Weighing In on Body Image: My Struggle to Love the Skin I'm In



I remember the first time I ever started to worry about my body. I was ten years old and had just started fifth grade. At recess one day, one of my classmates put her arms around me, for reasons known only to her, and tried to lift me off the ground. When she couldn’t, she let go of me and exclaimed, “Woah, you need to lose some weight!”

That sentence changed my life forever.

Looking at the situation with a little logic, one can see the ridiculousness of it all. She was a skinny little girl – all bony and gaunt. And I, while certainly more physically substantial than she, was a normal ten-year-old girl, in no way overweight.

But logic has no place in the mind of an impressionable child, and I can recall returning to my chair after recess and noticing the way my thighs spread out when I sat down. “She’s right,” I thought to myself in horror, “I really do need to lose weight.”

Thus began twenty years of dieting, bingeing, starving, scrutinizing my body in front of the mirror, and consistently determining that I was not good enough.

It didn’t have to be that way. The teenage years are notoriously tumultuous, but at some point, many of us tend to grow past those ups and downs and see through the hormone-ridden self-loathing. And maybe I could have, too, except that when I was in college, I met a man.

He was seven years older and seemed decades wiser. He was handsome, charismatic, intelligent, and talented – he had it all, or so I thought. Almost immediately I was infatuated with him. But at that point in my life, I was at my heaviest – very definitely overweight. And he had a “type,” and that type was: thin. So, friends we were, and I felt lucky just to have him in my life at all.

Shortly after we met, I developed a strange illness. I never found out what it was – my best guess to date is anxiety – and virtually the only symptom was that as soon as I put a morsel of food in my mouth, I’d start to feel nauseated. As a result, I ate very little, and over the course of the next year I lost an alarming amount of weight. And pretty much as soon as I’d dropped down to an "acceptable" weight, this man told me that he’d suddenly become attracted to me. He was interested in pursuing a relationship with me, he said. Based on the changes I'd made in my life, he told me - specifically, losing a hundred pounds - he really thought it could work between us.

It felt like a compliment at the time. What I didn’t understand then was that he was reducing me to just a body. None of the stuff that was on the inside mattered to him. The equation was simple: thin = dateable. Overweight = talk to me when you lose fifty pounds.

I couldn’t see that at the time, though, and I was ecstatic. We became a couple, and I felt as though my dreams had come true.

Throughout the relationship, he urged me to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly. I refused to acknowledge this as a control issue, even though there was a nagging voice in the back of my brain that whispered to me that he worried way too much about my weight. Instead, I told myself he really cared about me, and that’s why he wanted me to be healthy. The encouragement was a positive thing, right? Dutifully, I followed the rules he laid out for me, adhering to a strict low-calorie diet and doing so much cardio at the gym that I’d often feel lightheaded. And looking back at photographs of that era, I realize that I was skinny. I wore short skirts and cute little sundresses. I had a pair of jeans in size zero. My collarbones stuck out like pencils, and even my hands and my wrists looked fragile and bony. A few people expressed concern, telling me I was too thin.

I really, truly believed they were only saying that to make me feel good. Because no way was I too thin – that wasn’t even a thing, was it? The way I saw it, I could always afford to lose more weight. So even though, at 5’7″ and 116 lbs, my BMI measured in the “underweight” category, I never once looked in the mirror and loved what I saw. I never once felt good enough.


My ex would compliment me on my body, but somehow, his comments felt like daggers. “You’re so sexy now that you’ve lost weight!” The subtext being, of course, that I hadn’t a hope of being sexy otherwise. That in order to be desirable, I had to be skinny. And that if I gained weight, I’d no longer be attractive.

The most terrible thing was that I agreed with him. These beliefs were ingrained in me like religion. If I wasn't skinny, I had nothing to offer as a person. The way I saw it, my worth was intrinsically tied to the number on the scale. The bigger the number, the less of a real person I was.

Toward the end of our relationship (which was toxic in many more ways than just his focus on my weight), I was slipping into a sluggish form of depression. I had no energy and no vitality. I had previously loved hiking and would regularly summit mountains and follow winding trails off into the wilderness, but by then I had no desire to do anything aside from sleep and watch movies. As a result, I started gaining weight.

He’d issue little jabs here and there. He’d warn me about how I didn’t want to get back to 213 pounds – the weight I was when I met him. 213 – it was cringe-inducing, a number I hated that would always be thrown in my face if I ordered a burger instead of a salad. He’d pinch my belly fat and say, “What the hell is this?” – as though I’d done it to personally insult him. He’d ogle other women when we were out in public, pointing out to me that he was doing so: “Look babe, see her over there? Now she’s got a bangin’ body! You could look like that if you tried harder, you know.”

By this time, I’d realized how badly he objectified me (and other women), and how intentionally cruel some of his comments were. But along with that realization was my still-prevalent belief that unless I was thin and beautiful, I was worthless. It became impossible to reconcile the two schools of thought: how could I stand up for myself without being a hypocrite? How could I condemn him for treating me like nothing but a physical body when, deep down, I agreed with him?

One day, he declared that enough was enough and pulled me into the bathroom, demanding that I step on the scale in front of him. My mouth went dry, and a cold wave of terror crashed over me – I knew he wasn’t going to like what he saw. Please just let it be under 128 pounds, I thought to myself in utter trepidation – 128 was the weight at which we’d “agreed” was the maximum I should ever reach. But to my horror, the dial came to rest at 134 pounds.

He was livid. “You see? This is why I can’t marry you!” he shouted, so loudly I jumped. “Because I refuse to have a fat fucking wife!”

Those words, spoken years ago, echo in my head still.

I am happy to report that I left the relationship not long after that terrible incident. But making the decision to end it was the hardest thing I ever did, and it threw my life onto an entirely different trajectory. For lack of a better option, I moved in with my parents in my hometown an hour away, and though I knew I’d done the right thing, the adjustment was very, very hard. And I did what I’ve always done to cope with stress: I ate, and I gained weight.

Slowly, over the next year, another thing started to happen: I began to feel happy, like I’d never felt before. I started a new job that I loved, reconnected with old friends in my hometown, realized how much I enjoyed it there after all, and signed a lease on my very own apartment. All the while, I was growing stronger. I was coming to terms with a lot of things, including the “embrace the status quo” way I’d lived my entire life. I was realizing I didn’t have to settle – that I had a lot of power, and that I could do anything I wanted with it. My psyche was healing from many years of emotional abuse paired with self-deprecation . . . in all areas but one.

Shame. Devastating, churning shame – that was the emotion that came to mind if I so much as thought about my physical appearance. I wasn’t obese – I was a girl with thick thighs, a large posterior, and a bit of a gut – but I felt, quite literally, like the elephant in the room. I could tally up a list of all my great qualities – my sense of humor, my creative talents, my inherent ability to find silver linings within the clouds – but as soon as I looked in the mirror and saw my chubby form staring back at me, I was immediately reduced to nothing in my own eyes: nothing but my fat. None of the other stuff mattered.

I’d managed to keep my fucked-up body image issues hidden from myself when I was thin; though I was by no means satisfied with my body, at least I knew I wasn’t, god forbid, fat. Now that I was once again overweight, it all reared its ugly head. I found myself thinking things like "my life is over" and "I’m going to be single until I die, because nobody in their right mind would want to come near me." I feared that my coworkers and clients didn’t take me seriously on a professional level because of my weight. I landed a gig singing and playing guitar at a fairly large music festival, and I almost canceled because I didn’t think people would appreciate seeing a “fat girl” on stage. I searched for excuses not to run into people from my past, because I didn’t want them to know what a “failure” I'd become by gaining weight. It got to the point that everywhere I went and every action I took was colored by my own self-hatred. I am disgusting. I am ugly. I am worthless. I should be ashamed of myself. I felt like I should have a sign around my neck whenever I went out in public: “I’m sorry you have to see this.”


Even one of my closest friends told me that if I ever wanted to make it in the music industry, I had to lose weight. “Why do you think Adele dropped off the map?” he asked.

“Um…didn’t she decide to take time off because she had a baby?” I mumbled meekly, but I could physically feel my fragile self-worth shriveling, getting smaller and smaller.

“That’s beside the point,” he insisted. “She’s dropped off the map because beauty sells. Thin sells. And you have to meet certain standards if you’re going to be successful in the entertainment industry.”

This, even though Adele is one of the most influential artists of our time - and even though she hasn't actually dropped off the map at all! This woman has accomplished so much and inspired so many - yet, the conclusion my friend jumped to, just because he hadn’t seen her on TV in a while, was that no one wants to listen to her music because she’s overweight.

Still, even though I could logic my way out of his rude (and undeniably false) comment, it stung. Words like these, after all, strike deep. It made me feel like a failure, and I upped the fat-shaming ante, telling myself I’d never be successful at any of my creative pursuits unless I was stick thin and exquisitely beautiful.

After I’d been single for a year, another friend of mine convinced me that it was time to get out there and start dating. Feeling slightly masochistic, I signed up for an online dating site, through which I proceeded to go on some truly awful dates. Fortunately, just as I was about to give up, I met a man who was different from the others.

This one didn’t have the faintest look of disappointment on his face when we first met in the pub and shook hands. This one listened to me intently, as though he was genuinely interested in me, as a person. This one didn’t keep surreptitiously checking out the petite bartender. This one was polite and respectful and made me feel as though my company was enjoyable.

So deep was my self-loathing, however, that I assumed he was just a really good actor – he wasn’t into me at all. How could he be? I mean, just look at me. So I decided that, even though I liked him, I’d make it easier on myself and not call him. If he was really interested, he could prove it by pursuing me. In all honesty, I expected I'd never hear from him again, and though it made me sad, I figured it was just something I had to expect - a normal part of Dating While Fat.

So imagine my surprise when he got in touch a few days later, asking when he could see me again. We began dating. And eventually, I felt comfortable enough to do something I’d never done with anyone except my mother and my best friend: broach the subject of my weight.

And that’s when I figured out that this guy, for whatever reason, really, truly thinks I am beautiful – inside and out. First I suspected he was blind; then, crazy. But as it turns out, he is neither, and is instead a creature that I never thought existed: a man who A) is attracted to me just the way I am, and B) is attracted to so much more about me than just my body.

I honestly never thought I’d find that in another person.

So all of a sudden, I’ve found some of the very limiting beliefs I’ve held about myself being challenged – mainly because I now have confirmation that not everybody is repulsed by me. And I know it sounds elementary, but this stuff has literally been splitting my mind wide open. What if I really am lovable, even though I'm plus-size? What if I can acheive professional success? What if I could wear shorts when it’s hot outside, instead of sweating my ass off in jeans? What if I could go swimming for the first time in twelve years because I could be brave enough to wear a swimsuit?

What if I could look in the mirror and not feel disgusted?

What if I could actually love my body?

Sadly, these are possibilities I truly never even considered until now.

What it comes down to is that, yes - I would like to lose weight. I like to be in shape – it feels good. Maybe I could even climb mountains again. I’m sure I’d have more energy if I got regular exercise and consumed healthier foods. And it would be easier to buy clothes I liked.

However.

Losing weight is like putting a Band-Aid on the entry wound when the bullet is tearing up organs inside. Losing weight will not fix the problem. The problem is not how much I weigh – it’s what I believe about being overweight. So what I need to do, first and foremost, is learn how to love myself just the way I am.

It’s hard. Really hard. I’ve devised little systems to keep myself in check – like taking care to notice every time I worry about my weight or my appearance, just to draw attention to how often it’s on my mind. And really, it’s appalling. It’s hundreds of times a day, you guys. It’s every time I get out of my car to pump gas, or step outside to water my garden, or stand up from the table at a restaurant to find the bathroom. It’s every time I meet a client, or shop for groceries, or walk to the mailbox. It’s every time I make eye contact with someone. Literally every time I look into the eyes of another human being, I am worried that they think I am fat and, therefore, not worth the time of day.

That is beyond fucked up. And, for my own sake, it has got to stop.

Because I suspect that, once I have more love and respect for my body, it will be a lot easier to treat it with kindness. It will be a lot more appealing to exercise and eat healthy foods. Why wouldn’t I, when my body is my friend, my vehicle, and my ally, rather than my enemy? It would be a night and day difference compared to how I’ve lived so much of my life. In fact, I suspect that part of the reason my diet has been so poor ever since I left my ex is because there’s a part of me that no longer wants to embrace his standards of beauty. Perhaps on some level, I’m equating being thin with validating his degrading belief system.

So this is my mission: to befriend my body. To love it. To accept it, regardless of its flaws. And to understand that, should I choose to change it, it will be on my terms – not because society tells me to do so.


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© 2020 by Ali Owens​