When I was 15, I hosted a little dinner party around Christmas. This was years ago, so most of my recollection is fuzzy. I vaguely remember eating some sort of treat on the couch, my dad walking in wearing a Santa costume, and my best friends and I laying on the floor of my childhood bedroom in our pajamas. I wish I could remember the conversations and laughter more than I remember my friend wrapping her arm around my waist for a picture and going “You’re so tiny!” twinged mildly with jealousy and mainly with approval. I remember I was really happy that day, but that one comment stood out. It’s interesting what the brain chooses to hold onto.
Thanks to twelve years of dance school, a measly high school softball career, and a fast metabolism, I was practically the same size from puberty onward. The way I knew my body stayed consistent because my weight never fluctuated.
When I hosted that party, beauty standards were still rigid and the faces of the industry were size-0 women. The body positivity movement that we’re familiar with today didn’t exist in the mainstream yet. But honestly, I didn’t even have a pressuring desire to be thin. I just knew that I was and that other people thought that was good.
When quarantine began, it put a wrench in my post-high school athleticism. Granted, that athleticism consisted of chasing public transit, hiking up and down the hill on my campus every day, and working at a bakery, but it was athleticism nonetheless. The last time I’d weighed myself was at the doctor almost a year prior and the number was relatively familiar. But the number that popped up on the scale at home a few months ago was not. Simply put, I cried.
Aside from fitness Tiktok and Chloe Ting worshippers, a majority of the 20-something and unemployed population adjusted to quarantine by baking and sending multitudes of job applications––myself included. I deleted TikTok and all traces of quarantine “glow-up” pressures. I had sudden feelings of impending doom to deal with; I couldn’t be asked to start using the treadmill for the sake of maintaining my weight. But I still cried.
I felt ashamed of myself, honestly. I felt like I’d disappointed someone and couldn’t figure out if that person was me or not. It was as if I’d let go of a part of myself I didn’t even know I cared that much about. I hadn’t even realized that I was gaining weight until I saw it on the scale. When I learned I had gained weight, I was forced to actually perceive myself—not just passively inhabit my body.
Post-cry, my mom gave me a good maternal pep talk, and I accepted that not only am I living through a pandemic—I’m also just getting older. So the next day, I happily baked a sugary, oily French almond cake and loved it. From that point on, I slowly and steadily began to realize I couldn’t idolize my teenage body because it no longer exists.
My positive body image was ingrained in me simply because the world teaches young women that small is good. I never had to learn how to accept my body; I just did. But when I gained weight, I had to form my own opinions about my appearance for the first time. I had to teach myself how to look in the mirror, see this new body, and not bully it for being different than it had been.
It’s a learning curve. In the beginning, I would question my eating habits and food choices. Do I really need this? How much sugar is in it? Can I hold out for later? My clothes that were once multiple sizes too big were now snug. But being aware of these types of things gave me the opportunity to be kinder to myself. The process of putting on clothes was no longer mindless. Now, I had the choice to either beat myself up when things didn’t fit or to cut myself some slack, find something to compliment myself about, and move on. I found myself choosing the latter more and more frequently. When critical thoughts pop up in my head, I do my best to negate them. I get the chance to be confident in a proactive way.
Reassuring thoughts and little acts of self-love are now frequent. It sounds corny, but I adhere to a self-care Sunday and morning routine to do all the frivolous things that make me feel as glamorous and at peace as it gets in times like now. I make myself a latte every morning with however much sugar I want. I put on outfits that make me feel good and comfortable and make it a point to tell myself that I look great. I eat when I’m hungry. I only work out when I want to, so that I don’t associate exercise with punishment.
A scale is just a little machine that tells you some numbers, yet for a moment it controlled my sense of worth. It can let me know how much I weigh, but not that I value feeling strong over feeling thin, or that tube tops are what I feel flatter me most, or that feeling so vulnerable writing this would also make me feel extremely powerful. I learned these things on my own. The difference between idly existing within my appearance and wholeheartedly encouraging myself to handle my self-talk with care is so stark.
I’m allowing myself to take up space in this world, and in doing so, it’s teaching me how to take up space metaphorically. Now that I’ve discovered what it means to actively appreciate my physical body, I’ve been inspired to do the same for my voice; my thoughts, beliefs, and musings.
My feelings for my body were on autopilot. As I broke out of that, I realized I had gone about my talents and interests the same way; I didn’t take care of them enough. Vague ideas of what I liked and was passionate about floated around my head, waiting for me to anchor down on them. When I got a sense of how good it feels to embrace my body with compassion, I felt excited to do the same for my mind. I’m experiencing myself consciously for the first time, becoming the friend to myself that I wasn’t before.