Hearts, Minds and Waistlines
One of my professors said that we spend all of our lives trying to outgrow a few years of our childhood. He should put that on a t-shirt or a pillow or something: he’d make a lot of money.
I wore a two-piece swimsuit once in the sixth grade. It was red, covered in flowers, kind of tight, and made my stomach resemble an open tub of mayonnaise that had tipped a bit to one side. Every second it was on me, I had to try and talk myself up in my head. No one notices. It looks fine. It’s a cute bathing suit. I went to my mom for a second opinion. She hesitated. I didn’t wear one again until my sophomore year of college.
See, I’ve always said that if my family genes had jeans, they’d be XXXLs. Our metabolisms put glaciers to shame with their nonexistent pace. Gastric bypass surgery has gone down through not one but two generations already. It’s no surprise that food and body image is kind of a big deal to us. Grandma likes to chalk up shed pounds to water weight — it’s not anything that you really lost. You’re going to gain it back. My mom would scarf her Halloween candy as fast as she possibly could when she was a kid, because she knew it would all be gone the next day anyways.
She’s been on diets for as far back as I can remember. I used to think that her Atkins shakes were chocolate milk that she just didn’t want to share. I mean, they looked so good. Television commercials like to show mothers on diets and how the eating habits trickle down through the rest of the family, whether they like it or not. What doesn’t get shown is how body image issues trickle down, too. Even if it is the right thing for an adult to do, it’s a side effect. Suddenly, the kids look in the mirror and think, “Wow. Do I need to lose weight, too?”
I used to mentally Photoshop my head onto a model’s body. Someone who was a mix of Jessica Rabbit’s figure and Gadget the mouse’s intellect, who rode a motorcycle and wore a leather jacket, who could wear a bikini and not be embarrassed. She could even knock a guy out with a single punch!
Over time, it became an undercurrent thing. We all needed to lose a few pounds. Day after day, I still wasn’t that mix of cartoon bombshell and cartoon genius.
I probably could have picked better goals.
When I got into my first serious relationship, it was with a guy who had a six-pack. A six-pack! He was wonderful and funny, and I completely forgot about how I looked when we were together…and then I’d be by myself. I’d look in the mirror and think, “He could get anyone he wanted. Why does he want me? Is he settling?”
He never complained. My self-esteem bloomed. He kissed away my fears and reassured me that I was hot. Honestly hot. For the first time ever, I really felt wanted. Not that I had made it up in my head, not that it was empty flattery — someone wanted me for me.
Last July, I got my heart broken for the first time. Really broken. Same guy. All at once, I understood why every reading I’d ever gone to was peppered with monotone-voiced emo poetry and stories about depression. The first night, my cries and wails rivaled any that a banshee could ever voice. I rocked myself to sleep. My sister bought me my favorite ice cream and I couldn’t eat it until the next morning — two bowls for breakfast. I managed to compose a good face within the next few days, and two weeks later I’d mastered the nonchalant ‘why-we-broke-up-and-I’m-okay’ attitude. By the time a month had passed, I’d gotten it together. I no longer wore waterproof mascara, I put together a platonic playlist, and I thought that I had moved on. I thought I was done.
I was wrong.
Word of his new girlfriend came in late September, a week or two before my birthday, and I lost it. I sobbed in front of my roommates for the first and only time. It baffled me: why wasn’t it over? He’d moved on. He was done. He’d found someone else, hopefully someone better for him. Why couldn’t I do the same? It had been three months and I still thought about him and talked about him. Not in the “my-ex-is-a-total-jerk” way, either. I told nice funny stories.
What was wrong with me?
By winter break, I felt like I’d gotten a lot better. A lot. I didn’t feel like someone socked me in the chest if I caught a glimpse of his thumbnail on my Facebook “friends” list. I could hear someone call out his first name and not flinch. I could even look at men and think about them without a sense of betrayal on my part. My good friend and former drama teacher listened as I recounted all of this to her in a crowded Starbucks. She cocked her head and knit her brows together.
“Date yourself.” She said. “Look, everyone told me that when I was single. For the longest time I didn’t get it, I’d say, ‘What? That makes no sense.’ I think you need to do it. Don’t worry about finding love; focus on loving yourself.”
Each day after that started the same way. I’d go to the mirror, look myself over first from the front, then from the side, and manage a, “Hey, sexy.” It felt all kinds of weird. I’d been a chubby kid for most of my life. Even after I lost 40 lbs, gained back 20, and lost 10 again, I still saw myself as that girl. The mirror held a little fourth-grader who desperately wished she was a cool chick who could pull off a bikini, who always rocked a black leather jacket and rode a motorcycle. A girl who could look just as thin from the side as she did from the front — for that’s where it’s hardest to hide imperfections.
Over time, the affirmation became more genuine. I bought myself chocolates — because I wanted someone to. Why not me? I treated myself to days on the town. I got myself nice clothes. I told myself nice things. I even flirted with the mirror beyond my opening line. “How you doin’?”
Last week, I got up. I looked at my reflection and lifted my shirt enough to show my stomach, like I always do in the morning. I stood up straight, turned to the side, blinked, and realized: I like myself. I like myself just as I am. More than that, I love myself for all that I am. I’m not even at my thinnest. The standard on which I used to judge myself is now obsolete.
Where I once envisioned a future with a husband and possible kids (but a dog or three for sure), I now see with just me. It’s not a very far vision, but instead the one that holds priority. I used to feel as if I needed a boyfriend. Somehow, he’d be the missing puzzle piece that made me feel complete. Now…I’m the best significant other that I’ve ever had, and there’s no way that I’ll ever leave me. Literally. Unless body-swapping technology gets invented within my lifetime, but even then…nah. I’m good with myself.
I used to feel as if I was close to the real me, but it was never enough: the real me was always thinner. My nose would crinkle and I’d shake my head. “I’ve got a ways to go.” Now? The “Hey, sexy,” is one hundred-percent genuine. I wouldn’t change a thing.
It’s odd, though, to find ones’ self at the end of two long battles at the same time. My brain, my body, and my ideals have raged in localized civil war for twenty-one years; peacetime goes against instinct at this point. I have to move my blood-soaked armor-clad butt off the field and lay down my weapons, even though it still feels wrong. I have no use for them now.
I do rock a leather jacket. I have ridden a motorcycle. Vintage-styled bikinis are my best friends. I think that elementary school me would be proud.
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