I have felt the need to write the post that I am about to publish here for a long time. What’s pushed me to finally press “publish” is a couple of things. For the last year, my photography work has brought me closer and closer into contact with young adult women, some of whom would like to pursue modeling. In my conversations with these young women, I’ve learned how many of them struggle with both feelings of empowerment and self hatred when it comes to their bodies. At some shoots, I’ve told a young woman, “You are just so beautiful,” and she’ll look up surprised to answer, “I am?” It saddens me when I see a young lady doubting her own beauty and strength. I stand behind my camera and see them through a frame which, for me, captures their beauty. Maybe it is because of my training as a portrait photographer, but my eye always looks for the beauty in my subject, whether it be their face, their form, their eyes.
I’ve also felt that I should write a post like the one that I am about to share because as the clock ticks and the number of birthday candles on my cake grows, I’ve noticed my own body changing. I notice that my clothes are tighter and that parts of my body that used to feel firmer and higher are, well, different. I wish I could tell you that when I confront my changing body that I feel self love, that I am able to profess my appreciation for my body. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. And it is something about myself that I am trying to change.
Recently, Annabelle, who is now seven, has overheard me making hateful comments about myself. I’ll sigh in frustration as I stand before the mirror and curse myself for eating that extra piece of chocolate at dinner the night before because the legs of my pants are pulling and the button at my waist can barely close. I’ll say, under my breath, “I am so fat.” And my daughter will be in the background, plopped on my bed and watching me, and she’ll yell, “MOM! Stop it! YOU ARE NOT FAT!”
When I hear the small but strong voice of my seven year shouting to grab my attention to snap me out of my negativity, it is like a slap in the face. It makes me feel ashamed that I am standing right in front of her setting an awful example. It makes me feel sad that I sometimes struggle to see my own beauty.
So, because I want to change the way I see my own beauty and body and because I want to set a good example for my daughter and for the young women who I work with as a photographer, I’ve decided to tell my story. So here goes:
The first time I felt ugly and fat was when I was eight years old. My step father was watching me eat a bowl of ice cream and he said to my mother, “She really shouldn’t be eating that. Don’t you think she’s had enough?” I felt my cheeks flush when he said this because earlier that month, I’d had to go for a gown fitting for my uncle’s wedding. When I pulled up the gown that had fit me just a few months earlier at the first gown fitting, the seamstress could barely zip it up. I remember my aunt’s mother, who was Korean, saying in a strong accent, “Oh my! So cute! So chubby! You get so chubby!” If an eight year old can feel mortified, I am fairly certain that that is how I felt. It was around age eight that I started to understand that how I looked could be a problem for some adults in my life.
When I turned nine, my mom and step dad moved us four states away to be closer to my step dad’s parents, who were aging. We packed up our things and made the four and half hour drive to Connecticut. I remember climbing into the car with my mom and Mikey, who was my step father’s dad, and feeling so sad to have to leave everything and everyone who was familiar to me. As we drove away from the hills of Pennsylvania to the mountains of Connecticut, I felt afraid.
In Connecticut, we arrived to my step dad’s house. His mother had just died of cancer and my mom and he were trying to decide whether to rebuild and repair his parents house or to begin construction on a new home somewhere nearby. He wanted to live closer to his dad Mikey because Mikey was in his eighties, was in poor health and had no idea how to take care of himself. I remember that his idea of a good meal was to drive to the Duchess fast food chain and order something that was fried. Looking back on how my parents decided to take care of Mikey, I really admire them. It isn’t easy to care for an older parent. In the years that they had ahead as a newly married couple they’d adjust to living in a house under construction (because we ended up living in Mikey’s house and rebuilding it to add on an addition and to remodel everything else), caring for an elderly man whose care became increasingly more demanding, and they’d have to take care of my sister and me. To say it was hard is an understatement.
I already really liked to snack and when we moved to Connecticut to adjust to a new place, new people,and entirely new circumstances, I snacked more and more. I remember when school started, all of my classmates were so curious to meet me: the new girl. I was in fourth grade and yet I remember that I had two boys ask me if I would be their “girlfriend” during that first week of school. I also remember receiving phone calls from said boys and my step dad telling me that I wasn’t allowed to talk with them and that I needed to help with chores around the house instead. Specifically, I was helping with construction. Each day after school, my sister and I would do our homework and then we’d have to carry bundles of wood from the back of my step dad’s truck into the house. He was laying hardwood floors through the entire house, which meant that the task of being gopher fell to us kids.
I’m not sure how it happened because I don’t remember feeling particularly sad or having the urge to eat, but by the time I was in sixth grade, I was the fat girl in class.
By middle school, my weight was out of control. I envied the other girls in my class who could shop at boutiques like 5-7-9 and Contempo Casuals. I was happy that Contempo carried larger sizes like a 13 or that department stores like JC Penneys and Hechts had ladies’ sizes, which worked better for my already curvy figure. I also remember one Christmas I opened presents of beautiful clothing that my mother had bought for me, but that when I held them up, I knew that I wasn’t going to fit into them. She begged me to go upstairs to my room to try them on and I remember wanting to hide because I couldn’t even pull the pants up over my knees.
And the saying that kids are cruel is well, true. I remember lots of comments, mostly from boys, about the size of my butt. To this day, I do not have a small butt, though I will say that I have come to appreciate my butt, and as my husband tells me, in his humorous way,my butt is one of my greatest assets. I like to think that he’s right about that.
When I think about middle school and even high school, I have more compassion for the boys who made hurtful comments. Now that I have a little boy and I’ve had more experience around teenagers, I understand that boys are dealing with hormones and their own insecurities, however, I still wonder that parents and teachers during that time in my life didn’t do more to reign in the bad behavior that went on and that caused a lot of pain for me and likely for many other young women at that time. Some of my friends were supportive and would tell me to ignore the hurtful words. Still, there were other girls who I remember I considered close friends, who would join in one the harassment. To this day, I still have trouble forgiving them for it. It is worse, at least in my eyes, when it is those who you really care about who are putting you down.
Eventually though, I had to do something about my weight, and it wasn’t because of peer pressure or because I didn’t want to be bullied at school. At the end of middle school, I decided to try out for softball and part of the sign up process required a physical. At my physical, my very sweet and kind elderly doctor told me, “Dear, you need to lose some weight, or your heart will not be healthy.” He prescribed a diet for me and I walked out of his office scared for my life. I would say, if I were being interviewed by Oprah, that this was my A-hah moment. I was determined to get healthier.
My mother brought me to a GNC store where we picked up vitamins and supplements. I started eating more vegetables and fruits, fewer fried foods and less cereal (which I remember being a large staple of my childhood and young adult diet). It took the following four years, but I lost 40 lbs between middle school and graduation. By the time I walked across the stage at graduation, I was able to wear a little black dress and I felt beautiful. To be blunt, I had also let go of wanting approval from the crowd that had bullied me earlier in high school. I focused on having fun with a great group of friends who I had made in track and cross country. I was athletic, graduating at the top of my class, and ready to take on the world at college.
What we can never anticipate though is what life has in store for us. The summer before college I fell in love with an older guy. And it was wonderful. Of course, as most of us know, when you fall in love, your head gets wrapped up in the moment and you can lose sight of things, like friends, grades, etc. And when you fall out of love and you look around at what is left of your life, well, it’s a real bummer.
So I had this whirlwind of a relationship with said older guy and meanwhile I was attending college on an academic scholarship that required a 3.0 GPA. That first semester I struggled but I did finish with a 3.9 Which wasn’t too shabby since I had to spend a week in the hospital due to a kidney infection . . .
Anyway, as we know, not all love stories end happily. When we broke up, I lost so much weight. I guess it was heartbreak. But what sticks out to me is that as I started to lose weight, I got a positive response. People would tell me that I looked great.
And my coping mechanism to deal with the breakup, the pressure of keeping my grades up, and being on my own at college (though I did commute, it was the most freedom I had yet experienced in life), I focused on losing more weight. I grew thinner and thinner until about a year had passed and I was sixty pounds thinner than I had been when my weight loss had started. My parents sat me down and asked me what was going on. They wanted to know whether I needed professional help. But even after that conversation, I remember feeling proud of achieving a fit, thin body. It was the first time in my life that I had ever been smaller than my mother and sister, both of who had never struggled with their weight and who were able to eat all the junk food that always put weight on me just by looking at it. I was lost to this image of myself thought because all of my time was spent fixating on food, my next workout, and of course, working, which I became obsessed with.
I started to see a therapist to talk about things. There were so many issues tied up in my weight. At that age, I remember blaming the media for its emphasis on models like Twiggy and Kate Moss. The gaunt look was in and as a young woman I wanted to be hip and thin too. Kirstie Alley was a curvy actress but even she was always swearing off her curvy look with the Jenny Craig commercials. Looking back I also know that I was still struggling to accept the changes I’d experienced in my childhood when my parents divorced, the changes that went with merging into a new family with my step dad (who loved me a great deal but whose criticism also affected my self confidence), the out of state move away from my mother’s family, the cruelty and bullying that went on at school when I was overweight, and then the breakup with my first love.
For the first time in my life, I started to try to eat more. I’d experiment with eating what I’d consider forbidden foods, like pasta. I moved on campus and lived in a suite with three other women, who were all shapes and sizes. I ran most mornings with one roommate while my other two roommates would spend their nights cooking amazing Caribbean food. I wouldn’t say that I was “CURED” by any measure, though I will say that I was never diagnosed as having an eating disorder. In therapy, I learned that what I was struggling with was disordered eating.
By the time I met my husband, I was still thin but on a better track with my eating and exercise habits. Between work and school, I had to cut some exercise out of my life and because I was more social, I was going out and eating (and drinking, :-)) more. Within two years, I’d gained about twenty pounds.
And while I won’t say that I have ever felt total self love and acceptance for my figure, I was able to stay healthy with my eating and exercise habits. To this day, I make sure that I exercise most days, but I don’t forbid myself anything that I want. Which is the key for me. I ask myself, do I want this?
Through two pregnancies I was able to eat healthy and though Annabelle was born early at 37 weeks, she was still a good sized baby. Levi was born later and was a larger baby, but with both pregnancies, I felt like I was able to treat my body well and give my babies the nutrition they needed to develop.
Almost five years now since my last pregnancy, I am just a few pounds heavier than I was when I initially gained weight at the end of college. But I am so much more appreciative of my body. I recently pulled a hamstring in a yoga class and it hurt like nobody’s business. But I let it heal and I pulled back with my routine. Eventually my hamstring healed. Then just a week ago I fell hard on my knee while moving a heavy piece of furniture. I stood up and limped over to the stairs uncertain whether I’d strained a ligament . . . I couldn’t bend my knee. Luckily an urgent care doctor ruled out a break or strain and within two days I was walking normally and able to bend my knee. In fact this week I started training for a 10K and my knee has felt good on runs. When I think about what my body can do, I feel strong and powerful. My body has birthed two babies, run hundreds (maybe thousands?) of miles, achieved challenging poses in yoga and carried me through shoot after shoot for my job. Oh, and it has also carried two small children around for over 7 years now. Which is not too shabby, right?
Moving forward, I know I am not going to be perfect. I’m not sure I will ever be able to look into a mirror and say, “Damn, you’re gorgeous!” But I will do better when it comes to the words that come out of my mouth. I will also have to react to my negative thoughts the way my seven year old did and tell myself to STOP it.
Ladies, young and old, let us eat, drink and be merry. Let us celebrate our bodies, our health, and our love for ourselves. Let us choose kindness in words and action, and let us set a better example. Our little girls are watching us. Let’s teach them to love themselves.