Trigger warning: this article discusses topics of anxiety, depression, and fatphobia.
At age 10, I begin sucking in my stomach. An unsightly composition of stunted limbs and a plump midsection, I have passed my years of cuteness and entered the awkward tango of adolescence. My cheeks are round and perpetually sanguine, my face covered in unfortunately-placed hair. In gym class my skin jiggles and sweats while the skin of my peers remains still and dry. I learn from schoolyard bullies that it’s not okay to be fat or ugly.
At age 10, I am fat and ugly. Worse than that, I am terribly self-conscious and convinced that everyone in the world is judging me at all times. The obvious remedy to any insecurity, any major character ailment, is to fix the way I look.
The logic is that I will be a better person if I become a better-looking person.
* * *
At age 12, I begin my first diet. It consists of egg white spinach omelettes and low fat yogurt. I shoot sad hoops alone in my driveway. When I finish, I go inside and lay down on a carpeted floor, doing stomach crunches until the carpet burns itself into my back. I polish it off by weighing myself — the scale reads 112, sometimes 114.
On the days it reads 114, I do extra crunches.
I manage to stay under 115 pounds for an entire year, a feat that feels like the biggest accomplishment of my life.
In gym class my skin jiggles and sweats while the skin of my peers remains still and dry. I learn from schoolyard bullies that it’s not okay to be fat or ugly.
* * *
At age 15, I join the cross-country team, mostly to see if I can do it.
In a three month period, I lose 20 pounds and gain the ability to run 60 consecutive minutes without dying. I feel strong; my body is an incredible machine, and I am the proud owner of an organ that never fails to surprise me.
People tell me that I look great. I am flattered but confused. I had measured my progress in the miles I could run as opposed to the clothes I could comfortably wear.
* * *
At age 16, I have my most serious depressive episode to date. My daily routine consists of staying at school until 6 p.m., napping until 10 p.m., crying until 1 a.m., and eating at 1:30 a.m. until I feel mentally ready to do homework. I engage in a variety of self-destructive behaviours and thought patterns. I spend my waking moments in a hypersensitive, intensely anxious state. My mind races and I can’t slow it down. I start to have panic attacks and I can’t calm myself down.
I gain 40 pounds in the interim. My jeans stretch with my body until the fabric can no longer handle the stress — my thighs rub together when I walk, and the denim thins until it rips entirely. I feel hopeless, worthless, and fat.
When I seek help, some people suggest that I lose weight. They argue that the lipid cells in my system impede hormonal regulation. They claim that being slimmer would correct my emotional imbalance, remedy my mental instability.
And of course, they only operate with the best intent. They only mention my body because they’re “concerned about my health.”
I walk away feeling unsupported and alienated. It takes a lot of effort to open up about my depression and anxiety; these issues are deliberately internalized, consciously obscured. When I finally excavate them, intending to get to the root, they are again eclipsed by the physical (something visible for others to fixate on, a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ by carefully injected, well-meaning commentary).
We live in a world that privileges physical beauty, and the dominant social construction especially privileges those of specific body types and ability levels.
* * *
At age 17, my first real boyfriend insists that I am beautiful. He gazes lovingly at my pudgy little flaps of upper arm flab. He tells me I am gorgeous and valuable; I wonder why I have to be gorgeous to be valuable.
I don’t learn to love myself by loving someone else.
A relationship doesn’t save me from that perpetual chorus of doubt, indecision, and insecurity in my head. It still repeats its horrible refrain, howling that I’m worthless unless I’m an object of mass desire, that the love of a few wonderful people is meaningless unless it’s supplemented by the love of a larger social unit. No amount of approval is ever enough. I can’t accept compliments because I can’t ever believe that I deserve them. No amount of external validation is sufficient if you don’t feel attractive.
* * *
Today, I am 20 years old. I don’t write from personal experience to indulge a demon. I have nothing I wish to publicly exorcise, no catharsis to be reached. I don’t want sympathy.
Instead, I write as an exercise of empathy. Having discussed the subject at length with several friends, I’m convinced that my experiences aren’t unique. In fact, they’re devastatingly prevalent.
We live in a world that privileges physical beauty, and the dominant social construction especially privileges those of specific body types and ability levels. Race, gender presentation, and class also get thrown into the mix. While the argument could be made that we’re moving toward a more inclusive society, we’ve still got work to do.
I’d like to see a move toward rooting self-love in something other than beauty. I want to see individuals value themselves because they are complex, multifaceted, and very human.
I don’t deny that expanding the definition of physical beauty is important. It can be really empowering for someone who hasn’t always felt attractive to believe that they are beautiful and worthy of love. I also don’t mean to suggest that it’s wrong to want to feel beautiful and lovable. Those are very human emotions that deserve validation.
What I mean, in the simplest terms I can muster, is that we can’t ever fully move past the oppression of beauty if we keep using physical beauty to define personal worth. Even expanding subjective standards of beauty to include more varied aesthetics wouldn’t address the fact that we’re still taught to relate value with beauty. We’d still learn to love ourselves because we’re objects of beauty, whether or not it’s externally determined.
Instead, I’d like to see a move toward rooting self-love in something other than beauty. I want to see individuals value themselves because they are complex, multifaceted, and very human.
I think if I could talk to my ten-year-old self, if I could somehow bridge a gap of several spaces and dimensions, I’d tell her that she doesn’t need to be pretty and skinny to be worthy. She doesn’t need to be beautiful to love herself; and by extension, no one else does.
Frances Calingo is a U3 Middle Eastern Studies, Anthropology, and International Development student. To contact Frances, email firstname.lastname@example.org.