I’ve been heavy-set for most of my life; not morbidly obese, by any means, but definitely out-of-shape and overweight. I packed on the pounds after puberty, and grew accustomed to stress-eating, as a way of dealing with my problems. These habits, however unhealthy and unfortunate, were burgeoned by an experience I’d had in middle school. I was bullied by a group of kids who rode the same bus I did, and for months and months, I endured intense mental conditioning and verbal abuse from those I believed to be my friends. They were a group of 5 or 6, boys and girls. The leader of the pack was especially cruel and unrelenting in her attacks, yelling obscenities and such colorful insults as, “No one loves you, dumb-ass!” or “You stupid, ugly, fat cow; who would ever want to be your friend?” or my own, personal favorite, leading the back of the bus in a hearty round of a specially-tailored version of the Barney theme song, “Let’s hang Alexandra from a tree, with a smack, and a kick, and a punch from me to you…”
In the beginning, I thought they were kidding; I even laughed with them. I thought I was a part of a group; I didn’t know I was simply the entertainment for the afternoon. I was oblivious to the shifting tides, and allowed myself to make room for the abuse, as they swiftly turned me in to the punchline of a joke I didn’t fully understand. I was a little wide around the middle, sure, but so what? I was also kind and funny and smart. Weren’t these things more important? Apparently not. Apparently, I had it all wrong. All of a sudden it no longer mattered that I got an “A” on my math test earlier that day, nor did it matter that I had shared half of my sandwich with the girl who left her lunch at home. I was “fat.” My entire identity had been boiled down to a three-letter word.
A stronger-willed child might have turned around and punched them in the face, or at least stood up for themselves, but not me. Kids are cruel, and as unfair as it was at the time (and even now, looking back), I was an easy target. I was non-confrontational, rule-abiding, and too nice for my own good. I was chubby, I wore glasses, and I had developed earlier than most of the girls in my grade. Before this point in my life, my sense of self-worth had been based on my morals and intelligence, my personality and my interests, my ability to play well with others and make friends. These components used to hold real value in the equation, and it was devastating to then have so much emphasis be put upon my looks, especially during such an awkward phase of adolescence. A concept that is much harder to grasp when we’re younger, but one we eventually come to realize over time, is the importance of words. What we say to one another, and the way in which we say it, is important. Being told that I didn’t fit the mold, that I somehow wasn’t worthy of love because I was “ugly” or “fat” or “stupid”, greatly affected my mental and emotional health moving forward.
Though my story may sound bleak, there is a happy ending to all of this. The older I get, the more comfortable I feel in my own skin. Curves and all. It’s taken me years of hard work and personal reflection to get to where I am today, to silence those voices of doubt as best I could. Everyone’s journey to self-acceptance is different and I don’t know anyone whose confidence is so unshakably-secure that they don’t still have bad days with the good. Being the “fat” girl, having to live and breathe within the confines of that label for so many years, has definitely taken its toll on me. As silly as it may seem, to this day, I’m hesitant to sit on a stool or lawn chair, for fear it might break. I still have anxiety about eating in front of people. All throughout middle school and high school, and even in to part of my college years, if someone showed the least bit of romantic interest in me, I was immediately suspicious of their intentions. It was more likely, in my mind, to turn out to be a joke, than someone who was genuinely interested in me. These side-effects are the result of growing up in a society that decided my body, above all else, was the primary indicator of my true worth as a woman. Men don’t like fat girls, men don’t like ugly girls, men don’t like smart girls, or funny girls. These messages, among many others, are constantly drilled in to our brains by the mass media, on all fronts, from advertisements in magazines to commercials on TV.
In today’s society, however, there seems to be a real change taking place. A growing, popular movement has emerged in the last few years, in support of acceptance and self-love, for bodies of all shapes and sizes. Whenever I see a billboard or commercial that promotes a healthy outlook on body image, such as the Always “Like a Girl” campaign, I can’t help but get a bit misty-eyed. With the publication of ads like these, we can help to refute stereotypes, and facilitate an open conversation among kids of all ages. Society has programmed us, from very early on, to judge ourselves (and others) by an incredibly harsh and unrealistic standard; so much of our perception of “beauty” is dependent on the society in which we belong and the time in history in which we live. This is not just an isolated issue that pertains only to women, but to men as well. My advice to those who find themselves struggling with body image, would be to indulge in youth culture a little bit. Take a selfie. Start each day by giving yourself a compliment. Listen to Beyonce’s “Flawless” on repeat while you’re getting ready in the morning. As Tom Haverford from NBC’s Parks and Recreation would say, “Treat yo self!” It’s the small things in life that make a big difference in the long run.
Over the last several years, I’ve had to re-train myself to look at my body through a different lens. In implementing this strategy, I’ve learned that I am strong, confident, intelligent, witty, loving, and capable. I am a force to be reckoned with. There are times when I still feel like that lonely girl in middle school and high school. The one who always felt ashamed of her body and her curves. The one who never had a date to homecoming. Or prom. The one who never felt wanted. Or liked. Or loved. But what I failed to recognize at the time is that I was just as worthwhile and wonderful back then as I am today. Don’t waste another minute by entertaining negative thoughts; take that first step, however small, however slight. The truth is that you don’t have to feel hindered by the past, and with this realization comes such an empowering release and ensuing sense of freedom, you’ll never want to look back. Labels are for soup cans, not people. You should love yourself unconditionally, because you’re perfect just the way you are. ♥
“You can’t spend the rest of your life being afraid of people rejecting you, and you have to start by not rejecting yourself, you don’t deserve it. From now on, people can either accept you for you are or they can fuck off.”
– Dr. Kester, My Mad Fat Diary