Content Warning: This blog post contains information about experiences with anxiety, misconceptions of body image and unhealthy relationships with food, weight and eating. Please remember to respect all personal boundaries in place, before choosing to read. Thank you.
It’s officially summer, which means t-shirts without cardigans and jorts that hug inner thighs and curvy hip bones padded with skin, muscle and life. Bare arms. Wiggly triceps. Sticky legs touching. Jiggly midriffs out to say hello beneath crop top hem lines. Dripping upper lip sweat. Those little hairs sprouting near and sometimes on the cleavage line, glistening in the sun at certain angles for all to pinpoint.
For most of my life, these have been things I truly believed I needed to change drastically, as if the shape, feel and size of my body were worthy of world-wide ridicule, and enriched self-blame.
I had aspirations to be a certain level of tan and achieve a specific weight, especially when it came time for the sunlight to stay around longer. I flocked into stores like Forever 21 hoping the skinniest of skinny jeans fit my always robust thigh muscles. They never did, so that meant something else would be cut from or added to my routine in order to try again, to try harder next time to obtain the fit.
These unhealthy and unrealistic patterns led to more anxiety than I have ever experienced. I’d be encouraged by friends and family to enjoy a meal or a drink, only to go home and dwell on the calories consumed versus calories burned, overcome by a cloud of disgust in myself and anger towards everyone else for not realizing how badly they were ruining my attempt at being enough.
This way of thinking was what I knew. I heard more about people’s goal weights than I did about their career aspirations. I listened to more stories about new healthy tips that really worked than I did about the benefits of exercise for mental well-being. I was victim to more comments about how much I had eaten than I was about my good grades. I had encountered more brags that started with, “All I ate today was…,” than I had about favourite books.
It was only a matter of time before everything combusted.
I was sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom when one of the meltdowns happened. I was on a fluffy carpet that cushioned my body, snacking furiously on something sweet.
Out before me, ironically, sat pages of journal articles about body image and unrealistic ideologies in pop culture. I was working on a research paper about the relationship between princess culture and self-acceptance.
Every night, I felt like a bomb of insecurities was just moments from erupting. I clouded the self-hate and how ill-fitting even my own skin felt with busy-ness, throwing myself into projects in which I knew I would excel. When anxiety seeped through my pores like gas, I coped by consuming, or not consuming, food. The more rules I followed, the more empowered I felt, especially when others called out my “willpower” and “discipline.” The more I worked out, the more I craved that sickening empty feeling; that feeling of needing to refuel but ignoring basic need.
I knew women who lived their lives entirely uncomfortable and uneasy in their skin; I thought there was no other way. I thought I was meeting the standard, but remained determined to overpass weight goals set for me by the world, I was empowered to restrict more, to run quicker, to tell Body Mass Index (BMI) charts that I was even thinner than they suggested I be.
In the morning, a fast, long workout, mentally visualizing the sugar intake from the night before, wishing the images would vanish, would help me fall further into the façade. The harder I pushed, the more the pain in my muscles would overpower the pain in my chest, mind and stomach.
I’d forget haunting memories for a blissful hour and when finished expelling every ounce of energy from my body, I felt back at ground zero, ready to try living another day confined by the limits of calorie counting and carb cutting.
Demons nestled in my brain, taking up too much space, too much time. They would soon have me face a long fight against self-hate. I began to view life like my elementary school classroom: Too scared to raise my hand to answer a question to which I knew the answer. If I drew attention to myself, the world would also classify me as my peers once had. Chunky, like an unlovable square without a waistline or cute back dimples.
I walked with my head down for the longest time. I feared eye contact, because my first thought when I locked in a stare with a passerby was that they must have been thinking, “She looks terrible.”
I have vivid memories of sitting in a doctor’s waiting room and reading a pamphlet about healthy weight and the relationship between BMI and heart health. In a navy blue t-shirt that I picked solely because it emphasized the shape of my collar bones, I saw my height and the recommended weight on the page in front of me, and could only emulate the former. This certified documentation led me to believe that I was physically unhealthy, and needed to keep reducing my meals per day, because my heart was at risk.
During my first year of university, I remember raising my hand to answer a question, but quickly retracting it until I realized, “Nobody here knows me.” This was the sweetest enlightenment. I was re-born. Not one person in the room had seen me as a child, preteen or teenager.
In this space, no one knew me when the soft upper lip hair started to grow on my face, when I noticed for the first time that together, my thighs were the width of an average chair, when I went on my first no carb diet at 13 and cried when I could only eat three crackers a day or when my boobs showed up as floppy upside-down triangles in seventh grade.
Since, it’s been like walking up the steepest cliff. I’ve had to learn that I deserve kindness; food as nourishment; exercise not for the sole purpose of burning calories; my flaws are not failure; attention from others does not define success; happiness comes from inner comfort; diets and food trends are failed fads; I owe it to myself to be confident and define my version of what it means to be healthy.
No one tells you that self-love and self-acceptance are critical in achieving healthy, harmonious balance. We read about the steps to self-love online, in kitschy captions and on bookstore mugs, but very few of us talk about just how hard it is to get there, how on some days, we will feel good in our skin and trust our mindsets, and on others, we will be anxious, nauseous and in dire need of a desert island to call home, or even just a friggin’ dessert.
Learning to self-accept is like seeing yourself naked for the very first time, with all of your inner bits poured onto the floor in front of you. It is acknowledging all the things you hate about yourself, while also embracing them. It feels impossible.
How do I love this mess?
I have had to build a barrier between self-doubt and consciousness, training my brain to banish the former as the sole inhabitant of my waking life, while still recognizing its presence and finding the strength to carry on in the midst of absolute chaos, when it does decide to resurface.
I don’t step on the scale anymore. Heck, I don’t even own one. I don’t track my workouts. I exercise to feel good and remind myself that I’m strong and powerful.
When I’ve mentioned this to doctors, they raise eyebrows and remark, “You don’t even know your weight?” I know that I make time to exercise because it helps me feel strong and confident, both mentally and physically. I know that I feel better than I ever have. I know that I have finally trained my brain to appreciate the taste of food and the process of cooking more than memorizing which type of lettuces actually result in negative calorie consumption.
I question why medical conversations haven’t fully shifted to discuss the mental, physical and emotional impact constantly tracking metrics and movements can have on a person.
I won’t lie – self-doubt still likes to trickle through my foundation as a bad cough tickles the back of my voice box. While I’m learning to accept that I won’t ever be completely rid of these gut-wrenching fears, I’m getting better at acknowledging when I listen to that negative voice in the back of my mind, too much. I’m getting better at just living my life, not starting and ending each day with a recap of what I did or didn’t consume. Strange that something so simple is so hard to do.
I have had to teach myself how to deep condition my insides so I don’t look in the mirror and see catastrophe. I have had to teach my eyes to photograph small moments of glory for positive memory and put the rest in the recycling bin.
We are trained to act manufactured, even though we are so far from it. We program humans, each of us with a heart that beats to a different drum, and no two waistlines the same, to desire to want to fit into moulds that are never quite right. We don’t teach people to try and get to 10,000 steps a day in addition to forgiving ourselves when we simply can’t get there, because life is just that. Life. We expect others to have the same mindsets, values and goals as our own, despite knowing otherwise.
Sometimes, the feelings emerge like a shipwreck unsticking from the ocean floor, like an octopus sucking its tentacles on the wall of a glass tank. Repressed memories will curdle at the tip of my brain’s limbic system and I physically shudder until they go back down. I avoid situations that will remind me of why this journey began, partially because I don’t want to face them, but also because I know I’m better off.
We advertise self-love as easy, though we’re climbing a ladder with steps barely even secured. As if it’s as simple as strapping a fitness tracker to our wrists, logging our every move, making sure everyone at the office can see we packed a salad, constantly pushing us further into obsessively documenting our every snack. I know now that these tactics won’t lead me to happiness, but will only give me more options to buy into the void already created by a lack of time for actual, realistic, sometimes messy self-care.
My self-love is dripping in both body love and hate. It has taken me two decades to see the protagonist and antagonist have been buried deep inside me, all along. I’m now only learning how to attempt to balance the two.
The feature photo is by Leviana Coccia.
Content included in this blog post is written based on experiences had by the author, who is not a medical professional. The examples shared are qualitative and anecdotal. Please note that anyone concerned about their well-being, or that of a loved one, are encouraged to reach out to a mental health professional. This list outlines numerous resources for Canadians that may be beneficial.