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A Right to Bare Arms

Uncovering your fat body parts is cool—and cooler

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In the early 1990s, I was a cheerleader in my rural Idaho high school. We wore our tiny uniform skirts and cropped sleeveless tops to school on game days as a way to promote school spirit—and, subsequently, to further mortify and objectify teenage girls with body image issues.

Even though I was barely chubby, many boys called me the "fat cheerleader."

I obsessively made sure I was tanned, shaved and toned in all the right places in order to "earn" my right to wear that uniform. I went on to college and learned a lot about what it means to be a woman but continued to spend a lot of time and energy adhering to ridiculous fashion rules and defining my worth largely by what others thought of my beauty and my appearance.

Fast forward about 15 years. After a lot of weight gain, a marriage, two pregnancies, and a ton of education and growth, I found myself Googling the question "Why am I fat and happy?" It launched me into a whole new world of self-love and radical body acceptance, which led to feeling totally comfortable in my skin.

Not only did I get rid of my bathroom scale, I also began measuring my happiness and success in life in ways other than arbitrary numbers or how I looked. I began enjoying my body—and my life—so much more.

A lot of this came about through internal work, like reading books, revamping my media feed to include photos of awesome fat chicks, moving my body for fun rather than out of fear and learning to enjoy cooking and eating all types of food.

This soon translated into breaking fashion rules, like wearing horizontal stripes and large colorful prints regardless of whether they were "unflattering" or made me "look larger."

It was the summer months that had me the most nervous about bucking the plus-sized clothing guidelines I'd followed for so long, but it was also the time of year I longed for my body to be free of so much fabric, especially in the Idaho desert heat.

I started by wearing sleeveless shirts without the safety of a cardigan to cover my flabby arms. It was so freeing and so much cooler. The shocking thing? No one laughed or pointed or recoiled in disgust at the sight of my fat body parts. The only people who noticed at all were other large-bodied folks who were inspired by my rebellion and wondered if they, too, might be "allowed" to do the same.

Feminist theologian Mary Daly said, "Courage is a habit, a virtue: you get it by courageous acts. It's like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging."

This applies to so many things in life, including fashion. My tank tops made the way for shorts showing off my cellulite and jiggly thighs, which paved the path to short skirts and crop tops and, soon after, bikinis.

About five years ago, plus-sized fashion designers popularized larger bikinis, affectionately dubbing them "fatkinis," and I was all about it. My first one came from Walmart (which has long been a fat-friendly shopping place for big girls) and was red, with a skirted bottom and matching top.

It felt brave and freeing but, to be honest, it still had a lot of fabric.

Since then, I've become a bit of a fanatic and my bikinis have done nothing but get smaller with less coverage. I hadn't made the break to a full-on teeny tiny bikini until this year, and freeing my stretch-marked belly from high-waisted bottoms has felt liberating, glorious and rebellious.

I love feeling the sun on my skin, seeing the shimmy of my body in the water, and exposing more delicious curves.

The most important lesson I've learned about summer fashion may be this: You're not fooling anyone (least of all yourself) by covering up your body with a lot of clothing. You're just making yourself super sweaty and uncomfortable.

People already know what you look like and won't be surprised—or even care—when they see you wearing short shorts or a dress with spaghetti straps, or taking your shirt off at the pool.

And if they are?

That says much more about their insecurities than it does about you or your body. Start small like I did: Wear a sleeveless top or a cute skirt. Go a step further and take a dip in the lake in a bathing suit. Or get wild and pick up a romper or a shimmery string bikini if that's more your style.

You'll find small fashion risks will lead to greater ones and, more importantly, to more confidence, freedom and a cooler way to celebrate warmer weather.

Life is too short—and so is summer—to spend it worried about what you look like.

Amy Pence-Brown is a body image activist, writer, artist, public speaker and all around radical Idahoan.

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