I listen as my friend tells me her thighs are too big, and I silently wonder if mine are too big as well.
I watch as the water runs down my body and my hair continues to fall out and swirls into the drain.
And yet, my body dysmorphia – now that I am more aware of what it is – developed pretty early on.My earliest memory in which I understood that I was larger and that it was somehow not okay was from ballet classes. I was in a class with a lot of children younger and shorter than me. I stood out like a giant. My mom let me quit in part, I think, because she was embarrassed that I was bigger than the other girls.
I opted for extra drawing classes, where it didn’t matter what my size was.
At one point, I went to a small boutique in Nanjing, China, with my mom because I liked a dress they had in the window. The store owner took one look at me and said they didn’t have a size big enough for me, and I remember feeling so ashamed.
As I grew older and people around me began to obsess over their own bodies, I began to compare mine. My friend said her thighs were too big, but mine seemed to be the same size. Another friend, later, would try a steady stream of diets even though I thought she was smaller than me. One other would champion herself in front of me but then turn around and criticize me, though she was bigger than I was, which left me extremely confused, but I rationalized it by understanding that she was bigger because she had muscles, of which I had the bare minimum.
Slowly, those thoughts and comparisons became my demons.
My tummy was too fat. My legs were too wide. My entire body was too big. My face was weird.
When I got the stomach bug in high school, I essentially stopped eating for a week. My body wasn’t taking the food anyway, so why bother?
When the stomach bug went away, I continued eating as little as possible, smuggling oranges from the dining hall to snack on throughout the night. I only realized I was losing weight when I tried on my strapless prom dress. It was too big.
I panicked. I started eating again, and my size fluctuated close to where it had been before. It was my first foray into disordered eating.
Everything was mostly okay from then on, for a while. I had a friend who loved food, and I would eat with her. I regained my love for food by being around her, and my appetite grew. I skipped meals sometimes – mostly breakfast – but I still ate a healthy amount of food.
My meal sizes became slightly smaller in college because I had to carry groceries home from the store. My size stayed the same, and it was fine, except that I continued believing that I was fat. I tried running in the dorm gym sometimes, but I hated it, so I stopped.
It’s funny because we can be so cruel to ourselves and yet so kind to others. Some of my friends would tell me about their insecurities and I would give them affirmations to help them believe otherwise. I truly never believed any of their insecurities were true.
I was never able to do it for myself.
At some point, I stopped hating my legs. I joined a dance team in college, and became so grateful that my legs and feet were able to do the things I asked of them when I learned my dances. One small hurdle, overcome.
Then, I hit my junior year of college. The stress of classes had become overwhelming. I developed depression. My appetite disappeared. I grew canker sores all over the inside of my mouth, and moving my mouth seemed like the most painful thing I could try to do.
I stopped eating. I barely slept.
My hair fell out. My ponytail still hasn’t recovered from the damage.
I tried my best to eat when I could. My college roommate helped me think of ways to get nutrition into my body when I could not muster the energy to deal with the physical pain of eating food. We bought meal supplement powders, chocolate flavored, and I would drink them in the morning. I made chicken noodle soup and mashed potatoes. I could sometimes eat that. My college roommate would make me meals that reminded me of home and I would try my best to eat it all.
I was so preoccupied with my stress and my inability to take care of myself that my body dysmorphia seemingly disappeared. I rarely gave my size a fleeting thought, too worried about not eating and finishing my assignments at a quality that I wanted to achieve.
I distinctly remember a moment during this time when I put on a pair of red jeans that I had owned since sophomore year of high school. They had already been slightly small when they were purchased – they had chafed my hips. I would wear them anyway because I liked their color.
At that moment, junior year of college in the throes of my disordered eating and my depression, they were too big.
Junior year came and went, and my appetite slowly came back as the canker sores inside my mouth healed. I could eat proper meals again. It was a glorious feeling. I remembered how much I love food.
But my serving sizes never went back to how they were before. Even now, my meal sizes are still fairly small, and I feel full pretty quickly. My stomach shrank from being perpetually mostly-empty. I don’t really feel hungry often anymore because my body and my brain got too used to ignoring hunger pangs. I had to train myself into remembering to eat at proper meal times, and my stomach will grumble on cue, but if I ignore it long enough the grumbles go away. On the weekends, I’ll often only eat one meal.
If I’m feeling particularly anxious, I’m a lot less responsible about remembering to eat my meals. I still struggle with eating all the meals I need to eat, but I’m mostly better now.
The same cannot be said about my body dysmorphia.
When the worst of my stresses and depression passed me by, my dysmorphia came back, albeit less intense than before. I think being older and being grateful of my body for getting through what it had been put through helped, but I have my bad days. I have my good days, too. I’m still working on having more good days than bad days.
Looking in the mirror can be difficult sometimes. I like to think that I am comfortable with what my body looks like, but I cannot help but criticize myself when the opportunity arises.
On a cognitive level, I understand that I am a small person. I understand that I am at a healthy place, in terms of weight and height. I understand that my size doesn’t matter except for how it makes me feel, and I understand that I know people larger than me who I love dearly and truly believe are beautiful people.
On an emotional level, it can be really hard to reconcile what I know to be true and how I feel about myself.
I am getting better at recognizing what makes me feel better and what makes me feel worse, in terms of how I look and my size. I try to dress nice, because it makes me feel cute. I wear makeup and play with lipstick because I think it makes me feel stronger. I go shopping infrequently, because changing rooms reignite my anxieties and looking at the racks of potential too-smalls makes me feel poorly about myself. This past month, I reinforced my love for food by drawing illustrations of food every day, and it made me want to eat the food I needed to eat.
I drew myself in my underwear, and strangely enough, that helped. I think my critical eye for myself translated into learning the lines and shapes my body formed. The drawing is taped up next to my mirror. Sometimes I have to remind myself that it actually is me.
Maybe everyone looks better in charcoal. Maybe I am just less critical of myself when I am in drawing form.
I try to surround myself with positive people, who love me for who I am, and I remind myself of why they love me. I try to do the same for them.
Most of the time I think they’re biased. But sometimes, I believe it when they tell me that I am beautiful.