Content warning: weight, body image, food, and so on.
(Also, please note that I’m writing purely about my own experiences, and this isn’t meant to reflect anything but my inner thoughts. I’m not trying to get any point across. I just want to unload, as it were.)
I’ve struggled with my body since I was in my early 20s. I know, I was kind of old. When I read articles about girls and body image, it always says that girls begin worrying about weight when they’re young, too young. But I was in my early 20s, a few years into college, and it happened when I gained 40 lbs.
This happened for a few reasons. First, I started taking anti-anxiety medication, which meant that for the first time in my life, I wasn’t sick to my stomach from worry all the time. I actually had an appetite! I was able to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and no one — not even my anxiety — could stop me. Second, I was happy. I was in a serious, emotionally fulfilling, and comfortable relationship. And we ate together. A lot. I ate the same massive portions as my boyfriend, a 6’3″ 24-year-old with a lightning-fast metabolism. And third, I didn’t know anything about nutrition. My idea of eating “healthy” was like… a bagel and cream cheese. I had no idea what calories or fiber or fat or any of that meant. I just ate what tasted good.
So, unsurprisingly, I gained 40 lbs in the space of probably a year. At one point, I had lost so much weight due to anxiety that I only weighed 90 lbs. Less than two years after that, I weighed 140 lbs. I’m 5’1″, so it was a very significant and very noticeable change. My body didn’t handle it well — I had burst blood vessels all over my thighs, where my weight gain was most substantial, and stretch marks due to the rapid expansion of my skin. My digestion was fucked up, and I no longer knew how to dress my new body.
It was a confusing time for me! Obviously, as I said, I was so happy in my relationship and school and, after I graduated, my job. But I didn’t like how I looked, and I didn’t understand how this change had happened so suddenly.
Finally, at the advice of my mom, I started Weight Watchers. When I set goals I keep them, so I stuck with it, and by the time I went to grad school in London a couple years later, I had lost almost all the weight I’d gained. I liked the way I looked in my clothes again, and I had learned to understand how my body responded to food.
But unlike my body, my mentality never went back to baseline. Up until the time I started gaining weight, I rarely, if ever, looked at my body and disliked what I saw. I just didn’t think about it. It helped that I weighed 100 lbs and had other pressing concerns, like my bad hair or braces or acne or general air of awkward and unapproachable loser. But even after I lost weight, I had become aware of one terrifying fact: I could gain weight. I wasn’t immune. At any moment, I felt, my body could betray me and go back to the way it had been: unfamiliar, uncomfortable, difficult to dress, and — I feel awful just typing this — repulsive, from my warped point of view.
I’ve lost more weight since then. I gain weight easily, because I’m super short with the most sedentary lifestyle possible, so it tends to go up and down. But the most upsetting thing, and the thing that I knew would be true but never really understood, is that no matter how small I get, no matter the fact that the GAP petite size 00 is now too big for me, a day never goes by that I don’t think a negative — if not truly hateful — thought about my body.
I know I am not alone. I know this is something all people experience, especially women. And I feel weird writing about it because I am very small, I’m white, I fit pretty well within traditional Western beauty standards. I know this, and remind myself of this as much as I can. But even knowing all that, it is so incredibly hard to reach a healthy place with my body image.
In the past two years I’ve stopped weighing myself, deleted MyFitnessPal, and stopped counting my calories obsessively. For the most part, I eat when I’m hungry, and only what will sate my hunger — I don’t overeat (unless I go out with the express purpose of doing so, which, let’s face it, is still one of life’s biggest pleasures).
Another important step I’ve made is that, instead of relying on my boyfriend to verify my “hotness,” which I was very guilty of doing when I had one, now I’m doing my best to tell myself I’m hot. Whenever I catch myself starting to spiral into a dark place of self-loathing, I consciously have to decide to make positive statements about myself instead. I remind myself that there’s no point to hating the way I look. Literally none whatsoever. If I want to watch what I eat, fine, but beating myself up will only result in misery. So I do my best to say kind things to myself, focus on the parts of myself that I love — both physical and otherwise — and move on with my day.
For the most part, teaching myself to be kind and loving to myself is getting easier. I’m starting to believe myself more and more when I say loving things, and to catch myself when I say hateful things. I refuse to say things to myself that I would never say to a loved one. If there’s one person in life who I should love and care for above all others, it’s me. So why say cruel words when I could say kind ones?
It’s been a long and difficult journey. And I’m writing about it now because I just put on a pair of shorts that fit me last year, and which I’ve now discovered just barely fit over my ass. I started to have a breakdown, thinking I was hideous, that I had to throw away all my clothes, that I was a deformed freak. Like, what the fuck? Just insane, irrational, ridiculous thoughts. But before I could truly spiral out of control, I paused and thought: why have I gained weight? What contributed to my thighs getting just a little doughier, my stomach having slightly deeper folds when I sit down?
Here’s what happened in the past year. I got my wisdom teeth removed, which caused me to have a massive outbreak of hives due to the anesthesia and narcotic medications I was taking. The steroids I took to treat the hives caused a bit of weight gain; that’s just the way they work. After the hives cleared up and I could eat solid foods again, and I was overcome with this renewed appreciation for the world after spending almost three weeks bedridden and in so much pain I could barely function. So I went out to eat a lot, I enjoyed food a lot, and it made me happy. I didn’t limit myself, because I wanted to enjoy life. And then I got a promotion at work, I have a little more money, and I like to spend money on eating out at foodie restaurants with my bestie; it’s one of my favorite things to do in life. So yeah, after all that, I gained some weight. But all of those things were either unavoidable, or truly positive.
Would I take back any of the incredible, delicious meals I’ve eaten this year? Absolutely not. Would I take back even the traumatic experience with the hives? No, I don’t think I would. It was an experience that I think directly led me to write an entire novel in two months in the direct aftermath. That experience gave me what felt, at the time, like a new lease on life. So no, I wouldn’t change any of these things.
So why should I hate the changes in my body that reflect these important experiences? Why should I hate that my thighs won’t fit in these stupid shorts? The reason they won’t fit is because I’ve eaten good food, spent time with good friends, and gone through some shit that I wouldn’t take back, even if I could.
Do I have a totally healthy body image? No. Does anyone? Probably not. I don’t think I’ll ever 100% love my body, or go a full day without a critical thought about my body flitting through my head. But I realized today that it’s a long journey, one which I may never reach the end of, and I’ve already come such a long way. I’m really proud of that. All I can do is keep at it.
And here’s a reminder to myself, to you, to anyone: be nice to yourself. As much as you can. Even if it’s just once a day, for 30 seconds. Say kind things to yourself. It’s wild how much of a difference it makes.