Story & Photo Illustration by Corrine Moore
It is no secret that young women growing up in America’s body-obsessed culture are more insecure than ever. Plastered on virtually every magazine cover, movie screen and billboard are images of picturesque women who all seem to look the same. These “perfect” women are ideally 5 feet 10 inches, weigh 110 pounds and have perfect skin, teeth and hair. As a young, impressionable woman, I viewed these images and subconsciously thought there was something wrong with the way I looked.
The first time I can remember feeling fat was around the fourth grade. Similar to almost any pre-teen, I still had a bit of baby fat, and felt unworthy because of it. I remember vivid moments in the department store dressing rooms, crying to my mom about how disgusting I looked in everything I tried on. I felt that because my body did not match our society’s universal standard of beauty, I was inherently flawed.
As time went on, I began swimming and the weight seemed to fall off instantly. I was so shocked and felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Now I could feel confident. Now I could feel worthy of love. At the time, I couldn’t see how unhealthy these thought processes really were. It seemed completely normal to associate my body image to my confidence and value. Nonetheless, I kept swimming more and more rigorously throughout the years until I got burned out. I wanted to quit so badly before high school started, but I was hesitant to because I was deathly afraid of gaining back the weight.
I thought about it often and decided it would be in my best interest to quit and join another sport that I enjoyed. I decided to join tennis, yet the fear of becoming fat again lingered in the back of my mind like a pestering gnat. Deep down, I knew that the intensity of a tennis workout did not compare to the workouts I was accustomed to at my swimming practices. Therefore, I began to tack on extra gym time after tennis practice in order to make up for any lost calories. I thought that this only seemed logical at the time—I never imagined that it would turn into an obsession.
To further prevent the possibility of gaining weight, I started to restrict my calories and adopted a strict no-carb diet. I cut out all starch and grains and ate only foods that were considered “good” in my mind. A common day of eating was as follows: For breakfast I would have a small apple and a protein shake, for lunch I would have sugar-free Jello, edamame, some kind of fruit and deli meat, and for dinner, usually a chicken or turkey salad. Needless to say, I left little room for error, and anything that was considered unhealthy in my mind was bad and off-limits. I was probably only taking in about 1,000-1,200 calories a day, which was extremely unhealthy considering the hours I spent exercising and my current weight of about 130 pounds. I remember dreading going out to eat with friends because if bread or chips were served as an appetizer, I felt awkward being the only one not eating them. Eventually, my friends began to catch on to how strict I was with my food and stopped inviting me if they were going to a fast food restaurant or going on an ice-cream run. When I thought of food, it no longer was associated with the pleasure. Instead, food brought up obsessive and anxious thoughts and became more of an obligation that I couldn’t avoid.
One hour at the gym quickly seemed to turn into two, and my “calories burned” goal seemed to rise by the hundreds. What should have been a means of staying fit and healthy started to become a chore that I had to complete to remain sane. Somehow, I perpetuated this intense workout schedule throughout my freshman and sophomore year of high school, but once junior year hit, managing gym and school time became unbearable. I decided to join the dance team and struggled to keep my grades up for my upcoming college applications while also maintaining my gym requirements. I fought to keep my eyes open throughout the day and lost the energy to push myself to the same degree as I had in the past. It became utterly exhausting. I distinctly remember falling into micro-sleeps during my cycling class out of sheer fatigue.
I knew there was a problem when I started crying when my brother couldn’t take me to the gym for a day. The fear of gaining weight was controlling my life. I started to prioritize workouts over quality time with friends and became depressed as a result. Food was the enemy. Calories were “bad.” My life had become so regimented and stressful that I felt completely powerless in my attempt to control everything. Sure, I may have looked like I was a happy girl in great shape, but underneath the facade, I hated myself.
I hit my ultimate low at the end of junior year when I decided to quit the dance team because looking at myself in the mirrors dancing every day became too much alongside all the other pressure that I was placing on myself. When senior year came, I decided that enough was enough. I was miserable and had to do something to change my life. I started seeing a therapist, eating balanced meals and exercising for pleasure rather than for control. I worked on self-love techniques to help my previously destructive inner dialogue.
One of the biggest epiphanies I experienced throughout my recovery process was that I had control over my own thoughts. If I wanted to tell myself how beautiful, worthy and unique I was, then by all means I could. Before, I felt like a victim to my self-deprecating thoughts. Before, if my mind told me that I was fat, disgusting or ugly, then that was the truth. Little did I know how wrong that way of thinking truly was.
I learned that I had power over my inner demons, and that if I ever wanted to be happy, I would have to work on loving myself first. In an attempt to become “perfect” like the Photoshopped models I grew up idolizing, I instead ended up more insecure than I had ever been before. I spent so much time focusing on my flaws by repeating to myself how fat I was, that even when I looked perfectly in shape from an outsider’s perspective, my eyes were blinded by what I believed I looked like.
Looking back, I remember just how much I let the eating disorder and negative thoughts dictate my happiness during a family vacation to Cozumel. My mom and I were relaxing on the beach, and I had planned to have her take pictures of me in a bikini for social media. After all, I had spent months making sure my diet was close to perfect and working out almost every day. We spent about an hour taking pictures in every angle and pose I could possibly think of. I thought that getting a good picture of my body would make me feel more confident about myself, but my efforts didn’t work. Sure, I may have found one or two pictures that met my standards, but in the end, it wasn’t fulfilling. Instead of enjoying the day at the beach swimming in the ocean or tanning with my mom, I chose to spend it obsessing about myself. Although I got a pretty picture, I thought to myself, “Is this really worth it?” All that time and energy I devoted solely on myself I could have invested in other, more important areas of my life. I could have spent that time enriching my relationships with my family and friends, or taking up a new hobby.
I realized that by attempting to gain external validation through the acceptance of others, I would never be happy. Happiness can only truly be gained from within, and if I ever wanted to be happy, I would have to work on loving myself wholeheartedly.
I encourage women to believe that they are enough despite what the media says. I advise you all to spend your precious time focusing on being kind, loving, and gracious to your bodies. Feed them properly, and enjoy all the things you can do with it like run, swim and dance. You were given this body to be healthy—not skinny.