Like many women, I've often distilled body image into a series of cold hard numbers: pounds, dress size, calories, carbs. But it wasn't always this way. In fact, the first time I realized weight would be an issue in my life, it was all about words.
I was in grade school, age 10, and heavy. On the playground at recess, the barbs began. They weren't clever -- "Whale," "Fatso," "Cow" -- but they worked.
Lying awake in bed one night, I made a choice: I was going to be skinny. The next morning, I swiftly went to work, turning my self-worth into tangible, controllable numbers. I recorded fat and calories in a spiral-bound notebook, keeping track of every last food parcel with Type A tenacity. It worked: within a few months, I was 20 pounds lighter. And people did start looking at me differently.
I remember near the beginning of the diet, I was at a theme park with a boy I thought was cute -- a friend of a friend. He teased me for toting around my notebook, and then for not buying an ice cream cone when the rest of the group did. After losing the weight, I saw him again, and he told me I looked great -- the first time a boy had ever shown genuine interest in the way I looked.
The message stuck: thin is pretty. And I wanted to be pretty.
After that, I grew more critical of myself in photos and started paying attention to and coveting what other girls had and I didn't -- thin legs, flat stomachs, small arms. I tried low carb, low fat and low sugar diets, and began engaging in a silent internal monologue at the dinner table:"Don't eat that piece of bread." "One piece of bread really won't hurt that much, right?" "No, but if you eat the bread all the time, it will." And so on and so forth until, usually, I ate the piece of bread and hated myself after.
One day, in my mid-20s, while in the final stages of a dissolving relationship with a man who was open about his attraction for other girls, I stared at myself in the mirror and decided I'd had enough. No more crash diets, no more dinner table debates, no more girls who always looked better than I did. I went to the bathroom, lifted the lid, took a deep breath, and readied my finger in my mouth.
I'd always told myself I would never have an eating disorder -- I was too reasonable, too mature -- but I was done trying, day in and day out, to count everything I ate, only to never look like the girls with the thin legs, flat stomachs, small arms, who would always be more desirable than I was. Maybe this was the only way.
But then, I stopped. I took in where I was and what I looked like, hunched over the toilet, weak and insecure. And in that moment, I made a choice -- just as I had when I was 10 and lying awake in bed. I bit down on my finger and decided I needed to change the way I looked at my body.
It wasn't easy, but slowly I started making deliberate changes, from banishing scales to stopping all calorie/fat/carb counting. I no longer squinted at photos of myself, looking for what I could change. And I began focusing on the things I legitimately like about my body: big butt, wide hips, runner's legs.
I also learned to stop worrying about how my body was perceived by men. Partly, I did this by entering into more positive relationships with partners who genuinely seemed to find me beautiful. But the bigger step was allowing myself to believe them, while recognizing that I didn't need male attention to feel confident or sexy.
It's been a few years since I stood over the toilet and a couple decades since my first diet, and I am by no means an entirely changed woman. Just the other day, when I read Keira Knightley was ridiculed for looking "anorexic," my immediate feeling was not sympathy, but envy. And the weight revealed to me during a recent doctor visit was so humiliating that I flat-out stopped going to that doctor for a while.
The difference is that when these moments happen now, I challenge my reactions and actively try to stop the skinny ideal from tightening its grip.
As for those numbers, I've never been able to shake them entirely. And for the record, here's where they stand now: I weigh 185 pounds and wear a size 12, sometimes 14. Today, I ate 1/3 of a carton of egg whites, one slice of wheat toast and one shrimp salad. I ran for 30 minutes. Tonight, I might have three slices of pizza and two glasses of wine because, hey... it's been a long week.
Whatever the numbers tell me, I know that there's a lot more to who I am than what I can fit inside the pages of a spiral-bound notebook.