The Truth About Accepting Your Body As-Is

Photographed by Stella Berkofsky.
I grew up skinny and tricked myself into thinking I'd always be that way. After all, hadn't I earned it? I had put in the work: I had been ridiculed. I was called Olive Oyl, Michael Jackson, Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. My dues were paid from age 6 to 16, and I figured I'd coast into adulthood with the same gangly physique that had plagued me as an adolescent. It was only fair — the only possibility.

The imagined inevitability of my thinness eventually led to a lapse in objectivity. After I completed (and documented) my first week at college, a pile of one-hour photos sat in my lap, trying to tell me the truth: Not only was I slated to gain the "Freshman 15" — I was in this particular race with a head start. I inspected the photos on a macro level. "I look…bad," I announced to my new roommates, who didn’t know me to look any other way. Then, I tossed the offending pictures in the trash and didn't bother examining why they troubled me. Was it my hair? Partially. My outfit could be to blame. I was thinking all the way around my weight because I was skinny, remember? Doomed to be so.

***

My weight gain began a full year before I headed off to the land of high fructose corn syrup and higher education. My best friend got her own car that year, and we'd taken a bloodless oath to go to McDonald's every afternoon. We also decided it was time to start liking the taste of beer. We'd spent two years mixing cocktails and taking shots, but by 16 we accepted that hard liquor simply wasn't realistic for every occasion. There had to be a middle ground, and that middle ground was beer. It was an acquired taste we acquired quickly.

So I didn't graduate high school the teeny person I once was. But I didn't notice. I kept wearing the same old denim, kept rocking the same shirts, now too short. In hindsight, nothing was wrong with my weight, or my body. What I eventually felt hot shame about was the fact that I didn't know I had gained weight. That these college friends — whom I was meeting for the first time — had no idea why I never seemed to wear clothes that fit. Why, as in my McDonald's days, I ate like no one was watching. Why I thought I was skinny. And they were not about to correct me; only one person was bold enough to do that.

So I didn't graduate high school the teeny person I once was. But I didn't notice.

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***

"You got fat," my sister said, all matter-of-fact. She was 5'9" — on the swim team, a stack of sinew.

"Really?" I asked. I was relieved, sort of.

"Yeah. Look at this picture of you from Memorial Day." She showed me a digital photo of my face. Zoomed in on it. I didn't recognize the person in the picture.

"Will you bootcamp me?" I asked.

"God. You don't need bootcamp; you just need to do like, even the smallest amount of exercise."

Exercise! What a concept. "Well, can you tell me what exercise to do? I don't know how."

My 14-year-old sister rolled her eyes at my helplessness, and I felt her. "Just go running, dork."

So I started running. I picked out landmarks, like the West Clarkstown Mini Mart and my friend Kasheena's house, where I sometimes stopped for water. I ran once in the morning, and once at night. I wore a first-generation iPod that regularly clattered from my sports bra to the ground but was made from recycled army tanks or whatever, so it was indestructible. I fell into a dedicated pattern, and felt like I could do anything.

Like I could do more.

That’s where Slim-Fast came in. Most people, including me, think Slim-Fast tastes like chalk, but I was already practiced in acquiring acquired tastes. I brought the shakes to the salon where I worked that summer; my coworkers teased me for my ‘80s-housewife diet as they picked at the salads they’d brought from home. My “lunches” were the butt of many jokes, but nobody ever thought they were cause for concern. No one told me I was overdoing it or suggested a healthier path to salvation. Mostly, I got a lot of "You're so fucking weird," which I was used to.
But even if someone had said something, I wouldn't have listened. My routine was working. I was on the family computer one day when my sister walked over and instructed me to look up. Then, she snapped a photo of me.

"What the hell?" I asked.

"Look," she said. She showed me the camera, flipping back and forth between the Memorial Day picture and the one she'd just taken. My face was slim and sharp, like a fox's. The head in the older photo, a close-up, looked like it could eat the new head. "Wow," I said, taking the camera from her and playing flipbook with my face.

"Now you just have to keep exercising when you go back to school," she said. She was so idealistic — so 14. "Right," I said.

***

I didn't keep exercising. I kept looking for shortcuts. I took pills. I snacked on cigarettes. I drank my calories. I dated a guy who spent 40% of his time at the gym, and I began to resent exercise even more than I already did — like Leg Day was his mistress. The way he cared about his appearance made me want to sabotage my own, which took surprisingly little effort. It happened so mindlessly, I didn't notice it happening at all.

If this sounds unhealthy, it was. But seeking help didn’t occur to me. I was never anywhere near underweight, and while my diet was hardly balanced, I was in college. Most everyone subsisted on Easy Mac, Top Ramen, and Long Island Iced Teas (to be honest, I’m surprised any of us made it out of there alive). Self-destruction was our great unifier — an extracurricular some of us were more passionate about than others. In that context, there was nothing to fix.

Body acceptance, when I finally discovered it, didn't seem like it belonged to me.

***

When I graduated, apartment-less and broke, whatever extra weight I was carrying briefly slipped off. I spent my days wandering New York City in 90-degree heat, and I spent my wrinkled, sweaty singles on slices of pizza for dinner. But as my life came together, the weight returned. Every time I reached a new high score in adulthood, I reached a new high score on the scale. Landed an apartment? Plus five pounds. Promoted from part-time to full-time? Plus 10 pounds. The more money I had, the more weight I gained. I was like a wealthy Englishman from the 1800s.

***

Over a decade later, I still yo-yo between accepting my body and trying to “correct” it. I’ve ceased borrowing clothes from tiny people, including my former self — but I still contort my arms so they’ll appear thinner in photographs. I’ve thrown out my scale, but I still feel relief when someone tells me it looks like I’ve lost weight. I love the peace of walking for miles (my favorite lazy way to be active), and for a moment in time, I was one of those SoulCycle drones people write think pieces about. And yet, the muscle (and subsequent weight) I gained from indoor cycling made me feel worse about my body than ever.

It makes sense that I struggle to accept my body. First, it was too skinny and flat, and people loved to tell me so. And when I did fill out, it was in the "wrong" way. Body acceptance, when I finally discovered it, didn't seem like it belonged to me — all I had to do was stop being lazy and work out, right?

But body acceptance is exactly for people “like me” — because it’s for everyone. Because it’s never just about accepting your appearance and your weight. It’s about self-acceptance — the entire self, not just the visible bits. It’s challenging the idea that your exterior is indicative of your value as a human being.

Some days, my experience of body acceptance is a scenic four-mile walk, and some days, it's pedaling on a stationary bike to nowhere. Some days, I'm high on empowerment endorphins, and some days, I'm googling “body dysmorphic disorder” for the third time that month. So for now, my focus is not on accepting what I see in the mirror, but on accepting that I’m going to feel conflicted sometimes. That there’s a version of myself who is trying, and a version who gives up on getting dressed halfway through because nothing fits right. And mostly, I try to accept that I don’t know when — or if — that tension will ever resolve. All I can do is take baby steps, knowing my ultimate goal has nothing to do with counting them.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.
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