Clothing Challenges in Eating Disorder Recovery

Kristen Fuller, M.D., Center for Discovery

Eating disorders are frequently accompanied by negative body image, including general body dissatisfaction, body image distortions, overvaluation of weight and shape, excessive body comparisons and body checking behaviors. All of these can make dressing oneself and shopping for clothes quite overwhelming and anxiety provoking. A cultural emphasis on clothing sizes and marketing of unrealistic body types can make it even harder. One aspect that can be particularly challenging through eating disorder recovery is adjusting clothes as the body changes. Many individuals notice fluctuations with their body as they go through recovery, especially as the body adjusts to normalized eating behaviors and a person is no longer engaging in compensatory mechanisms.


Letting go of the old to be in with the new

Often times, old clothes are kept and used as a means of body checking, or measuring if weight has been gained or not. It is not uncommon for clothes to be used in a way that fuels the eating disorder, especially if a person gauges their “success” with their eating disorder by what clothes or size they might be able to fit in. In order to fully be able to heal and recover from an eating disorder, it is especially important to learn to let go of any such clothes that were used for these purposes. Even the sight of these clothes can be triggering, which can be damaging for a person who is feeling vulnerable in the recovery process. Keeping old clothes that were part of the eating disorder is like holding a lifeline to the disease itself, and this is contradictory to the recovery process itself.

The importance of comfort

When clothes are too tight, they act as a trigger for eating disorder thoughts each time you wear them. Your distorted thoughts will tell you there is something wrong with your body when in reality the article of clothing may be poorly designed or is simply the wrong size. Choose an item that feels comfortable to you, lets you breathe without feeling constricted, and does not pinch or poke you in any way. In other words, do not focus on the size but rather focus on what fits in you in a comfortable manner.

If you do end up fixating on the size of an item you’re trying on, remind yourself that that there is no known law requiring clothing makers to adhere to specific size standards or measurements. In other words, a size 4 in one brand could be more closely matching a size 8 in a different brand. Even within the same clothing brand, you may fit in drastically different sizes depending on the style of the item you are buying.

A recovery-focused wardrobe includes clothing that properly fits your body at a stable, healthy weight and is neither too small (pinching/excessively tight) nor too big (in an attempt to hide or avoid your body). It may sound trivial, but ensuring you have a closet full of comfortable and appropriate clothing can be a form of relapse prevention in and of itself.


Quick steps to remember while shopping in recovery

Utilize cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills and other therapy methods to challenge distorted thoughts about your body

  • Practice deep breathing and mindfulness when things get overwhelming
  • Take a supportive shopping partner with you
  • Shop for one specific item at a time
  • Start with style and color before you focus on size
  • Try to stay in the moment without judging yourself
  • Remember that clothes are meant to fit the person, not the other way around