Content warning: The following text describes unhealthy eating habits and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
Growing up, I was always painfully aware of how my body looked.
As early as elementary school, my friends and I would compare our bellies and wonder if we were considered fat. I remember going over to a friend’s house once and her sister telling us that if you could grasp your stomach fat in your hands, you were definitely overweight.
I relived that memory almost every day growing up. I’d sometimes grasp my stomach fat and feel utterly discouraged at the realization that I wasn’t a skinny girl. Puberty hit, and the feelings of inadequacy that I tied to my weight only worsened as other appearance–related insecurities piled on top of them. I had too much acne. I wasn’t tall enough. Above all, I wasn’t thin enough.
It didn’t help that I was athletic, so I had a more muscular build than the actresses that starred in all of the TV shows I watched. My thighs were too thick, my calves too defined, my arms too flabby. I was never a size small, no matter how much I wished I could be.
My fear of gaining weight began to manifest itself in unhealthy eating habits as I entered high school. I never ate breakfast and regularly skipped lunch. I’d go for an evening run with barely enough energy to make it one loop around my neighborhood. But in my desperation to be skinny, I did it anyway.
Attending my annual physical with my pediatrician became a feared ritual. I was terrified of the thought of being overweight when I stepped on the scale. After that first year of barely eating, I’d managed to lose weight. My doctor praised me for it.
Around the same time, I’d started to use social media a lot more. I saw women posting about embracing their bodies, emphasizing the importance of allowing yourself to eat what you want, and preaching how curvy was beautiful.
A couple months after that appointment, I began eating normally again. At my next annual appointment, I was shamed by my doctor for gaining 14 pounds, even after I tried to explain the necessary change in my eating habits.
As hurtful as the experience was, I honored my commitment to eating normally, exercised regularly, and managed to keep a consistent weight. My body was naturally on the curvier side. And I started to accept that that was okay.
While I’ve done my best to push aside my body image insecurities, I still struggle with them. Even after years of seeking out body positive content, I've never been able to fully eradicate my fear of being fat. My first year of college, I went on a new medication. When I realized I was gaining weight from it, I immediately stopped taking it, despite how much I needed it. I lied to my doctor about the state of my mental health to avoid gaining weight. I still look back at photos from my first year and feel ugly, knowing that I was slightly more overweight than usual.
Quarantine has only amplified a lot of the insecurities I’ve dealt with regarding my body. When it started, l lost a lot of weight due to anxiety about someone I loved potentially getting the virus. After it faded, and I started to eat normally again, in came the crushing fear that I’d regain all of the weight that I’d lost.
By autumn, I'd adopted a nearly vegan diet in an effort to prevent any weight regain. I ate rice and vegetables almost every day. I made eggs for breakfast and avoided eating ice cream after dinner.
Exercising regularly has also become a lot more difficult during quarantine, which has only exacerbated my fears. My on–campus runs have been limited by my inability to find a mask that won't fall off my face or that won't make it too difficult to breathe during my workout. Plus, I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable exercising outside and possibly around other people.
I still fear gaining weight. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking about how I ate rice for lunch and feel uncomfortable eating anything but vegetables and rice for dinner. Sure, it’s great to be healthy, but my obsession with my diet has almost entirely been for a single purpose: to fit society’s beauty standards.
Even though it seems like we’ve come so far with body positivity, teaching people that it’s okay to be a bit thicker is a long battle. No matter how many people preach about loving your body, we've grown up in a society that tells us that skinnier equals prettier. No matter how much I tell myself to love my body as it is, I still feel the urge to monitor every single meal.
Our society is obsessed with associating health with weight, even though the two aren't always directly aligned. There are a lot of other factors that can impact one's health, including how much muscle someone has, whether they're active, and what they eat during the day. By hyper–focusing on weight, we teach young girls that their self–worth is defined by a number.
And while the internet has seen a surge of body positivity TikToks and self–love influencers over the past year, it's not enough to erase the damage that social media has historically done—and continues to do—to our perceptions of beauty.
Celebrities still highly photoshop their photos to cinch their waists. Instagram stars still promote detox teas and fitness brands to a cult following. No matter how many times people tell me to love myself, I still compare myself to Facetuned photos of models and feel like I'm not enough.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. Almost every friend that I've talked to has reported that they’ve experienced these same insecurities—regardless of what size they are. Society keeps telling us we’re not enough, even when we do everything that they tell us to.
I still struggle with my body, but every day, I push myself to care less. I push myself to eat what I want. I push myself to let go of the negative thoughts that fill my mind and try to control my body. It’s a difficult journey, but in the end, it’ll be worth it.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of eating disorders, regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., texting available 24/7): A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.