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A beautiful narrative about a mother who had her body image struggles as a teenager and how she managed to resolve them.
Like any typical preteen, I used to stare at my reflection for several minutes at a time, mentally cataloging my flaws and happily discovering my more attractive qualities. The overall consensus was that I was satisfied with how I looked. I knew I wasn’t perfect but I certainly had a healthy pride in my physical appearance.
One thing I was on the fence about was my body structure. I was thin. Like, extremely thin. I didn’t necessarily have a problem with it per se, but others made me feel as if there was something wrong with me, although I didn’t agree. I ate healthy, nutritious food most of the time (thanks Mom!), and the times that I scarfed down more than my share of pizza, soda, chips, and cake, I never gained an ounce. Although I had up till then a healthy body image, some of my eighth-grade classmates let me know full well that I was no supermodel.
“Aren’t you hungry all the time?” jeered one girl. “Because clearly you never eat.”
“God, you’re such an anorexic!” taunted another. “You’re legs are like sticks!”
I never had a retort ready because what they were saying was categorically untrue. Hurt and confused, I even looked up “anorexia” just to be sure that I wasn’t what they said I was.
Cut to high school, where this trend continued. I was still bone thin. I honestly saw nothing wrong with this, and even laughed along when friends would good-naturedly joke, “You eat? Where does it all go?” To which I would always reply, “High metabolism, you know?”
The criticisms did not stop in my teen years, although I had a decidedly thicker skin by then. I slowly learned that not all the girls thought I was a freak; rather many were in fact, jealous. I couldn’t believe it. I could understand not wanting to be overweight, especially in adolescence, but why as thin as me? I pretended not to notice the hushed whispers and pointed fingers at my bony legs in gym class, wondering who among them truly thought there was something wrong with me versus who hated watching me devour a coveted bear claw without a single guilty thought?
What they couldn’t possibly see was the frustrated awkwardness of a teenage girl who just wanted to look as cool as the cool kids. A big part of that is clothing choices, which ironically, were torture for me. Being 5’7″ by this time, buying jeans that fit both my narrow waist and long legs was agony. Shirt sleeves were always too short or the bust would be too wide for my narrow frame. It was a never-ending battle in a time when looks are everything, and by then, I decided to focus more on my personality and academics, knowing these outlast anything else.
In college, I was okay. Either the mean girls had matured somewhat, or I wasn’t hearing the noise anymore. I was sailing along in this fashion when someone I considered a friend, after a fun, light-hearted conversation, mentioned she had to leave. As she started to walk away, her parting shot was, “Eat something, okay?” in mock concern.
I was done. I spoke to my mom that evening and asked her why on earth I was this way. I already knew that I had inherited my angular frame from my father, but even he wasn’t as thin as I was. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I might be developing body image issues. I had navigated those choppy waters and my boat hadn’t capsized yet, but I began to feel as though I were now clinging on.
“Dad’s mother, your grandmother,” my mom replied.
“I know, Mom,” I began.
“She had the most willowy body—long slender arms, lean hands and feet, lithe legs…”
“Like a dancer’s, all the neighbors would say,” added my dad.
I was stunned. I had never heard my body type referred to with such generous adjectives. My grandmother had received compliments on her body, while I, two generations down, was nervous about wearing shorts in public.
I was stunned. I had never heard my body type referred to with such generous adjectives.
“But not everyone felt that way,” my dad continued. “She received mean comments in school, just like you did. But she never let it get to her, and only surrounded herself with positive people and things.”
Here I am now, in my thirties, the proud mother of two young girls. My elder daughter has inherited the lanky body I had once inhabited, but without the baggage of self-doubt. She is all of four years old, and your typical happy-go- lucky child. When I watch her play with others her own age who are twice her build, my heart breaks for the pain that will inevitably come in the form of derisive sneers and barbs delivered with a smile.
It is not yet time to have that conversation with her, and I honestly dread the day. But I take comfort in the fact that such an otherwise strong-willed and stubborn woman—my grandmother—held her head high while receiving inevitable insults, too. This gives me the courage I need to one day share with my daughter in the beauty of our shared inheritance.
Image via Shutterstock.
Jen has always enjoyed visual communications and writing ever since her school spelling bee days.
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