I am 5 feet tall and weigh roughly about 106 pounds – but that’s irrelevant now. The important thing is that I love and respect my body. I try not to call it shameful names, like “ugly” or “fat.” I try to give it good food, lots of love and exercise, and the occasional treat. But it wasn’t always that way – for a long time, I didn’t love or respect my body. In fact, I was so ashamed of it that I didn’t even buy my first bikini until I was 21-years-old.
Like a lot of young women, I struggled with body image growing up. I’ve had cellulite since I was 12-years-old. As a kid, I was terrified of pool party invitations. If I went, I would refuse to wear a bathing suit and would lie and say I had my period. The truth was, I was ashamed. I had this misconception that I was obese. I was not. When I looked in the mirror, I thought my thighs looked five times too large for my body. It didn’t help that my mother had her own food and body image issues, so when I wanted to go on a diet at nine-years-old, she didn’t blink an eye.
Then something happened – puberty hit me like a ton of bricks. At 12-years-old, I went to sleep-away camp and gained 15 pounds in one summer. I didn’t notice the weight gain because I had so many friends, and I was finally feeling more independent. There was a little extra girth around my thighs and hips, but no one seemed to care – the boys especially seemed to like what happened to my chest. But when my mom picked me up, she literally took me straight to Weight Watchers. I was humiliated. I knew the changes were from puberty, but I was so ashamed. .
When school started and my friends came over, my mom would make us lunch. I’d get half a grapefruit and tuna salad with fat-free mayo. My friend would get a grilled cheese. I became obsessed with my weight and dieting. I wrote down every little thing that went in my mouth and would add up the calories during history class.
From the outside, it looked like I was fine – more than fine: popular, even! I had friends, starred in all the school plays, went to dances, boys seemed to like me – but I felt trapped in what I saw as an unacceptable container. I was curvier than most of my friends at that time in my life. I got boobs first, got my period first… and I hated it. I wanted to be a stick figure, like the a popular girl named Gina Hart. You all know someone like her – she’s the girl who was super skinny with big boobs. She ran track and was the first in the pool at all the pool parties. I wanted that. I went on fad diets: eating only cabbage soup, drinking water, lemons, and cayenne pepper, I’d eat only apples – but nothing worked. No matter what weight I was, I still FELT bigger than I was, and could not see myself as I appeared to others.
Summers freaked me out. I hated the season because it meant the beach and the pool, which meant less clothing. I avoided being in a bathing suit as much as possible by wearing dresses to cover up or lying about my period. In college, I gained the “Freshman 15” and my body image got worse. Dieting was driving me crazy. I was depressed, and I wasn’t enjoying those years that were supposed to be the best years of my life.
One day, I found a flier for a support group called Overeaters Anonymous, and it was for eating disorders. It was mostly for binge eaters, anorexics, and bulimics, and I didn’t think that what I had qualified. I was obsessive about dieting, but I certainly wasn’t anorexic and I never threw up. But something inside of me told me to try it. When I went, I heard a bunch of stories that sounded like mine. I was introduced to the author Geneen Roth, whose many books on emotional eating became my holy grail. I sought out a therapist who specialized in body dysmorphic disorder and food issues. Through going to OA meetings and private therapy, plus a lot of reading on my own, I healed. It took time, but when I stopped dieting, I started to lose weight. I discovered I loved yoga. Things felt more peaceful.
Then a big test came: I was invited to the beach with some friends. I wanted to go, and I decided I wanted to buy a bathing suit… actually, I wanted to buy a bikini. It would be my first bikini at the ripe old age of 21. I went to Bloomingdales and I could feel my heart pounding when I grabbed one I liked. It was made of a bright yellow stretchy fabric and had pink monkeys on it. There was nice underwire for support and hot pink ruffles around the top. The bottoms had full coverage in the back, with the same ruffle peeking out from the waist band. It was designed by Marc Jacobs, and I still have it to do this day.
When I tried it on, I literally broke out in a cold sweat and couldn’t look in the mirror for a good five minutes. When I finally got up the cajones to open my eyes, I saw a person who wasn’t perfect, but I certainly didn’t see the monster I thought I was in previous years. I saw a normal girl, with powerful legs, womanly curves, and a determined face. I felt powerful in my pink and yellow monkey print bikini. It made me smile. I also thought it was a good reminder to remain playful, and not take things too seriously. I paid for it with my credit card and wore it to the party.
Full disclosure: I kept my cut-offs on for a long time, but I DID take them off to take a dip in the pool. Feeling the cool water on my belly was s refreshing. The sun on my back was both relaxing and exhilarating! I could not believe that this was happening. I know it’s super simple, but it felt like I conquered Everest. I was even able to have a hamburger while wearing the two piece and I didn’t feel like I was going to die from embarrassment. Don’t get me wrong – I still get anxious when I have to be in a bathing suit, but it’s nowhere near the level of anxiety I used to have. Big change is possible – even if it’s something as small changing into a bikini.
You can follow writer Shari Albert on Twitter @thatshari.