Calls for “body positivity” echo across the Internet nowadays and society’s definition of beauty is being called into question. Online communities have become havens of support for people teeming with self-hatred, battling eating disorders, and suffering judgment at the hands of others. While virtual reality has offered itself as a solace, the real world remains a difficult place to “love your body.”
I base this argument on personal experience. I cannot remember a time I was satisfied with my body, let alone a time I loved it. I remember being very young, unburdened by self-consciousness and concepts of idealism. I learned quickly, though, and by third grade was well practiced in the art of body negativity.
I’ve had friends at each stage of my life also afflicted with body negativity. Recently, I was broached the topic with a few college friends over drinks. We remarked on how we never discussed our issues openly in the moment – only in retrospect. Consequently, we were gripped by similar struggles simultaneously and alongside each other, but felt totally alone. If we had been brave enough, vulnerable enough, to reach out, we might have all found the support we needed to heal.
In the midst of this discussion, I realized that I’d never told anyone the full story of my body negativity. I’ve discussed excerpts with a rare few, old friends witnessed chapters of it unfold from the outside, and new friends don’t know I have a story to tell. It resides inside me like an organ, so much a part of me that it affects my thought process and the way I move through the world. So many others bear these burdens in silence, feeling alone in a sea of others living with the same pain.
In an effort to lift this veil of silence, to release body negativity from the grips of taboo, I’ve decided to finally tell my story in full. It is a story still unfolding, one without a happy ending of rainbows and confetti. Despite the story’s rawness, each completed paragraph left me a little lighter– imagine weighty sand bags being dropped from a hot air balloon, one by one. I hope someone reads this that really needs to, someone who is struggling to tell their own story. I want them to know they are not abnormal and they are not alone. I want them to know they are beautiful, even if they don’t agree.
Body negativity starts as a habit and soon becomes ingrained as part of your personality. I picked up my habit at my ballet studio. I want to stress that I was never body shamed or pressured to lose weight in my thirteen years there. However, there was a tangible toxicity in the atmosphere that I picked up on and carry with me to this day.
Surrounded by mirrors and a gaggle of stick thin eight-year-old girls, I felt fat for the first time. I was told to “hold in my stomach” with the intention of instructing me to engage my core. What I heard was “suck in your gut.” At the same time, I heard girls critiquing their figures in the mirror. They owned “skinny” leotards and “fat” leotards, claiming they looked swan-like in the first and hippo-like in the second. They dubbed this mirror a “skinny” mirror and that one “fat” and lamented when they stood at the latter. They admired the slim older girls and longed for bodies that mimicked theirs. They rejoiced when they were able to wear a costume on the tightest hooks, even at the cost of breathing properly.
In this environment, I began to see myself in a new light. I was fat – though, to be clear, I actually wasn’t. As is consistent with my case today, I “knew” I was a healthy weight – slim, even. However, that didn’t change my perception of the person staring back at me in the mirror. She had a fat face, soft stomach, big butt, and thick thighs. The person in my mirror today has the same.
As I grew older, my self perception grew more skewed. My body type was inherently different to that of my ballet peers, and our differences stood out to me as in caricature. Though my true pubescence was delayed by my level of activity, I always had bigger breasts than most of my classmates. My round butt kept me away from the high-cut leotards they so loved to wear. I had a more muscular build, which in my mind was bulky and awkward.
My poor body image didn’t affect my eating habits until later in high school. My family had always eaten fairly healthy, with the exception of occasional splurges. At dance summer intensives, however, I found myself wholly responsible for my own meals for the first time. During the summer between junior and senior year of high school, I began to stray from my historically balanced diet. I instead opted for a calorically restrictive one.
Combined with my intensive dance training, my new diet jumpstarted my weight loss in the months to come. I slashed most carbohydrates from my diet, along with many proteins. I remember sticking to fruit for breakfast and a small salad and an apple for lunch. I remember this because I had picked up calorie counting and kept a food diary. My schedule was filled with more dance than ever before, and the pounds slid right off. Soon, I was 109 pounds of lean muscle.
After hitting 109, I took a hiatus from calorie counting. However, my new eating habits remained consistent. I probably lost more weight, though I didn’t take notice. One ballet teacher noticed my rapid weight loss and asked if I was trying to slim down. I shrugged, answering no (a lie). He told me to be careful. He was the only one to do so.
At the end of senior year, I felt the fittest I ever had. I still didn’t consider myself “thin,” though I was generally content with how I looked. That all changed with the onset of summer vacation.
Without dance class, I lost some tone and put on weight. I was also eating much more than my usual salad and apples. By June I was up to 120 and felt like an elephant. I picked up calorie counting again. I remember vacationing with my friend’s family and ordering salads everywhere we ate in an effort to slim down.
Soon summer came to a close and I headed off to my first semester of undergrad. I was 118 pounds. Setting a goal in my calorie counter app, I hardened my resolve to get down to 110.
Thus began twin downward spirals in my relationship to my body and to food.
My world pivoted around my weight loss. I began weighing myself every day. Initially, I weighed myself once each morning. Then I began weighing myself each evening as well. On weekends, when I was in my dorm room more, I might weigh myself three or more times a day. I was tethered to the scale.
Besides weighing myself every day, I recorded every calorie I consumed and every minute of exercise I completed. I began eliminating the more calorific foods from my diet. I developed an aversion to these foods; the very thought of consuming them inundated my systems with stress. My diet was soon limited to apples, salad, green tea, the occasional egg white omelet, and low-calorie smoothies that were mostly water.
When I consumed fewer calories than I burned in a day, my calorie counting app would display my total calorie count as a negative number. My goal became to maximize that negative number, and I did so by eating less and less. The app would alert me when I consumed less than 1200 calories, warning that this was below the recommended intake for safe weight loss. Like the negative calorie count, I began to interpret this warning as a triumph.
As I began receiving the warning on a regular basis, however, it lost its rewarding effect. Instead, not seeing it felt like a failure. By this time, I was consuming 300 to 400 calories on a regular day. On “cheat days” I allowed myself 500 to 600. If I hit 700, I tried to make up the difference the next day.
On this regimen, I dropped 10 pounds in a matter of weeks. By November, I was 105 pounds. When I lay in bed at night, my stomach sloped like a valley between my hip bones. You could trace my entire collar bone and see my ribs as they branched off my sternum. You could see each individual muscle of my arms and legs, see how they sat atop my bones.
It was the happiest I had ever been with my body.
Throughout this time, no one mentioned my shrinking figure. If anything, there was the occasional compliment or expression of envy for my tiny frame. I brushed these off easily, my warped self image still dominating my thoughts.
The first expression of concern I received was from my parents. They had come to see me in a show. After congratulating my performance, they mentioned that I looked quite thin. They suggested I incorporate more carbohydrates back into my diet. That was the end of that discussion.
At that point, I was not compelled to make any big changes. However, I did begin taking in more calories in an effort to at least maintain my weight. Unwittingly, I was still severely restricting my calorie intake and therefore was still losing weight. I was at a loss; I had forgotten how to eat “normally.”
During this time, my ballet professor approached me with a second expression of concern. A former dance teacher of mine, and friend of my professor’s, had attended the show as well. She mentioned to my professor that my current size was not “normal” for me and someone should probably check in. My ballet professor took on this responsibility. As a hard core ballerina, she too had struggled with her body image and relationship to food.
Pulling me aside in class one day, my professor mentioned my former teacher’s concern. She continued, saying she didn’t realize this size was abnormal for me as she didn’t know me before. She asked if I was still trying to lose weight. She asked if I needed any help.
I broke down. Crying quietly in the corner of the classroom, I confessed that I felt trapped in a cycle of restrictive eating. I told her I was eating more but wasn’t seeing results. Somehow she understood me through my blubbering, and she granted me a comforting hug and practical advice.
I’d love to say that I renounced restrictive eating in that instant, made a full recovery, and now love my body in all of its healthful glory.
But I’d be lying.
I did begin loosening the reins on my diet, particularly over winter break. (Christmas cookies only come once a year, ya’ll.) I put on a little weight and felt more in control, but I was still very thin and continued to calorie count. At the start of spring semester, I slipped back into my old eating habits.
When I went in for my annual doctor’s appointment, I was still underweight and I hadn’t had a period in about a year. My doctor informed me that this was a problem, though from my perspective it was just incredibly convenient. She put me on birth control in an effort to jumpstart my cycle. This would prove to be a significant plot point in my story.
Between freshman and sophomore year, I studied abroad in Italy. Being of Italian heritage and a huge foodie despite my food-fearing lifestyle, I allowed myself to indulge in the wonders of Italian cuisine whilst I was there. I didn’t have a scale, I took a respite from calorie counting, and I keyed into the easy-going essence of Italian culture. I took time to invest in the moment, to introspect and reflect on what I was experiencing. For the first time in a long time, my life didn’t revolve around my weight.
My blissful stint in Italia was the calm before the storm. I had switched birth control just before going and was largely unaware of how the new brand was changing my body. Partnered with my newly inclusive diet, the medication fast-tracked me on the road to puberty. Prior, I’d essentially stunted my development at prepubescence, my body resembling a twelve-year-old’s at the age of 19.
The consequences of my Italian lifestyle were dramatic. I experienced years’ worth of physical development in the span of two months. Imagine falling asleep, having the loveliest dream you’ve ever had, and waking up twenty-five pounds heavier. I suddenly had hips and boobs were none had been before. My face had filled out, my stomach was no longer a hollow, and I had stretch marks everywhere. Literally none of my clothes fit anymore.
I was traumatized. I remember packing for the fall semester, trying on outfits as I went. As I failed to squeeze into yet another pair of shorts, I broke down. Collapsed amid piles of clothes, artifacts of a past life, I just sobbed.
My first day back at school, I felt extremely self-conscious. I was soon surprised, however, by an outpouring of praise from my classmates. I was incredibly tan after my travels, sporting a new body and a new haircut – everyone gushed that I looked beautiful. Sexy, even. Their compliments didn’t compute. Other’s opinions of my body have never swayed my own – even today, when friends attempt to bolster my fragile confidence, their words fall on deaf ears.
Over time, I became more accepting of my new body. Looking back at photos of myself the year before, I finally recognized how thin I was. I began teaching myself how to eat healthily again, not wanting to slide back down that slope.
Though I’ve never dieted to the extreme I did freshman year, I am far from healed. I’m still wary of carbs and proteins and have to actively insert them into my diet. I find myself replacing meals with an apple or handful of almonds in an attempt to “make up for” excess calories. On a day to day basis, my body confidence peaks and dips unpredictably. On rare occasion, I’m content with how I look. On the average day, my image doesn’t weigh as heavily on my mind as it used to. On bad days (or weeks), I look in the mirror and can only see fat.
The summer between junior and senior year, I nearly relapsed into my freshman year habits. I was away at an exchange program and living alone. I saw the opportunity to revamp my fitness free of the watchful eye of my friends and family back home. I went to the gym every day and severely restricted my calorie intake. I was eating a single hard-boiled egg for breakfast and salads for lunch and dinner, if I had a real lunch. On weekend trips with friends, I’d splurge and eat out at restaurants. In the back of my mind, though, I knew I’d make up those calories during the week.
At this low point in my relationship with food, I’d occasionally succumb to temptation and impulse-buy a dessert at the grocery store. I’d plan to make it last the week but inevitably eat the entire thing that evening, standing in my kitchen before I’d even put my other groceries away. After one of these binge sessions, I remember walking to my bathroom with the serious thought of vomiting up what I’d just gluttonously devoured. The thought shocked me into a sudden out-of-body experience. I stared in shocked silence at the tormented person I was becoming. I didn’t execute my plan to purge, but I was thoroughly shaken that I even entertained the thought.
Following that scarring occasion, I tried to develop a “fuck it” attitude toward eating indulgent foods. (Excuse my French.) I try to eat a balanced diet the majority of the time, but if I’m eating out with friends and want a milkshake, I’m going to order a milkshake. When wings are ten cents each, you can bet I’m buying a basket. If I’m at a party, I’m going to drink alcohol without considering its caloric content.
Though this attitude has eased my guilt for eating certain foods, it hasn’t eliminated it. I’m in denial. I look in the mirror and am unhappy with my figure, my big thighs and soft stomach – and I know I could correct it if I cut caloric foods from my diet again. A kind of fear holds me back. It’s the same fear that has kept me from picking up calorie counting again. The same fear that has kept me from stepping on a scale for the past year. The same fear that overwhelms me when I’m weighed at the doctor’s office. By keeping myself in denial and in the dark, I avoid falling into old, destructive habits.
Recently, an acquaintance of mine developed an extreme case of anorexia. (Please note, she is receiving help and on the road to recovery now.) In discussing her condition with a concerned friend, I was suddenly overwhelmed with nausea. Fighting back tears and the urge to vomit, I recognized that her struggle raged inside me as well. Hers had simply played out to an extreme, taking on new life as a full-fledged eating disorder. Playing witness to her situation triggered intense emotions inside me I didn’t know were there.
Discovering these emotions leaves me concerned that my old habits, my old insecurities, are just lying in wait. I feel they’re ready to surge forth when I’m most vulnerable, and I’ll have to brace myself against relapse once again. My wariness hardens my resolve to feign a “fuck it” attitude, a decision that maintains my illusion of happiness while leaving me discontented with my body.
This brings my story up to date. Though it might not be outwardly apparent, I struggle with body negativity on a daily basis. I expect I will for the rest of my life. Over time, I’ve loosened its hold over me. Over time, it comes to define me less and less. Even in concluding this story, I feel more in control. It feels like I’m finally staring my problem in the face – seeing it for what it really is.
My story is not unusual. In fact, it’s all too commonplace. As the body positivity movement blooms online, we need to exact its influence in reality. Body negativity cannot remain taboo. We shouldn’t carry on in lonely silence, isolating our experience from that of others. We need to show courageousness in our vulnerability, show bravery in our honesty. Only through open communication and loving support can we truly conquer body negativity. Only by loving each other can we learn to love ourselves.