Natalie Tieche, 27, Sanger, CA

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.

"All Bodies Are Worthy Of Love"

I have never been a thin person. Even as a child, I always had softer edges and a bit of tummy. Thankfully, I spent the majority of childhood and early adolescence blissfully unaware of my appearance. As I got older, I slowly became more away of myself; perhaps much later than most of my peers — I've always been a late bloomer. For me, it probably happened around the eighth grade when I "grew boobs over the summer." (Middle schoolers are not known for having tact.) I was suddenly aware of the way other people looked at me and the way that I looked at myself. I started noticing how I looked in pictures next to my thinner friends. I wanted to wear the clothes I saw my favorite celebrities wearing, but when I tried them on, they didn't hang on me quite right. It bothered me, but I tried not to let it get the best of me.
As I progressed further into my teen years, I took even more notice to how our bodies affect the way we're treated, viewed, listened to, and judged. The thin girls got boyfriends who played on the football team. The chubby girls were made fun of or called "ugly" and "fat." Teenagers can be harsh. While I was never mocked outright for my less-than-fit physique, I was painfully aware of the fact that I did not have a flat stomach or willow branch arms. I started covering myself up. I didn't want people looking at my tummy or staring at my large breasts, so I hid them as best as I could. I had a wonderful circle of girl friends, but boys rarely thought I was cute, and in high school, being desirable is one of the highest achievements.
Soon enough, I began to equate bodies with levels of worthiness of love. If you're thin, you get lots of love and it makes sense that so many people desire you. If you're fat, or don't have fat in the right places, you're less worthy of love. That is the way my brain categorized bodies. In college, I stayed pretty fit and had a few more romantic interests, but in my mind I was never where I wanted to be in a physical sense. I could look in the mirror and be satisfied for a moment, but my eyes would drift to my "problem areas" that I wished I could get rid of. I had decent body image, but my confidence had plenty of holes.
After college, due to antidepressant medication side effects and a slew of other lifestyle changes, I quickly packed on pounds. I went from being fit to fat in a year's time. I looked in the mirror, and what I saw made me miserable. My boyfriend dumped me. I moved back in with my parents. I isolated myself. I did not feel like I was worthy of love, especially romantic love.
I spent a couple years in this mind state. I kept this idea in my head that, "Iif I'm thin, I will be loved, because no one can love someone in a fat body." I tried losing weight but felt hopeless every time I failed, and ended up gaining more weight. I started following accounts on social media of drastic weight loss and meticulous maintenance. I thought it would inspire me, but instead it just made me more bummed out. I saw these people who, to me, looked in perfect shape say "not where I want to be but getting there!" Even these people with flat stomachs and muscular arms were not happy with what they were seeing in the mirror. I began to think maybe being thin isn't the key to happiness after all.
At some point, while browsing social media, I stumbled upon the #bodypositivity hashtag. I saw women with every body type in the book posting pictures and videos of themselves in whatever clothing (or lack of clothing) that they wanted. They were not ashamed or sad or self-deprecating. They didn't go on and on about their body goals. They didn't say, "I'll love myself when…" These women were loving themselves in the bodies they had and reminding their followers that all bodies are good bodies; and all bodies are worthy of love.
That was a huge turning point for me. For so long, I had been believing the lie I was telling myself that only certain bodies are worthy of love. What deceit! I started practicing loving myself exactly as I was, fat and all, and my attitude started to change. I gave away old clothes that I was hoping I'd fit into again one day. I bought new two-piece bathing suits and wore them. Outside. In public. At the beach!
Now, I feel so free. Free from worry about what others will think. Free from constricting clothes. Free from self-judgment. And free from the lie that told me I cannot be loved in a fat body. I am so worthy of love; as is everyone else, regardless of how our bodies look. My body is the home of my soul, and my soul is what others will truly love when they get the chance to know me.
#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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