I was 16 years old when I decided enough was enough. I was overweight and I despised myself for it. I would wear a large baggy sweatshirt to cover my lumps, even if it was 95 degrees. At lunch time, I would hide in classrooms where I could finally take off the sweatshirt to cool off. During class time, I was constantly obsessing with how fat my body felt, and how sweaty I was from the sweatshirt. I couldn’t pay attention to the material and I received poor grades. People thought I was just unintelligent (at least that is what the school bullies where telling me).
I was sick of it. I was depressed. It was time for a major life change. I got down to serious business with my eating and exercise. I started to wake up at 5 a.m. to practice yoga. For breakfast, I would eat an apple with peanut butter and drink a coffee black. During the school day I would either skip snack time or eat celery. For lunch, I would eat one cup of nonfat plain yogurt and a handful of carrots. After school, I would run one mile around the soccer field and then do twenty minutes of weight lifting. My mother would pick me up soon after. I often complained how hungry I felt. “That’s the feeling of you losing weight.” She would tell me.
For dinner, I allowed myself to eat whatever my parents cooked. But, under NO circumstances, would I have second helpings or dessert.
Two months later, I was down 25 pounds. I was ecstatic! I finally felt comfortable to wear fitted shirts. I threw my baggy sweatshirt away. Suddenly people who had always ignored me wanted to chat with me. Boys became interested in me. I could finally relax and pay attention in class; I was making A’s. As far as I was concerned, weight loss was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was finally a respected human again.
I maintained my weight loss more or less for the next six years. At the beginning of college, I gained some weight but it was mostly in muscle from cross country. I was by no means a cursed “fat person.”
In my second year of college, I became severely depressed and I went from 135 pounds to 150 pounds. My kind-of-sort-of boyfriend at the time told me that I needed to get “control” of myself because he wanted to have sex with someone he was attracted to. A family member told me that wearing leggings was me fooling myself from the truth.
I got back to business. I ate quinoa and lentils for meals. I worked out 90 minutes a day at high intensity. My weight went back down. But my self esteem and body image remained damaged.
In the years to follow, I always assumed the worse about my body. I assumed that I was too fat to be respected. Too fat for someone to want to have sex with. Too fat to be loved. I was constantly testing if my negative thoughts were true. I would go on Tinder dates that I didn’t even care about, to see if the guy would like me— or really, like my body. I would stay up all night writing long stories and essays, to prove to myself that I am a hard worker (which was respectable in my book). I had romantic flings with people who were completely incompatible only because I needed proof that someone could still love me.
All of this when I was still in what’s considered a “healthy weight range.”
My senior year of college knocked me on my ass. It was emotionally taxing, challenging, and even frightening at times. I fell into a depressive episode during the Fall semester, and went on medical leave. When I returned from medical leave, I had gained 30 pounds. I could see my friends’ faces express surprise and shock when they first saw me. My heart hurt.
Throughout the rest of the final semester, I made a series of desperate attempts to lose weight. I would have only salad for lunch and dinner. I would ban dessert and alcohol from my diet. But these attempts never lasted more than a few weeks.
All while this was happening, I was losing motivation to exercise. I kept experiencing pain in my foot during track practice— which prevented me from logging the mileage that was expected of me. I privately blamed the pains and aches on my newfound weight. I felt so angry at myself for getting so heavy. “You’ve become a lazy fat ass, Maura! You can barely even finish the 3 mile shakeout runs.” I would think to myself.
I felt that everyone was judging me; that I have lost the respect of my team and friends. Most importantly and unfortunately, I lost my self-respect. I quit the track team (something I would have never in a million years imagined), and I hyper-focused on my thesis.
My thesis was and had always been a major distraction from my anxieties. In the Fall semester, I used my thesis work as a cover for my anxiety about finding a post-college job. In the Spring semester, my thesis was a distraction from my poor body image.
When it was time to go to sleep, I would lie in bed and squeeze the fat on my stomach. How many rolls can the fat make? If I make more than two rolls, then I’m “too fat” and “disgusting.” I was so obsessed with counting rolls, I couldn’t sleep. So, to distract myself, I would get up and work on my thesis for a few more hours. Sometimes, I would wake up at 4 am because I could feel my stomach rolls or my double chin — how that bothered me! I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep, so I would just work on my thesis. I barely gave attention to other classes.
I thought that receiving a good grade on my thesis would disprove my self-hatred. Being fat meant that I was lazy and stupid; that I was undisciplined. And who would hire someone like that? Who would befriend that? I sure as hell wouldn’t!
And guess what? I received an A on my thesis. The College News wrote about me on the front page for it. The college asked to publish a report about the project on their website. I still hated myself. The hard work, the grade, and the recognition didn’t do shit for me.
After graduation, I discovered that the “body positive movement” is alive and well on Instagram. I obsessively followed these accounts. “Bopo” advocates essentially preach that weight does not equal value. Rationally, I completely agree. And yet, I still fight every day to keep the negative thoughts at bay. I am my own worst bully.
My poor body image has significantly damaged my mental health and productivity. While I could be applying to jobs, I am instead in front of the mirror analyzing my side profile. When I could be spending quality time with my partner, I am curled up in large sweatshirt obsessively reading nutrition books. Every meal is a battle. And when it’s not mealtime, all I can think about is what I am going to chose to eat at the next mealtime. It feels like I lose every battle.
Time and time again my partner reminds me, “It’s confidence that is attractive, not having the smallest body in the world.”
Ah, the age old “confidence is sexy” advise. But why do I even care what he or any man finds attractive? I mean, sure, it matters that my partner is attracted to me. The others shouldn’t matter. And yet, I find myself worrying if everyone else finds me attractive? WHY?? I suspect that it has something to do with women being hyper-sexualized in our society. A woman can either be sexy or not. If she is sexy, then she has value. If she is not, then don’t waste your time.
Nearly every commercial is a tall, thin, white woman enjoying the product in the most seductive way possible. Many of times I have talked to men, and when they found out that I have a partner– they immediately left the conversation. “Oops! Can’t sex with her. No point continuing the conversation!”
Often, I overhear my partner’s guy friends talk about who got with who. And if a friend of theirs got with a “fat girl” then everyone makes fun of him. Her confidence, intelligence, and humor be damned.
As I am typing this, I am realizing that so much of this revolves around a man’s opinion of a woman. As a graduate from a Seven Sister’s college, I am embarrassed to put so much weight and value on what men think. Didn’t I learn better?
I wish that I could end this essay with a clear message. The truth of the matter is that, when it comes to body image, I am quite lost. I rationally know that I am a strong-willed, intelligent, talented, and funny person. And yet, my body image pushes those strengths out of view. I am left thinking that I am just a fat girl: lazy, stupid, undisciplined, and unworthy of respect.
If you are someone who is struggling with poor body image, maybe you can take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. To add, there are some things that have helped me alleviate the hurt and alienation:
– Following body positive accounts on Instagram. I like to follow @bodyposipanda, @omgkenzieee, @sarahsapora, and @ ___halle__.
– Writing down five cheerleading statements a day. My cheerleading statements today are: 1. I am an accomplished individual. 2. I feel sad and I will be okay. 3. I am in a loving and supportive relationship. 4. I am a hard worker and my degree is proof of that. 5. I will score a job that makes me happy.
– Talking it out through therapy. I recognize that a huge part of my self-hatred is based on cognitive distortions. Therapy helps me recognize which thoughts are distortions and how to reverse them.
–Exercise. I say this not as an effort to lose weight, but to gain endorphins. I have always loved exercise, no matter what size I am. A good run to get a clear head. Elliptical to go hard while jamming to music. Swimming if you’re the ambitious type.
In conclusion, everyone’s body positive journey is different. Mine is just beginning. I don’t know the answer to finding happiness with your body, but I certainly know that my current habits, thoughts, and feelings are making me feel like shit. If anyone has any insight, please comment on the post or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.