Two nights ago I forced myself to sleep naked for the first time. With my hands underneath the covers I pulled off my underwear and peeled off my t-shirt. I placed both items of clothing to my side, just in case I changed my mind. Then I lifted the duvet up to my collarbone and looked toward the ceiling. I liked the cool sheets against my skin; my body was light. My mind was wired. I turned on my side and slid the covers between my knees, the back half of my body exposed to the darkness. After some time, the tightness in my abdomen slackened and I dropped off to sleep.
When I awoke the next morning, my underwear was back on. I stretched, my back arched, my legs spread. Looking down at my body, I liked the way certain parts looked in the morning light: the inside of my thighs, the sides of my torso. Still I reached for my t-shirt.
During the summer of 1997, when I was nine, I was obsessed with the Men In Black. So much so that whenever the theme song came on one of the cable music channels, I would stop whatever I was doing and dance. On one occasion, I was in the bath when I heard, it’s the MIB, uh, here come the MIB’s. I grabbed a towel and darted to the living room, calling my parents into the living room as I ran down the stairs. They were my audience watching me shuffle along to the beat. But I was just warming up for when the alien joins Will Smith and his troupe of Men in Black. When it kicked in, I dropped my towel and followed the dance routine, just bounce with me, just bounce with me, just bounce with me, I bounced, just slide with me, just slide with me, just slide with me, I slid. My parents laughed as I reveled in my nakedness.
Over time I became aware of nudity at home. It was something both normal and abnormal. My father slept naked and often walked around the house in the nude. When I was ten we had a lodger staying at our house. On the first night I was woken by a scream. She had gone downstairs to get a glass of water and when walking back up the stairs she came face to face with my father’s exposed body.
My mother on the other hand was inhibited. She always called out to let us know she was in the bathroom. And she too screamed when I barged mindlessly into her bedroom just as she was getting changed. She clutched at her breasts and turned her back to me. It felt unnatural to see her naked. Or perhaps it was her reaction that left me feeling so strange.
In a photo of seven-year old me and my mother in a park, she embraces me from behind, as I lick a lemon ice cone. Whenever I look at the photo, I am drawn to our legs. We are both wearing shorts and sandals and we both have the same ankles: the bones jutting out disproportionately against our thin calves. It was at the age of eleven that I decided my legs were skinnier than the average.
During seventh grade, I wore flared trousers to school hoping it would divert attention away from them. It had the opposite effect. My peers chuckled at my trousers that waved around my legs like flags. I reverted to boot-cut then skinny trousers and started doubling up my socks in an attempt to fill the void between the fabric.
Every morning before school my mother would scrutinize her skinny ankles. She’d ask me if they were too skinny and I’d reassure her before peering down at my own.
When I was thirteen, I played the bully in the school play. I was on break with a couple of my friends when a boy from my biology class came over with two of his friends. “Oh my days! Look at your skinny arms, bruv! They look like sticks poking out from your t-shirt” he laughed, nudging his friends in the sides to take a peek. I kept silent and continued my conversation, though inside I desperately wanted to see what they saw. I didn’t look at my arms until I went backstage where I held them out in front of myself in horror. I’d never even thought about having skinny arms too.
His words affected me. I didn’t speak to anyone about them. But I stopped wearing t-shirts and began to wrap bandages around my arms, thicker around where a bicep should have been. When it came to performing in the play, I kept my arms behind my back. I assumed everyone had been looking at my arms the same way he had.
Months later, on a school trip to Egypt, I was still ill at ease. It was April and hot. On the day we visited the Pyramids of Giza, I wore three-quarter length shorts, sneakers and socks, a long-sleeve shirt and a jacket for extra measure. I was sat atop a camel, uneasy and sweating profusely.
I lost my virginity at eighteen. I wore a jumper and my trousers remained wrapped around my calves. I blamed being limp on the cold weather. But really, my mind was overwrought, it felt betrayed by the body.
I don’t think I’ve ever had an honest relationship with my body. I didn’t take the time to get to know it. Yet, when I needed it to perform, I demanded then begged for it to do as I wished. And it didn’t.
Once the ordeal was over and the embarrassment had passed, I went back to ignoring my body. I considered it a mechanical thing, never truly a part of me.
My model friend, Amy, used to call me Flappy, referring to my large nostrils.
I experimented with camera angles that best disguised my nose. Tilting my head upwards, as if looking down on others, worked well.
I had my first relationship with a man when I was nineteen. He had defined abdominals. I had never been able to see mine. I started to obsess over my stomach, looking at it from every position. I knew it looked flattest when I stood upright with my shoulders arched back. I knew it cut over my briefs whenever I sat down. I took pictures of it on my back and deleted them immediately after. I couldn’t bear them.
Amy often tried to lift up my t-shirt, asking, “Do you have a six-pack or a one-pack?” I held onto her arm. “Blatantly a one-pack!” she cackled.
I bought six identical tank tops, all of them two sizes too small. They sculpted the excess I thought I had, so that when I wore a tee over it, my stomach appeared perfectly flat.
My friend Olive told me, on my 22nd birthday, that I needed to put on some muscle. “Everybody likes muscle. You’re too skinny.” She grabbed my arms and put her hands around my wrists, “I can fit my hands around them and there’s still space!”
I moved to Madrid when I was twenty-three. It was the first time I had ever been away from home and the distance gave me the chance to explore my sexuality. I started sleeping with multiple men. Sexually liberated, I thought at the time. Though, when it came to sending body pictures I always froze. I had to be really turned on to stand in front of a mirror and parade my body. When I was brave enough to send a photo, I would wait, staring at my phone until I got a response. My heart rate would rise and I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything but potential rejection.
If I didn’t get a response, I automatically assumed the problem was my body and never my face. Such insecurity was at odds with my own ego, though also intrinsically linked. Obsessing over my body stemmed from narcissism and my habit of indulging it. I wondered if I’d be so aware of my faults, if I wasn’t so enamored with my favorable features.
I never tried to solve my insecurities. I didn’t have the capacity or the courage to do so. Instead, I hid them and feigned confidence, developed something that resembled a thick skin. I became conceited and boastful. It is no coincidence that people criticized me; they thought I could take it.
By the age of twenty-four, I had been a vegetarian for six years. But I gave up in favor of a high-protein diet. For breakfast, I would eat six frankfurter sausages and three eggs along with a protein shake. For lunch, I would eat four slabs of chicken breasts atop a pile of plain, brown pasta and wash it down with another protein shake. Later at dinnertime, I would finish the packs of frankfurters and chicken breasts, sometimes with a side of vegetables. I would pinch my nostrils as I drank my final shake of the day, so as not to gag, and waste all the protein I had ingested. After three months of trying, my body remained the same and I gave up on my diet.
Last year I visited my best friend in Cartagena. We sat down for lunch at a local arepa joint. I had been yo-yoing between a vegetarian and meat diet, resolute in maintaining a high-protein diet. I felt a failure in that I was both compromising my ethics and also failing to reap any physical results. When my arepa arrived, I ate all of the filling: chicken, avocado and cheese and took a bite of the corn pancake before being overcome by regret. It felt as if the carb dense corn was immediately attaching itself to my stomach, adding the wrong kind of weight to my body. It was a familiar feeling: a shortness of breath, immense guilt and discomfort from holding everything in. I was too ashamed to tell anybody. Instead, I restrained myself and cut out carbs for the rest of the trip.
“What shall we buy to drink tonight?” my friend asked as we walked home.
“Just blow. Zero calories.” I replied.
Each year around my birthday, I set myself goals. I always promise myself that I will get in shape. Tone up. And then I look on modeling agency websites and look through the roster of models. I compare myself to them. I look just as good or better than them. Don’t I? I tell myself I’ll apply when I have my body on point. I look at my options and decide that it’s easiest for me to go for the skinny look. I stare at the bodies of the models. I’m really not that far off. But I’m still off. Then I click on the application tab and look at all the questions that need to be filled out. Height: 6’3”. I’m most proud of this statistic. Am I too tall? Then I worry about my chest and waist size Am I in proportion? Too blocky? Or can they work with it. I could be quirky...Are my ankles unworkably quirky? Finally, I see the “why do you want to be a model?” question, and I go blank. I have little interest or knowledge in fashion. I feel most self-conscious in front of a camera. I scrutinize even my best features: my top lip disappears when I smile, my nose consumes my face, and my neck is giraffe like. The reason I want it is to feel desirable. But that can’t be my answer.
I click off the tab and look in the mirror. Why can’t I have the body I want? I play sports, go to gym, read the nutritional information labels, but I can’t get over my body. My arms and legs are long and thin, yet my torso isn’t as tight as I want it to be. I should have a body that matches my face. People expect that.
Sometimes, when the lighting is just right and my water weight is down, I look in the mirror and feel okay. It feels like progress.
Beyoncé likes Jackson 5 nostrils. Ridiculous, but it makes me like my nose.
This past summer, I told my therapist about my insecurities. Each story hurt as I retold it, and each made me feel trivial and self-indulgent. But I was desperate for a solution. I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable anymore.
There was something liberating in confessing.
She listened but before she had time to respond, I asked, “Do I have body dysmorphia?”
“Do you think you have body dysmorphia?” She replied.
My boyfriend tells me I’m beautiful, and I believe him. Why is self-love so much easier when in a relationship?
After we have sex, I allow myself to just lie there a little longer than with other men. A minute or two later I put my top and socks back on and wish I didn’t think so much.
It’s almost my twenty-eighth birthday and once again I’ve set goals for the year ahead. This year I wrote out my goals as certainties.
I’M GOING TO GRADUATE.
I’M GOING TO GET PUBLISHED.
I’M GOING TO MOVE IN WITH MY BOYFRIEND.
I’M GOING TO TRAVEL AROUND ASIA.
I’M GOING TO BE A DISCIPLINED VEGAN.
I’M GOING TO GO TO GYM TO STAY HEALTHY.
I’M GOING TO WEAR CROP TOPS.
I’M GOING TO WEAR POP SOCKS.
I’M GOING TO LOVE MY DAINTY ANKLES.
I’M GOING TO LOVE THE WAY THE TATTOOS LOOK ON MY SLENDER ARMS.
I’M GOING TO EMBRACE MYSELF.
Last night I got into bed and thought about getting naked. I took off my briefs but couldn’t convince myself to remove my top.