I was 12 years old when a grown man told me with a wink that he noticed my chest was “starting to fill in”.
Like most 12 year old girls, my changing body was a confusing and frankly upsetting thing, and this comment threw me into a tailspin of panic and shame. As my skinny, hairless child self was morphing into this lumpy, bumpy stranger with unpleasant hair growth and smells, the last thing I wanted was people NOTICING, most especially not a man who seemed to be taking a proprietary interest in my breasts. I decided that action was necessary to curb these unwanted changes and attention.
So I started my first diet.
My personality being what it is, I threw myself into this project with gusto; I read every diet book I could get my hands on, studied nutrition labels like they were the gospel and carefully documented every calorie that passed my lips in a daily food diary. I stopped eating eggs because they were high in cholesterol. Yeah, I was 12. I bid adieu to sugary drinks forever and weighed myself religiously.
All of my hard work paid off and my lumpy, bumpy body soon began to resemble the scrawny 10 year old I had so shortly before been. At which point a grown man told me, as he appreciatively placed his hands on my jutting hipbones, that he liked my “new, skinny body”.
Yeah, I was 12.
Thus began my war against myself, against this body that I didn’t know, against the unwanted attention it seemed to garner for me. Dieting became my on-again, off-again lover, and there was no trend I did not try. I felt the burn, cut the fat, even ate rice cakes like they were a treat and not a disgusting waste of empty calories.
But my body remained a stranger to me, someone I didn’t understand and who didn’t seem to understand me at all.
Starting college and being away from home for the first time, food became my go-to comfort source, and the fabled “freshman fifteen” ballooned into something closer to the “freshman fifty”, to this day the heaviest I have been in my life with the exception of pregnancy. Yet I saw at school people of all shapes and sizes who seemed able to inhabit their skin with a comfort and grace that entirely eluded me. Heavy me was just as much of a disgrace as thin me was; I felt somehow wrong, no matter what the format.
My weight stabilized and normalized my last two years at school and for a while after graduation, until an unwelcome sexual encounter again triggered the “dieting response”. In retrospect, I realize that my solution to unwanted attention tended to be to try to become less noticeable, to take up less space. Not easy when you stand 5’ 11”, but nobody tried harder than me.
Moving to L.A. served to put all of my “imperfections” under a harsh spotlight; when a boyfriend told me that my body was “just okay” shortly before dumping me, I decided once again that action was necessary to curb this kind of undesired attention and response. So I went on a diet. And also began exercising compulsively.
And wouldn’t you know it? All of my hard work paid off again as I whittled that 5’ 11” frame down to a mere 115 pounds! Boy, did I show him!
Except for that I was starving myself to death.
Fortunately, my roommate and dear friend saw what was happening and quickly helped me get the help I needed. Now I had to keep a daily food diary to bring to the hospital for weekly weigh-ins. One day, as my nutritionist and I were walking the corridor after my appointment, I saw another young woman who was in this wing for the same reason as I; I wistfully remarked that I wished I was as skinny as she was. My nutritionist took me by the shoulders and said, “But you are.”
I couldn’t see myself. I couldn’t feel my hunger. I only felt my inadequacy.
It was a slow climb out of the hole where I viewed both food and my own body as “enemies”. Food was a betrayer that made my figure bulk up proportions I couldn’t live with; my body was a neon sign, attracting all kinds of unsavory come-ons and propositions . I never felt safe in my own skin; trying to disappear seemed like a logical response.
And I was one of the lucky ones. My strong support system of friends and family watched over me and encouraged me while allowing me to be right where I was. If they had tried to shame me out of my behavior, I don’t like to think what might have happened.
But I survived it. In middle age, I have a stronger, healthier body than I did in my 20’s. I am more comfortable than ever in “taking up space”.
Yet even to this day, I am amazed at how comfortable people generally feel talking to me about MY body, or how much I eat (a lot) or how much I exercise (frequently). This communal idea that a woman’s body is public property seems to be so deeply ingrained in our society that we can’t escape it. This is what creates a culture where people believe women should be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, or should not drink alcohol or wear certain kinds of attire if they don’t want to be raped, or that “women’s work” should be done dutifully with no thought of reward.
And the truth is that we still live in a world where the way a woman looks is undeniably her greatest asset or liability. Beautiful women will always have doors held open for them, literally and figuratively, but often at a steep price. Being beautiful or not can end up feeling like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition.
When I hear about pre-pubescent girls dieting, or see them dressed in fishnet stocking with short-shorts (yes, I did) I wonder if we have made any progress at all in teaching our children that a woman’s body does not exist for the aesthetic or erotic pleasure of others. If I had been a 12 year old who dressed provocatively (I wasn’t), would that have served in the minds of some to justify the comments made to me by a grown man about my breasts or my “new, skinny body”?
When do we as a society take responsibility for preaching the sexualization of girls and women through virtually every mass consumed media outlet available?
There is no freedom for women in a world where how we look and the shape of our bodies remains of primary concern. Body shaming is insidious in our culture, but only the tip of an enormous iceberg lurking below the surface of the female psyche. When the questions “Who am I?” and “How am I?” are constantly subjugated by the driving query “But how do I look?”, there is little space left for peace, let alone self-actualization.
My body was my shame and a huge distraction from my authentic self for so many years that it is my sincere wish that young women growing up today suffer this experience for not one second, though I realize this is virtually impossible. Now I have entered the era in my lifetime where society has conditioned me to believe I should feel ashamed of aging, and that my “value” has been drastically diminished by the normal wear and tear on my face. So the question remains—when will my internal value outweigh our culture’s external valuation of my physical appearance?
And why is this even a question?
This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project