Taylor Riley, 26, Louisville, KY

This year, as part of our Take Back The Beach program, we are asking YOU to tell us about your experiences with body talk and self-perception. Below, one reader's story.

"Have You Ever Read Up On Eating Disorders?"

I grew up in rural Kentucky with knobby knees, a gangly body, and a gap-toothed smile. I wasn't the most beautiful girl in the room at an early age, but I knew I had a gregarious personality. Still, I wanted to be pretty. My mom has always been obsessive about the way she looks, and vanity was something that our family has passed on through the generations.
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My grandmother dyed her hair blonde until she died at 85. She didn't want anyone to know a single gray hair existed. My mom always obsessed over her weight. An avid runner in her early years, she had me, her only child, and quit exercising. “I need to lose this big tire,” she'd tell me as she stared into the mirror, pulling at her stomach. But she was beautiful, always looking at least 10 years younger than it said on her driver's license. Men flirted with her at the grocery store, even when she was 60.
She put such an emphasis on beauty, pointing out that I needed a wax when my bushy brows got out of control, and recommending that I start highlighting my mousy brown hair when I was 12. This was only one year after I begged her to help me shave my legs and she didn't object. One day, I was a child, and then the next I woke up a woman. It was a hard pill for me to swallow, going from buying my clothes at Limited Too to shopping in the juniors section. Suddenly, I had this round bottom that needed a larger size in jeans. I began wearing padded bras to balance my figure and to create a more hourglass shape than I had naturally. When I reached high school, I became vulnerable to bullies, as many are at that age. My first memory of this came from a girl on my dance team coming up to me on the practice floor.
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“Getting a little pudgy there, Taylor?” She told me, squeezing my belly as I wore a belly shirt and yoga pants. That was when the first diet began.
I was 17 when I realized boys were noticing me. I had finally learned how to do my makeup and hair, and I figured out how I wanted to dress my body. I was always more mature-looking than my classmates, but I wasn't the ugly duckling anymore. I was 18, much older than the girls I knew, when I started partying and hooking up with boys. I had dyed my hair blonde and, suddenly, I was desirable. When I entered college with a newfound sense of confidence, I was considered the fun, beautiful blonde I'd always wanted to be. I used my looks to gain popularity with the girls in my sorority and lots of boys on campus.
Along with finding the confidence I needed through boys and partying, I was using eating and exercise as a way to control my life. I barely scraped by in undergrad, going from having a 4.0 in high school to landing on academic probation a couple times in college. Being smart was on the back burner; I wanted to be hot and popular.
I graduated on time and began my career as a journalist at my first job at a tiny online news outlet. I hated that job. I got paid next to nothing and had moved two hundred miles away from my friends and family to live in a secluded western Kentucky town. To control the way I felt, I began "clean" eating and running to reduce anxiety. It helped, and I began to see my body change, which fueled me to exercise more. But none of this actually made me feel better: Three years into the same exercise and eating routine, restricting myself from foods I once loved and scolding myself when I went to brunch with my friends, I started to feel like my anxiety was out of control.
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I started seeing a therapist when I was 26. It wasn't the first time I had seen a therapist, and it certainly wasn't the first time my life felt out of control, thanks to food and body image. I told her about how, when I looked into the mirror, I only saw thunder thighs, and that I couldn't go a day without exercising without feeling guilty. I told her about my racing thoughts about food, and how I couldn't just eat without thinking about the calorie content. I couldn't even go out with friends without comparing my body to theirs.
“Have you ever read up on eating disorders?” she asked.
“Eating disorders?” I asked, genuinely surprised. “You think I have an eating disorder? But I'm not that skinny.”
“Have you ever heard of body dysmorphic disorder?”
I had. I remembered from an undergraduate general education psych course that it had something to do with not perceiving your body the way others do. I tried so hard to be "perfect," and this wasn't a realistic goal — and I had to realize that fact.
For the first time in my life, I began to face the demons I was too scared to meet before: For me, being "pretty," had potentially life-threatening consequences.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.
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#TakeBackTheBeach essays are meant to reflect individual women's experiences. They have only been lightly edited (if at all) by Refinery29 and do not necessarily reflect the company's point of view. Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity or harmful behavior.
Have a story of body image and self-perception that you want to share? Submit your essay to our Take Back The Beach contest here.
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