her art to life.

Rihanna has discussed her own dynamic relationship to her body with the same transparency with which she discusses her music and her entrepreneurship. “I really pay attention every day when I go into the closet about what’s working for my body that morning,” Rihanna told The Cut in an interview hyping her Fenty x Puma fall 2018 collection. “I feel like that’s how everyone should go after fashion, because it’s an individual thing. And then, if you take it further, it’s like: What week are you having? You having a skinny week? You having a fat week? Are we doing arms this week? We doing legs this week? We doing oversized?”

I know this feeling. Unlike Rihanna, though, my checklist is less optimistic: How much do I hate my body today?  Can I tolerate closely fitted clothes? Do I have a sweater that matches these pants and is large enough to swallow my stomach? Reading Rihanna’s attuned observations of her own body is akin to hearing Kawakubo’s own musings on the body and its kinetic possibilities. Listening to my own observations is like watching a bride slash the train off her wedding dress so she can move freely on the dance floor.

Earlier this year, the only pair of jeans that fit both my ass and calves ripped in the crotch. They were $60 and lasted two months. I couldn’t justify buying a second pair when I knew I could buy three pairs of $20 jeans instead that lasted for years. Until I figured out what to do, I had the choice between wearing close-fitted slacks and elevating my outfits accordingly, or wearing jeans and feeling comfortable in a job that is surprisingly physical. I chose the slacks.

Later that week, a coworker gave me a once-over. “You’ve been looking cute this week,” she said. I had been wearing sweaters instead of tee shirts, boat shoes and boots instead of dad sneakers. I missed my jeans, but I loved being called cute.

When I visited the retrospective, I found the dress that Rihanna wore in the Order/Chaos exhibit, which was curated to express Kawakubo’s perpetual fight for independence. It was laid over a limbless, faceless mannequin in a cluster of limbless, faceless mannequins robed in Comme des Garçons dresses. The brochure described the outfit as a “dress of polychrome lamé rayon-silk-acrylic jacquard with applied self-fabric Gobelins flowers; shorts of polychrome acetatepolyester-nylon lamé jacquard.”  Here, though, ensconced in an isolated exhibit, it was a taxidermied egret, caged and lifeless.

***

I wore my Comme des Garçons shirt for the first time to an almost-friend’s birthday party. It stuck to my body indecently, highlighting my soft and pliable outline. Even though I had made my peace with the fact that my body would never look thin, I still felt uncertain about clothing like this. I pulled at the spaces where I felt the fabric curl into my underarms, my stomach, hoping that I could stretch the fabric just enough to loosen the fit.

“How do I look?” I asked my partner, Noah. He said I looked amazing, fashionable, don’t worry. I believed him, because Noah was, above everything else, honest. He would tell me if I looked fat in the bad way, and so we left. On the way to the party, I tugged at my shirt. Over and over, I felt the shirt scrape against my body. I wished I had worn something boxier.

When I walked into my almost-friend’s apartment, nobody mentioned the shirt. We were a group of gay and fat men who watched horror movies on Netflix and talked about Yu-Gi-Oh deck building strategies and swapped conspiracy theories born out of the tightly-controlled drip of Steven Universe episodes. Nobody else wore a shirt that cost a hundred dollars, or was designed by Rei Kawakubo. Everyone else looked like their body was fit for them, like, when they looked in a mirror, they did not have the dread that their clothes, even the ones they wore yesterday, would be too small for them, or that their skin was cratered and flaky and greasy no matter what they did or that their head was the wrong shape for their hair.

When we left the party, I realized that I had somehow stained my shirt with chocolate. Of course. When we got back to our apartment, I placed it back in its plastic wrapping and did not wear the shirt again for months. I had never hand-washed a shirt, and I didn’t want to ruin it. The stain had set so the shirt was already ruined.

Those were the excuses I told myself. But really, I didn’t wear the shirt again because I was afraid. I was afraid, in the following months, that I had gained weight and that the shirt wouldn’t fit again—that my body had transcended the state of being a body. And then what? I had been down this road before. If I wore the shirt and it no longer fit, then everything I loved about the Kawakubo exhibit would be nullified. I would have to concede to the idea that a body could only be a body had to be slim-fit and malleable. I’d have to think that a body like mine was not just wrong but insignificant, and even the most avant-garde fashion designer couldn’t conceive of it as having value. Here was a brand I felt a close connection with, that understood the fluidity and precariousness of bodies, and I didn’t want to lose that. Here was a designer who asked: What is a body? And my only answer was, “Anything but what I am.”

***

“Bitch Better Have My Money,” released in 2015, is the most aggressive song of Rihanna’s career, combining hyperviolent lyrics with a heavy trap influence. In the music video. Rihanna murders her white male accountant and tortures, dismembers, and murders his wife. It felt like a harbinger for Rihanna’s first major persona shift since Good Girl Gone Bad. The “bad girl” we had known gained her transgressive reputation more for her unapologetic love of weed and indifference to criticism than being aggressive. The Rihanna in this song is different. She will take what she is owed.

Critical reception to the video was, unsurprisingly, mixed. It was misogynistic torture porn or Rihanna being Rihanna or just too damn obvious. Less common were the pieces which analyzed the importance of a music video showing a black woman asserting control of the world around her. The most interesting response in this vein was voiced by Tiana Clark, whose ekphrastic poem was published by The Journal, a literary journal based out of the Ohio State University, in 2017, and went on to win a Pushcart Prize. In explaining its genesis, Clark reveals that her interpretation of the song is centered not on revenge, but survival:

Rihanna is unworried about the well-being of a blond and beautiful white woman, because her own survival is at stake, which such a commanding visual metaphor, a comparison colliding two unlike things: black women and possessing power, black women and lynching the European standard for beauty, black women and the wage gap, womanist vs. feminist, and the dichotomies continue ad infinitum. Robert Frost writes, “…unless you are at home in the metaphor…you are not safe anywhere…you are not safe in history.” But what if I’ve never felt safe…anywhere? Let alone in my own black body. Nia Wilson’s throat reminds me that my breath is always at risk. I am anxious every single day about my well-being, and this is what I wanted to explore in my poem: the economy of sex and desire based off of retribution. I wanted to dare myself not to be scared, if not in life, as least for the length of one poem.

Where most writers focused on the events of the video, Clark focused on Rihanna herself—the role she was playing and the desires and injustices that Rihanna’s persona evoked. Again, it is Rihanna’s ability to play, to adapt her identity to nearly any role, that elevates her work. This same playfulness that inspired Clark not only captured the world’s attention at the Met Gala, but also positioned herself directly against the history of the Comme des Garçons brand.

In analyzing 54 Comme des Garçons runway shows for their “Mainline” women’s collection, from the spring 1991 collection to the Spring 2018 collection, writer Martin Lerma calculated that Kawakubo had not hired a single black model since Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin in the Fall 1994 show, and had not hired a single identifiable model of color between 2007 to 2017.  While this is not wholly accurate (The Fashion Law pointed out that Kawakubo hired bi-racial model Anna Cleveland to open and close the fall/winter 2016 show and occasionally hires Asian models), this is still disconcerting. While Kawakubo has been critically lauded for decades for her ability to push the idea of fashion, it can’t be ignored that her casting choices have perpetuated the idea that a body, or at least a body worth transfiguring, should be both thin and white.

It was not until the Fall 2018 show, almost a year after the Met Gala, that Rei Kawakubo began hiring black models again. We don’t know why Kawakubo finally began hiring black models again, and we probably won’t ever know. But in reading Clark’s poem and essay about Rihanna, it’s hard not to think about her evocation of the metaphors threaded throughout “Bitch Better Have My Money”—how Rihanna’s appearance at the gala again positioned her art in direct opposition to the European standards of beauty that Comme des Garçons had built its foundation upon.

In wearing that flower dress, Rihanna shattered the boundary that Kawakubo had built between her work, her models, and the fashion world at large. In performing her identity, her body, her years of nonchalance and apparent total self-assurance, Rihanna upended a decades-long tradition. She played Comme des Garçons, and she won.

***

The final collection to be included in the Kawakubo retrospective was the Fall 2017 Ready to Wear collection, titled “The Future of Silhouette.”  None of the outfits in this collection were constructed from conventional woven fabrics. Instead, they were constructed from materials meant to evoke detritus: steel wool, cardboard, insulation foam, crumpled paper lunch bags, wadded toilet paper. Like many of Kawakubo’s collections, the models were devoured by clothing, their silhouettes oversized and shapeless.

In her overview of the collection for The Cut,  Cathy Horyn asks, “Was Kawakubo saying we’re all going to be horribly fat in the future? And not just fat, but wearing our old sofas?”  It’s difficult to take this line of interrogation seriously. No matter how much makeup was applied or how large the outfits were, every model who walked the Fall 2017 show was thin and white, and it is impossible to negate that.

As Connie Wang wrote for Refinery29, Kawakubo has largely dodged criticism for her discriminatory casting because of how she elides the humanity of her models. In a Comme des Garçons runway, you are not supposed to visualize yourself. The model is nothing more than a canvas, and it shouldn’t matter what that canvas looks like as long as the art is masterful. Supposedly.

For a theme as all-encompassing as silhouette, it is understandable to think that there would be at least some thought given to the silhouette of the fat body. But Kawakubo’s inclusion of fat models is, in fact, nonexistent. This problem is not unique to Comme des Garçons, but considering Kawakubo’s history of avant-garde designs, it is especially noticeable that there’s no evidence that Kawakubo has considered the fat body in her art. But just because she has created outfits that evoke the “exaggerated Kardashian figure,” as Horyn describes it, doesn’t mean that Kawakubo has meaningfully engaged with what weight can look like or indicate. If this was Kawakubo’s attempt to engage with weight, it is woefully disappointing. Fat bodies generally have a shared set of attributes, but each body exhibits its weight differently. While this is true of all bodies, these differences fluctuate even more drastically for fat bodies, where even more weight must be distributed.  Yet, for so long, the one idea fashion has had for fat people is “large.” As long as there is enough fabric and it vaguely resembles the article it’s supposed to, then it is good enough. As long as the “shapeless silhouettes” of fat people recall those of thin people, then they are acceptable.

And what a notion—that the shapeless outfits in this collection suggest that we will all be fat. And not just fat, but horribly fat. Formless. Un-pretty. Am I the type of person that Horyn would describe as “horribly fat”? My muscles are undefined. I am round in places I should be rigid. Does that make me horrible? Love, comfort, gluttony, safety, biochemical imbalances—do any of these make us horrible?

The future of silhouettes for fat people is not more amorphous; any fat person can attest to that. It is, instead, the acknowledgment that there is no singular fat silhouette, that each body stockpiles its survival in a unique and sometimes unchangeable manner.  When I think about my future as a fat person, I hope it is one in which I can walk into a store and find something that fits me. It’s a future when I will never associate my fat body with “horrible.” And when I put on a shirt, it won’t feel like a panic attack but a reassurance.

***

I am not Rihanna, who is beautiful and so deft, not at breaking her body, but working alongside it. I am the type of person who breaks his own body in the service of beauty, who thinks that if he just tries hard enough, the body will bend to his will.

I lost sixty pounds between the start of my senior year of high school and the end of my freshman year in college. I ran two miles five nights a week and lifted weights three times a week. I weighed myself and examined my body in the mirror daily. The numbers steadily decreased, but my body remained—too round, too soft, too much. Missing a night meant intense stomachaches and anxious ruminations. I was not good enough. I was too fat. It didn’t matter that I had dropped from an XXL to an L or a 40 to a 34 or that, for the first time in my life, my breasts lay flat against my chest; I would always be too much.

Few pictures from my freshman year of college, when my body most radically changed, exist. The few pictures I do have are mainly of my face, more angular and somehow dumber looking. The one clear picture of my body that I have is a mirror shot taken in my freshman dorm. The flash completely erases my face, but my body is flat. I was so thin.

Over winter break, I made the pilgrimage back home to visit my high school teachers. More than one commented on my slimmed body. And even though I had worked hard to maintain the self-hatred to keep myself fighting against every hunger, I still wanted only to reject this body. The only thing that would have made me happy, I think, was to be cleaved from my figure. One of my visits was to my chemistry teacher, who was like a second mother to me.

“Did you intend to lose the weight?” my teacher asked. Of course I did. Did she not remember how big I was, how poorly fitted my clothes were? “You look good. But you’re not looking to lose more, are you? Because it’d be concerning.” I told her no, even though I was already planning to cut my calorie intake by going vegetarian again, to lose another five or ten pounds in the coming months. I was no longer her student, but I didn’t want to disappoint her.

I still think about that question. Of course I had meant to lose the weight, but why? It’s the first, and still the only, time that anyone asked if losing weight was something besides positive. Maybe I could have learned to be happy at 180, or 200, or 220 pounds.  I had never considered that I could be happy in a fat body, that I did not have to erase myself to survive.

Between my sophomore year of college and graduation, I gained eighty pounds. I have been trying to lose that weight since I began gaining it back, telling myself I could be disciplined and count my calories and work out on a consistent schedule, even as I stress-ate my weight in chicken tenders and fries. I still mourn that body and everything I never used it for. I never had sex as a fit person. I was never gay as a fit person. I never looked in the mirror and thought “I am okay with this body” as a fit person. I never will. My body has been dominated once already, and it has learned its lesson.

***

“I feel like as you’ve lost weight, our bodies have been converging,” Noah tells me as he is about to leave for the store. I am naked in bed. When I am home, I wear as little clothing as possible, a permission to relax.

“I haven’t been losing weight,” I say.  Noah is forever fixed in my mind as smaller than me. We have spent nearly every day of the past four and change years together, and the gradual shifts of our bodies have slipped into a state of non-acknowledgement. It’s only when I look at photos from the early days of our relationship that I see how different we look. The summer he came back from studying abroad in London, he was 60 pounds lighter than me, and when I held him close in bed I imagined my body devouring his like a phagocyte.

“You’ve lost weight. That’s not me flattering you; that is objective.” I am not certain he’s wrong. The floor of our apartment is warped, and each room I weigh myself in gives me a different reading. Still, I don’t believe him. My body, as always, feels unchangeable.

When he leaves, I take out the Comme des Garçons shirt and lay it on the bed. The shirt is wrinkled and looks smaller than I remember. I search for the chocolate stain but can’t find it. Maybe, though, it fits better than I remember. Maybe I have actually lost weight. I know that this shirt was made for a smaller person, but I still want to wear it. Kawakubo is the only designer I know who has so completely upended my ideas of what clothing and bodies can do, even though the bodies she clothes never look like mine.

I slip the shirt over my head and leave it there. I am disappointed before the shirt even sets. It is tight around my torso and arms. I can see the small shelf of my chest. The shirt is stretched across my front, with creases like rolls along the sides. I want to take it off, but I don’t. I walk to the bathroom and try to take everything in: the way it moves as I move, how it spreads across my body.

I want to trade it for a shirt that will erase my silhouette, but I make myself consider the possibilities. If I wear this shirt for long enough, I can stretch out the wrinkles. If I wear a button-down or a cardigan over it, maybe no one could even tell just how fiercely it grips me. Maybe I could lose enough weight, five or ten pounds even, that the shirt will fit. But I probably won’t, at least not for more than a few months. I keep it on because I want Noah to see this shirt on me. I want him to see that I can perform my body.

“That looks so good on you,” Noah tells me when he comes home. But I know he is wrong. It is too tight. By now my body is screaming for me to tear the shirt off before he realizes, too, how ugly I am. I think of Rihanna and how her body plays the role she needs. And I beg my own: Keep this shape for just one more second.

Matthew Mastricova is the fiction editor of Third Point Press. His work has appeared in Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, Electric Literature, Joyland, and elsewhere.