“Chubs” and “marshmallow,” every woman’s dream nicknames. I was lucky enough to earn these myself during my fat years. Even though these words may sound innocent and playful, they have the power to root themselves deeply enough to assist in the development of lasting self-deprecating thoughts. As a child I was focused on what kids should care about—friends, toys, and having fun. I did not realize my weight was an issue or that I was considered fat until it was directly told to me, by my parents.
At 11, my brother Josh and I took a trip up to our Wisconsin cabin with our grandparents. Little did I know this summer would change the next fourteen years of my life. I was having so much fun stuffing myself with hamburgers and ice cream I didn’t stop to think, “Hey, this is really bad for me!” For most kids, health is not a conscious thought, nor is how our current decisions will affect our future. I wasn’t the only one who added some pounds, my brother ballooned almost as much as me, and it was noticed by our parents the moment we walked in the door.
My dad handled the situation by making “playful” jokes at us which my brother joined in on despite his own weight gain. I have always been on the sensitive side, so maybe that is why I had a harder time just ignoring it. My mother on the other hand took the tough love approach. In recent years when I have shared my memories with her of what she used to say, she does not remember them. I appreciated her apologetic response, but some of these memories remain clear in my mind. One night she went as far as to threaten my participation in school activities that I wanted to join if I didn’t lose weight. The last thing I needed was to feel more left out.
These comments usually resulted in me dramatically leaving the dinner table while I fell apart on my bed, face buried in hands and pillows. Sometimes she came after me, sometimes I was left to wallow in the disgust I was developing toward myself. Eventually these comments dropped off and went away, but the pain from them still lingered enough to contribute to my severe self-esteem issues that persisted through high school. Especially when I began to learn the “guidelines” in high school.
Those of us who have already gone through our tween and teen years know how difficult the pressure can be, how exhausting the desire to be accepted gets. By my society’s standards, I was the opposite of what beauty supposedly meant. I was a chubby African American with uncontrollable hair-an isolating combination when you grow up in one of the whitest, most preppy towns in America. One of our neighboring cities made it to #4 on the list of most snobbiest cities in America in June 2014 if that gives an idea of where I grew up. It became harder to be and feel comfortable with my natural self when I was constantly bombarded with messages telling me I was all wrong.
Luckily, I never traveled down the path of eating disorders, a “solution” many turn to. However, my disdain for my body and myself began spiraling down a dark path in other ways, bringing me into the worst depression I have ever experienced. Self-harm was on my mind a lot, something only a couple of my closest friends were aware of. I think society forgets what a fragile time it is for kids in middle and high school. Even when being “popular” is not one’s mission, you can be shunned for not appearing a certain way, and that is something a person of youth can take pretty hard. Conformity is more supported then uniqueness, and I wasn’t brave enough to fight against it all.
Being at that stage in life I found it very hard to rise above these hateful feelings toward myself when I stood out so much in an environment that kept wanting me to be someone I could and would never be. I did not feel that I had the support of my own family members. I constantly compared myself to my thinner white friends who had long silky hair. Boys overlooked me; anyone I expressed interest in turned me away.
My obsession with my own image got so bad I couldn’t walk by a mirror without judging myself. Even when I walked by the trophy cases in the hallway, I couldn’t help but stare at how my body reflected into the mirrors and glass. Was it the type of material that made me look thinner or wider? Sitting down was the worst because my focus went straight to the way my rolls smashed together and how many there were. If I felt angry at myself enough, I would grab at my body, hard enough just to make it hurt a little. As if I was punishing myself. After feeling for years that I wasn’t good enough for anyone, I started to ask myself why I should even be around.
Those thoughts were my rock bottom, but they just remained thoughts. My family and the good friends I had were the ray of light I needed to show me there are many things worth living for. I wish I was able to realize sooner the changes needed to come within myself, that crying all the time was not going to make the problem go away. It was not a particular day that a light bulb went off in my head that I needed an attitude change, but I did push myself to the edge far enough to scare myself. It became exhausting carrying around so much hatred and heavy emotions. What really set things in motion was my decision to join a gym.
A friend got me a week-long guest pass at our local gym, and after the first day something ignited in me I had never felt. I was in love-with the environment, the freedom, the variety; I could not wait to lose myself in music while getting healthy. One of my biggest problems before was how bored I would get doing the same workouts at home to the same videos. I wasn’t informed enough about fitness to know anything else to do. The gym inspired and invigorated me in a way I had been waiting to find, and I became even happier when I found I could combine my love of dancing with fitness when my friends invited me to try Zumba. Those dance fitness classes have truly changed my life and my mindset on working out.
Besides making the gym a regular part of my weekly routine, I made the conscious choice to completely cut out fast food and pop. For those of us in the Chicago area, you probably understand the love of Chipotle and Portillo’s, so those were and still remain the two places I allow myself to indulge in when I’m craving something quick and delicious. One thing I have learned is to never say “never again” when it comes to the things you love because the more restriction you place upon yourself, the more you will want to rebel.
Looking back to high school graduation six years ago, I can clearly see how much of a transformational time that was. The fake “skin” I felt forced to wear for survival immediately shed, and now I had the chance to be the real Kristen, and the best part was I didn’t care who chose to accept that or not. I no longer had to see the same people every day in the same seven classes. No more cliques and social tests to pass. It felt like I was given the reigns for my own life and now it was up to me to take control. I was more than ready for that challenge.
I can admit that in the beginning my mission was about being skinny because it seemed like that was the tool to being happy. Wearing a bikini was something I desperately wanted to do with confidence, to be able to go out with friends and feel comparable to them. The girls at school who received the most attention were the girls with the best bodies (and wealthy families). They always had dates to the dances, the teachers loved them, and everyone knew who they were. In college those things became less relevant, but I still continued to receive the message that thin equals beautiful thanks to the shows I watched and magazines I read. Let’s be real, even if we actively try to avoid the media, we can’t completely avoid billboards and commercials.
Once the weight began to drop off, it became less about being thin and more about being healthy. Both my parents went through serious health scares two years in a row, completely changing the way I view our bodies and disease. Once I cut out fast food restaurants and pop, it was kind of amazing how my body felt within a couple of weeks. I almost felt cleaner with noticeably more energy, and when I did allow myself to have fast food again, my body wanted to reject it. My newly cleansed body could sense food that wasn’t right.
That first summer I wore a bikini confidently was one of the happiest summers of my life. After beating myself up for years, I had accomplished my biggest physical milestone. It may sound petty to some because it is just a swimsuit, or it might sound conceited because there are more important things than looking good in one, but to me it was more than just wearing a suit. It was what the suit symbolized. There are many women out there who can agree that first bikini day at the beach almost feels like revealing ourselves naked.
Although I conquered my bully that summer, they have not completely disappeared. Having started a new job six months ago which requires me to sit all day has cut into my time I used for fitness, so some of my self-deprecating thoughts are returning. Certain areas have lost tightness and the scale has gone up, so my inner alert systems are starting to go off. By trying to fight off these inner demons, I am faced with the new challenge of readjusting my life to keep up with the healthy ways I had finally attained. I do not want my dark side to return in full force, so it has now become my focus to remember that it is about being healthy, and not looking a certain way.
Being a lover of fashion and beauty products, it makes me happy as a woman and a consumer to see some companies begin to make the effort in portraying REAL women. Women you feel you could pass any given day on the street, women we work with in the office, women we sit next to in a classroom. Dove has really made a stand with their Real Beauty campaign, American Eagle’s pajama/lingerie brand Aerie is moving in a similar direction with AerieReal, and this coming fall, Bongo will again feature Vanessa Hudgens, but her photos will be natural and untouched.
Many of us forget that our body is our vessel; it is the only one we are going to receive in this lifetime, and we must do our best to take care of it. I saw a quote the other day that really resonated with me. It said, “Don’t go to the gym because you hate your body, go because you love it.” Instead of thinking how much we hate ourselves and the way we look, we should be focusing on how much we actually care about ourselves. If we love something we should treat it right. Moving forward, I am going to continue to challenge myself to stop the shaming, the blaming, and the comparing. Instead, I am going to make it my focus to take care of my body, to praise it, and embrace it. For anyone else who is ready, I challenge you to do the same.