I grew up a tomboy. Overalls were the height of style, unruly hair was a constant companion, and I was always awkward, knocking my shoulders into doorways and stubbing my toes on bed frames. I was good at sports, wore my hair in a ponytail nearly every day, and had a teeny makeup collection from Urban Decay that made me feel like a glamazon.
And during all those years, when it came to feelings about my body, I simply didn’t have any.
I know! How could a normal kid get through adolescence without worrying about their shape? The truth is, I have NO idea. It just happened. I was always a skinny kid, playing sports most days and running around. But I didn’t eat like a skinny kid and would wolf down an entire package of Oreos in one sitting (gosh that metabolism was the best!). And when it came to looking at myself in the mirror, I didn’t! I didn’t think about my legs. I didn’t notice my flat butt or make snide comments about my gangly arms.
And guess what? It was 100% bliss.
Without a body image, I had real peace with myself. I didn’t worry about what other people said. I didn’t think about my weight, compare myself to others, or wish I looked different. I just didn’t. Of course, looking back at some of those photos, I really would have appreciated some eyebrow help, but at the same time, I was still happy without it. I can remember how freeing the lack of a body image made me feel. I never worried about going to the beach, and I couldn’t care less about how clothes looked on me. I don’t think I looked in a full-length mirror very often at all. The only thing that made me nervous those days was having food stuck in my braces or hair poking out of my nostrils.
This doesn’t mean people didn’t try to give me a body image. I was never bullied, but teased, often — even by strangers. I was thin, but that wasn’t because I had an eating disorder, it was genetics and youth. But it seemed like other people didn’t know that, and would comment or make fun of my body shape. I remember a kid in middle school pointing to a picture in a magazine of a skeleton wearing a dress, and shouting to a bus full of students: “LOOK IT’S EVA!” I remember when I was fifteen waiting on line for the Intrepid in Manhattan during Fleet Week and the adult male behind telling me to, “eat something.” But those days, I could shake it off, knowing that I was eating and I was just the shape that I was.
I can’t imagine how I would handle similar insults today. It would be a challenge.
The only time I lost weight as a teen, was when my boyfriend broke up with me, and I couldn’t eat. Down plummeted the pounds, which was when girls in my class told me they wanted to be thin like me. I didn’t understand what they meant — until much later.
And then, in college, the spell suddenly broke. As a freshman, I was rowing Division 1 crew for Brown, which was not as simple a hobby as I had hoped. Exercising with the team was intense, and for hours each day, we’d jump on boxes, lift weights, and drag oars through the rough waters of the Narragansett. I got strong, and my legs bulked up. Then, one random morning, I went to the bathroom in my dorm. When I stood up and pulled my jeans on, I heard a giant RIPPPPPP sound. To my dismay, the crotch of my jeans severed. And it was then that I felt the first shame of a clothing malfunction, the first inkling of what it meant to have a body image. I never recovered.
Now, I think too often about my body — my body image is skewed to the standards of high fashion and unattainable photoshopping, Snapchat filters and skinny mirrors. It’s a shame, because I know it holds me back. It keeps me from the freedom I felt when I was a kid looking to make new friends. It makes me shy, ashamed, wishing for something else — embarrassed that I have not reached the pinnacle of perfection.
Instead of trying to go back, to get that body I had as a gangly youth, the real thing I should change is what’s inside. I want to go back to the place before I had a body image and tell myself I’m proud to be just the way I am. Now wouldn’t that be blissful?
Did you have a positive body image growing up? How do you deal with unrealistic beauty standards?