The first time I remember feeling self-conscious about my body, I was 6 or 7. I was hanging out with my teenage cousin, helping her pick out a swimsuit to wear to the neighborhood pool. With my help, she settled on a neon orange bikini. She was athletic, tan, gorgeous. And she knew it, despite the gripes she'd make about being "fat." A boyfriend of hers came over, and I nervously slunk to the corner. Suddenly, she said, "Amy, why are you sucking in?" and they both started laughing at me. I hadn't even realized I was doing it. I looked down at my squishy kid stomach, wearing my very conservative one-piece swimsuit, and realized, "I'm sucking in." I was uncomfortable being around an older boy, around my beautiful cousin, and I unconsciously started sucking in, even as a first grader.
That might have been the beginning.
I was always a normal size. Never too big or too small. Never too short or too tall. Average. My mother always told me how beautiful I was, and I always believed her. Even when kids made fun of my thick eyebrows, thick glasses, dark hair on my arms...I never worried about my size. Then puberty hit. And I got breasts. Big breasts. A 34C by 14 years old. Boys noticed in a grand way. I learned that certain body types got attention — though it made me a little uncomfortable (the cat calls, lewd remarks), I did start to realize that I was made fun of less for my "quirks." I got contacts. Starting waxing my eyebrows. Found a sense of warped self-confidence, thanks to all that "pretty" attention.
When I got to my teens, I learned to appreciate my curves. I never worried about being a certain size. I was at peace with having a "big butt and big boobs." As senior year approached, I was discovering that a separation was happening between myself and my usual group of friends. They were gravitating toward drinking and smoking...and I was not. Just the thought of my parents finding out I'd sipped a beer made me weak in the knees. My parents weren't overly strict, but I had a short leash when it came to teenage parties and the like. And because I was the "sober one," people didn't want to hang out with me as much. This hurt my feelings, but if I couldn't be accepted, I had to become a loner. I was quiet at lunch. I didn't hang out with friends on the weekends. I stayed home and did school work. For one reason or another, I was losing weight. Perhaps it was just natural, losing some of my "baby fat," as they say. My bra size was shrinking. I was getting less attention from boys in general. All I could figure was that because I no longer had these "assets," I was no longer worth talking to. My friends had left me for partying, and my ex-boyfriend had found a curvy (and easy) girlfriend. (Despite my past popularity with boys in school, I wasn't one to "mess around," much to the disappointment of high school admirers.)
I was suddenly in-between. Not skinny, not curvy, just sort of chubby in places. And that bothered me. So I started eating less. If I couldn't be filled out and curvy, I was going to have to be thin. I remember telling my mom I was a vegetarian to get out of eating certain things at dinner. She forced me to eat a can of cashews a week just keep up my iron. She figured it was a phase.
Around this time, my mom, 44 years old, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The second cancer she'd had in her life, the first being Stage 3 Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma twelve years prior. She nearly died the first time. But with her positive willpower and chemo, she survived. So to find out she was "sick" again was a major blow to us all. "How unlucky," the oncologist said. The tumor was small, found during a regular mammogram. When I came home from school and they told me, I was numb. I remember lying on my bed, silently crying, and my mom coming in, sitting down. "Hon, it's not a big deal! They'll take it out; I'll be fine. It's not like I'm going to DIE..." she laughed. She rolled her eyes, in hopes of comforting me. It was removed, and she was clinically cancer-free. But because of this "unlucky circumstance," her doctor said she needed chemo anyway. This news was very hard to accept. I was five when she went through the agony of chemotherapy the first time. I watched her, sick and bald, and it scared the heck out of me. When the doctor said those words the second time around, my eyes welled, and it took every inch of control to keep them from spilling over. I could barely see to walk out of the doctor's office with her. But my mom was brave and assured us that it would all be okay.
Throughout those last couple months of my senior year, I was a zombie, trying to balance college applications and exams and helping care for my younger brother and sister, all while worrying sick about my mother. At that point, my lack of appetite was less about losing weight and more about not having the energy to remember to eat. I started having dizzy spells at school — to the point that I felt I'd pass out. My pediatrician said it was stress and prescribed me Valium. Little did they know...it was because I was surviving on less than 500 calories a day. My mother said to the doctor, "She's lost an awful lot of weight lately. Is that healthy?" The doctor thought I looked fine, despite having lost 7 pounds since my checkup a couple weeks before. I was barely 100 pounds. At my "chubby weight" as a 15-year-old, I was at least 130. But, no, the doctor said I was fine, I told my mother I was fine, not to worry.
She died, suddenly, a month later. Not from cancer but from the chemotherapy putting her into congestive heart failure. It was my first week of college. By that point, I could go a day or so without so much as a cracker and water. My digestive system wasn't "moving along" like it should, so I started taking laxatives to feel better. And that became a crutch. My anorexia turned into bulimia when I realized I could eat a little to stop the dizziness and headaches...then take a handful of pills...and by 6 am, it would be out of my system and I'd feel "hollow." I've heard other disordered eaters use that word. Feeling "empty" gave me such a high. I could control how I felt for a few hours a day...until I ate again. People would comment on how great I looked, my dad especially. He's always had a constant body-image struggle — I fear I inherited some of his neuroses. I think he also felt that by controlling what he ate and his weight, he could control part of his life, while the other parts were consumed by mourning. Around this time, I started dating a new guy, and I had less opportunity to avoid food. I was eating more, gaining weight, relying on laxatives. I eventually was put on anti-depressants for stress, which also made me eat more. I got to the point where I couldn't use the restroom without having taken at least 3x the usual dose of laxatives. I was destroying my body. I knew it was unhealthy, but I couldn't stop.
After a couple years, I found myself working full-time, in school full-time, feeling a little better about my life. I had stopped taking anti-depressants not long after starting them. (A side effect being "suicidal thoughts." A friend noticed some marks on my wrist and convinced me to put an end to the anxiety medications.) Now that I was busy with other things, laxatives started to have less of a functional place in my life. I couldn't dedicate hours on end to the bowel-writhing agony they caused. Not while working and sitting in class. So, slowly, I had to stop. My body had to learn how to work by itself again. It took years to reverse the physical damage my disorders caused.
By the time I met my husband, I was no longer anorexic or bulimic, but I was still sub-clinically disordered and couldn't have a bowel movement without an enema. I still made unhealthy pacts with myself to either not eat, or eat less, or exercise a ridiculous amount more, etc. Meeting my husband changed my entire world, though. He loved me for me. He didn't care about the size of my jeans. He cared about me being healthy. And with my honesty and his support, I started to heal. I still worried more than I should about my appearance and belly and thighs, but I didn't act on the threats I made to my body. That was a start.
When I became pregnant, my perception changed again. When you realize you have a life growing within you — that their entire well-being depends on what you're putting in your body — all of that selfishness floats away. Or, at least it did for me. I thought, "How could I damage this body, the one that is creating my child?" After having my son, I would moan and groan a bit about the pounds I "needed" to lose, but it wasn't outrageous, not like before. I cared less about being thin and more about being a present mother. By the time I had my daughter four years later, I was in a better place, body-image-wise. I had the greatest reason in the world to have a little extra "stretch" to my skin: I grew two amazing little beings. I learned to appreciate my body more.
Not that I'm cured. I can't look at an old photo without first scoping out whether it was during a "thinner" or "bigger" phase. My weight fluctuates 5-10 pounds on a yearly basis. But I can't obsess. I can't be a good mother and obsess. I can't teach my children to love their bodies if I don't love mine. So I try very hard to keep negative thoughts to myself. I try to talk about how we should be so thankful for our bodies because they get us around in the world. We're all beautiful, all shapes, all sizes. To think of my son or daughter feeling all that I did, that self-loathing and self-harm — it makes me want to cry. I'm making it my job to remind them that they're incredible, just the way they were made. I know that outside influences can't be completely curbed. I just want them to have that arsenal of self-love when the onslaught of doubt hits.
I'm turning 30 in less than a month. I always thought that by now, I would have come to terms with my self-esteem issues. I haven't, not completely. I know I'm beautiful. I know my husband loves me, my kids love me, my family loves me. But sometimes I just hear my cousin's voice in the back of my head, "Amy, why are you sucking in?" It's a work-in-progress. Sometimes I fear I'll be worrying about my stomach or thighs until my last breath. And then I remind myself — every moment I stop to worry about how I look or what someone will think when they notice I've gained 5 pounds...is a moment wasted. Rather, I should be celebrating that I have a healthy body and two legs to run with my kids, two arms to hug them, to hug my husband. I have to hear my mother's voice in my memory, reminding me, just as I remind my children, that I am beautiful and special and brilliant. And each time I hear it, I'm finding that belief matters more to me than a number on a clothing tag.