It was a snowy night as I sat with my grandparents, my mother, her boyfriend and my younger brother at a round booth in a dimly lit restaurant. My grandmother smiled softly beside me as I gently bumped my shoulders against hers, wanting to feel her presence. She is light, her spirit buoyed by unabashed kindness, but I often fear she sacrifices too much of her confidence for the happiness of others. She offered my mother a taste of her risotto, the same dish that sat in front of me. My mother laughed and said no, she shouldn’t eat so many carbs if she wanted to stay skinny. My grandmother said nothing.
My skirt suddenly felt too tight to hold in my round tummy and my face too chubby to make eye contact with anyone at the table. I set my fork down and let false claims of fullness spill off of my lips. The sweet red wine and self-consciousness soaked into my skin as I watched my mother in the candlelight. My arms are like thick logs compared to her twigs. I have always been a round heavy tree standing next to her brittle, fluttering leaves. As we left the restaurant, I shimmied into my coat, letting it swallow me. I’ve learned to relish in the way winter hides me.
I was born in a place surrounded by the ocean, but I grew afraid of the beach.
I’m not afraid of seeing a silver fin peeking out of the deep blue, or the purple jellyfish that have stung me before, or even being crushed by the pounding waves that once covered my skin with bruises when I ran through them carelessly. I am afraid of the beach because the thought of donning a bathing suit makes my heart race and my body cringe.
There is a photo of me when I was five wearing a blue bikini with little pink flowers and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the beach. My hair was dirty blonde, curly and wild. My skin was sun-kissed and underneath my knotted hair was a sandy scalp. It is the last documentation of me eating without shame and the last time I wore a bikini. Each summer, my cousins and I would pretend we were mermaids as we splashed and laughed in Lake Michigan. Now, I spend every summer coming up with new excuses for why I would rather sit in the sand with a book wearing shorts and a tank top than swim with them.
Weight transformed into a number that I couldn’t stop thinking about. In the fourth grade, a friend whispered into my ear as she pointed at the tag peeking out from the shirt of the chubby girl sitting in front of us, “I bet she weighs over a hundred pounds.” In line at the grocery store, between the candy bars and comic books, I would read the headlines of gossip tabloids speculating about celebrity weight gain. I began to see weight everywhere.
When I returned to my childhood home one summer in middle school, I discovered that my best friend, who had always had a round face and fleshy arms that mirrored my own, had become so thin that I could wrap a single arm around her waist. It felt like a betrayal. Her cheeks were sharp and her thickest feature were the chunky braces on her teeth. I had only become rounder during our time apart.
My father handed me the shiny blue “South Beach Diet” book and told me that we would do it together. He bought a bag of sugarless mints and said that if we ate only those and vegetables for a week, we could lose 10 pounds. The small book felt heavy in my hands as I tucked it away in my closet. Later that afternoon, he bought my brother a cheeseburger from McDonalds. I desperately wanted to lose the weight. Every bite of food I swallowed came with three bites of shame. I would eat as little as possible in front of my parents, instead waiting until the late hours of the night to tip-toe downstairs to our pantry and sneak yogurt pretzels or a cup of ice cream back to my room.
During senior year, I finally dug up that blue glossy “South Beach Diet” book from where it was hidden in my closet. I learned to eat only vegetables and meat for weeks and would wake up an extra hour earlier to run on the treadmill before class. When I lost ten pounds, it transformed me. My weight no longer felt like an uncontrollable force in my life. I had accomplished something that I had been trying to do unsuccessfully for years. But it didn’t transform my body; it just changed my perception of it. The heavy pounds of fat I felt on my body were only heavy to me. When I looked in the mirror, my body wasn’t all that different, but awkward round shapes that I had hated before began to feel like curves I could enjoy.
I wore a bathing suit for the first time in years the summer before my freshman year of college. It was at a murky campground lake, mosquitos nipped at my legs and sticky humidity coated my skin. Clad in a pinstriped one-piece, I self-consciously wrapped my arms around my middle. My friend grabbed me by the waist and tossed me into the water. I screamed and dove head first into the insecurity that had scared me for so long. He swam after me as my head broke the surface. It felt like I was floating, weightless, even though my feet could touch the rocky bottom.
A couple of days ago, as I waded across the Diag through the slush on my way to class, I overheard the girls in front of me worrying about Spring Break. “I’ve really let myself go,” one said. The other agreed, chastising herself for unhealthy eating habits and not going to the gym enough. They began to devise a plan to get bikini-ready in less than three weeks. I wanted to roll my eyes and brush off their words as superficial, but I couldn’t because I knew that I have had nearly the exact same conversation with my own friends. I am afraid to ever calculate how many hours I’ve spent in my short lifetime thinking about losing weight, counting calories and googling crash diets. I once read that women monitor their bodies once every 30 seconds. We each devise a system to mask our own flaws, learning how to wear our clothes, how to fold our legs or rest our hips to project the thinnest versions of ourselves.
Body image will probably always be an internal struggle for me. There are still days when I obsess about the numbers on the scale or spend all day hating myself for binging on Nutella the night before. But I’m ready to fight this battle. I am tired of apologizing for eating. It exhausts me that when I sit at a table with my friends, I expect to hear myself or them make a joke at our own expense. Body hate has become a normative behavior in our society. It is a habit that I try to fight everyday. Even though sometimes I hate the person in my reflection and the curves I don’t recognize, I am learning that it’s alright to also love the person I find there, too.