"What Are Those On Your Stomach?"
One of my most lucid memories is when my ex boyfriend first told me that I was beautiful. The softness of his voice and sincerity in his eyes brought me to tears because I felt like a fraud. I had duped him into thinking I was desirable. Months later, my worst fear came to fruition. The same boy who insisted I was beautiful saw my flawed body.
"What are those on your stomach?" he asked, tracing his finger over one of many stretch marks. At first I ignored him. I didn't want to believe this was actually happening. It was the first time a boy had seen my body, and all he could muster in response was a humiliating inquiry about the scars scattered across my belly. I have never felt more ashamed of my body than I did in that moment.
He didn't look at my face when he spoke. He was transfixed by the jagged scars in various hues of red, pink, and silvery white. "Stretch marks," I finally answered, my voice raw. "You get them when you gain weight in puberty." He didn't reply.
My negative body image started in the third grade. I previously attended a private school where I had no female peers. When I enrolled in a public school, all of that changed. I was surrounded by dozens of girls my age, all of them prettier and thinner than me in my mind. My school years were a miserable blur. All I remember is how I wasted class time writing diet and exercise plans — something I would continue to do, even throughout my college years.
Perhaps it seemed like the easiest solution, as I had grown up with a mother who was constantly dieting. I watched her shrink, expand, and bemoan every number on the scale. I asked the girls in the cheerleading program for tips on how to be pretty and popular. I tried running to the fence and back at recess to burn calories. None of it helped.
Every day I made plans to change. I would stop spending all my money on candy. I would exercise every afternoon. I made charts calculating the maximum amount of weight I could lose in a month.
During my sophomore year of college, I found out that my boyfriend — the same boy who pointed out the stretch marks that I despised so much — was cheating on me with my best friend. I have always struggled with anxiety and depression, but the betrayal amplified it to a degree I never felt before.
I developed a variety of disordered eating habits until they consumed me. It was a dangerous coping mechanism that left me feeling completely worthless in more ways than just my weight. I tried to attend my classes, but ditched whenever possible because the shame of having people see my body was too painful to bear. I knew my priorities were completely misplaced, but I couldn't stop.
Eventually, I had to withdraw from school when I broke down in front of my parents. My mom was bewildered as to why I was even in this state. "Didn't your Gender and Women's Studies classes tell you you're more than just your dress size?" They did, he did, and I did. It just never stuck.
I returned the next year to complete my degree. Still unfocused with a lack of ideas, I chose the toxic prioritization of thinness in perceptions of eating disorders as my thesis topic. When I presented my paper to the class, the GSI asked what the point of my thesis was. "To not be a jerk?" I replied in upspeak and burst into tears. The class gave a collective sound of pity, and my professor swooped in to talk about the more complex points of my thesis. She kindly insisted that it was interesting. When she emailed me my grade, she said she'd understand if I didn't want to pursue the honor thesis program. I didn't.
Even four years after graduating college, I feel an overwhelming sense of regret. I regret planning diets instead of taking notes. I regret ditching my classes. I regret not trying to graduate with honors. I regret wasting my parent's money on college, because I didn't make the most of the opportunity they gave me. Above all, I regret spending years abusing my body and treating it with disdain.
But I was drowning. I needed help. My eating disorder was not my fault, and the struggles I've endured are nothing to be ashamed of or dismissed. Despite everything, I managed to graduate with a Bachelor's degree. I survived at my absolute lowest point when it felt like every cell in my body was screaming at me to give up. My success story will be written differently than I had planned, but it will be a success story nonetheless.
Recovery is still a struggle, but I've made significant progress. I look forward to the day when I will be the one to tell myself I'm beautiful with a soft voice and sincere eyes. And when that happens, I'll cry because for the first time in my life, I will finally believe it.
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.
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