I’ve been at war with myself most of my life.
The battles took place not on fields of bomb-blasted grass and churned up dirt, but in the spans of skin across my body, the gray matter and neural pathways of my brain.
It began in second grade, when during an activity where we made a profile on ourselves that included our wants, hopes, height, and weight, the boy in the desk across from me told me I was fat before returning to working on his own profile with Crayola markers. Twenty years later, I can remember my sharp inhale in response, the way my cheeks burned so hot, they smarted my eyes. Prior to that, I had an awareness of my body in comparison to others. I had always been one of the tallest in my class amongst the boys and girls, and I was gaining on my older sisters, six and nine years older than me. I knew, in height, I was bigger. In terms of weight, I don’t think it had clicked to me until that very moment, or if it did, I didn’t use that word for it. But, from the time he casually took his aim, I did.
It didn’t matter what hit me. I bled all the same, and I was changed, unable to think of my body without thinking of its size.
Afterwards, I developed a hyper awareness of my physical self, wondering and believing that any time I heard the f-word, it was directed towards me. Most of the time it wasn’t, and in that way, I was lucky in comparison to the horrors others have experienced. However, many of the instances it was meant for me have burned themselves into my brain, those that came from desk mates, or those I thought were friends, or random classmates I didn’t realize could have an opinion of me. Their words have marked me like a searing brand.
The adults around me told me I was beautiful as-is. That I wasn’t fat; I was big-boned. It offered consolation for a while, until I dubbed it a kinder way to say what my peers were saying.
I don’t blame those kids, really. All kids, including myself, can be callous in their desire to make a joke. They were just repeating what society had been teaching them, what they heard from others, what they heard directed towards themselves. Besides, while they may have provided the first weapons, years after their supplies had ceased, I was the one continuing to incite and fight the battle. I kept picking up arms.
From elementary school into middle school and high school, I was on and off diets and fad exercise routines, awaiting the day I could step out of the plus-size section and fit into the jeans the “normal girls” wore. I did TAE BO, Barbie Aerobics, Zumba, and Biggest Loser workouts. I compared myself to girls on movie posters to see how many inches I’d have to lose off my waist to be that thin, not understanding they were most likely Photoshopped to be so tiny. I spent my time in the grocery store checkout aisle, looking at the covers of health magazines featuring some thin celebrity or another with headlines lauding this diet and that. As we waited for our turn with the cashier, I practiced sucking in and watching my belly disappear one with one giant inhale.
It worked in some ways. I dropped a few pounds with each cycle, and while I didn’t excel much in gym class, I consistently did well in the sit-up test, my muscles strengthened by my checkout lane pastime and the crunches I did at home. I blazed with a smile when people noticed the any change in my body. The battle died out, bringing blue skies and the belief that this time it may really be over.
But, as tends to happen, the war reignited. The weight returned, usually bringing more with it when I fell off my workout routine or retreated to my old favorite snacks (damn you Cheez-Its).
I cried and cursed myself. My mind returned to the battlefield with heavier, more deadly weaponry, ready to burn down any sign of progress that had developed in the brief peacetime.
Seeking reason in the aftermath of any kind of rejection, logically or not, I returned to the fault I knew was true within myself.
He doesn’t like me because of how I look.
We’re not friends anymore because I’m too big and she doesn’t want to be seen with me.
You’ll end up alone because who would ever want to be with you?
No matter what you do, you’ll never be good enough.
Over and over, the words cycled in my mind, digging a mental trench I’ve so often and so easily fallen into.
Feeling too big my whole life, I made myself small. I slouched, I quieted, I took fewer chances, I put myself out there less, preemptively protecting myself from the failure or hurt that I knew would come because it had before.
Instead, I threw myself into other things I believed I would be good at, broadening my interests in academics, looking to define myself outside of what I felt like I did not have and I told myself I did not need, but deep down wanted nonetheless: love, someone outside of my blood to tell me I was enough.
It allowed me to explore so many other activities and hobbies I love and that bring me joy, pride, and confidence: writing, reading, activism, music, baking. For this reason, and a few others, I wouldn’t trade these years. They showed me how much I was capable of and what I could achieve. They helped me to figure out who I was, not just who I wasn’t.
Despite that, that feeling I was trying to compensate for has never disappeared. Masking doesn’t stop the yearning. Wrapping wounds in bandages doesn’t stop the ache.
Now, 28, I’m sad to look back and say it has taken me this long to challenge this thinking. I carried it with me into my twenties, reaching the peak of my weight and my anxiety. In 2020, with the downtime provided by the pandemic and the inadvertent inspiration of two Prompt writers, I decided to try something new, but still very much the same. I tried a new workout regime, waking up early to exercise instead of waiting for the afternoon to talk myself out of it.
This time, the physical side worked. I fell into a routine I maintained, and seeing progress, little by little I began to change my diet too, sampling new foods that were healthy and tasted good, a combo that had eluded me. I began to appreciate all five feet, eleven inches of me and see the beauty in the “massiveness” I had resented. With repetition, I learned to no longer fear the scale, and as I moved closer and closer to the number on it I had so long sought, I began to feel pride. That didn’t come solely from how I looked, although I did enjoy seeing the changes, no matter how minute. It was in doing what I didn’t think I could do: exercising six days a week, running a 5K when for years I had struggled to run a mile, getting up on a Saturday and actually looking forward to a workout, joining a gym after years of saying I wouldn’t, too self-conscious to look all sweaty and gross in front of others.
As I hit 50 pounds, I achieved what I had long wanted. And yet, like story after story has taught us, when we get what we want, automatic happiness is not ensured. In fact, in the year I was most proud of myself, I struggled as much with my body image if not more than I have at any other time of my life. With the elation of fending off the enemy came the worry of what would happen if it advanced again. Fear turned critical: how much did you eat? Did you need to eat that? You’re going to gain back all the weight if you keep up like this.
One day, as I stood in my bathroom in front of my mirror, convinced the progress I had seen on my outside really was a mirage, I realized on the inside I had remained at a standstill. I was right where I had been, if not a few steps back.
If I lost it, things would get better, and I would get better. I had neglected the mental warfare I had engaged in during that same time, and the toll it had taken. Although I wanted people to see me for what was on the inside (cliché I know), I hadn’t cared for it, forgetting the mental was just as important as the physical.
“If this isn’t enough,” I asked myself, “what will be?”
Nothing until I decided it would be.
Earlier in the year, I had started writing a novel about a woman seeking self-love on a trip abroad. Reading it back recently, I found that this passage was just as important for the fictional story I was telling as the one I needed to tell myself.
In high school, I watched individuals become pairs, and waited for the day a boy would approach me at my locker, at lunch, in the parking lot and ask me on a date. It never happened.
You tell yourself that plenty of people don’t have boyfriends during high school, and it’s true. But as each year passes, and no serious relationship manifests, while others do around you—engagements, marriages, babies—it’s hard not to believe that the problem isn’t you, that you aren’t that 17-year-old girl still, waiting for someone to want you, because, if they do it must mean there is something about you that is appealing, that you’re worth more than the cursory glance you’ve received from so many. That you’re actually likable, and maybe if someone likes you, you can make yourself like yourself, too.
Deep down, that’s what you want. More than the guy and the date. You want to look in the mirror and not grimace at your reflection and be disgusted when the grimace boomerangs back at you. You want the voice in your head to be kind, rather than spew the vitriol that has become its favorite form of speech. You want to lay down arms against yourself and offer an embrace, because damn, you’re a brutal enemy to have, and this war has been going on far too long.
How much joy have I robbed myself of? How much opportunity?
How much time did I waste shallowly thinking that in shedding the weight, I’d become happier, and in turn the world and I would deem that verse of me more lovable than the version that preceded her? Then that second-grade girl sitting at her desk, hands full of glitter and marker, having her self-worth gutted, her view of the world completely shifted?
I had trained my brain to believe a lie. That girl was just as deserving, if not more, because that iteration of me was just as “enough” as this one was. How I wish I could tell her that. How I wish that would’ve become her indelible belief about herself, rather than what took hold.
Therapy has helped in teaching me new ways to rewire my brain so I believe that my ability to be enough lies in no one else, or no achievement, but in simply being me. I’m learning how to counter self-talk, and to try to push down the gun before the first shot is fired. I’m not successful every day, but I’m trying.
More and more, I find myself thinking about that second grade girl and wondering if I am doing her proud. I don’t think I am where she or the 17-year-old version of me thought I would be. In the words of Glennon Doyle, what hurts us the most is the perception of how we thought life would be in comparison to reality. Based on that barometer, I think I may have disappointed those Sarahs in some way.
In every other way, I think we’ve become more than we would’ve imagined. I think they would be happy to know that someday, they would learn they could put down their weapons, step away from the barbed wire, and walk into no-man’s land to feel the warmth of the sun without fearing the bomb to come.