After finishing at a conference a few weeks ago, I had an Uber take me to the mall so I could walk around. “You know, like old people do to kill time,” I told one cashier as she sold me a pair of children’s Nikes.
While in the mall bathroom, I overheard a teenage girl talking about how she wished she had a “size two waist and size eight hips”. She kept saying it over and over to her friend who continued to shove it off. I was changing into said kids’ Nikes to relieve my feet of the heels I’d had on all day, eavesdropping on their conversation but not looking to involve myself.
Upon standing up, I spotted the teens, the one of them next to the full length mirror in the bathroom. I smiled at the one I could see and she smiled back and immediately said, “She’s going to be so jealous of you,”. I knew there was another girl, but I couldn’t see her. I assumed she was the one talking about her unreasonable ideal body. I couldn’t help but study the friend I could see, her stocky frame leaving her on the larger size of what her friend was calling perfect.
“What?” I responded, confused. I was wearing a t-shirt three sizes too big and was sticky with the humidity that’d followed us into the mall. I’d just thrown my hair on top of my head and felt, basically, gross. “She’s going to be jealous of what?” I repeated.
“Your body,” She said curtly. At this, another girl came into view. She was tall, thin, and beautiful. She had braids down to her butt and was sporting a cute floral romper. She was, in more ways than one, the ideal for most teenage girls.
I laughed, “Are you the one who was talking about your body?”
“Yes, ugh,” She said, looking me up and down, frowning at the size of my hips.
“I promise this makes it really difficult to buy pants,” I laughed again, trying not to let it show that I was the last random person she wanted to make body image comments to.
“I know, but so does this,” she said to me, looking back at her friend who looked at me and rolled her eyes. “Being a size 2 is so hard. If I were any smaller I basically wouldn’t exist,” she said, continuing on to her friend.
I began gathering my stuff as I heard her friend say, “But at least you can gain weight,”
“No I can’t! I’ve tried.” The girl was defeated, having obviously spent endless amounts of time thinking on the topic.
“Come live with my family for a year and you’ll definitely get fat,” the friend said, my heart hurting a bit more as I left the bathroom, a thousand options of what I could have said going through my head. I wasn’t mad at the girl, like I would have been a few years ago. I wish I’d said something, but I didn’t. I was just the thick girl who had never, until a few weeks ago, had someone say they were jealous of her body. The whole situation was like I set it up for myself, but I said nothing. I stood, there, letting her live in her feelings, but wishing I’d said about a million different things.
I wish I’d said that her body is more than the way it looks and the way it does or doesn’t fit the cultural standard. I’d have reminded her of the breaths she’s taking and the way her body takes food and turns it into energy to keep her going, even if it doesn’t give her the shape she desires. To think about what our body does for us is weird, and hard, because we spend so much energy thinking about the way it looks. We forget to be thankful for our sight, our hearing, and the simple fact that the body we have gives us the chance to be alive. It feels silly to say because it’s obvious, but we wouldn’t be alive without our bodies, we wouldn’t be human, and that’s something we forget when we think about the cushion on our bellies or the flatness of our behinds.
I would have reminded her that she is more than her body. Though it is what gives her life, it is not what defines her or gives her worth. Beauty is currency in our world, but that in itself is based on a lie. We can’t bank on it; beauty fades as we age but that does not make us poor. Our wrinkles and scars and saggy skin are testament to the stories we’ve lived. Our genetic makeup, our thin legs or wide hips or curly hair or brown eyes or dark skin, these things show our heritage. We cannot help where or who we came from, but we can choose to see ourselves beyond it. We can choose to believe that we are worth more than how valuable society deems our bodies to be.
I wish I would have told her that she has to make the active, difficult choice to love her body no matter what, unconditionally, forever. A lot will change in life, including our bodies’ appearance, but they will always be our homes. If we don’t learn to love them unconditionally, we will go throughout our lives spending energy on a battle we’ve already lost. I would have told her that if she doesn’t love her body as it is, she wouldn’t love her body if it looked like mine. She’d find something else to hate. We always will, because that’s what we’re taught to do. Choosing to love your body unconditionally is so hard, but fighting to get there is so much more worth it than it is to spend that energy hating yourself.
I think the last thing I would have told her is that her worth is not measured by the ratio of her hips to her waist. I would have told her that though she was jealous of my body, a boy once told me that I didn’t have a body to be proud of, and that I never knew which of them I agreed with more. Despite that, though, I would have looked her in the eyes and let her know that she is worth loving, by herself and by others, just the way she is with her thin legs and tiny waist, just as I am worth loving with my wide hips and thick thighs. Her life, I’d tell her, would not be more worth living if she looked differently. She is wonderful, beautiful, and worth loving just as she is.
I spent nearly all of my adolescence wishing that I looked like this girl in the bathroom, playing the role of the chubby friend listening to her skinny friend complain. I’d wanted to scream then and I wanted to scream today. I felt gross and undesirable, and yet this teenage girl was there telling me that she wanted my body, and that’s a perfect summary of how this whole body image thing works. We hate what we have and covet that of others. We want what we’re not, and mostly we want what we can never be. It’s a game we’re always going to lose unless we choose to win for ourselves by choosing to love our bodies unconditionally. It’s one of the hardest wins we’ll ever take, but it’s one that’s possible, and I hope that my size 2 friend can one day learn that even though I wasn’t brave enough to tell her today.