I’ve written about my body a few times in blogs and countless times in journals. I sign off each new body dialogue thinking, “Phew, so glad I’m finally healed. How good it does feel to be over this thing that has weighed on me since middle school.”
But I’m not over it. I’ll never be over it. And I’ve been realizing this lately in a way that doesn’t have to be hopeless.
My body image was devoured in 6th grade, before my body had even developed. An 11-year-old boy called me fat a few times, and said I was pretty, but not hot. As if any of us, pre-pubescent and heavy into glitter makeup, knew what it meant to be “hot.” Seriously, this was the same year I wore a pooka shell necklace every day until it eventually burst in the hallway.
It’s wild to me how long these words have stuck in the back of my head. I’m 24 now, pursuing comedy in Chicago. I’m a writer at a tech company who blogs in her free time. I ran a half marathon one week before my latest birthday, and I am frequently dancing with friends who I love.
And yet, I don’t credit my reflection with these accolades. I cut her down to a face and a body, tirelessly wondering how she’s perceived, if people still find her pretty, but never hot. I’ve told myself bologna lies about how easy it must be for skinnier women; to be happy, to have successful relationships, to love themselves.
But I’ve been working on undoing these not-truths and sending them back to the vat of toxic waste where they were brewed. It’s been especially helpful to be honest with friends who are honest with me in return. To hear my girlfriends, many who live in bodies I’ve perpetually idealized, admit it’s not easy for them either. To hear they have their own spectrum of deeply-rooted insecurities.
While I don’t ever celebrate their pain—I certainly wish this constant self-doubt weren’t a reality for any man or woman—I feel much less alone in their company. It takes us both out of isolation, laying our problems on a table we can now sit at together. Many of us rarely discuss these topics because we’re so trained to compete, to compare. You can understand my surprise then, in feeling stronger after sharing our weaknesses.
(Hint: Different friends also have valuable perspectives on dealing with negative self-image that I’d never think of on my own. Talk to them! Not my friends, your friends. Although my friends are nice and would probably talk to you, too.)
I also feel empowered by their normalization of my feelings, as though negative self-image is not a fungus in the recesses of my brain. As if it’s something normal we share, a monster we fight together.
“Middle school is so formative,” my roommate recently said. “It’s when we’re deciding how we feel about ourselves. It makes sense for those moments to stick with us.”
Social media, though not without its problems, has also been a help. Throughout high school and college, I deeply believed only those in good shape lived full lives. I’ve spent years wondering when the skinnier version of myself would appear and really let me be happy. And she did appear, for a short time, although even she wasn’t good enough. (That part is important, and a story for a different time.)
Following body-positive role models on Instagram has helped my brain adjust its thought processes. Although I don’t know these women, I want to believe their promises that it’s possible to love yourself while maintaining reasonable health and fitness goals. That I’m no less worthy of love and acceptance just because society hasn’t praised my body type since the renaissance period.
I have also been in therapy! Which is not an affordable or attainable solution for everyone, and that is okay! It is not the only way to get better. Plus, I’ll tell you what my provider has told me: no one else’s opinion on your body matters but your own. This is so elementary, and yet so disbelieved.
Yet, when I really think about it, I mostly LIKE my body. I enjoy the curve of my hips, and the way I fill out dresses, the powerful shape of my legs and the arms that have never needed help with the overhead bin on an airplane. It’s not until I put these qualities up against someone different, someone whose features are said to be better in some way or another, that I begin to doubt my own. Which makes sense, when I remember someone else’s words robbed me of my self-assurance in the first place.
I’ve learned that finding love for myself is not about erasing the parts I don’t like, but erasing the voices saying they should be anything different. I’ve learned I’m not waiting around to live a skinnier life, even though I do have goals to eat better and work out regularly. I’m learning photos of me at a pumpkin patch or in a coffee shop or at home with my family aren’t less worth posting because someone from college might see I gained my weight back.
And I’m learning my bad days are just that—bad days. Not complete undoings of the work I’ve done, or cancellations of my self-confidence. They’re setbacks for as long as I say they are, and then we pick back up and keep going where we left off.
This isn’t the end of the conversation for me. Maybe it’s just the beginning of the conversation for you. I’m not over it, but I’m becoming okay with that. For the first time in a long time, I’m feeling in charge of the dialogue around my body, and hopeful that women can reclaim the confidence withheld from them for so long.