The first time I felt fat, I was five years old.
This is a line that I’ve said and written a lot, though the story that follows it isn’t one I’ve often shared. I hate talking about my body, drawing any attention to it, inviting you to imagine it on your own as you read this story. It makes me nervous, draws out old bits of shame that I’ve forgotten are there. I hate talking about my body, which is precisely why I know that I need to. I have been ashamed of my body for so long, but I’m starting to believe that there’s no reason to be.
My relationship with my body is a complicated one. You see, I was taught to hate my body. Culture, friends, parents, boys have all told me what I need to think and feel about it and I’ve taken those messages as truth. I’ve been given images and ideals to compare it to, been told exactly what is “too big” or “too small”. I’ve learned to shame natural, normal parts of my being human. In my twenty-three years on this planet, occupying this body, I have become well versed in tearing it apart.
Like I said, it started when I was five years old. My friend and I were seeing who could stick their stomach out the furthest, and when mine won, I was ashamed. My time spent playing with Barbies and watching Disney movies had shown me that there was nothing to value in a full, round stomach. My friend’s stomach was smaller than mine, and at five years old, I had been around long enough to know that that made her more desirable, more worth loving, more normal.
The next eighteen years, the ones that brought me here, were no different than that afternoon.
I was a tall, dense kid. Really, I’ve just never been small. I have always had an athletic build and I matured quickly, finding myself with the body of a woman before I hit double digits. I outgrew my mother by the time that I was ten years old, towering over my classmates at 5’5, unsure of how tall I’d get before I stopped growing (I surprisingly toppled out around 5’7 in the 7th grade). I didn’t know what to do with the body that I had been given, and neither did anyone else. It was a source of stress for me and for my mother, as we found ourselves shopping for my school uniform in the women’s section before I even went to middle school. Comments were made about how tall I was, how I was filling out, what size pants I wore, my weight.
So many comments were made, as they are for most little girls, that I never saw my body as my own, really. Circumstances had taught me that my body, my appearance, my size, was the first thing people noticed, and for a long time, it seemed to be the only thing people cared about.
I stopped growing taller when I was twelve, but my body still never fit that of a “normal” (or, as I believed, an “ideal”) girl. I have never looked like the girls on TV or the girls who were on the magazines, and for the longest time I still believed that that made me less than. I thought that to love myself, to be worth loving, or to earn the love of others, I had to fit that mold.
I had wide hips and full thighs and boobs and stretchmarks while my friends were still shopping in at Limited Too, but I was told that I “would stop growing” eventually. Puberty and sports and eating the right thing would fix the problem that was my body. I was taught to hope that one day I’d “thin out” and truly believed that that was something I needed to aspire to. The media, my family, my coaches, my friends, and later, boys, too, all contributed to the idea that to be smaller was something I needed to be. I wasn’t encouraged to study or get involved in school as much as I was encouraged to lose weight.
It was never suggested that I could love my body the way it was, stretchmarks and cellulite and all. No one ever told me that my stretchmarks were simply a sign of my quick growth; I saw them as a sign that I was fat. I never knew that everyone had cellulite; I thought it communicated that I was unhealthy. Genetics had never been brought into the conversation, either. As much as I was told that I looked like my mother, and therefore compared my body to hers, I never considered the other side of my family. I was seventeen before my dad told me that I “had the body of a Ray” and it finally dawned on me that I could no longer hold my body to the standards of my mother’s tiny frame. I waited and waited for my body to “thin out” and become smaller, to take up less space, but it never did. No one taught me what to do if that happened. No one told me that I might never fit that standard, but here I am, my hips still wide and my thighs still thick.
I was taught to hate my body at the same time I was taught how to spell my name, and I’m still trying to unlearn that lesson. I spent my childhood believing that my body was all people saw, that it was all I had to offer anyone. I believed that I could never love my body. Hating my body is simply part of being a woman. I thought that because my stomach wasn’t flat like my Barbie’s, I would never be beautiful. My friends, the thin ones with narrow hips, had boyfriends and got asked on dates. I didn’t, and I believed that my body was to blame. Sometimes, I still do.
I don’t hate my body anymore. I don’t love it everyday, but I’m learning not to hold it to impossible standards. Shopping for jeans is hard and I still struggle with comparing my body to those of other women, but I’m slowly learning not to. I’m taking little steps to love this body that I’ve been given, to take care of it and be thankful for all its done for me. Some days are harder than others, but I would expect nothing less in the world we live in. No part of our culture teaches us that it’s okay to love our bodies just as we are, but I refuse to accept that as my normal. I’ve spent too long wasting energy on hating my body to live like that for the rest of my life. I have to fight to love my body, but I believe that it’s worth it.