When I was 8 years old, I thought I was fat. I remember the day it began very clearly: My paternal grandmother was babysitting my siblings and me because both our parents were at work. I suppose it was a Tuesday. She babysat us every Tuesday.
One of those Tuesdays, we were all sitting at the table having lunch. I looked down at my 8-year-old legs and saw a little spot that looked a little odd—almost like cellulite, to whatever degree a healthy 8-year-old can have cellulite.
I got my grandma's attention and showed her the "cellulite" on my thighs, to which she responded, "Oh no--you're fat!" She was joking, of course, and part of me knew that. But part of me was changed forever.
I'm not blaming my grandma for any body image issues I've had over the years. If she wouldn't have turned on the part of my brain that says, "There's something wrong with you," it would have been my other grandma, or my mom (when pointing out what she doesn't like about herself), or the media, or my friends growing into their womanly bodies... or maybe even my own desire to be the best. Any of these factors could have contributed to my body image issues, and I would venture to say that they have all been a reason at one point or another.
Now, how long did I feel insecure about my body? Quite a while. The day I realized I was thin went something like this: I had been sick with a stomach bug for a few days, and I was vomiting like crazy, even though I didn't have much food in my stomach. I looked sickly and pale from the bug, but on that morning, as I was getting ready to take a bath, I looked into the full-length mirror in my parents' bedroom. I saw myself as I was and whispered, "Wow, I'm skinny." It breaks my heart that my 8-year-old self was so preoccupied with being thin, and it breaks my heart even more that it took being undernourished and sickly for me to feel good about myself.
For about two years after that, I was fine.
When I was in fifth grade, I had a best friend who was adorable and tiny. I may have been a cute fifth grader, but I was not tiny. I was what my pediatrician would call "average" in both height and weight. More importantly, I was active and healthy. Naturally, however, I felt big when standing next to my tiny best friend.
I remember one time, my best friend's family took me to see her play in an indoor soccer game. During the game, her mother was talking to me. It was a beautiful snowy day in the middle of winter, and my friend and I were planning on playing outside after the game. There was just one problem: I didn't have my snow gear with me. No snowsuit, no scarf, no gloves--nothing. My friend's mom told me I could wear her gear. My best friend's wouldn't fit me, she said, because my best friend was tiny (and I was not). Obviously my friend was smaller than I was. That's just how our genes expressed themselves. That's how we were created. But in that moment, I felt utterly huge and embarrassed.
In sixth grade, I grew a lot. I was the tallest girl in my class at a whopping five feet, two inches. With the growth came constant growing pains all over my body, and because of these pains, I entered into a phase of hypochondria. I thought I was dying--that I had some terrible disease and wasn't even going to live through the sixth grade! Needless to say, I was in no way insecure about the appearance of my body. I was simply grateful to wake up each morning.
Due to my fear of illness, I insisted that my mom schedule a doctor's appointment for me as soon as possible.
The summer after sixth grade (yes, I lived through it), I saw the doctor. I was completely healthy, of course. However, as I said, I was tall, and I was proud to be tall. Being tall seemed like the coolest thing; I liked to view it as a contest. When I outgrew my petite grandparents and other short adults in my life, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. It was so fun measuring up next to people, being able to reach the top shelves in the cabinets, and being able to jump up and touch the ceiling. I loved being tall--that is, until I saw the doctor that day. As he was reviewing my chart, he pointed out that I was in the 90th percentile for height. I smiled with pride when he noted this. Then, he proceeded to say, "You shouldn't be embarrassed to be tall. Athletes and supermodels are tall."
"You shouldn't be embarrassed to be tall. Athletes and supermodels are tall."
"You shouldn't be embarrassed to be tall."
That may have been one of the most damaging statements ever uttered to me.
Being embarrassed about my height was not something that had ever occurred to me. In my mind, it was my greatest asset. I had something--my height--that I was incredibly proud of, and he planted the idea in my head that being tall was something one could possibly be embarrassed about. If I heard that statement now, I would know better than to think twice about it, but then--as a young adolescent--it left a significant impact on me. Should I be embarrassed to be tall?
I was embarrassed about my height from that day forward.
Middle school and high school passed for me the way I think it does for a good number of girls: I went through cycles of liking my body and, at times, wishing I had a different one. I often judged myself by the number on the scale, which didn't take into account muscle, bone density, water weight, or the beauty of my soul. When the number was higher, I felt more poorly about myself; when the number was lower, I felt more confident. I wish we never would have had a scale in our house.
I learned to cope with my body image issues, of course. What choice did I have? There were always friends to complain to, who also felt insecure about their bodies (and perhaps had body issues worse than mine). The thing is, I was healthy throughout middle school and high school. I ate well, ran track and cross country, and--to address my weight--it was consistent.
A month before my freshman year of college started, I gained 10 pounds. Why? Probably because I was working out a lot and gaining quite a bit of muscle mass. Even so, it wasn't always easy to keep reminding myself of that when I had been trying--to no avail--to make the number on the scale go down.
It was the 12th week of the first semester of my freshman year, and for 12 weeks, I had been upset about that weight gain. It was so easy to compare myself to others and wish my body were different.
Something happened one night, during that 12th week, though. It was a breakthrough of sorts. I hit rock bottom. I was feeling especially insecure about my body after seeing myself in the mirror during a yoga class, especially next to my tiny roommate. I felt so disconnected from and so hateful to my body, and I knew I had to change my mindset. I read any and every article I could find online about how to improve body image, and--while it was comforting to see that many women experience this type of problem--it was utterly heartbreaking to read about some of it: 5-year-olds who report being on diets. The role of the media and the starving models seen on so many magazines. Women who feel that their self-worth is determined by their weight. The notion that we as a society seem to place greater importance on being skinny than on being healthy.
I could go on and on about how the media propagates body image issues with its unrealistic standards of beauty and constant exposure to new fad diets. According to Liftable, the average American woman is 5 feet, 4 inches and 166 pounds. The average supermodel is 5 feet, 10 inches and 107 pounds. Why are our standards of beauty derived from unrealistic, publicized images of freakishly thin women?
The media isn't the only source of body image issues, though. They are often fostered within our own homes. Whether a mother expresses dislike for her own body, criticizes her daughter's body, or even--more subtly--praises others for their weight loss, young girls may adopt the idea that the way one's body looks is an indication of self-worth. We learn at a young age that weight loss is something to strive for. We learn that skinny is beautiful. I know few mothers who have helped instill positive body image in their daughters.
Why do we live in a world that is so focused on superficiality and external appearance? Why do we, girls and women of all ages, seem to scrutinize the smallest dimple on our thighs and the most subtle bulge of our bellies? Why do we often denounce the very aspects of our bodies that make us womanly? We were created perfectly. We were given these temples to house our glorious souls. Why should we disrespect the temple? Disrespecting the temple only dims the light inside.
That night, during the 12th week of the semester, I refused to live that way anymore. After reading those countless articles on body image, I went to the bathroom mirror and looked myself in the eye. Tears streamed down my face as I begged for compassion from myself, asked why I had been so mean for so long. I deserved love--especially from myself.
I have loved myself (and my body) unconditionally for 309 days so far, and I plan on continuing this trend for the rest of my life. Although I'm imperfect, I'm beautiful. More importantly, I am healthy. I eat well; I exercise my body. Even more, I have a very special soul. My kindness cannot be measured by the number on that scale; the love in my heart cannot be identified by the gap (or lack thereof) between my thighs. My happiness is not deterred by the slight bulge of my belly--the same bulge that will one day protect my children when I am expecting--and my quality of life is not determined by my measurements. I was created perfectly, and I was put on Earth for a reason. We were all put here for a reason. It's time we love ourselves more, respect the temples we call our bodies, and honor ourselves for the glorious divinity we are.