TRIGGER WARNING, for body hate, self injury, and eating disorders.
I was an active, chubby kid. I played softball, I ran around the neighborhood, I rode my bike and climbed trees. I did yard work and was proud of my ability to lift and pull heavy things. My uncle called me “husky” and it was a compliment because it implied a kind of sturdiness that I wanted.
But at school, to everyone else, my body was worthy of ridicule. I remember the feel of eyes on my skin, the burning feeling, as if hatred could be sent across a room and physically painted onto me. I remember the constant reminders that I was taking up too much space. I remember feeling that I shouldn’t exist, because I obviously brought up something unpleasant to the people who had to look at me. The insults, half-whispered, that I tried to tell myself were not for me, but they were. I remember groups of girls ganging up on me after school and having to run away while their voices followed me.
Toughen up, my mom always said. If you laugh with them, they’ll stop laughing.
But they never did. And how can you laugh at cruelty to yourself? People stole my things, wrote on my clothes, pushed me into lockers, and made fun of my friends, so that soon it was a liability to be with me.
At some point I discovered that I could hurt the body, the body that was the source of all this torment. Why shouldn’t I? Perhaps it was practice for getting rid of it. I didn’t know all the reasons, I just knew I hated this body as much as everyone else seemed to. I tore at it. I bruised it, I cut it, I burned it. I climbed high into trees and flirted with falling. By the time I decided I wanted to die, I was too suspicious of other people to actually receive any help.
I suppose I was lucky that I didn’t develop my eating disorder until later, after I’d stopped growing. The behaviors had started in high school, but I didn’t recognize them for what they were. Being thin was a good thing, so it didn’t matter how I got there, right? In my early 20’s, when I was deep into a sport that stressed not just fitness but size, I succumbed. My coach told me I’d be better if I lost ten pounds. It’s not her fault, though. I actually stopped eating to fit into a costume. I remember that moment so clearly. It’s as if the mirror I was looking into shattered, breaking me into pieces.
I almost died because I tried to erase the body that people had poured their hatred onto, hatred that had soaked into me. Getting skinny didn’t change my feelings. I hated the body just as much as before, and it was just as ugly to me. Yet now the positive affirmations came. “You’re so trim,” people would say. And “You look wonderful!” while I was dying, starving and dying. Then I turned into a bone person, and people didn’t say that anymore. Still, the response was almost affectionate; “You’re so frail,” as if that were a good thing, a feminine thing to be.
Seven and a half years later, with ruined teeth, a ruined metabolism, and thousands of dollars spent, I finally started eating again. As most people do when recovering from an eating disorder, I gained weight very quickly. It was very, very difficult, but I kept going. I was never going to go back. I nearly lost everything, and slowly things were restored to me. I was able to eat socially again. I was able to exercise and participate in my sport again, and learned to let people look at my body and not take their judgments into myself.
I am lucky I got away, escaped from a lifetime of disordered eating. So many people never do. I mostly get along with my body, even with its lumps and bulges. My body is strong and muscular, not ‘frail’. It never deserved my hate or the hate of anyone else. I didn’t choose it. I do what I can to be healthy, and that’s all I can do. I will not engage in any type of radical body modification ever again. If people compliment my body, while I appreciate that they are trying to be kind, I am deeply suspicious. My body’s shape does not determine my worth, or it shouldn’t. I want people to tell me they like the muscles I worked hard for, not the genetics I didn’t.
The scars all over my hands and arms remind me of the hatred, how it seeped in and spilled from me. They advertise to others that something went terribly wrong. Because it is apparent what they are, no one asks. If they do, I don’t know which narrative I will tell them; the narrative of self hatred or the narrative of hatred brought forth by the shape and size of my prepubescent body. They became intertwined.
I wonder if I will pay a price later for my seven plus years of starvation. But right now, I am grateful that I can live in my body, that I can eat and enjoy food, that I can try to spread the message of body acceptance to my circle of friends and family. When people say critically, “My arms are fat!” I always interrupt with a contrasting message: your arms are beautiful and so are you. There’s no need to say those things and ascribe any type of value to them. We don’t have to play that game anymore, any of us.