Working Out My Body Image Issues Took 17 Years: This Is What I've Learned Along the Way

I can't shake the feeling that I am becoming my body, that my personality is slowly blinking away.
Author:
Publish date:
October 10, 2016
Tags:
Tags:
body acceptance, body image, bulimia

I don't remember the first time I became aware of my body — aware in the way that a little girl shouldn't be.

In my experience, when you're young, you don't question what you look like. You use your body in the ways it's intended. As a vessel to propel you forward: hands for grasping the monkey bars. Legs that carry you to the undiscovered corners of the playground. Lungs that gasp as you flee from boys with crushes who are also too young to question the ways in which your body may or may not be quite right.

That all ends much too soon. I miss those days. I long for them with my whole heart, and I curse my mind for sabotaging itself into believing I am less than worthy. I try to remember when it happened, but I can't pinpoint a specific day or month or year. All I have are moments — seemingly small but significant moments that paved the way to where I am now. Moments that carved their place into my brain, snaked their way alongside my most treasured memories, and slowly but surely built themselves a home.

Age 7:

My mom and I are walking into the grocery store, and as I catch my reflection in the window, I unhappily mention how I wish I wasn't so chubby. She responds that I'm not chubby, I'm plump.

I feel my heart beat a little bit faster and my cheeks heat up as a fire of shame erupts within the walls of this body that I have just realized might not be quite right.

Age 10:

I'm sitting in my fourth grade class, and my best friend mentions that she likes my shirt. It's black and white, abstract and trendy, and I beam with pride as I tell her it's new, that my mom bought the same one, but that mine is an extra small. My mind has already begun equating size with worth.

I'm still smiling when the boy who sits in front of me turns around, and with a knowing smirk only a boy of that age can pull off, he breaks me with seven words: "That's the only thing small about you."

I never wear that shirt again.

Age 12:

I'm standing across from him. The length of the gym between us seems infinite as the neon lights create shadows that dance across his face. I watch my best friend swaying to the music, and I imagine his hands on my hips in the way his friend's hands fall on hers.

The song changes; the moment is over. He hasn't moved; he hasn't once looked over. I turn and walk briskly out of the gym, face down to hide the disappointment seeping out of my eyes.

I return a few minutes later. The song has changed again. I look for him among the streamers and balloons. Catch a glimpse of him holding someone else.

It hurts.

Is it because I'm not as skinny as her?

My mind has decided yes.

Age 14:

I'm getting ready, admiring myself in the mirror, enjoying the way the yellow fabric clings to my hips. The way the deep V enhances my chest, something I've become proud of — this body of mine that I've come to know as "good": flat stomach, supple breasts, and straight teeth.

I smile. I feel perfect.

I walk to meet him and his friends. All boys.

He takes my hand and leads me behind the gymnasium of our high school, and I can feel the envy of his friends as they watch us leave. I like the way their eyes linger on the curve of my calves, the skin beneath my necklace, the way my hair moves in the wind. I feel powerful and worthwhile, sensing that those boys see me as a prize to be shown off, a shiny new penny to be coveted.

His eyes are on my chest as he pushes me back against the brick building, glazed over with the heady combination of pot and desire. I can feel the intrusion of his fingers invading me, his teenage hands fumbling around my most vulnerable places.

I'm trying to block that out, ignore the unromantic setting, forget that my first kiss has just come and gone and it was nothing like I imagined it would be.

I just want to relish in the pride of someone wanting me — bathe in the glow of his admiration and his need to be close to my body.

Age 16:

I'm angry. The mirror and I have become enemies again. I cannot stop the fog of depression that has come over me these past few months. It lingers and sinks into my bones without any promise of dissipating.

I sleep a lot.

Having a boyfriend has become stressful; seeing him takes all of my energy. My clothes do not fit properly. I wear baggy sweaters, and I hate myself for it. I feel that I need to make a change. But I don't know where to start.

Age 17:

I'm graduating soon. I have renewed energy. I have bought a gym membership. I am eating healthy. I am feeding my body. I am in control once again, and it feels wonderful. I love the high I get from a great workout — pushing my legs to their limit and then pushing them further beyond that. I am enjoying the balance I have created within my life. Friends, family, health, exercise.

I buy my graduation dress two months before the day.

I'm feeling triumphant as the emerald tulle lies flat against my stomach and feign a humble smile as the tailor mentions that I seem even thinner than I was during my last fitting.

As I leave the shop, my smile is as big as it's ever been.

Age 18:

I start university soon. I have decided to reinvent myself. This new chapter of my life requires a new me. I will be the fittest. I will be the most committed. I will study harder than I ever have. I will be the best version of me — a version I have yet to uncover.

My workouts have become daily necessities. I cannot focus unless I have completed the requisite three hours of cardio, abs, weights. I am thinner and stronger than ever, and people seem to be noticing.

I am getting stares of admiration and also glares. People I thought were my friends have begun treating me differently. I have a new boyfriend. He cannot stop commenting on my appearance. It makes me feel good, except that I can't shake the feeling that I am becoming my body, that my personality is slowly blinking away, making room for other obsessions.

Age 19:

All I can think about is food. Calories in and calories out. My workouts have begun to take over, and as a result my social life is dwindling. My boyfriend is frustrated, but he doesn't realize that I'm doing this for him; he loves how I look. He doesn't get it. No one gets it. I am healthy. And, yes, I am as skinny as I'll ever be, but it's a good thing. I'm pushing myself to be better every day. Today my friend told me she is taking me to the doctor. I pretend to agree, but in my head I laugh at her. In my twisted mind, I am sure she is jealous. She isn't as healthy as me. As fit. She isn't in control.

I am in control.

Age 20:

I'm in treatment. I had to. The doctor prescribed it, and my parents enforced it. My behaviour was scaring them. My quest for the perfect body has created emotional scars within my family that I don't think will ever properly heal.

One memory stands out: I can still feel the cold ceramic on my knees as I heave into the toilet bowl, purging the calories I so stupidly thought I deserved. I need them out. I can feel them taking up space within me, space I do not have to give. The need is so strong I can almost forget about my dad sitting on the other side of the bathroom door. He's supporting me the only way he knows how. Just by being there.

He says something, and I know I've taken something from him that he might never get back. "Mackenzie, you're breaking my heart."

Age 21:

It's been months of treatment, and I've learned things about myself, rediscovered lost parts of my soul that I dropped along the path of obsession.

I am learning that my body does not define who I am. That I am worthwhile as a person, despite my appearance. I am falling in love with myself again. Not my body — my body is a tumultuous and abusive relationship that I have yet to understand. I am leaving my body behind for the time being. I am spending my time getting reacquainted with my mind.

I had forgotten who I was. In my quest for perfection, I let the flames behind my eyes flicker and die.

I have started to laugh again, discovering a convoluted sense of humour that reminds me of my Dad's. I take pleasure in these new developments. I am reminded that I have a multitude of qualities to offer others that have nothing to do with my appearance.

Age 22:

I have gained weight.

I have starved my body for too long. Now that I am finally eating properly, my body is holding on to everything it can get, storing it as fat, terrified I will begin to deprive it once more.

I am afraid to go out. Afraid to see people I knew before, when I was thin, when I was "perfect." I can't face their look of shock when they see me, see the space that I take up. I know they won't be able to reconcile it with the me they knew before.

I cry all the time. I’m no longer numb, no longer in control. In a doctor's narrow terms, I am "cured." My body is no longer a danger. I am normal.

I can't stand how it feels to not be exceptional. I do not know who I am in this new body. I have discovered my personality. I am firm in my soul. I just don't know how to do the things I did when I was skinny now that I am not.

Age 23:

I start a new job tomorrow. I have been hiding long enough. I am still aware of all the ways I dislike this new body. But I am taking pride in my emotional and external accomplishments. I am throwing myself into the deep end, falling in order to fly, as it were.

As the months go by, I begin to feel OK. I meet people who did not know me as a thin girl, who accept me just the way I am. I am making a difference in the lives of the people I work with. I am happy within myself.

I am also frustrated. I go out with my friends and I do not get looked at. I miss the admiration of the boys I walk past. I miss being secure in my appearance.

Age 24:

He's kissing me. His five-o'clock shadow bristles against my chin as I breathe him in, taste the air from his lungs, and feel his heart beating rhythmically against mine.

It is our third date, and I have yet to let him see me naked.

I can't tell him. I don't know where to begin. How to explain that this body he is so anxious to see is not worthy of his eyes.

In my mind, I know I am being ridiculous. I know better. I know it all. I feel like I need to tell him my story, the whole thing, and then maybe he will understand. That the me he sees right now isn't really the real me — that I'll be skinny again one of these days, and I don't want him to worry, that he can see me when that day comes.

But I don't say any of that.

I don't know how to without sounding crazy.

It is crazy.

I can still taste him after he leaves.

The bitter aftertaste of him and of my reluctance.

Of regret.

I don't want to live my life under the pretense of "someday when I'm skinny again" anymore.

Now:

And so I write this. I write this for me.

Not for the me of yesterday, or the me of tomorrow, or the me of six months from now.

I write this for the me of today.

She deserves it.