I remember the first time I felt fat. It was in the fall, and I was ten years old. I had been gone all summer, away at my dad's, and I had just returned to my mom's for the beginning of school.
I remember that summer. It had been filled with baked cakes, barbeque ribs, Lunchables, and Lay's potato chips - in other words, it had been an awesome break. I was hungry all the time and eating quite possibly the equivalent of an adult man - most likely because my prepubescent body was readying itself to shoot up the many inches I would grow that year and for quite a few after it. Eating felt good to me, and there had been no shortage of delicious dinners and yummy desserts on those warm summer evenings - my stepmom really loves to bake. I had been in hog heaven the entire time, basking in the glow that can only come from lots of sun and a serious sugar high.
I returned for fifth grade with the evidence of the summer clinging to my tummy, and for the first time ever, I noticed it. I couldn't tell you what put the idea in my head that I should be distressed about the size of my body (many signs point to the inundation of thin-obsessed media imagery and messaging that society had bombarded me with since I was a little girl, reinforcing the notion that self-esteem comes primarily from our looks), but my unease surrounding my body's shape spurred me to complain to my mom. While I don't remember our precise conversation, I do recall that she had recently started to keep a food diary for her own weight-loss goals, and she suggested that I do the same in an effort to gain some awareness surrounding my food choices and perhaps trim down a bit. However well-intended her advice, my takeaway was simple. I was fat, and I needed to do something about it.
Up until that point, I had been led to believe throughout my life that I was pretty, and that knowledge had given me a keen sense of specialness and superiority that I relied on for self esteem. In this moment, I became sharply aware that actually, there might be something wrong with the way I looked, and with that knowledge, my self-worth was knocked to the floor, shattered beyond repair. I felt that if I wanted to be more, I would actually need to become less.
I began the fifth grade changed - I was now "fat" as well as painfully aware of the differences in the bodies all around me. Suddenly, my peers were not just my friends, they were bodies that I could size up and assign to categories like "good" or "bad", "skinny" or "fat". Lunchtime in the cafeteria became a time of obsessive observation and envy for me - I would jealously watch my petite friends cram their mouths with greasy french fries and pizza boats, frowning at my own homemade turkey sandwich, sadly resigned to the fact that I would never be able to eat like them due to what I considered my "unseemly" body type.
Dance classes were a special version of hell for me. Never all that coordinated to begin with, I was consumed by the way my oversized body (as I perceived it) moved and looked next to my fine-boned counterparts, comparing the difference in fat distribution amongst the group in the floor to ceiling mirror. I stared at the other girls, obsessed with analyzing their figures, pained with all-consuming envy. I felt slighted - why did I get this terrible body and not one like theirs? How could life be so unfair?
I lamented my body constantly, agonizing over my looks all the time. I cried in dressing rooms and I called myself fat in front of my friends. I flipped through Limited Too catalogues just to stare at the stomachs of the models on the pages, circling the set of abs I wanted rather than the tee-shirt I should have been coveting. And if a day ever came where I felt I looked good, my self-image was instantly thwarted as I compared myself to my teensy friends. I began to hate them for their effortless skinniness - it just didn't seem fair.
Looking back, it saddens me to realize how much of my self-worth was looks-contingent at such a young age. At the time, I felt my body type was unfair. What I realize now is that it was unfair was that at ten years old, I couldn't enjoy a kid's snack without adult-sized guilt. It was unfair that as a fifth grader, I was crying over my reflection and pinching my stomach as I stood in a bathing suit at a girl's clothing store. What was unfair was that I felt anger and jealousy toward my friends based on their bodies. I was a little girl dealing with big girl issues that I had no skills or self-awareness to navigate.
While my mom had only helpful intentions when she suggested that I take a closer look at what I was eating, our conversation awakened a voice within me that would take years to reel in and control. It was a voice that told me that since my body wasn't perfect (at least by society's standards), I wasn't good enough, pretty enough, thin enough or deserving enough. It was a voice that led me to feel ashamed of my body and of myself.
Sometimes I think about what I wish someone would have said to me at that age to lighten the burden of my poor self-image. Like, "Your worth is so much greater than your physical body", or, "You are such a hardworking student", or, "You are beautiful because of how you make other people feel". My heart aches when I realize that as a young girl, I was already wading waist-deep in distorted and critical thought processes that would continue on for years to come.
I know that my experience was far from unique. There are plenty of others who can trace their body image struggle back to their childhood as well. And while we might not be able to go back and change our own experiences with negative body image, we can stand strong today and use our stories to promote healthy body image (#bodpos FTW!) as well as awareness surrounding the weight conversation that happens in families. There are so many ways to encourage individuals to be their healthiest and most vibrant selves without any mention of eating habits, size, weight, or looks in general. Let's commit to removing the physical emphasis from our conversations with girls and focus on encouraging our young women to shine by being their brightest, boldest, and best selves without apology. Together, we can grow our girls strong and powerful, focused on who they are instead of how they look.