At almost 28 years old, I am 5 feet 11 inches tall and weigh 135 pounds, give or take a few. It has taken me nearly all of three decades to accept what I look like and love myself, and clearly, it has been a long road. Let me explain.
I have always been tall, but I wore it as a badge of honor until I turned about 11 when I, like many young women, started to hit puberty. When I began the 7th grade, I was 5 feet 8 and weighed (get ready for this image) 85 pounds. If I were I grown woman at that height, I would have been considered anorexic. But I wasn’t. I was just a bony, clumsy rail of a creature with stringy, long hair, a huge appetite, and a pretty terrible view of myself. At the same time, I was also developing what I now embrace as an hourglass figure, but I saw my new hips as hideous monstrosities that I bumped into countertops and made me look even goofier. I thought the hips were “fat”, but all of my classmates still saw this scarecrow of a girl. I very vividly recall a classmate telling me I would never have a boyfriend because I looked like I would be broken in half if hugged too tightly. Yet, I thought I was overweight.
I began a pattern of eating, guilt, and obsessive exercise that lasted through my junior year of high school. This is technically a form of bulimia, but though I never got frighteningly skinny, I was sick. The person I saw in the mirror was a monster. I constantly picked myself apart; my arms looked funky, my stomach was never flat enough, and those damned hips were always a problem. In high school, I was athletic. I was the co-captain of the cheerleading squad, ran track, and played basketball, but I hated competing. All I wanted was to work out more than all my peers and have the “perfect” body, a desire I cannot even begin to explain beyond the fact that I had a view of perfection and I wasn’t meeting it. I wanted to be what I saw in magazines and on TV. Even if a woman had larger hips or breasts than me, I compared everything part by part. “Sure, her hips are bigger, but look at her abs!” I used to think when flipping through a magazine. I remember I watched one episode of “Ally McBeal” and Lucy Liu, Calista Flockhart, and Portia de Rossi (who wrote of her own body struggles in “Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain”) gave me such a complex I couldn’t watch another episode. I went to my bedroom that night and did 500 crunches. No kidding, I was a sick young lady.
Something happened early in my junior year that would start the long road to accepting myself. I applied to the Rotary Youth Exchange program for my senior year, was accepted, and assigned to the incredible country Brazil. Going into it, I really just wanted to get the hell out of my puny little northern Michigan town and see the world, learn a language, and meet new people. This was what drove me to leave my family at 17 and head off to this fascinating, unknown place. Brazil was nothing that I expected and everything I could have ever hoped for. Obviously, if you have been there, you know the country is top to bottom GORGEOUS. Portuguese was a fun language to learn and I had host families sent straight from Heaven. I loved it, but for the first few months, the body thing continued. When I was in training to go to Brazil (yes, we were trained, mostly in how to cope with the psychological mess that is culture shock), I was told that everyone, with the rare exception of an exchange student going to Japan, will gain weight. Stories of people gaining upwards of 25 pounds in 10 months were told among the students returning. But that wouldn’t be me. No f***ing way. At this point, I had poured all my excess energy into being as close to a Photoshopped shot of a 5’11”, finally full grown supermodel as I could be. So, I naively took off to Brazil thinking that I would walk out of this exchange with the same body I had going in, but it was not to be.
Guys. Brazilian food. I just don’t even know. There are the basic rice and beans, but then there are feijoada, churrascarias, pao de queijo, coxinhas, pasteis de carne….oh dear Lord. It didn’t help that my first host mom was an awesome cook and my host dad barbecued every Saturday (complete with beer and German music, can you tell I miss the Pscheidt family, yet?). I gained about 15 much needed pounds in 11 months. During that time, I wore the puniest possible bikinis on the beach and short shorts and mini dresses! All with those extra 15 pounds! But, without two important influences, I would have never had the confidence. First, there were my friends. I became very close to several of my fellow exchange students from around the world who were also going through the same issues of cultural differences and of course, weight gain. The energy between us was so positive, I could have run naked, 50 pounds heavier, down Copacabana. These girls and guys made me feel beautiful through their support and humbled me with their Devil-may-care attitudes to their own weights, though I never noticed any changes in their bodies, we just talked about it (laughing) all the time. In one very memorable moment, my sweet guy friend, Michal, approached me while we were touring northern Brazil and flat out asked me if I had an eating disorder because he had noticed that after every meal, I beelined to the bathroom. I wasn’t and have never forced myself to vomit after a meal, but it hit me hard since I had done something similar for so many years. He was the first and only person to ever confront me about this and I love him for it.
The second influence in my learning to love myself was the Brazilian attitude towards the female body. I saw every shape and size in the same tiny bathing suits I was wearing. It didn’t matter if you were pregnant, overweight, underweight, or whatever, women just wore what they liked. For example, I walked Copacabana beach from start to finish with a friend of mine and on the way, I saw a large group of women and their children, who ranged in age from about 5 to 17. Each one of the women and teenagers were wearing the same little, typically Brazilian bikini and each woman was representative of a different body shape. I smiled at this loud, raucous crowd and began to realize that the female body, including mine with its hips and cellulite, was something to be proud of.
After returning home, I went to college, graduated, moved to Spain, moved back, and lived in DC for two years, Michigan for one, and Chicago before I moved back to Latin America, Bolivia this time around. During this period of 9 years, my weight fluctuated hugely. I went back to my old habits of eating, guilt, and exercise (eating^2 x self-hatred^10 = exercise is known as the “Grace Theorem” in mathematics circles), but recovered fully from it. Living in Latin America again has inspired me to post this story of my relationship with my body, again due to the external forces of positive reinforcement (my angel of a boyfriend and my beautiful girlfriends) and Latin American marketing that embraces the beautiful female form. Everything that I could find suggests that these women may have their cellulite or makeup edited, but also that their beautiful, round parts are 100% genuine. These women are models and have big, mushy butts. Wrap your head around that, America. And I have to admit, seeing these gorgeous round tushes and breasts make me feel like I am just perfect the way I am.
Though in this post I have talked of nothing but external influences on our (my) views of our (my) bodies, none of those matter if you can just love yourself. I think I am getting there, but I am sure I will always have problems with this. Two minutes ago, I went into my bathroom, stripped to my underwear, and looked at myself in a full length mirror. I am 5 feet 11 inches tall, I am 36-25-37, I have cellulite, a few horrible mosquito bites, some weird hair on my right big toe, my inseam is still 34 inches, and I have a zit on my left cheek the size of Vesuvius. None of that matters though. I am a graduate student, I speak two foreign languages, I know more than any human being should about Bolivian grassroots movements, and I love fiercely and give everything I can to those I am close to. I am a woman and today, all of me is perfect.