I can remember being hyper-aware of my body as a little kid. I was 8 years old and refused to wear pants at all because I was worried about showing everyone how chubby my thighs were. Thinking back, it was kind of bizarre for an 8-year-old to feel that way. I was bullied a lot for having baby fat though, so it was something that was always on my mind.
As I grew older the obsession became more destructive. Boys started coming in to play and as a 15-year-old who still hadn't been kissed, I felt like there was something inherently wrong with me. In retrospect, I wasn't overweight at all, but whatever the scale said and whatever my doctor said weren't loud enough to counteract the little voice in my head. I started counting calories, running on the treadmill all the time. The pounds started shedding off, and, more than a physical change, I had a mental change. I considered myself victorious whenever I ate less than a thousand calories a day, and I was happy because boys in school started really paying attention to me. I couldn't stop comparing myself to everyone around me. Was I the skinniest one in the room? I picked out my "problem" areas...my arms were too chubby, my butt was too flat, my stomach wasn't toned enough, from years of horseback riding I had overly muscular legs that I was ashamed of. I even was embarrassed of my chubby little fingers.
I fought my way through two eating disorders that engrained themselves into my psyche as old friends, as a comfort zone. The turning point came when I was 21 years old. I'd been singing for a while and I realized that if I kept being unkind to my body, I would destroy my voice. Through music, through therapy, through friends, I learned that my most important job was to take care of myself. That I'm here for a reason and I need to honor that. To be honest, I'm still a little self-conscious, body image is still a soft spot for me - it's something I work at every day. But I'm happy to be here now; I dance my flat butt off every weekend and sing real loud and my voice doesn't crack or waver anymore, it's strong, it's healthy - it's drowned out all those thoughts I once had and now everyone can hear me.
Let's get this out on the table right away. I stand at 5'9" at typical body weight for my height. I'll also say that I feel a bit out of shape and think I could stand to lose a few pounds.
With that, it's become increasingly difficult not to compare what I look like against that super chic, fit woman on the subway - or more relative - to my closest friends and acquaintances. We're really harming ourselves, talking about how we need to lose x amount of weight; how "I want your abs," or how "you want my legs." It's so toxic and continues that abusive cycle of comparing and analyzing our bodies, poking at ourselves for things that make us who we are.
I try to remember that the way you're perceived is through the confidence with which you carry yourself. I might have too-big eyes and be too tall, and I might not be super-thin and tiny-waisted with a big booty or a slew of other clichés that fit the mold of what's societally pretty today. But the one thing that will always stay "sexy" is a woman's confidence...a woman's ambition and drive to create change in our society by being powerful.
So, I'm beautiful. You're beautiful. Don't be modest - we can change the world.
I can't really remember a time when I didn't judge my body in opposition to the bodies around me. I loved gymnastics and dance growing up, but those activities required a lot of time staring straight into a mirror and judging, so I learned the difference very quickly between a "good" body and the one I had. My thighs were too big, my legs were too short, I was round where I wanted to be straight. I'd go a whole day eating nothing but baby carrots; I'd work out long before the sun rose to try to wiggle into the smallest jeans I could find.
I still do a fair amount of hating on my body and I'm not proud of it. But now, when I'm measuring how gigantic my thighs are or how short I am next to another woman, I tell myself that this is the body I've got and I owe it to myself to use it. I'm not going to get taller and I'm never going to be a twiggy model-type loping around the world (or on the TV screen, magazine covers, or at the movies for that matter.)
When I can't do it, when I'm in a place of absolute self-loathing and body hating, I try to remember that there are young girls everywhere who are listening to their moms talk about their jiggly arms or their fat thighs. I remember what it was like to hear the women around me talk about their bodies like that. I remember how terrible it felt to stand in front of the mirror and rag on myself, so I try to think of the baby feminists out there who are still growing and changing and I flip the script on the negative self-talk. They're listening, so I try to say the right thing whenever I can.
As much as I wholeheartedly believe in body positivity, I never apply it to my own relationship with my body and I have disordered eating and exercise habits because of it. And I love to beat myself up for beating myself up. The available literature on eating disorders seems to be full of either recovery memoirs from people who have arrived on the other side, or their exact opposite: People who are in the depths of their disease and chronicling their further descent into it on social media.
I fall in a middle ground where my food and body image issues have not been conquered, but I'm not in a free fall into them either. By emphasizing to myself that this is a relationship with my body that is going to change from day to day, I can try to manage it rather than overcome it entirely. Forgiving myself in this way has relieved some of the guilt associated with my failure to extend the love and acceptance of my own body that I try to extend to everyone else's.
I've had what I consider "regular," small-time issues with my body since puberty: I don't like my stomach, I like my legs, but I'd love to know how it feels to have a thigh gap (sigh). I like the way I look generally, and I wish I could get over these small hang-ups, but there it is.
The hardest part of not always liking myself has been dealing with my friends. Almost all my friends are skinnier than me, with bigger boobs I might add. And for the longest time, I hated them for that. I was envious, and sometimes still am, of their (in my eyes) infuriatingly better-than-average body - all the clothes fit them perfectly! All the guys think they're hot!
As a feminist, I realize that this sense of competition between women is petty and harmful, which makes me feel even worse. But I just can't help it. I even invented myself an aversion for the beach - "ugh, I hate sand, and I hate surfing" - just because every summer I dreaded the moment where I would have to stand next to them wearing a bikini and be the chubby one. I lived in Austin for a year, where I had a swimming pool in my building, plus all my friends loved to spend time at the lake. I never swam, not even once.
For the past two years I've learned to accept and even love myself. Maybe Mindy Kaling and her awesome curves helped me, or maybe it was the rise of the Big Butt trend. In any case, I realized that my body shape is the way it is: I'm not meant to have narrow hips or a super-flat stomach. it's simply not going to happen, and that's totally OK.
Now I actually love my hips and my big butt. Last summer I went back to Austin and spent the 4th of July by the lake, in my bikini, surrounded by my friends. I swam all day. Honestly, it was one of the best days of my life.
I've never been the most athletic person (lack of coordination and an addiction to books/TV/the internet have scratched out a largely indoor, sedentary rhythm in my life), but I've always been pretty slim. Oh, as a teenager I complained about being fat and compared myself to my skinny friends, obsessing over the stretch marks on my legs and the boobs I thought were too big. But it was teenage insecurity, borne out of a lifetime of witnessing the beautiful women I loved putting themselves down and those I saw on TV and read about agonizing over their teensiest flaws.
I joined the gym and lost 5 kilos, and prided myself on my newfound fitness and the abilities that came with it. People commented on my weight; "Gee, you've lost a lot," and "Wow, you're so skinny; well done!" In my head, all I heard was, "You're thin now, you're better than you were before."
Fast-forward through getting a full-time job, moving away from home, depression, anxiety, and the corresponding medications, and the weight piled back on and then some. And THEN some. My natural (lazy) inclinations took over and my feelings of self-worth plummeted, and with them all my motivation to take care of myself.
I knew what was good for me and I didn't do it, because I didn't feel I deserved it and I didn't see the point. I knew what was bad for me and I sought it out, because I hated myself and couldn't be bothered doing anything else. People commented on my weight; "You've put on a lot!" and "Should you really be eating that?" In my head, all I heard was, "You're fat now, you're not as good as you were before."
It was startling the day I realised I was fat. How did I become a fat person? I grew up in a fat-phobic household in a fat-hating society and I had become the thing that everyone hates. I hated myself. And I hated myself for hating myself. Because for years I'd espoused the belief that everybody is worthy and nobody should be made to feel ashamed. And here I was, feeling unworthy and ashamed. My body was a battleground, an external manifestation of constant internal conflict. I worried that if I lost weight I was only validating the screwed-up views of society and negating my own beliefs. But the only person I was really hurting was myself.
Food, once a source of nourishment and delight, morphed into a tool of self-harm, a daily middle finger to the world for making me feel like shit but even more so to myself for actually being shit. Exercise, once something I enjoyed and even excelled at, became a source of fear and a reminder of how far I'd fallen. I was trapped in a vicious cycle of self-hatred and self-punishment. I spiraled out of control. The more of me there was, the less of me I felt.
These days I'm trying to be kinder to myself. I remind myself that loving my body means taking care of my body and that I am worthy of that love. But it's a daily struggle, and the thing that gives me hope is the idea that maybe I'm not alone. That other women know what it is to be pulled in a million different directions as you try to navigate the tension between who you want to be, who you think you should be, who other people think you should be, and who you actually are. And the idea that maybe, just maybe, it's time to put ourselves first. To be kind to ourselves and love ourselves and truly understand and appreciate all that entails. Imagine a world where we could live like that.
The first time I really felt the weight of my body issues was when my doctor sat me up on the examination table and looked at me sadly, saying, "Well, you have your dad's metabolism." I was hoping to hear the opposite. My mom had hyperthyroid, which basically meant she could eat A TON and not gain weight easily. On the other hand, my dad always struggled with his weight. So from then on I was always the "athletic friend," never the "skinny one." I was fit for sure, but I was never that typical skinny teenage girl who could eat pizza for a year and not gain weight. I have a butt and some boobs, so it was hard growing up looking at supermodels like Kate Moss and thin, thin "role models" that I could never look like. From very early on, I was always keeping track of what I was eating, how much I was exercising, and how to stay at my goal weight. It's always been hard from me, but on the flip side, I know healthy eating habits, and when that day comes where everyone's metabolisms slow down, I'll be sittin' right there waiting with my plentiful nutritional advice.
I have a pretty difficult relationship with my body - it's just a tool and a nuisance to me most of the time because I battle with trauma and illness - so it's conscious, that I have this thing, that I have to deal with all the time, forever, and have to pay attention to. I've gotten way better at tuning into my body recently, though, because I'm taking time out of my day to do yoga or exercise, which helps me zone out and just work on finding the limits I'm most comfortable with. I haven't exercised in years, but I do now, every day or every other. It makes me feel strong and like I am in control of something. I really rarely feel like I'm in control of my body - or at least, the way it is perceived. So for an hour a day, I get to totally devote my time into a limb, a stretch, a breathing exercise. It's important to me.
I could say I did it because I wanted specifically to feel this sense of power and ownership, but I really did it so I could lose enough weight to fit back into this dress I love again. (Ha, I can hear the disappointed groans regarding this right now. Sorry I let you down, feminism.) I call it my trigger dress. I bought it a few months after a horrible relationship ended, and I was the lightest I'd ever been…I'd just wasted away in depression and gaslighting and all these things compounding. Everything I owned was pretty baggy on me...pardon, in fashion, we call it voluminous. It was cute, all corduroy and fake fur and striped vintage pants. Kind of a happy carnival on my body, it belied how utterly miserable and wrecked I was as a person mentally. Just totally clawing my way out of thinking I was insane and realizing I was just trained to think that because of my horrible relationship. I had a lot of dreams that I didn't know weren't real, and because I slept so poorly I often walked around unsure if what I was experiencing was real or just another psychotic night terror. Anyway, one weekend I'd gone to Tokio 7 - it's this amazing consignment store here, that everyone in fashion shops at, 'cause it has all our favorite designers for so cheap - and I spent hours trying on everything and crying in the dressing room. I really love clothes, so much, and I found this dress! It's this iridescent grey cocktail number by Vivienne Westwood, cut so dramatically. I put it on and my friend and I both gasped; it made me look...well, hot. This tiny, soft creature, basically emotionally bleeding everywhere, suddenly all buttoned up into this severely cut number. It made me look scary and in charge and dramatic and beautiful. I impulsively bought it and promised to wear it to my college graduation, which was a few months away. I'd never owned anything so formal before. It made me feel optimistic that I could transform the mangled headspace I was living in into something better for me - eventually. Of course I bought it. Wouldn't you?
As luck would have it, I was too monumentally hungover to wear it to my graduation though. I didn't even go - the night before I got totally wasted with my friends in celebration (there was some vom out a car window, I'm so sorry, America). I couldn't even get out of bed until 3pm. I ended up begging my family to just take me to PathMark and I sat on one of those coin-operated horses with sunglasses on, and ate an entire ice cream cake by myself in this Vivienne Westwood cocktail dress. It was hilarious and pitiful. I felt like I was in Bridesmaids. I don't regret it at all. It was a beautifully indulgent weekend with the people who loved me the most.
That was the only time I fit into the dress. Over the next year, my body and mental space changed and I stopped neglecting myself...and so I stopped fitting into that dress, because I filled up my bones again. I tried putting it on a few months ago: I couldn't button it up. I felt really weird about it for weeks - it's this beautiful dress that never had its real official debut, and I wanted to experience the person I'd be in it! So when I started exercising it was totally to lose a little weight and tighten up so I could fit into it again. But now, I don't really care. I like how strong my legs are now. I like how my body has changed over the years. I think that dress did it's job for me...and I'm happier the way I am now, much more, I think, than I'd be as the me that could still fit into her. I'll get around to selling it one of these days. Now, it's just hanging in my room next to the mirror - a token to remember how far I've come.
The first time I was called beautiful, I was standing in a modeling agency. All my life, I've been what's considered "fat." All my life, I was never asked out, asked to a dance, or basically even mentioned in the same sentence as pretty. Of course, my family told me from time to time how pretty I was, but that's what families are supposed to do.
But there I was. I had won a modeling contest and suddenly found myself employed as a plus-size model. I flew to Colombia, to Brazil, to Sweden. I worked for brands galore. My size was no longer a problem, a thing that needed to be fixed. I was apparently beautiful.
Sometimes I still struggle with self-love, as most people do. It's very easy for people to tell me, "but you used to model"; what they don't get is that it doesn't wipe away the years of feeling insignificant. No amount of compliments can erase the mean words, the dirty looks, the memory of running into the bathroom during slow dances so that I wasn't the only kid left alone.
If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be, "Keep your head up. Your feelings are valid. Your existence is valid. You're allowed to look however you want, my darling. Give the world some hell."