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.
"Can I Help?"
Aging Volvos are acceptable as-is. Clothing. Vintage furniture. A chipped, but otherwise functional iPhone. But not my body. It has never been acceptable as it is, and I have never considered it to be fully mine.
My childhood was a lean one, but it was never short on commentary. There was a weird dichotomy in being told that I needed to eat more — "put some meat on those bones" — when there wasn't money to put food on the table. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with "beanpole," "scarecrow," or "Skeletor."
Then puberty hit, and with it came hips and boobs. When my hips protected me from getting fully pantsed in gym, I was followed around the halls with jeers of "thunder thighs," and various renditions of "Baby Got Back." Some school administrators defend bra strap snapping with "boys will be boys." Those administrators haven't had to pour peroxide over bleeding welts on their back. I had to ask friends the meaning of the words that were yelled at me from cars — horny, tramp, slut — but I never told them about how their dads and brothers would "accidentally" pinch, grab, and rub up against me when nobody was watching.
After high school, the should-have-been-impossible happened. When you use two forms of birth control to keep the threat of pregnancy firmly in the realm of the hypothetical, it hits twice as hard when it becomes reality. But by the end of the first trimester, it was undeniable. My thighs were no longer mere acquaintances, my skin couldn't keep up with the changes and started streaking red, and my breasts grew like the Grinch's heart. Four sizes, actually.
As my body expanded, everyone else's stake in it began to change. Never mind if my body craved caffeine or alcohol or cigarettes. Never mind if I had needs or weaknesses or desires. Any previous claim I may have had over my body ceased to exist, because now it was a vessel for someone far more important.
After giving birth, beanpole and scarecrow would never be heard again. I was older and fatter, and for some reason the flippancy of addresses to skinny children doesn't translate to overweight adults.
Plates that had been pushed toward me were now being taken away. Looks took on a different variety of judgment with all the faux subtlety of pig Latin. "Should you be eating that?" was no longer concern for the child growing inside me, but concern for my growing waistline.
I have been wandering around in this body for 28 years, and plenty of people have said plenty of things that have changed the way I look at it. It used to hurt, but time and telling people (at least in my head) to go fuck themselves heals most wounds.
Then one Wednesday morning, I experienced a moment of clarity. Struggling to zip myself into a dress, I was debating whether it was worth the effort to succumb to the strategic compression of Spanx, or if I should give up and find something more forgiving to my muffin top, when my 5-year-old daughter walked into the bathroom. "Can I help?" she asked. I offered her my back, and she climbed up onto the stool that allows her to reach the things that are too high for her — her toothbrush, the faucet, the mirror that she has not yet learned to resent for its honesty. She zipped up the dress with no resistance and blew a raspberry in the space between my neck and shoulder before running off to do whatever it is 5-year-olds do while their parents get ready in the morning.
In that moment, I realized that if I couldn't learn to own my body for myself after 28 years, I could do it for her. We are all our mother's daughters, and my daughter deserves to have a mother who celebrates her body for what it is, not for what society thinks it should be. Through 28 years, everyone has felt the need to give their opinion, but no one asked if they could help.
#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.