For Those who Struggle with Body Image Issues

When I was eight years old, I thought I was fat.

Hello!

I hope this first week of 2018 has brought a great deal of joy and motivation to you all. I’m still in India and will be for a little while longer, but I plan on writing about it when I get home.

Since it is the New Year, I’ve been doing a little bit of thinking about New Year’s resolutions. If you read my previous article about my favorite New Year’s practice, you know I’m more prone to come up with intentions rather than resolutions, but, nevertheless, the latter are on my mind.

There’s one particular resolution I’ve been thinking about—losing weight (not for myself personally, but just as a concept in general). How often do you hear people express their desire to lose weight and become more fit in the New Year? It’s a very common resolution, which I’m sure I’ve also made at some point in the past because health is important to me. But while I strongly feel that developing healthy habits and taking care of ourselves is important, I feel even more strongly that it is of utmost importance to love and accept the bodies we inhabit, as well as to be able to distinguish health from weight loss. Negative body image permeates our society, but it doesn’t have to. We can work to be healthy and love ourselves at the same time. Self-love should trump all, and we should always be kind to ourselves.

So, since it is the New Year, a time right after the delicious, food-filled holidays, when people might be struggling to love their bodies, I’d like to share a story. If you’re friends with me on Facebook, there’s a chance you may have read it before—just over a year ago—because I’ve published a version of it on another platform. It’s a personal story that starts with a little, eight-year-old Sonia (which breaks my heart, looking back on it), but it serves as a reminder that we need to make sure we accept our beautiful bodies, love ourselves, honor the divinity within us, and focus on health above image.

Without further ado, the story: My Journey with Body Image Issues

body image issues
Me with my brother and cousin, close to the age at which the story begins

When I was eight years old, I thought I was fat. I remember the day it began very clearly: my paternal grandmother was babysitting my siblings and me because both our parents were at work. I suppose it was a Tuesday. She babysat us every Tuesday.

One of those Tuesdays, we were all sitting at the table having lunch. I looked down at my eight-year-old legs and saw a spot that looked a little odd—almost like cellulite, to whatever degree a healthy eight-year-old can have cellulite.

I got my grandma’s attention and showed her the odd wrinkles on my thighs, to which she responded, “Oh no—you’re fat!” She was joking, of course, and part of me knew that. But another part of me was changed forever.

I’m not blaming my grandma for any body image issues I’ve had over the years. If she wouldn’t have turned on the part of my brain that says, “There’s something wrong with you,” it would have been my other grandma, or my mom (when pointing out what she doesn’t like about herself), or the media, or my friends growing into their womanly bodies. Or maybe even my own desire to be the best. Any of these factors could have contributed to my body image issues, and I would venture to say that they have all been a reason at one point or another.

Now, how long did I feel insecure about my body? Quite a while. The day I realized I was thin went something like this: I had been sick with a stomach bug for a few days, and I was vomiting like crazy, even though I didn’t have much food in my stomach.

I looked sickly and pale from the bug. But on that morning, as I was getting ready to take a bath, I looked into the full-length mirror in my parents’ bedroom, saw myself as I was, and whispered, “Wow, you’re skinny.”

Some might say it’s nice that I was able to see myself realistically at that moment—but why did it take profuse vomiting to see it? I felt insecure about my precious eight-year-old body, but after a few days of not holding down any food, I suddenly felt better? I was pale and sickly!

For about two years after that, I was fine.

When I was in fifth grade, I had a best friend who was adorable and tiny. I may have been a cute fifth grader, but I was not tiny. I was what my pediatrician would call “average” in both height and weight. More importantly, I was active and healthy. Naturally, however, I felt big when standing next to my tiny best friend.

I remember one time, my best friend’s family took me to see her indoor soccer game, and during it, her mom was talking to me. It was winter time, and we were planning on playing outside after the game. There was just one problem: I didn’t have my snow gear with me. My friend’s mom reasoned through it. She said I would probably have to wear her snow gear. My best friend’s wouldn’t fit me, she said, because my best friend was tiny (and I was not). Obviously my friend was smaller than I was. That’s just how our genes expressed themselves. That’s how we were made. But in that moment, I felt utterly huge and embarrassed.

In the sixth grade, I grew a lot—I was the tallest girl in my class at a whopping five feet, two inches. With the growth came constant growing pains all over my body, and because of these pains, I entered into a phase of hypochondria. I thought I was dying—that I had some terrible disease and wasn’t even going to live through the sixth grade! Needless to say, I was in no way insecure about the appearance my body. I was simply grateful to wake up each morning.

Due to my fear of illness, I insisted that my mom schedule a doctor’s appointment for me as soon as possible.

The summer after sixth grade (yes, I lived through it), I saw the doctor. I was completely healthy, of course. However, as I said, I was tall, and I was proud to be tall. Being tall seemed like the coolest thing; I liked to view it as a contest. When I outgrew my petite grandparents and other short adults in my life, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. It was so fun measuring up next to people, being able to reach the top shelves in the cabinets, and being able to jump up and touch the ceiling. I loved being tall—that is, until I saw the doctor that day. As he was reviewing my chart, he pointed out that I was in the ninetieth percentile for height. I smiled with pride when he noted this. Then he proceeded to say, “You shouldn’t be embarrassed to be tall. Athletes and supermodels are tall.”

“You shouldn’t be embarrassed to be tall. Athletes and supermodels are all.”

“You shouldn’t be embarrassed to be tall.”

That may have been one of the most damaging statements ever uttered to me.

Being embarrassed about my height was not something that had ever occurred to me. In my mind, it was my greatest asset. I had something—my height—that I was incredibly proud of, and he planted the idea in my head that being tall was something one could possibly be embarrassed about. If I heard that statement now, I would know better than to think twice about it, but then—as a young adolescent—it left a significant impact on me. Should I be embarrassed to be tall?

I was embarrassed about my height from that day forward.

Middle school and high school passed for me the way I think it does for a good number of girls: I went through cycles of liking my body and, at times, wishing I had a different one. I often judged myself by the number on the scale, which didn’t take into account muscle, bone density, water weight, or the beauty of my soul. When the number was higher, I felt poorly about myself; when the number was lower, I felt more confident. I wish we never would have had a scale in our house.

I learned to cope with my body image issues, of course. What choice did I have? There were always friends to complain to, who also felt insecure about their bodies (and perhaps had body image issues worse than mine). The thing is, I was healthy throughout middle school and high school. I ate well, I exercised, and—to address my weight—it was consistent.

A month before I went off to college, I gained ten pounds. Why? Probably because I was working out a lot and gaining quite a bit of muscle mass. But it wasn’t easy to keep reminding myself of that when I had been so focused on trying—to no avail—to make the number on the scale go down.

It was the twelfth week of my first semester of college, and for twelve weeks, I was upset about the weight gain. It was so easy to compare myself to others and wish my body were different.

Something happened during that twelfth week, though. It was a breakthrough of sorts. I hit rock bottom. I was feeling especially insecure about my body after seeing myself in the mirror during a yoga class. I felt so disconnected from and so hateful to my body, and I knew I had to change my mindset. I read any and every article I could find online about how to improve body image, and—while it was comforting to see that many women experience that type of problem—it was utterly heartbreaking to read about some of it. There were reports of a study that showed a decent percentage of five-year-olds have reported being on a diet. There was information about the role of the media and the starving models seen on magazines. There were accounts of countless women who feel that their self-worth is determined in large part by their weight. There was the notion that we as a society seem to place greater importance on being skinny than being healthy.

I could go on and on about how the media propagates body image issues with its unrealistic standards of beauty and constant exposure to new fad diets. According to one source, the average American woman is 5’4” and 140 pounds. The average super model is 5’11” and 117 pounds. Why are our standards of beauty derived from unrealistic, publicized images of freakishly thin women? I could go on about this, but I won’t. I think the role of the media is pretty obvious.

The media isn’t the only source of body image issues, though. They are often fostered within our own homes. Whether a mother expresses dislike for her own body, criticizes her daughter’s body, or even—more subtly—praises others for their weight-loss, young girls may adopt the idea that the way one’s body looks is an indication of self-worth. We learn at a young age that weight-loss is something to strive for. We learn that skinny is beautiful. I know few mothers who have helped instill positive body image in their daughters.

Why do we live in a world that is so focused on superficiality and external appearance? Why do many of us, girls and women of all ages, seem to scrutinize the smallest dimple on our thighs and the most subtle bulge of our bellies? Why do we often denounce the very aspects of our bodies that make us womanly? We came into existence flawlessly. We were given these temples to house our glorious souls. Why should we disrespect the temple? Disrespecting the temple only dims the light of the god inside.

During that twelfth week of my first semester of college, I refused to live with those issues any longer. After reading the online articles, I went to the bathroom mirror and looked myself in the eye. Tears streamed down my face as I begged for compassion from myself, asked why I had been so mean for so long. I was struck with a realization: I deserve love—especially from myself. Yes, I am beautiful, but more importantly, I am healthy. I eat well, and I exercise my body. Even more importantly, I have a very special soul. My kindness cannot be measured by the number on that scale; the love in my heart cannot be identified by the gap (or lack thereof) between my thighs. My happiness is not deterred by the slight bulge of my belly—the same bulge that will one day protect my children when I am expecting—and my quality of life is not determined by my measurements. I was made perfectly, and I was put on this earth for a reason. We were all put here for a reason. It’s time we love ourselves more, respect our God-given temples, and honor the glorious divinity we are.

—end—

(I do want to note that, even though I mainly focus on the body image issues experienced by girls and women, there are many boys and men who also struggle to love and accept themselves, and they need support, as well.)

It has been just over two years since I wrote the first version of this story, the night I resolved to change. Now, it’s been over two years that I’ve loved my mind, body, and soul unconditionally. That doesn’t mean there aren’t struggles sometimes—of course there are moments of weakness and negativity, moments when I get down on myself and beat myself up, moments when my clothes feel too tight or my heels make me feel too tall and I’m temporarily taken back to that place. But it’s different now, because I’m able to remind myself to return to the dwelling of kindness, compassion, and acceptance.

My hope is that you will be able to find yourself in a place of kindness and acceptance. My hope is that you will take good care of yourself—that you will be happy, healthy, strong, and beautiful—but that you will love yourself and respect your body and spirit on every leg of your journey.

One of the greatest joys we can experience is the joy of self-love and self-acceptance, so—as you work to “get in shape” this year, if that’s one of your resolutions—please keep this in mind. You are absolutely divine, and you are beautiful no matter what.

With love,

Sonia

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