I was 7 years old at a water park, playing with four boys not much older than myself. We were pushing each other off a floating foam block. As I bobbed in the water, I tried to pull the boys off the top of the block. One of the boys pushed another kid down and then declared, “I’ll take down the ugly girl now!”
I blinked in confusion and looked around. I was the only girl playing this game.
He meant me.
I was the ugly girl.
My face must’ve shown my shock because the boy quickly attempted to reclaim his words. It didn’t matter. Words cannot be unspoken.
Someone had thrown a rock at the stained glass window of confidence in my heart.
I walked through the debris feeling embarrassed.
Embarrassed about myself.
Embarrassed I felt so hurt.
Embarrassed I didn’t measure up to a standard I hadn’t even known existed.
I told my mom about what happened, but whatever truth she offered didn’t mean anything at the time. I had already chosen to believe a lie. If I was ugly, if I was not the standard of beauty, then someone else must be. From that moment, every other woman I saw, either in person, in a picture or on a screen, became my yardstick.
I shifted through various phases of style in elementary and then middle school. I wore trends I thought looked beautiful on the girls of Disney Channel, hoping those clothes would make me beautiful too. I watched the things my friends wore and took note of what looked good on them. The popular girls at my church and school became targets of both my admiration and my jealousy. I envied their beauty and confidence while simultaneously trying to mimic it.
As years passed by, my discontentment only deepened. By the beginning of high school, my face was not the only thing that upset me when I looked into a mirror. My own body seemed to turn against me. I wasn’t as thin as all of my friends who hadn’t hit puberty yet. The familiar feeling of embarrassment crept up yet again.
In my junior year, I joined cross-country and track and field teams. My body began changing. After months of intense training, other people began noticing. I received compliments from friend after friend about how thin I was looking. The dark pit of discontentment in my heart knew satisfaction. I had done it. I had proved that I could achieve beauty.
In my senior year of track, one of my coaches commented about how much weight I had lost since I first started running. She said I had done a good job in keeping weight off since I lost it. However unintentional her comment was, it served as another reinforcement that now I was better than I had been.
After graduating from high school, I experienced a painful season of life. I stopped running and began eating my feelings. By the middle of my first semester in college, I had put back on a few of those pounds my track coach had congratulated me on losing. I hated looking at myself in the mirror. I hid under baggy clothes and ducked out of pictures. I’d grown accustomed to reaching for a standard that was moving farther and farther away. The compliments I didn’t receive implied that I wasn’t measuring up to anyone else’s standard either.
In my second semester of freshman year, the pendulum of my body image swung in the other direction. I became obsessed with working out and eating healthy. I lifted weights and ran nearly every day. Compliments started rolling in and the overwhelming darkness of dissatisfaction eased away and the pit was happy again.
The following year I developed sudden health issues that prevented me from working out. I wasn’t willingly forcing my body to stop, but I was powerless over my circumstances. This was something I hadn’t experienced before. Rather than trying to shape my body into what I thought it should be, I was simply trying to heal it.
I have realized that while I don’t have an eating disorder, I do have a body image disorder. This exists so deeply within myself I didn’t even know it was there. Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” That is how this painful struggle ended up as words on a page. I sat down and my soul bled out.
I had no intention of sharing this painful struggle with anyone. But staying silent only gives power to the lies. Lies that I believe many other people struggle with as well. There is freedom in words. There is freedom in knowing you are not alone.