This story I’m about to tell you is not unique, but it’s mine, and I can guarantee most people have a similar story. There’s no dramatic story here of anorexia or bulimia, over-exercising, or bullying from classmates about my size, though many people, men and women, have these stories to tell, and it’s heartbreaking. I’m sure girls who were physically larger or smaller than I have similar memories, whatever the details are. The majority of us have a story where we feel less than our classmates and peers because of these bodies we were gifted with.
My story starts here.
I distinctly remember the first time I felt unhappy with my body. I was in fourth grade, at church of all places, and I remember sitting next to my friend whom I’d known since birth, someone who I’d always considered an equal to myself, whether that be beauty, brains, etc. And I remember looking down at our short-clad thighs touching the wooden pews and noticing her thighs were smaller than mine. And this thought ran through my little 9 year old brain that maybe something was wrong with me – maybe my thighs should be as skinny as hers – and because of this difference, I felt for the first time I was less than my friend.
And so began my journey with dissatisfaction and unhappiness with my body.
In middle school, I remember feeling awkward much of the time, but doesn’t everyone? I was skinny in weird places and had “fat” in others – my body was changing, just like it was supposed to. On top of that, I matured a few years earlier than most of my friends, so I felt especially awkward. I remember wearing a one piece at the pool when my friends were wearing bikinis, because I was very afraid of showing my stomach if it was larger than theirs.
If my memory is correct, I’ve always had a very healthy appetite, maybe even too healthy. I grew up with the classic Midwestern meals of meat and starch and was encouraged to seconds and thirds and felt badly if I didn’t clean my plate, no matter how much food I was served. But according to my mom, when I started high school, I exercised too much and ate too little. I was the smallest I’ve ever been in an adult body at that point, and I probably could never be that small again with any amount of diet and exercise.
I was happy with that very tiny size, but it was not sustainable. Gradually, I eased up. I put on a little weight and no longer took an hour to get ready in the morning. I ate normal amounts of food. I was very healthy and active, usually at school from 7 am to 9 pm doing all sorts of extra curriculars (I’m a former over-achiever). But in my mind, with this more healthy size came less approval from my male classmates. I had a very long list of things I would change about myself that I was sure would make people like me more. Less fat on my tummy, smaller thighs, less acne, a shorter and less pointy nose, eyes that didn’t crinkle up so much when I smiled.
When I look at photos of myself from high school, though I know it was filled with lots of teenage angst and turmoil, I see a very healthy and happy girl. But in my high school mind, I had felt like there were abnormal amounts of flaws that verged on making me unlovable to a male partner. It’s absurd, really – but it’s not unique. Most of us feel like we have this physical ugliness we won’t be able to overcome.
College was a totally new experience. I still knew I had imperfections; it was more of a journey of listening to my body. Drink enough water, don’t eat too much fried chicken and ice cream. I still felt the unnecessary necessity to clean my plate. I didn’t know how to listen to my stomach telling me it was full or thirsty. I wasn’t involved in three sports to keep my body in shape anymore. Working at restaurants makes you eat a lot of unnecessary food, even if you are on your feet and walking for hours at a time. Although I no longer hated my body, I still treated it like I didn’t really care for it.
And so it has been a swinging pendulum with self-love and self-care – hating my body, trying to run my ass off, realizing I hate running more than I hate my body. Loving my body, being good to it for about a week, then falling out of routine and not able to establish the right habits.
So naturally, I just finished a diet. I don’t think I’ve ever actually done one – I hate the concept. But after a summer of eating food served to me at a children’s camp (starch+starch+starch) I wanted to eat normal, healthy amounts of food again. Correct sized portions. I wanted to be kind to this one body I get for this lifetime, not achieve a certain look. I didn’t want six-pack abs or to look like a super model; I never will, and that’s just the way I’m built. I want to be strong and able-bodied and alive with energy.
So I portioned my food into color-coded containers. I worked out with a super-fit woman in tiny shorts on my laptop screen every day, telling me to give it my all. I felt silly. I probably bothered my downstairs neighbor. I cheated a few times. But I didn’t give up, and I feel a lot more healthy now.
In the videos, the super-fit woman says “Give me 21 Days and I’ll give the body you always wanted” while you’re supposed to be doing push-ups for a minute and you want to shout cuss words at her because it’s hard. But that body I always wanted in high school no longer exists anymore, because it’s unrealistic. I’ve never had a thigh gap and I never will. My heritage is a long line of farmers and hard workers and cold weather people who need strong bodies and a few extra pounds to keep them warm. My heritage is tall, strong, beautiful women who are guessed to be ten years younger than their age. My heritage is lion-hearted women, people of faith, people of impeccable moral standard. And now, this is the body I have always wanted, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s mine, and it’s the only one I’ve got.