Today I got an e-mail message from a young woman who wishes to remain anonymous. She confided in me that she has been plus-size her whole life, and that as a member of a thin family, she has struggled with her weight for as long as she can remember. This young woman, who is only 18, has been battling a serious eating disorder for the past five years. She’s tried to become “skinny” as a means of becoming “beautiful” but finds herself miserable and wishing she could simply learn to love herself as a plus-size woman.
Reading her message, it occurred to me that I have kept something from you all – not because I wished to lie or omit the truth, but because it’s a difficult subject to discuss, and because it feels like it was so long ago, and part of someone’s life who wasn’t really me. It’s funny: I’m so comfortable in my body these days that it’s easy to forget that wasn’t always the case. I’ve mentioned in passing that I dealt with the typical teenage weight-related issues most girls undergo, but it was nowhere near as simple as that – well, things are never that simple I suppose.
Though I was bullied and made to feel somewhat of a black sheep as a child for being overweight, it wasn’t until I was 13 and hit junior high that it truly got to me. I couldn’t stand being known as the “chubby” girl in class – even though that’s all I was, really; just a little chubby. I couldn’t stand not delving into the dating world, or receiving my first kiss when so many of my classmates were starting to experiment with the opposite sex. I couldn’t stand being patted on the belly by relatives who’d mention my belly, calling it “cute” with an apparent air of distaste — or constantly being told I should join sports in order to lose weight. And so I did what so many do – I plunged into an eating disorder that would shape the beginning of my adolescence.
I don’t blame anyone for this. Ultimately, it was my choice to stop eating. I ate the bare minimum to keep myself going – a piece of bread, some cheese perhaps, occasionally a granola bar. I spent the better part of a year and a half going on 200 calories a day (at most). And I lost the weight. I lost every bit of baby fat and fit into those tiny jeans all the other girls could wear. I started getting asked out on dates – even had a date to the 8th grade graduation and freshman year homecoming dances. But I was, you guessed it, miserable.
It must’ve been 18 months or so (after numerous fainting spells, a diagnosis of anemia and consistent complaints of nausea) when people realized what was going on and I was forced into therapy by both my school and my relatives. At the time, of course, I was infuriated. I refused to believe I had a problem, and would barely grant my therapist the occasional grunt. I’d go days without speaking to anyone in my household. My meals started being monitored by a guidance counselor in the cafeteria at school, and that kind of monitoring made me more embarrassed than being a little fat ever did. I knew I had to start eating and putting on weight if I was ever to escape the watchful cafeteria patrol or the supervised meals at home; so I did.
At first, I hated getting bigger again. I hated going from 200 to 2000 calories a day. I hated not being allowed to exercise as excessively as I had been (I’d grown addicted to the treadmill in those 18 months). But I loved that the more I gained, the more people left me alone. I wasn’t gaining weight for the right reasons, at first, and for most of high school I remained unhappy at my heavier body. But as you all know, four years post high school, I couldn’t be happier. I can’t really pinpoint the change in my psyche to one specific event. Going to college certainly helped; meeting open-minded people and leaving the small town I grew up in where “thin is in” most definitely helped; dating helped (and I know you should never base your self-worth on a man but what woman doesn’t enjoy being admired and complimented?); studying abroad where I saw how much other cultures value a thicker figure helped; and falling in love helped. But ultimately, growing up helped the most. Realizing how over-rated and quite frankly, boring, body image issues are helped me move on and not want to spend another second hating myself. I didn’t want to be a cliché anymore. I didn’t want to strive to be thinner, because I felt like that made me no different than the thousands of women who want that. I wanted things for myself – not because anyone else wanted them or told me I should want them.
I’m not devaluing the seriousness of eating disorders – there’s a reason so many men and women seep into them – whether because of the media, bullies, “friends” or relatives who tell them they look wrong. But in response to that young woman who e-mailed me, asking how I went about becoming confident being plus-size, the long and the short of it is what I’ve said: I chose to step away from the cliché and become my own person. I chose to sort of grow up – and I say sort of because I really have no interest in being a grown-up but I do have interest in learning and expanding my train of thought. I’d like to say it was easy, but no, obviously it wasn’t easy. But it did happen – and it can happen. The key is to just stop caring about everyone else; stop wanting what everyone wants you to want; and live for you.