“There is nothing more rare, nor more beautiful, than a woman being unapologetically herself; comfortable in her perfect imperfection. To me, that is the true essence of beauty.” ~ Steve Maraboli
She told me she shouldn’t weigh as much as she did and asked me how much I weighed.
I think I had a vague number in mind. But at that point it was just a number. Caroline was the first person to really connect body size with the number on the scale for me.
After that day I began weighing myself more regularly. There was a scale in every bathroom so it wasn’t difficult. I started to examine my body in the mirror, to notice the prepubescent curves and the extra layer of fat that until now had never really bothered me.
But then other kids at school began noticing that extra layer too.
And by the age of eleven my body image had undergone a huge shift. I saw my lumps and bumps the way my classmates seemed to see them: dumpy, chubby. Plain old fat.
Of course it was around that time I also began to develop breasts and hips. And as my body shape changed, I blamed myself for eating too much.
The bigger I became the more I hid myself away from the world. I felt myself growing apart from other girls whose lithe, sporty bodies weren’t yet developing and whose long lean legs looked so much more appealing than my own.
Boys seemed to like those bodies.
By twelve I could stand it no longer. I broke down in front of my mother, telling her how big and uncomfortable I felt, how I hated my body and wanted to lose weight.
“You’re fine the way you are,” she said.’
To me the word fine may as well have been “fat.” Fine is neutral. Fine is a lie. Fine meant, “you don’t look good honey, but I’m not going to tell you so.”
I needed to hear words like “Beautiful.” Perfect. Slim…
My mother’s confirmation of my burgeoning waistline left me all the more anxious about my weight. I comforted myself by stopping at the corner store every day after school to buy one packet of Rolos and a bag of cheese and onion crisps. I sneaked them into the house in my school bag, quietly transferring them to the underside of my pillow to be savored later.
And when I was sure that my mother wasn’t going to check on me, I retreated to my bedroom with a copy of the latest issue of tween magazine, My Guy. I lay on my bed, eyes feasting on the unfurling romance between teenage boy and girl in the magazine’s photo strip, tongue delighting in the taste of melting chocolate and caramel.
For twenty minutes.
As I neared the end of the magazine, savoring the last Rolo or chip, tears would collect in my eyes.
I had done it again.
Removed myself still further from the lean body I dreamed of.
This continued for months until finally I went back to my mother and shared once more my misery over my weight.
And she put me on my first diet.
Looking back I know she only wanted to help. I know that seeing her little girl in pain, a mother’s natural response is to fix it, to help me fit in with the other girls.
But I wonder. I wonder if she had told me I was enough, told me I was beautiful, told me that beauty comes from within, would I have spent the next 25 years losing and regaining the same 20 pounds?
I remember that first diet well. Vegetable curry on Mondays, fish fingers and beans Tuesdays, liver and green beans on Thursdays, a chicken breast with rice and peas on Fridays.
Every week the meals would repeat themselves and every day cucumber sandwiches at school would accompany them.
I learned to count the calorie content of every single food I consumed. I’m still a walking calorie calculator.
And as my weight dropped I felt the excitement and empowerment that came with controlling my food intake.
I lost a respectable amount of weight that first time around—at least fifteen pounds. And as the pounds dropped my confidence at school increased.
Until I broke the diet.
There was only so long I could last on a thousand calories a day. Excitement, empowerment and control took me a long way, but when ravenous hunger finally screamed louder than the desire to be slim, it was game over.
That first bite of chocolate. The first taste of a favorite ‘forbidden” food. It was heaven and hell rolled into one, the prevue to the storm.
When “the crash” came I loathed myself. How could I give up now after doing so well for so long? How could I choose the weight gain train once more after having tasted the sweetness of a newly defined me?
My despair was so great I went to the one familiar place for comfort: the fridge.
I binged on cereal, cookies, chocolate, chips…anything I could get my hands on. I intensified feelings of shame with every morsel of food that passed by my lips. I couldn’t seem to stop. No amount of food could fill the void.
You would think that after this initial experience I would have learned–done something different the next time around, or realized that this way of eating wasn’t normal. Instead, I blamed myself for “doing it wrong” and embarked on another diet. I felt sure number two would go perfectly, but instead of greater success I found myself repeating the same behavior and this time after fewer weeks on the diet.
My sense of failure doubled.
Now I look back and see a string of diets behind me: one hundred, two hundred, maybe more.
Am I slimmer? No. In fact I’m probably carrying about the same amount of excess weight as on the day I began my first diet at the age of twelve.
Have I learned anything? I’ve learned that diets don’t work. Each weight loss experience drained me of more confidence, until looking in the mirror became an exercise in picking apart the radiant softness and femininity that God created, turning it into something repellent and ugly.
And now as I walk the path of trying to undo years of shame-inducing behavior, I long to go back to that day as a twelve year-old and change the story. I long to replace the negative images with truth—to see my body every day the way God sees it, even the way my husband sees it.
I long to line up every woman in the mirror and show her she is more than a number. And how truly amazing she really is.
Image credit: Yana Lyandres