I remember the first time I outwardly thought I was fat.
I was putting on a favorite dress of mine–a little worn, probably a little old. I may had outgrown it a bit since I was growing quickly. I was 5 and my mom was helping me get dressed when I asked her, point-blank:
“Mom, am I fat?”
I remember the look of surprise on her face. Here was this tiny creature, dressed sweetly in a 101 Dalmatians dress and bare feet, asking one of the most loaded questions possible. Her surprised face became a furrowed brow. “No, you’re perfect just the way you are,” she told me, as stern as I’d ever seen her. “I think I like the way I am,” I remember telling her. And with that, I demanded my photo be taken in my favorite dress.
In second grade I remember a friend of my mother’s complimenting me for losing weight because I had my tonsils taken out and hadn’t eaten normally in weeks.
In third grade I remember telling my teacher that my New Year’s Resolution was to lose weight. She wrote it on a paper cut-out of a balloon and hung it in the hallway. I cried in the car-line until my mom came in and asked her to take it down.
In fourth grade I remember looking at my friends and thinking that I wasn’t as pretty as them, but I could be the funny one.
In sixth grade I remember my dance teachers applauding me for losing my baby fat.
In seventh grade a boy I sat next to told me I had sweet tits and a nice ass.
In eighth grade a peer’s boyfriend started having a crush on me, so she and another girl followed me around the school moo-ing and calling me a cow. This followed me home, where I would receive “anonymous” instant messages from strange screen names that simply said “MOOOOOOOOOOOO”.
And all through high school I thought of myself as the chubby friend, even though I weighed just around 120 pounds of pure muscle.
As I’ve gotten older, these little memories pop up at terrible moments. Trying on clothes, choosing something to eat off a menu. I’ll be standing there in a pretty dress, ready to hit the town with my dreamboat of a partner…and then I’ll remember the freckled-faced little girl wondering “Does this dress make me look fat?”.
As a culture, we are constantly applauding and degrading women (and yes, I know men too–but it is VASTLY more apparent with women) based on appearance alone. We are always judging someone’s character based immediately on the size of their bellies, the prominence of their noses, the beauty of their eyes. I know my stories may be unique to me, but they’re not unique in our society as a whole. Time after time I have heard women’s insecurities fly out of their hearts and bodies, most of them rooted in something when they were so young. I reached out to some of the most important women in my life to hear about their first experiences feeling negative towards their bodies. There aren’t enough words to thank them for their strength in sharing, and hopefully we can all gain some peace and resonance together. Although their accounts are anecdotal, there is a common message: the way we think about our bodies and the female bodies around us needs to revolutionize.
The language of young women regarding their bodies seems to be detrimental earlier and earlier–there were many common stories of “friends” and peers being the first to point out flaws. One shocking memory came from one of my most favorite ladies in the whole world: “I was at one of my first sleepovers, and all of the other girls agreed that I was chubby.” At first I just thought that this sounded like the worst slumber party in history, but then I recalled the things my friends and I used to do at these gatherings–freeze the girls with newly developed breasts bras, make fun of the girls who weren’t there for being “too fat” or “too slutty”, complimenting one another for skipping lunch that day. This “fat talk” begins so early, as another dear friend of mine shared a story from her days as a second grader: “I was walking around the gym with my friend. As we were walking, I said ‘Hey! We’ve been walking a lot! I think my tummy is shrinking!’ My friend looked over at me and said, ‘I don’t think it works that way.’ I suddenly felt really sad and even more self-conscious.” In middle school, it seems fears about body flaws magnified. “I thought my thighs were too big. This was in 6th grade and I just thought all the other girls were so small and dainty and I envied that,” a dear friend of mine said to me.
Even as we grew older, it seems like friends never really get the hint that talking negatively about bodies really isn’t ok. “My friends routinely called me fat in high school as a joke because I wasn’t fat, but it stunted my eating habits anyway,” another lovely lady told me.
Puberty was a major trigger for many of the women I talked to. The development of new bodies signified the loss of childhood, made you stand out from others, and the emotional changes often were a recipe for body positivity disaster. “I started my period when I was nine, so puberty was even before then. I remember sitting in class in 4th grade and a girl made fun of how pointy my developing breasts were. I was pretty devastated,” one of my friends told me. Another echoed the same sentiment of frustration over getting breasts–“I was 10 and was VERY upset that I was getting boobs already.”
Another friend of mine recounted the stress of puberty a bit differently: “I remember being in 5th grade and seeing a picture of myself in a two-piece for what felt like the first time. I remember being shocked that I didn’t look like a little kid anymore. I was so embarrassed that everyone saw me like that and I didn’t even know I looked that way. I gained a lot of weight really fast right around puberty, and it was a shock to me when I saw myself. It really altered my self-perspective. I bought one pieces for years after that. Until college actually.” There seemed to be endless new pressures of being an “adult” that came with body shaming. “I remember solidly when these bitchy girls in middle school made fun of my somewhat hairy legs (my mom wouldn’t allow me to shave),” was another friend’s difficulties with coming of age.
For some of the women I talked to, insecurities in their bodies didn’t start within themselves–the scrutinizing came from others first. “To be honest, I don’t feel [body negativity] was a huge struggle for me in the way it was something I thought about a lot. I never really tore myself about the way I looked or felt about my body. I think what it was more was the bullying of how skinny I was. I never really had the thoughts in my head that stemmed from me thinking about it…it was more what other people said, like how I looked sick or didn’t eat. Teachers and coaches thought that because I was skinny I had an eating disorder,” a good friend of mine told me when I asked about her own struggles with body criticism.
Unfortunately, it was common for the beginning source of body insecurities to come from adults that these young women trusted as children. “Despite my love and respect for my childhood ballet teacher, I have a very vivid memory of her when I was in 4th grade telling me my feet weren’t made for pointe, and constantly patting my belly to suck in. It was the first time I felt defeated by something I had no control over, considering you’re born with the feet you have. I never tried toe after that and have continued to have a love/hate relationship with the size of my feet,” another friend told me. The world of dance is full of body struggles, and is something I’ve written about at length before. As another friend of mine remembered her first-hand experience: “My ballet dance teacher told my mom I was too fat to pursue dancing in any real way. Though I didn’t overhear it when it happened, there was a part of me that knew it when my mom decided to pull me out of dance rather suddenly (I’m sure on some level, it triggered her issues with her weight, too).”
Ahh, mothers. This was a constant in all of our stories–even as I see my memories above, I noticed my mother being present in almost all of them. It seems like our opinions about our bodies start with the woman we spend so much time with, rely emotionally and physically on, and admire so deeply. Ranging from the positive to the damaging, most of the girls I talked to had complicated relationships with their bodies rooting in issues their own mothers had. “I’ve been dieting since I was 8 because all I ever saw was my mother monitoring her food, and I thought that was normal,” one girlfriend told me. After a traumatic dressing room experience where nothing fit her fourth grade frame, a best friend of mine remembered the drive back from the mall with her mom. “She said, ‘I am sorry you got my side of the family’s broad and larger body. I hoped you would get your dad’s genes just so you wouldn’t have to go through this like I always have.’ I am not trying to blame my mom. It is a societal issue that has been defining “beauty” and putting it on a pedestal for a very long time. But I think I might have gone home and become distracted by my Tamagatchi if my mom hadn’t apologized for giving me my body. I had never known to judge her body versus my dad’s sister’s body, who was taller and more thin, until that day. It solidified that tall and thin was good, but my larger shorter body was to be punished and made to feel ashamed for the way it was.” It was fascinating to me that even when these women were being told they were beautiful by their mothers, they still picked up on the frustrations their moms had. “I grew up in a home where I was told I was beautiful, but was surrounded by women who were not comfortable with their own bodies. My mother has been on some sort of diet my whole life and when I reached the terrible years of middle school, I saw that mentality in peers my age as well,” another friend told me.
Other women aren’t the only people to blame, of course. Men of all ages have triggered many insecurities for not only myself, but the ladies I spoke to and care about. “Exposing your body to other people definitely makes you start thinking about the details of it more. Having other people touch your stomach. Other people see you naked. You start more critically wanting to work out. Or more comfortably gravitating to sweat shirts,” explained one of my dearest gal pals. Another friend of mine remembered this insecurity starting in early high school: “It wasn’t so much about my body as my style. A brief relationship ended with the dude saying ‘she could be hot if she tried’, and his asshole friends making statements that I would never ‘be like her’…this was in reference to my biology partner, who was a very standard blonde-preppy-make-up-wearer. I personally didn’t see what the big deal was. My mother had always told me I was naturally pretty and didn’t push makeup or beauty products in the home.”
Probably one of the most interesting things that came from hearing all these powerful stories was what followed the story itself–usually an apology that their story probably wasn’t “significant” enough or what I was “looking” for. To me this stood out for a couple of reasons–for one, we are CONSTANTLY apologizing for our bodies. As women, we apologize that our body isn’t interesting enough, or our struggles aren’t valid because they don’t seem compelling. We forget so easily that our voices and our journeys deserve to be heard–I asked because I wanted to know, and the answers these women gave moved me in ways I will always be grateful for. Which led me to another idea, and that was that we do not talk about our bodies as women enough, at least not in the context of growing strength and confidence. Maybe if we were more candid with our discussions–shared our fears, celebrations, and love about these vessels carrying our personalities and spirits–we would be more free with our discussions and have a deeper understanding of the paths of body acceptance…not just within ourselves, but with women as a whole.
So, what does all of this mean? Are we all destined to repeat the same mistakes we’ve been making about body positivity since we were children? Do we need to stop encouraging each other to be skinnier, prettier, more feminine? When do we stop? How do we heal?
I believe that at the root of all healing there is community. I think that just by sharing these stories–by reading them, cherishing them, connecting with them–there is grace and power behind the words. We are not defined by the mistakes of our peers, our families, or our own doubts. Our beauty is not defined by society and our health is not determined by shame. As a community of women, if we can speak candidly and openly about our fears, we will find that we’re not so alone after all. As I poured over the text messages, emails, and discussions with these incredible women, I could find myself in each of their stories. I felt alive and I felt in-tune…I wanted to forward them each others stories, so that they could recognize that our words together are impactful, they are strong. We can heal as we are honest and brave with one another. Those are the first steps to breaking down the patriarchy and redefining what it means to us to be beautiful, to be healthy, to be a postive female force in our society. And that is gorgeous to me.
Thank you so much to the women who opened your hearts and stories with me. Your friendship and strength means more to me than I’ll ever fully be able to explain.