When I was 11, my friend and I would dance in her room in our sports bras to Britney, Christina, Beyonce, Spice Girls. She was blonde, blue eyes, tall. I was brunette, hazel eyes, shorter. I remember sitting down for a water break during a serious jam sesh. She looked at my stomach and said, “You have two rolls; I only have one.”
I was enrolled in multiple dance classes/week so the level of scrutiny regarding my body was already pretty high as I spent multiple hours a night in a skin tight leotard. But, my awareness of it did not peak until that moment, in that room, in my first white training bra and all my two-tummy roll glory. She began taking dance classes at the same studio as myself. I was thrilled my friend would be joining me. But suddenly, every Thursday, I found myself skipping lunch. I knew if I indulged in the McDonald’s french fries that were on the menu at my school on Thursday’s (wow has school lunch changed 😀 ), that my stomach would be ‘pouchier’ than if I skipped lunch altogether. I was ELEVEN and already navigating the dangerous waters of manipulating my body and food intake.
An outgoing, creative, and compassionate girl with family and close friends. Shy, quiet, and awkward in school. Somehow, I found myself as the ugly duck of the popular girl pack which meant they did not really know or care about ME. I was easy prey for the butt of every joke; the entertainment when they were bored. I desperately wanted to fit in and at that age, being made fun of didn’t trigger as them not liking me if it meant I had a place to sit at lunch, an invitation to their sleepovers, and a group to call “mine” at the Friday night High School football games. I did not find a voice until I moved away before 8th grade, but by then my perception of my self-worth barely existed, I was convinced the only way people would actually like me enough to be kind was if I was skinny, blonde, and beautiful; and I had no idea who I really was because I focused so much on being what I thought people would accept.
So guess what? I became a mean girl. There were fantastic, funny, friendly people who tapped into the real me – they made me belly laugh in class, they sent me notes, encouraged me to join them at lunch. But, the popular kids made fun of these people. I shied away from their friendship in front of those coveted popular friends; I couldn’t open myself to that ridicule again. I had learned how to be a gossip and a snob. I had learned to be mean and I used it when I felt I needed it; to hide the pain and insecurities I was carrying. To earn me a spot of acceptance.
We could all likely share similar experiences or dwell on memories of feeling unwanted, rejected, unworthy; some more than others. But, what happens after those adolescent-preteen years? Do the mean girls change? Do they feel guilty? Do the shy, awkward girls learn to be themselves? Do all girls grow into women who love themselves?
In my case, I spent the better part of my 20’s still chasing the perfect physique, pursuing or staying in relationships for fear of being left unwanted, and struggling to let the person I knew myself to be live freely. I dieted and exercised my way through college, holding amazing friends and relationships at a distance, and disallowing myself to feel. Body dysmorphia, disordered eating, and food/weight obsession requires all of your mental energy. It convinces you that you would rather be inside studying and eating your perfectly portioned and timed meals on a Friday night versus out at the bar or movies or just plain out in general. Despite alarming physical appearances, my labs were normal, doctors never expressed concern during checkups despite 3-yrs of amenorrhea, and my nutrition and exercise science education background helped keep up the facade of health while I counted every calorie, obtained fat from protein bars alone, and over-exercised. I was supremely successful in school and all my endeavors and my parents were immeasurably proud. My future was seemingly bright, but my sparkle as a strong, smart, compassionate woman was hidden in the depths of an ugly, selfish, pit of pain, denial, body dysmorphia, and fear.
I wish I could say I came to some “aha” moment that changed my lifestyle. No, I never completed a treatment – I quit after the first few sessions. I WISH I had completed treatment. Change came over time. Change came with growing in my relationship with the Lord and opening my eyes to the world again. With delivering Meals on Wheels to people living so far below the poverty line that I could smell the stench of their trailers before entering. With furthering my education and studying evidence based science. Change came with realizing that I may have to come to terms with never having children if I continued on the way I was. It came gradually as I began to get excited about things in my life that had nothing to do with how I looked or how much I weighed. Change came when I met my husband, who contagiously radiates confidence in who he is at his core. Man did I envy that!
Change ultimately came when women started talking more boldly and loudly about empowering other women. When the message to women started encouraging support and partnership instead of comparison and rivalry. When we stopped whispering around the topic of eating disorders and we started acknowledging the roles our society plays in perpetuating them. Change came when I embraced my 11 yr old two tummy roll glory and decided I would not let the actions and words of girls steal the sparkle of the woman I wanted to be and knew I was.
Girls and women, I IMPLORE YOU to let your sparkle free from the chains of body image/physique, food, bias, stereotypes, shame, guilt, judgement. Moms, train your daughters to be the all inclusive, all encompassing, all accepting girls who grow up into women who encourage, empower, and support other women. Raise them to be the girl who never steals another woman’s sparkle, but instead finds out how she can help light it.