Melissa McGlensey, 27, Chicago, 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 Have Bambino"

I was 17 and in Rome with my family. My sister had just finished studying abroad in Florence and my family had flown out to visit her and tour Italy. It was an overcast day in spring, and my mother and I were waiting in line to use a public restroom outside the Colosseum when an older Italian woman waiting in line behind us started gesturing to me. She was speaking in Italian, so neither of us could make sense of what she was trying to say. Then she reached out and touched my stomach and said the words, "You have bambino." I went cold.
It suddenly became clear to me, my mother, and everyone else in line for the bathroom at this crowded tourist destination that this woman thought I was pregnant. As if to clarify this point, she started making a half circle on her own flat torso with her arms, signaling the rounded belly of an expectant mother. She touched my arm and smiled, clearly congratulating me.
I was mortified.
Ever since I was a kid, I'd struggled with my weight. Being a picky eater growing up, I'd always had a fraught relationship with food and, consequently, my body. When I was a preteen, I remember hearing my parents having arguments at night about my weight and how best to deal with it. In middle school, I used to get severe stomach pains from all the time I spent keeping my belly sucked in when boys were around. As a teenager, even just hearing the word "fat" in any context would cause me to feel an icy stab of dread. Any mention of weight at the dinner table would instantly make me drop my fork.
Being called "fat" at school was my worst fear. I thought that if I hid it well enough, no one would know that my body wasn't the same as my "California beach babe" classmates. But if someone called me the "F" word, or even just used it in my presence, I felt like my carefully constructed cover was blown.
But, of course, high school bullies possess a knack for pinpointing the insecurities of others with astonishing accuracy. One bully in particular, a mean kid from my English class, could sense this word's power over me and took to just shrieking the word "fat" whenever he saw me. Every time it happened, I ignored it but was secretly devastated. Often, I'd replay it over and over in my head, agonizing over who had witnessed it and what they might've thought.
Around this age, my self-esteem was at an all-time low. Even just a single comment by my parents or a stranger could send me into a self-hating spiral that would last for weeks. This was before I made the discovery that, despite the layer of soft flesh I carried on my body, men would find me attractive. This was before I learned that whether or not men found me attractive wasn't the most important question to ask myself. Before I'd learned that fearing insults only made them stronger, and the best defense was to not care what people called you. This was before I had enough confidence in my other attributes to value myself beyond the physical. This was before I learned that there are far, far worse things a person can be than fat.
But this was before all of that, and this particular encounter would mark the lowest point for me in my battle with my body and my self-worth.
"Bambino?" the Italian woman repeated, not quite as sure of herself anymore, perhaps after seeing the horrified look on my face. My mom stayed quiet, probably trying to reduce my humiliation by not getting involved. "No," I muttered, turning red in the face from shame and frustration. "No Bambino."
I moved away from her and stepped into a bathroom stall, where I immediately began to cry.
#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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