My body, like all women’s bodies, has always been up for discussion.
When I was a child, people were always commenting on my size. I wasn’t short for my age, but every chart labelled meunderweight. At school kids called me ‘toothpick’ and made fun of my bony elbows and knees. My parents told how me they used to be little just like me, and relatives made jokes like, She has to run around in the shower to get wet—ha ha.
The message was pretty clear: being thin was a big part of who I was. I didn’t much like being teased or singled out, but as I got older I grew to not mind the attention for this specific thing.
In middle school other students told me I needed to eat something, some suggesting I must be anorexic. Again, I didn’t particularly enjoy these things, but I was beginning to feel some level of pride that I was thinner than most other people. It was my “thing”.
This attention continued as I got older. Friends and acquaintances would pick me up, just because they could. More than one boy told me that since I was naturally thin, I could have “the perfect body” if only I tried. But I remember not wanting to be seen exercising or eating anything especially healthy, for fear that someone might think I was putting effort into being thin.
Throughout this time my mum stood in front of the mirror and criticized her own body, lamenting how it used to look like mine and now it didn’t. I internalized the way she spoke to herself, not the way she spoke to me, and in the back of my mind I began to fear that one day I, too, would get bigger—and then what would I have going for me?
Who am I?
When I was about 16 or 17 two things happened. I noticed that I had started to fill out—my knees were no longer the widest part of my legs—and there was another girl at school who was thinner than I was.
The combination of these two things completely shook my sense of self. If I wasn’t the thinnest girl, who was I?
I started skipping breakfast and eating very little at recess. My family lived close to the school, and I began to go home for lunch so that no one would know I was eating practically nothing. Hunger pains felt like an accomplishment, and when I did eat I felt disgusted with myself.
I don’t like to talk about how many pounds I lost or how much I weighed, but suffice to say people noticed. And so once again, they were paying attention to me because of my weight.
If anyone asked what was going on, I said I felt sick when I ate—which by the time people started to ask questions was true. My body was so used to being deprived of food that when I did eat I felt nauseated. But the fact that I was deliberately starving myself was a secret no one could ever know.
After some time, my mum took me to the doctor, whom I told my half-truth about feeling ill when I ate. She said that I was “spiralling towards an eating disorder” and I needed to push through my nausea and force myself to eat.
I felt like I’d been found out; I was so ashamed. Even though nobody really knew what was going on inside my head, hearing the words “eating disorder” out loud made me feel like the girl in the movie who counts out how many potato chips she can eat—the girl everyone scoffs at and judges.
While shame and guilt over mental illness are in no way positive things, in some ways they pulled me back from the brink. Under some supervision at home I gradually started to eat again, knowing that I couldn’t hide my secret any longer.
But the underlying issues remained unresolved.
For the next five or six years my obsessive thoughts surrounding my weight ebbed and flowed, but never truly went away. I yo-yoed between exercising constantly or not at all. My relationship with food wasn’t healthy, and I often felt guilty about what and how much I ate.
I never felt I could talk to anyone about how I felt about my body because objectively I knew I was thin. I worried that talking about these struggles would invite judgment and resentment.
Finally saying it out loud
A few years ago I started seeing a therapist to deal with some anxiety issues I was having, and eventually we discussed my body image issues. I told her everything about what happened in high school and my feelings since then. It was terrifying but cathartic to finally acknowledge the whole truth out loud.
She said my eating during those high school years was certainly disordered, no spiral about it. Over time she helped me with some strategies to turn my negative self talk around, and focus on the many other things besides my body that make me who I am.
Gradually, most of my negative thoughts about my body became background noise I could tune out. Of course they have never completely gone away—it’s not like flipping a switch, and our society tries pretty hard to make all women feel bad about themselves. But those thoughts (usually) aren’t the ones that prevail.
I’ve found a happy middle ground with exercise, and I’ve learned that food is fuel. For the first time in my life, I feel strong—something that I truly never even considered I could be before.
Like most women, I have insecurities, but I’m in a much better place than I was 10 years ago.
I consider myself very lucky. When I was a teenager I had a mother who cared enough to notice something was up, take me to a doctor, and make sure I started to eat again. And as an adult I was able to afford to get professional help to work on these issues, something so many people don’t have access to.
Would I struggle with the things I’ve written about here if there hadn’t been so much focus placed on my size as I grew up? Maybe. There are countless reasons why girls and women learn to hate their bodies, and develop disordered eating habits. But that emphasis on my physicality my whole life certainly didn’t help.
When you meet a child don’t comment on her appearance, regardless of her size. Ask her what she’s reading, what sport she’s playing, or what her favourite game or animal is. Don’t teach her that the only things about her worth talking about are her physical attributes.
Remember that children internalize the way they see and hear you treating yourself. This is by no means the only reason to be more kind to yourself, but it’s an important one.
When you meet a teenager or young woman who seems to have an unhealthy relationship with food or fixation on her weight—don’t judge her. Don’t ask accusatory questions or make her feel like she’s a ridiculous cliche. What she needs is your understanding and support, not condescension and contempt.
And above all, remember that there is so much more to you than your outer shell, and so much more to life than trying to meet ridiculous, unattainable beauty standards. You’re perfect just as you are.