In third grade, a classmate called me "Blubber Girl." Every day. And I believed her. I felt massive, a whale, a huge blubbery whale. Eventually, the teacher intervened.
"How do you think Jenny feels when you say that?"
"Jenny, how do you feel?"
I want to die. I'm gross and disgusting.
"Um," trying not to cry "it hurts my feelings."
"It hurts her feelings, Nancy. Can you see that?"
"I guess." A pink tinge came to freckled cheeks.
"Can you be more sensitive and not call your friend names anymore?"
And that was my first experience with (public) fat shaming. But it was not my last. Notice I said public. I had already been shamed by my family who watched every morsel that passed my lips.
I was not fat. I was a little chubby. I was not gazelle-esque like my Anglo-Saxon peers at the exclusive private Quaker school where I was already out of place as the only Jew, child of a broken home and student on so much financial aid they might as well have handed it out at recess. I was different in too many ways. And I looked different. I took up too much space. I was of hearty Ukrainian stock with broad shoulders. I was strong. I was a swimmer. But, I was not fat.
This was the '70s, before the childhood obesity epidemic. Any kid who wasn't lanky stood out. There weren't many of us in my circles. Eating disorders were not yet rampant. My parents didn't mean to screw me up; they were barely functioning themselves: newly-separated, overwhelmed and angry at each other all the time. Between them, bullies, and Glamour magazine, I was a goner.
Eventually, I dieted and food was hidden from me, something I highly discourage as a parent and as an eating disorder survivor. I was a kid. I always found the "bad" foods -- which included peanut butter, by the way, peanut butter; a healthy protein for children's sandwiches. Let that soak in. Labeling foods "good" and bad" is a terrible lesson to teach children, and an unhealthy way to live as an adult. It is, literally, a recipe for disaster. Foods are only bad if they are poisonous or if you are allergic to them. Celiac disease, IBS, Crohn's disease, there are countless illnesses, unfortunately, that are exacerbated by certain foods or ingredients. Children die of nut allergies. That's not what this is about. This is about subtle messages that become ingrained and create dysfunctional eating.
Moderation. A piece of cake is fine. We all need certain percentages of various food groups to be healthy and not too much sugar or fat. But, to label a food "bad" is a setup. I guarantee it. I'm living proof. Any food labeled "bad" and I wanted it. Bad. And I ate it, in quantity. As a result, I developed a full-blown eating disorder. I snuck food and binged. I dieted obsessively, exercised chronically, and the cycle was in place.
One saving grace, I was an athlete. I ran, albeit to lose weight, but I also swam, was a lifeguard, and played soccer. My body liked to move. Given that passion and, if left to my own devices with food choices, I am convinced, I'd have developed a healthy body image and a normal size for my bones. But I was watched, judged, criticized, and shamed. I was willed, shamed to change. No one changes by being shamed.
One summer in high school, I went on a diet. I got and stayed thin. I had never felt sexy before and it was exhilarating. I hit the beach in a white bikini. I had never worn a bikini. I remember a hot guy watching me. I went in the water, he followed. I had never been that girl, the girl followed by the hot guy. Writing this now, I see so many things wrong with it. My self-esteem was so wrapped up in my looks. Of course it was my body, right? But, really, he responded to my confidence. I felt good. But, I felt good because of my body. It was not healthy. I looked good, and on the inside, I was a wreck.
I went to college and panicked about the freshman 15 so I lost more weight. I exercised so much I got debilitating shin splints. I could not walk. Sophomore year, I ate. Then, I dieted. Junior year I lived in Italy. I gained weight and sometimes, I dieted. I had an Italian boyfriend, traveled the country, learned the language, and I ate. Senior year, I dieted, or not. Up and down. It was a constant roller coaster.
And no matter what, I cared about my looks. I've always cared. An undercurrent was there, a nagging, despite the occasional respite of feeling good: You're fat. You're bad. But, I was never fat. I was always bigger than the skinny girls. But I was never fat. And I was never bad.
And here's when the metamorphosis took place. It was not when I lost that pesky 10 pounds. It was when I got sick of the roller coaster; sick of the mean girl inside my head. And sick of the bullies around me. I learned about eating disorders and dieting. I saw the connection. Decades of dieting had ruined my self-esteem and created dysfunctional eating. Others did not get to tell me how to look, how much to weigh, or what to eat.
I started listening to my body. Our bodies know when they are hungry and when they are full. I stopped eating enormous portions because I was afraid of future deprivation. I simply stopped the deprivation. When I was full I stopped eating. I began to enjoy food rather than fear it. There were no forbidden foods. I bought ice cream and put it in my freezer, like a person. I didn't sneak it in a brown paper bag and eat it all at once. I put it in the freezer, scooped a portion into a bowl and I ate it.
I stopped treating myself in a way I'd never treat a friend. I stopped thinking you look fat. And, I stopped equating my looks with my self-worth. I've been me since that mean girl called me names in third grade. I've done a lot in my life. I made two people and am raising them to be amazing boys. I was the lead singer in a rock band. I went to graduate school, ran a business, traveled, did stand-up comedy, and wrote a novel. None of these things have to do with my body size. Not one.
I'm the right size for me. No matter what size that is. And so are you. And don't let anyone tell you different.
This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project as Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones But Names Will Always Hurt You.
For more from Jenny Kanevsky go to her Blog In Other Words.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.