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 Are Fat"
My fourth grade self couldn't speak. Several seconds later, I managed to ask, “What?” The little girl cleared her throat. “You are fat!”
We were playing Twister with a group of family friends. I had intended to land on a red circle but instead, landed on her. She had spoken before I had the chance to apologize. The other five kids in the room stared at each other, not knowing what to say. Something in me didn't allow me to cry. I'm still not sure what. Was it pride? Shock? A mixture of both? The circles on the Twister game blurred into a kaleidoscope of blue, red, yellow, and green as I took swift steps out of the room. I don't remember what happened after that.
What I do remember is that, a few days later, I asked some classmates if I was chubby. Their silence was loud enough. In a matter of days, my world had shifted. I had spent all of these years not seeing myself the way others saw me.
I started to notice things that hadn't occurred to me before. Disney princesses were lithe and long-limbed, never chubby. Nobody ever accused my favorite pop stars of being fat. Conversations with friends always had some mention of measurements: waist size, weight, calories. The message was clear: Thin was acceptable. Thin was beautiful.
I tried to shift my focus. I tried to tell myself I shouldn't care. My parents and I had moved from India when I was two years old for opportunity, they always said. Like many immigrant children, I felt compelled to work hard in school and make sense of their sacrifice. My mother had felt pressure to be a perfect housewife when she was my age. I was experiencing a similar level of pressure but it was to earn a perfect G.P.A. instead of cook a perfect Indian dinner. At the time, I was grateful for not having the struggles that she did. I thought that my good grades were all that mattered.
But over the years, I learned that my grades weren't all that mattered. My appearance was always an acceptable topic of conversation. I thought I had long forgotten about the words said to me in fourth grade, but seven years later, I found myself skipping meals and sleeping a lot. This pattern prevailed for two years. People told me I looked "radiant" and "like an actress." I needed to take up less space and become smaller to be worthy.
Underneath everything, I told myself that I wasn't being unhealthy. I was just becoming better. I was just lowering the volume on the voice that reminded me I was worthy. It took me a long time to realize that, sometimes, that's all things boil down to: knowing which frequencies to tune out.
I didn't have one epiphany that stopped my behavior. Instead, it was a culmination of things. My grades started to slip. I dreaded meeting friends for dinner. I was close to fainting three times during lacrosse practice. Slowly, years of self-doubt began to merge with a new sense of understanding. I had to change.
I wish I could say that I freely accepted myself when I started gaining weight. But when people made comments, I felt myself retracting back into who I used to be. Focusing on strength and wellbeing took small, daily steps. Steps that I still occasionally struggle with. I had to sift through my thoughts and throw out the negative ones. I had to nourish a sense of strength that was rooted in self-acceptance instead of pounds.
Maybe my anxiety about my body started before I heard those three words. Or maybe it didn't. What I do know is that I had to cultivate a sense of self based on what was healthy and comfortable for me. Now, I hope that the next generation of little girls can be guided by self-acceptance instead of someone else's words.
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.