I’ve been insecure for seemingly my entire life. And I remember the first time I felt really horrible about myself. I was eight. I had discovered a nest of baby bunnies in the yard next door and even though I knew not to touch them, I couldn’t resist putting out a hand to try and pet one. The whole nest immediately scattered, darting everywhere, terrified. I took a step back in surprise, and felt something softer than ground beneath my foot- I had stepped on one of the babies. People talk about time freezing for a second, but it really felt like it had for me. I remember looking down with horror at the tiny bunny struggling under my tennis shoe, connected to my pale legs clad in thick pink sweatpants. I felt like a giant; clumsy, destructive. In reality, I probably only stood there in horror for a second or two, and I lifted my foot up, and the bunny, unharmed, shot off to freedom. But it had a profound effect on me. That’s the first time I remember feeling like I was huge and clumsy. Like I took up too much space. Like I ruined good and lovely things, just by existing.
Sometime, not long after this incident, was the first time I said aloud that I was ugly. I was staring at myself in the tiny mirror on my bedroom wall. I don’t know why I said it. I didn’t really believe it at the time. I wasn’t overly concerned with my looks one way or another until I hit puberty. But I remember saying it, in a fit of anger, taking out the way I was feeling on myself.
And that’s lasted more or less forever. Puberty hit me hard, and I gained a lot of weight. I spent most of my teen years and early 20s somewhere on the spectrum from chubby to overweight and I felt it keenly. My family made comments about my weight, or about how much I was eating. I started to blame my appearance for my loneliness in school, where I struggled to make friends and shied away from getting involved in anything that would help me make friends because I was terrified of rejection. I started to gain more confidence by senior year, and had even formed a small group of three friends, but then freshman year in college hit, and it was like a social relapse.
I started out at ground zero in confidence again. I struggled even more at my tiny, conservative Christian university to make friends, always too nerdy or too countercultural or too something. I tried, sometimes forcibly, to come out of my shell- I brought in baked goods to finals, even. But I still hid myself and kept my head down, focusing on getting out as fast as possible. I would sit on couches in the humanities building, literally hiding as much of my body as I could behind pillows, because I didn’t want anyone to see my largeness. I still blamed my loneliness, my inability to make friends, on my size
I have a distinct memory of a discussion in my Critical Theories class during my junior year of college. The one thing I never hid from was literature. I’ve always been a voracious and thoughtful reader, and in my literature classes, where I often formed a decent rapport with my professors, I felt like I could voice my opinions. I liked thinking about and analyzing literature and was fascinated in how a piece of writing could bring out so many different opinions and thoughts and ways of viewing the world. But I’ll never forget during this particular discussion, a guy in the class literally leaned forward and asked me to share my thoughts on that day’s topic. I don’t even remember the topic, but I remember how he looked at me- like he valued what I had to say, on its own merit, because what I had to say was worth sharing. Like I didn’t have to hide behind a mountain of pillows.
I’d love to say that I became self actualized after that and was able to see my own merit, but I wasn’t. I grew more confident in my opinions and writing, perhaps, but after college, while I spent a year working on a novel, I also took a look at myself and didn’t like much else I saw, particularly in my body. I started restricting my food, first doing practical things like cutting out soda and desserts. But it shortly grew into an all-out obsession with calories and a war against my own body that I started to badly lose. I dropped weight like crazy. I also became very, very sick. I know I’ve shared about my struggle with an eating disorder elsewhere, but I try to be earnest about it because it was a huge turning point in my life. For the first time I remembered, I was considered objectively pretty; constantly complimented by well-meaning people on my weight loss* and pursued, for the first time in my life, by guys.
I, a girl who had never attracted more than an occasion socially awkward geek in my life, who had never been asked on a date that involved anything more romantic than a discussion about Sailor Moon fan fiction, was desperate to feel validated in this way, to be pursued by a man. To be considered beautiful and desirable, like every other girl (or so I thought).
It more or less backfired. Several men did indeed come forward, only to back away at the last minute. It broke my heart. I had thought that losing weight would solve all of my problems in this area. But something was still wrong, it seemed, with me. But then my now-husband came along. And he thought I was awesome. He leaned into my opinions AND he thought I was beautiful. But I got really sick a month after we started dating. Watching me laid out on the couch, pale and in pain, he was really afraid I would die. He started encouraging me to get better. He didn’t want to lose me. I refused, for a few months, to listen. I was sure that the me he wanted was connected to my thinner body. But I caught more illnesses, some form of malaise always clinging to me. My nails grew brittle and broke. My teeth weakened. He brought me food to eat, begged me to eat it, watched me sob if I ate a single calorie too many. But eventually he broke through my stubbornness, convinced me that he wanted something more than how I looked. And I had fallen in love with him too, and realized, as I continued getting sick and feeling weak, that if I kept up my eating habits- or lack thereof- I would die, and that would mean I wouldn’t get to spend my life with him.
So I stopped. And I got bigger. I also got healthier. I had more energy. I didn’t get sick anymore. He told me I was beautiful. And I desperately wanted to believe him.
I still do. I’m still, two years into our marriage, and almost four in remission from the eating disorder, afraid that I take up too much space, despite having been invited by him to share it. I’m still afraid that some day he’s going to compare the girl he fell in love with to the woman I am now and find me lacking. I’m still trying to hide behind pillows, to make myself smaller and less noticeable so that maybe I won’t ruin something good and wonderful. And I think, sometimes, that I’m still that 8 year old, still forever looking down at myself in horror and afraid I’ve hurt something beautiful by being too big, too clumsy. Too much.
Pregnancy has presented me with a weird paradigm in this slow, often excruciating, journey of self acceptance. I am actually very proud of my big belly, in a way that I’ve never been proud of my body, whether fat or thin. I’m amazed at what I can do, at how I can sustain life. But I’m also frightened of what motherhood will entail, and about not being able to instill proper confidence in my child because I don’t feel it myself. I’m not sure what the way forward is. But I’ve made it this far. I have to keep, forever, reminding myself that I can always lift up my foot.
*Seriously, don’t tell people they look “so skinny!” as a compliment. You have no idea how harmful that can be. Some people need to lose weight, yes, but compliment them on becoming healthy, not skinny. They are not the same thing. If someone is dropping weight as dramatically as I did, it’s very likely they are not healthy.