I remember the first time the concept of skipping a meal entered my head. I was seven, and as I gobbled my peanut butter and jelly, I was shocked that anyone would think missing out on food was worth a dress size. This memory crosses my mind more often than it should, and it is usually accompanied by a nostalgia for that kind of pure innocence.
My body dysmorphia started at the ripe age of 13 when I was in seventh grade. I was a competitive cheerleader and had been bullied incessantly about anything and everything about me, including my muscular shape. At 4 feet 11 inches, my waist was too large, my legs too powerful and my arms much too thick. I would lose 10 pounds that following summer and grow 4 inches taller, but that was still not enough to silence the negative thoughts humming in my head.
My freshman year of high school came with a whole new batch of changes. I was determined to enjoy my time here and had taken the proper measures to ensure a picturesque experience. I had landed myself on the cheer team and earned myself the coveted position of flyer. Clocking in at only 95 pounds, the spot was mine for the taking, and oh did I take it.
I wore my bright orange uniform with pride my first day of school, and I relished in the fact that people saw me and my presence had finally been noted. My head was held high and my confidence soared. Cheer practice after school was a different story.
Being a flyer on the cheer team was a coveted position. It was front and center, and it came with the perk of being ogled at every football game, pep rally and competition. I was a good flyer, however, once again, my athletic shape made me stand out from my teammates. Their bodies were tall, lanky and looked as if just a gust of wind could carry them like feathers. My coaches had also informed me I was one of “the bigger flyers” and if I wanted to stay in the air, I would have to prove my worth. This threat may have been given with the hopes of motivation, but it was received as a blaring message that 95 pounds was 95 pounds too heavy.
My life revolved around food. Each meal was a battle with myself; my need to live versus my want to be perfect. The idea of dessert was accompanied by the groans of my teammates that had camped out in my head and constantly recalled every time they told me I was “rather heavy today.” For someone who wanted nothing to do with food, it was all I could think about.
This need for perfection bled into every part of my life. If my parents were upset with me, if I didn’t receive a solo in choir, or if a certain boy didn’t like me, it all came back to how my life would be better if I was skinnier.
My self-image significantly improved once I got into college. As a freshman, I had a whole road of opportunity laid out in front of me and I took the chance to completely remake myself. I surrounded myself with positive people who had the same ambition as me and who more importantly, were loving and not critical. I would say that all of my problems were left with my cheerleading career, but that wouldn’t be true.
While my body dysmorphia no longer revolved around what others thought of me, I was completely engrossed in becoming absolute perfection in my own eyes. I was my toughest critic, and even though I saw beauty in others and excused their shortcomings, I never felt I was entitled to that same luxury.
My college career was full of high grades and prominent internships. I guess I wanted my body to match the resume of the girl within it.
Stress for perfection manifested itself in the form of a lost appetite. During hard projects or intense internships, I would often not eat due to a lack of time or just wanting to have control over something. When I didn’t have time for myself or the things I love, my life would feel like it wasn’t mine anymore, but rather it belonged to school or my job. It is in these moments that I realized the need for balance.
It is impractical to think that I will ever have the time or energy to obtain the “perfect” body, face or life that as a society we have been engineered to believe will guarantee happiness. However, I am able to create a person and life that is perfect to me. This all starts with balance.
As someone who derives much of their joy from work, I have to understand the necessity of not putting my total stock of happiness in my profession. Making time for my friendships, my health, and other things that I love, such as cupcakes, will keep me balanced when my work life inevitably becomes difficult.
When learning to care and love your total self, flaws and all, it needs to be known that everything in life is temporary. Your abs will eventually soften, you will retire from your dream job, and friends will always come and go. However, you will always have yourself.
Your hands will always be there to hug your sides when the world is caving in. Your eyes will allow you to watch the sunset when everything else in life seems ugly. Your ears will allow you to hear the choir of birds sing as the sun beats down upon your face. You will always have yourself.
It is with this knowledge that I learn to treat my body and self with the care it deserves. I’ll stomach foods like kale, or whatever because apparently it’s healthy, but refuse to deny myself the cookie from my favorite bakery. As someone who has skipped desert one too many times, the benefits of not eating a cupcake have yet to be noticed on my waistline. The new fitness class that sounds both imitating and physically impossible, I will try because my body is capable and deserves to be celebrated. It is my responsibility to recognize my body’s victories, and to cherish and aid recovery in its downfalls.
You will always have yourself.