When I was a freshman in college I had a crush on a guy with two last names. “Jackson” (not his real name) was the quintessential southern Californian: tanned, fit and at ease in his shorts and Topsiders. We had a Psychology class together, but I got to know him at off-campus parties.
Jackson wasn’t the slightest bit interested in me, but he was a nice guy. He said I made intelligent comments in class. Once he gave me a ride to campus even though it was out of his way. Full disclosure: the ride wasn’t his idea. It happened after my roommate—emboldened by several drinks–decided to call him on my behalf. I was waving my arms and protesting while she was on the phone with him, but the damage was done.
Besides his appearance, what appealed to me about Jackson was his confidence. We were both 18, but he seemed more secure. He had an ability to find his own space, as if he belonged anywhere he was at the moment. When he walked into a room, he radiated a quiet self-assurance, as if he knew he’d be welcomed.
I was the opposite. I felt uncomfortable wherever I went—a party, someone’s dorm room, class. I’d grown up in Alaska and made the ill-advised decision to attend college in southern California because my older sister was there. It was a huge party school and I was not prepared for the culture shock. I still had braces, was sickly pale (by California standards), and owned more corduroy pants than shorts.
In a group setting, I stood out in a way one doesn’t want to stand out—the “what’s wrong with this picture” girl next to the beach people. I wonder if this was when I moved from disliking to hating my body.
I reluctantly tried to adopt the required California Club dress code, but I lacked the necessary components. The girls wore tiny shorts, midriff tops and mini skirts that showcased their long, lean legs. They were at ease walking around the beach in just their bikinis. This was unthinkable to me. I wouldn’t take a step off my towel without pulling on a cover-up. It was a crutch I clung to even though it distanced me from everyone else.
California Club girls downed beers and shots, ate pizza and chips, yet were slim and supple and perfect. They had beautiful, golden tans and no cellulite. They didn’t exercise, and walking anywhere was not really an option. If the bar was half a mile away, they still drove.
One of my roommates was a member. Born and raised in Irvine, she was the epitome of a laid back California girl. She never hurried anywhere and seemed devoid of anxiety. She ate what she wanted when she wanted it: pizza, Mexican food, ice cream. All of it accompanied by generous amounts of beer, margaritas, whatever. She loved it all, and everyone thought it was hilarious. It was funny because she was so slim and sleek. A thin person stuffing her face is amusing and endearing. A fat person? Not so much.
It took less than a year for me to fizzle out. I felt like an alien and the feeling intensified as time wore on. I had indulged in enough beer and late night pizza to gain the dreaded freshman 15, making me even more undesirable than when I’d arrived. I couldn’t use the out of state transplant excuse anymore, because I’d been there for months. No, I was just a bad fit. Unacceptable, unnecessary, and in the way. I began to view my body as an impediment. There was simply too much of it.
Depressed and humiliated, I slinked back home. Yet even in this familiar settling with the less glamorous, I no longer fit. I was sporting a short, platinum new wave haircut, which had seemed like a good idea in California but looked bizarre in Alaska. I had also brought something back that kept tripping me up: the conviction that something was wrong with me.
There was more to it than California though. When I think of it now, I realize my self-loathing began much earlier than college. The first spark I can recall was when I was around 10 and was playing hopscotch with my friends. A boy nearby loudly proclaimed, “You need to cut down! You have too much blubber on your butt.”
I remember feeling shocked, like something came out of nowhere and smacked into me. Before I could recover, a crushing humiliation and shame coursed through me. I looked around to see if my best friend, Anne, or any of the other girls, had heard this boy. They were all thin, and until that time, I thought I was one of them. I didn’t realize there was something different about me.
It happened so fast. One moment I was playing and having fun, and a few seconds later I was devastated. I wanted to disappear.
It’s strange because when I look back at photos of myself at this age, I wasn’t fat even to my critical eye. All I see is a slender, normal-looking girl who was actually on the smaller end of the spectrum. I’m not sure what the neighbor boy saw that day. Maybe my pants were too tight for my developing frame or he was flirting with me in the teasing way boys and girls did at that age. Or perhaps he was a perceptive kid who’d honed in on my insecurity, detecting something I didn’t even realize myself.
Whatever it was, it didn’t matter, because I accepted what he said as the truth. It happened automatically. I lacked the mental acuity to question what I heard. There was nothing grounding me inside, no sense of my own worth or identity. I simply believed what I was told.
The stage had been set. As I progressed through childhood and adolescence, every negative comment or slight confirmed what I already believed as true. I was unacceptable. Not only too heavy, but in middle school I learned my face was also all wrong. I remember sitting in seventh grade class hearing a boy snickering “hey big nose” while his friends laughed.
It continued throughout the year. I tried to ignore him but he only got more brazen. I was wounded prey, frozen in fear, and he was a wolf advancing for the kill. The teacher didn’t know how to handle the situation. He would admonish the kid but it only worked for a moment. As soon as the teacher was distracted, the boy would start again. (This was decades ago before “bullying” was a movement or even a term.)
Every day I sat in stupefied silence as Taunting Boy methodically gnawed off another piece of me. He had the power to ruin my day, week, month. It was a game to him, like spinning a top. But for me, it was a prison. I was locked in an invisible cage. I could flail around, but it was wasted effort. No one was going to save me.
Even back at home, I wasn’t really free. Anxiety and fear consumed me. The hours outside of school were hours of dread. Hours of hopelessness. The time was as lethal as a ticking bomb. It went off every school day. My penance was inescapable.
There was no way out, so I tried to solve the problem. I told myself the way to stop it was to understand what was wrong with me. One day as I was brushing my teeth, I looked at my reflection in the mirror. I tried to see myself differently, the way this boy saw me. I got a hand mirror and looked at my face from profile. My nose—which had always been unremarkable to me—suddenly looked huge and disgusting. It was now a source of shame, something I needed to hide from others.
I began looking at my sisters’ noses, my friends, people in magazines and on TV. All of them looked small, straight and perfect. Mine was gigantic by comparison and looked even worse in photographs. I avoided pictures, which wasn’t easy as my mother loved to take them. When I was forced, I made sure I was always looking at the camera straight on, not in profile.
Eventually we moved again, as was my family’s pattern. There was a lot of drinking and volatility at home. My parents were prone to living beyond their means. We were constantly moving to avoid creditors or because my father has lost his job. Sometimes my mother just wanted to be somewhere else or to have a nicer, bigger house. Status was very important to her. She wanted others to think we were wealthy, even though we were far from it.
Normally I disliked moving because it was usually during the school year. I hated being the new girl. As an introvert, I didn’t make friends easily. But this time I was so relieved to escape this boy—to no longer be Big Nose—that I didn’t care.
Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time before it started again. This time it was my “fish lips” that were singled out. My bottom lip was full, but I had never thought about it until the comments started. Now there was something else for me to scrutinize, another source of embarrassment.
I was only at Fish Lips school part of the year, so I hoped my new nickname would retire there. It did, but as I began ninth grade at a new school, there was another one. My latest failing was my curly hair, which I’d never learned to tame. (This was long before straightening irons.) A boy who sat behind me in English noticed and dubbed me, “Brillo Pad.”
When I remember these times, I realize I began embracing a lie early in life. For a long time, I blamed my self-loathing on fashion magazines I read throughout my 20s. I devoured every issue of Cosmopolitan and Glamour, convinced they would help me be prettier, slimmer and more attractive. And if I could be all of these things, then I would belong. I would be one of the inner group—someone accepted by others, not mocked.
I read articles like “Is Your Diet Sabotaging Your Look,” “FAT: 28 Foods and Tricks to Fight It,” “How to Stay Slim Through the Fat Season.” I took quizzes on “Will you get FAT: How to Beat Your Odds” and “Do You Have Fat or Thin Eating Habits?? I learned about “158 Ways Not to Gain Weight This Winter” and “Breasts and Legs: What You Can and Can’t Do About Them.”
During my 20s and 30s, I read enough of these articles to reinforce what I already believed: I wasn’t good enough. I needed to Thinner, Prettier, Sexier. If I had any doubts about this, they were swept away by flawless cover photos of models. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, photo retouching wasn’t discussed outside the fashion industry. All the images were airbrushed, but it was an inside-modeling secret. There was no internet to reveal “before” pictures, no campaigns embracing the full-figured woman, no talk of “body-shaming.”
Then sometime during my 40s, things began to change. One day I was reading Shape and chastising myself for not working out often enough (or well enough). I put down the magazine and never read another issue. Another time I was at the hairdresser flipping through Allure when I realized I was now too old for the magazine. Almost all the features focused on women in their 20s and 30s—even the ones for “anti-aging” skin cream. I scoffed. A 25 year-old model shilling wrinkle cream? It was ridiculous, but I guess it sells.
Now that I’m in my 50s, I could say I don’t care how the world thinks I should look. I could also say I’m wise and comfortable in my own skin. As I’ve matured, I’ve learned to accept myself and my body. It sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s not the whole story. The truth is, I don’t obsess about my appearance anymore because it’s no longer a factor. Whatever “looks” I had have faded. No amount of dieting, artful makeup or hair fluffing will get me into the “hot” category. I am simply too old.
It no longer bothers me that I’m always “ma’am,” never “miss.” Well, it doesn’t bother me as much. When I buy a ticket at the movies, I ask for “one adult” so I can save the person the embarrassment of asking if I’m a senior. I’m not afraid to say I remember TV trays, 8-track tapes and the original Charlie’s Angels.
I have stopped fighting the world, because the world doesn’t define me. It has taken me five painful decades to realize my worth doesn’t come from the shape of my body or the size of my nose. I wish I had learned this earlier, but I guess I needed to go through some trauma to arrive at an epiphany.
Whatever the case, I know my value isn’t based on someone’s opinion of me, it is based on Jesus Christ. What he thinks is all that matters. I am his child, forever a member of his family. He doesn’t care about the outside of me. He doesn’t see it aging. He doesn’t see my outside at all. He cares–and loves–what is within me.