I’m fourteen years old and tip-toeing down the darkly-lit hallway from my bedroom, past the bathroom, and into the kitchen. The darkness around me is uncomfortable.
Every move I make feels so loud that I’m waiting for someone to exit their bedroom and catch me in the act. I locate the container on top of the fridge. It’s clear and made of hard rubber. I touch it. Letting my hand rest on the lid, I wait.
I gaze around past the kitchen table, over to the deck doors, and then glance back at the stairs. Clear.
I bring the container to the counter as quietly as possible. Lifting the lid and snapping it open. I freeze again. Nothing. I stare down. Monster cookies and chocolate chip cookies line the inside of this rubber bowl. The aroma sinks deep into my pores, and euphoria fills my lungs.
I reach in, taking four at first, then four more. Leaving the cookies on the counter I snap the lid on top of the container and shove it back on the top of the fridge. I turn towards the cookies and fold my shirt up like a pouch. I place them in handfuls on the cotton. I tiptoe back to my bedroom and lock the door.
I was in the fourth grade when I started to notice other people’s body types. Certain girls had started developing curves and boys started slimming out and losing their baby cheeks. I was out at recess running around the playground in white shorts.
A classmate of mine told me, in front of a group of boys, that I had a big butt. They all laughed. I glanced back at my backside confused. I was so confident he was wrong that I chased him around a few trees and eventually slipped in some mud. After that day I kept obsessing over my figure. I’d stare at other girls and try to compare.
My body was changing rapidly over that summer and it made for hours of staring at myself in my full-body mirror. Whether I was sucking in my stomach or trying on different bras, I couldn’t stop myself from examining every inch of my figure. I was more curious in those moments than I was critical, but before I knew it, I felt like everyone was commenting on my body.
I think all young girls and boys go through a time when they aren’t used to their changing bodies. It doesn’t help when criticisms, concerns, and observations are coming from every direction.
My mom was engaged to the same man for most of my childhood and adolescence. He had two daughters, my step-sisters, and the five of us would travel to Illinois for a four-day weekend every summer to visit his parents. It was a weekend trip at nine years old when I started to pick up on comments made about my body.
We were eating hot dogs and burgers off of the grill and digging our way through bags of chips when I could feel someone staring at me. I looked over, my hand fist deep in a bag of Cheetos, to see my step grandma Edith staring at me. The two of us had never really gotten along, so this stare made me feel uneasy.
The adults went to the living room to watch a Bears football game, while the kids gathered around the table waiting for dessert. I dug my hand into a container of sweets and pulled out a homemade chocolate chip cookie.
Some of the grease from the bottom made a shiny imprint on my open palm and the half-melted chocolate chips made little brown dots on my skin. I glanced around at the napkins in front of everyone and noticed they all had multiple goodies. I reached for a second cookie when her voice came sharply at me.
She told me to put it back and that I didn’t need it. She made the excuse later that I didn’t finish my chips but none of us had. All the kids stared at me. My face flushed. Tears were pooling in my eyes before I made it to the living room. Dave and my mom asked what was wrong but I refused to tell them.
Shame had laid over me like a blanket. Finally, after a few attempts, I cracked. Dave walked with me into the kitchen and told his mom, in front of all the kids, that I could have another cookie if I wanted one. But I didn’t want to eat after that.
I was so confused as to what had happened or why I had been singled out. Subtle comments and suggestions about eating less dessert and being more fit like other girls my age made it clear to me when I went home Monday. My fixation with my body started to take up a majority of my thoughts after that.
The Birthday Trip
In seventh grade I had this new developed confidence. I had boyfriends. I was in sports. The comments that Edith made were in the back of my head somewhere. So when we traveled back to Illinois for my birthday I felt determined to make her feel like she was wrong. I barely ate the whole week before our departure. I picked at my food. I drank a lot of water. I felt thin. I felt good.
I had packed a pair of velour pink sweatpants and a white cami. Very Lindsey Lohan circa Mean Girls. That would be the outfit that showed off my new body the best. I waltzed into her kitchen, stomach in and chest out, with the biggest smile on my face.
I was waiting for her compliment and anxious for the apology to spill out of her mouth. She ignored my outfit until it was just the two of us in the hallway. She pinched the skin on my stomach between her thumb and pointer finger and held it for too long. She told me if I just started to walk after dinner every night, I could “get rid of that little problem.”
I spent the entire night silently sobbing into a pillow in the guest bedroom. Hot tears burned into my skin as they rolled down my neck and onto the top of my chest. I squeezed at my stomach in-between sobs and rolled the skin of my thighs between open palms. I felt like all of these walls were caving in on me, trying to squeeze me into a smaller version of myself.
I began sneaking food when I could in the middle of the night and hoarding it in the bottom drawer of my armoire. It was a solace for me knowing I had snacks waiting for me. Whenever I’d feel uncomfortable taking seconds or would refuse to eat in front of anyone other than my family it provided me with a safeness. Comfort.
At first, I started binge eating only when we would be around Dave’s family. My anxiety would be so high and it came as a relief to me that four cookies could fit in my sweatpants pocket. I’d eat my stolen snacks one after another until I could feel my skin stretching. I’d be miserable after the fifth cookie but I had to prove this point to myself that I could eat it and nobody was going to tell me otherwise.
High School & Body Consciousness
In high school, after quitting sports, the extra calories I was consuming in private moments were starting to catch up with me. I was gaining weight quickly and with all of the added pressures going on in high school my binge eating went from occasional to an every-other day occurrence.
I remember watching girls, a lot smaller than me, grab the skin of their thighs or their stomachs and complain about being fat. I used to hate those girls. Now, looking back on it, I realize it didn’t matter that their size was smaller than mine.
We were all going through this hatred of our bodies. I’ve been wondering where it all stemmed from. When did we, as adolescents, begin to look in the mirror and express disgust? When do parents, friends, and society teach children to hate the way they look?
When I got my license I used my extended freedom to eat more. After school I would hurry to hop in line at the nearest McDonald’s, eat an entire meal, and then go home and eat dinner and midnight treats.
I spent that part of my life thinking snacks were McDoubles. I stuffed my face full of fries, hoping I could consume enough sodium that some of it would start to build up in the parts of myself where I needed to feel something.
When I was sixteen I began a deep friendship with my still best-friend, Mina. We both had troubling things happening around us that affected us deeply on levels we’re still trying to work on.
She became my silent partner when it came to food. It comforted us for different reasons but we created a friendship based on being comfortable. It was nice knowing that I wasn’t the only one doing what I was doing but I still felt some type of isolation when I was eating, even in the presence of my best friend.
I spent my free-time thinking of ways I could eat less during school lunches but sustain myself until school was over. I was so self conscious about what I placed on my tray. I began eating at lunch tables with boys and I was worried they would wonder why I was eating.
Now I know that those boys were so focused on their own food in their chaotic twenty minutes of lunchtime that they probably didn’t even glance my direction.
My Fiance’s Birthday
When Dave and my step-sisters moved out I was suddenly torn. I missed these good moments and the closeness I felt toward each of them during different parts of my life but I was thrilled to be able to eat what I chose in my house without tiptoeing around in the dead of night.
In my adult years, I acknowledged that I had a problem with food. It consumed too many of my thoughts. So I started stepping out of my comfort zone and eating in front of people more. I tried my best to tell people around me that I was hungry. But there was still something small dictating my relationship with food.
I realized the control that food still had on me, on my fiance, Andrew’s twenty-fourth birthday. Andrew is really into cooking and trying new foods and recipes so whenever we get the chance it’s always fun going to the Twin Cities to explore new things. I decided to take him to Hell’s Kitchen.
The atmosphere and the menu were so different from what I had expected that I started feeling anxious before the appetizer even came. I started studying the prices and reading unfamiliar ingredients. I wanted to leave. I wanted to go to a bar and order cheese curds and have the world around me feel comfortable.
Andrew wasn’t pleased that I was so disapproving of the restaurant so we talked the entire way home. I ugly cried to him trying to explain why I felt the way I did but it still didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to laugh about my lackluster experience and go home and eat Pizza Rolls, but instead, I felt hyper-aware and returned to feeling self-conscious.
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A New Perspective
I have spent hours talking to my therapist trying to ease my way back into feeling good about myself again. I started by taking yoga classes. There’s something about the positive language that makes you look at your body a different way.
I also made myself sit in a restaurant alone and eat. It wasn’t terrible. Andrew started experimenting more in the kitchen and the more enthusiastic he got while cooking the more I wanted to try new things.
Slowly, I have made my way back to feeling okay about my body. I’m more mindful about what goes in it and I try my best to take care of it.
What’s still troubling to me, however, is when I see so many Facebook and Instagram posts of young girls, friends, and family all talking negatively about their bodies and the way they look. I scroll through pools of hatred and end up with my neck just above water.
These posts are everywhere with responses like, “Well I think you’re cute,” or “shut up you’re so skinny.” What value do statements like that hold? If we’re all feeling low enough to reach out I don’t think we should be responding by brushing off others feelings.
Instead, I would love to open up a dialogue, and next time ask, “what can I do to help you feel beautiful,” or “what can I do to help you feel better?” This way we create allies. We create friendships. There’s a dialogue happening that encourages us to talk about how we’re feeling instead of hiding it.
When we discuss these uncomfortable or sensitive topics we ultimately create a safe place for unwanted feelings to be shared. We can open up wounds and begin to heal them.
By allowing ourselves to be open, we not only open up our insecurities, but we open our hearts to acceptance as well. If someone would have started a conversation with me at a younger age about my body issues, it might not have completely solved them, but I might have felt less isolated.