Heather Slager, 28, Bolingbrook, Il

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.

"You Look Like A Sausage Squeezing Out Of Its Casing"

These words were harsh, and — even worse — spoken by someone I loved. At the time, this person hoped to talk my 13-year-old self out of a bikini, and they succeeded. This sentence started my distorted belief on what it was to be "healthy" — specifically, thin must equal healthy.
High school was not kind, and did nothing to help my slanted reality or my unhealthy relationship with food. I began to hate my back fat, tummy rolls, muffin top, arm flab, and lack of a thigh gap. I dreamed of being thin. I began skipping lunch afraid of those around me watching me eat. At my size, was I even allowed to grab a slice of pizza over the salad? I hid in my clothing, refusing to go shopping with friends. I left high school and went away to college, using the distance to reinvent myself. I became determined, watching every calorie I ate and working out every day. I was pleased as I dropped more weight, and friends and family praised my efforts. Still, a shadow followed me. Every piece of clothing I tried on led to me watching for any lump or bump that might protrude the "wrong" way.
I left college with a boyfriend, who a few years later became my husband. My comfort level with him helped keep my body fears at bay. In those years, I was conscious of my weight, tracking every calorie. But, as I slowly gained weight, those words I heard at 13 once again haunted me. I became frustrated at myself, and my marriage became strained. No matter how many compliments my husband gave me, my own insecurities outweighed them. I wouldn't let him touch me, and I hid in the bathroom to change, afraid he might see the extra flab on my thighs.
Finally, we hit a breaking point. One day, as we were screaming at each other across the kitchen, he asked if I was cheating on him, if I found him attractive, and if I even loved him anymore. I was floored. I couldn't take it anymore, and I screamed, "Did you ever think it is not all about you? Did you ever consider that it is because I can barely stand myself?" It was a turning point — I finally admitted out loud how I felt about my body. My husband knew his words of reassurance would not help, so instead he stepped back and gave me room to find myself. I used it, reading health articles on what it meant to love your body.
In 2016, I involved my husband in my journey, signing us up for a few fun runs. After the first one I was hooked. The girl who could not finish a mile in high school could run 3.1 miles — slowly, but I made it. Next came the obstacle runs, climbing walls, body crawling under barbed wire, and jumping over fire. The instant rush from accomplishment, and the love and encouragement from those running around me felt amazing. Up next was a mud run, and people of all shapes and sizes came out to compete. The feeling I got from these events left me signing up for more.
My husband and I became closer, using the runs as a bonding experience. In August, we ran another race with a whopping 26 obstacles. Through the bumps and bruises, we were thirsting for more. That entire year, I stopped looking to the scale and I stopped looking at my pants size. If they didn't fit, I simply bought new ones.
In May, I decided to overcome another challenge, signing up for a half marathon, a bucket list item I never dreamed of completing. Somewhere in that time, my fears went away. Slowly, my body became stronger, even though my thighs were still rubbing together. As I became more fit, the mentality of size dictating my life dwindled away. While I still remembered the words told to me at 13, they did not have a hold like before. I found my confidence in every mile I finished, in every obstacle I overcame.
After 15 years, I finally figured out how to be at peace with my body. I stopped letting the insecurities hold me back, and instead used them to fuel me. Those words, spoken so long ago, would not limit me. No longer did I worry about being thin, curvy, or busty. Instead, I found that strong was the look that made me the happiest.
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.
#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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