I wish I could pinpoint the moment that I lost it.
When I feel like being particularly dramatic about it I say that I dealt with it for as long as I can remember, but that’s not true. I remember I time when I thought I was pretty darn cool. A time when I was a careless kid who knew she was going to do big things. A time when I wanted to know everybody and be known. A time when I would waltz into a room with confidence and energy—and a smile that nobody could forget. A time when I barely had time to look at myself in the mirror, let alone time to have an opinion either way about what looked back at me. I had too much to do. I was boundless.
And then I started giving myself bounds.
Maybe it’s when I went from being an easy 90 pounds with no fluctuation in my figure to be found to suddenly having some extra weight in places I wasn’t used to. A little jiggle here. I new tightness in my clothing there. Nobody told me how to own this. Nobody told me it could be incredibly sexy. I thought I was doing something wrong.
Maybe it was the day my favorite jeans—the ones with the rips down the front and fake patches in bright fabrics all over them—wouldn’t slide up over my thighs anymore. But I love those! I thought to myself. This was clearly not good. [i]
Maybe it was when the guy who I had foolishly started to measure my self-worth by—the big shot in school who was somehow smitten by me, found me fun and attractive, was the first person to ever use the word sexy when referring to me, making me think Maybe I am worth something—went off to college and left me behind, in favor of other, surely cooler and hotter, young women. [ii]
Maybe it was the moment that everything else in my life was up in the air too—I was off to college, no direction, no friends nearby, no idea who I wanted to be. So instead, I decided to try and become who I thought everyone else wanted me to be.
I don’t know exactly when it was, but at some point, I totally and completely lost all confidence and love I had for myself. [iii] While I managed to get almost perfect grades my first semester, I saw only the one A- I had received. While I managed to make a great group of friends—and already had girls excitedly asking me to room with them the following year—I saw only the people who were liked by more. While I was managing to keep myself alive without the help of my parents for the first time in my life (a feat I don’t think college freshmen get enough credit for), I saw only the pounds of the dreaded freshman fifteen changing the way I saw my body. You can do better, you can be better, better, better, better…
And it quickly went from “You can be better” to “You are the worst.” This tiny thing that I don’t even understand where it came from grew inside my until took over: my eyes clouded in grey, my brain thinking only critically, my heart reengineered to pump the thick black tar of hatred through my veins.
What I can do is pinpoint the moment when I knew I had no choice but to find it again.
It was at the end of a semester when my self-hate had been at it’s fiercest—a semester full of faceless men who I looked to for validation, full of pinching at the fat at my hips and measuring my wrist with my thumb and middle finger, [iv] full of taking my anger at myself out on the people who only really wanted to love me, full of self-secluding myself socially because Why would they want to hang out with me? A semester of looking for someone to make me believe I was beautiful, inside and out. A semester of trying to ask for help, but not really knowing how.
It was at the end of a stressful finals week where I had only sustained myself on french fries filched from the campus greasy joint, partially out of feeling too overwhelmed to find any other food and partially out of my body’s cry for fat and quick energy when I refused to give it much else.
And after all of this—when I was on the end of every rope I had—I took myself to see Black Swan. All my friends still had studying to do, but I wanted to see it so I went by myself. Sitting there alone in the dark theater watching Natalie Portman’s character brutally rip herself apart, something inside me snapped. Because I knew that, at least emotionally, I had been doing the same thing to myself. [v] And I knew that, just as nobody could save her when she was so dead-set on torturing herself, nobody would be able to help me until I was ready for it.
I went back to my apartment in a daze and then spent all night sobbing in my roommate’s bed while she sat bewildered, rubbing my back. And then, the next morning, I said to myself Enough. It’s time to make this right.
I wish I could say recovery was as easy as that, as waking up and looking in the mirror and saying Wow, I’m so beautiful and awesome—how did I not see it before? But it’s not. That morning was just the start of an uphill journey, a path that I had to walk. Nobody could trek it for me. Nobody could magically get me to the top. I had to do it, step by step, and that morning I work up with the determination to do whatever it took to get to that place.
Over the break I went into battle mode—but it was a very different battle than I had been fighting before. I enlisted my bewildered roommate for support, explaining to her while we took a snowy road trip the ways in which I had been hurting, and asking her to cheer me on as I tried to get better. I spent time thinking of ways to love myself more, to care for my one body more. I channeled positive thoughts—you are beautiful as you are, you are kind, so many people love you—even if I didn’t really believe them, I thought them and said them over and over again, trying to convince myself. I scoured the web for people who had dealt with the same thing, and found blogger Gala Darling’s cannon on radical self love. Radical was exactly what I needed to get over this.
I returned after the holidays with mechanisms in place to keep myself honest. I started a Radical Self Love Bible. I took the Body Warrior Pledge and started doing daily activities from Beautiful You. I had mantras. It was a project to say the least, and it was more important than any project I had ever taken on for school.
I opened up with my other roommate, who was used to hearing my self-pitying, compliment-seeking comments of the past. [vi] This was a different dialogue: “Hey, I’ve been really hateful towards myself and it needs to stop so I’m going to be doing some self love activities around the apartment. Don’t think I’m weird, I just need it,” I mumbled, feeling vulnerable. Instead, she started doing some of the activities with me, supporting me more than I think she realized.
I kept working at it. A few months down the road I started cautiously dating someone, afraid of throwing myself in too fast and relying on his validation for my self-worth. He said, “I wish we had met sooner.” “No you don’t,” I replied, thinking of how destructive I would have been to a relationship only four months prior and realizing that I now thought of myself as someone worth dating. “What’s your favorite thing about yourself?” he asked innocently during one of our get-to-know-you question sessions. I looked at him seriously and told him everything I had been through and where I was trying to go. He had nothing to say but still kept his arm around me and still wanted to see me the next day. I felt more powerful.
I realized the more I talked about it, the more control I felt over it, so I talked more. Over the summer I told a former boss and mentor, who cried and hugged me and told me in her sing-song voice how beautiful I was and how much she loved me. I went on a hike with my dad and explained everything, start to finish, as we climbed single file up to McAfee’s Knob. Walking ahead of him, I couldn’t see his face, but he worried aloud and wondered what he and my mom could have done differently. [vii] He asked if there was anything he could do now. “No,” I said, “I’m doing much better.” And I realized it was the truth.
And slowly but surely, I climbed that mountain.
Several months later, I would find myself lying in a bunk bed in a Madrid hostel with the boy from above, elated to catch up from our time apart while studying abroad, but even more elated to be able to report, “I think I did it.”
It’s not that I never had bad days, or days when I doubted myself, but I approached them in a way I hadn’t before. A way of understanding to be imperfect is to be human. A way of knowing that I was doing my best to live in this wild world. A way of thinking my best was actually pretty damn great.
Instead of always seeing the ways I was failing, I saw the ways in which I was succeeding.
Fast forward three years to last month, when I was sitting at a wedding listening to the minister advise the bride and groom to love each other like they love their own bodies, because nobody could hate or hurt their own bodies. It was a nice thought, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Far too many people aren’t in a position where that would be sound marital advice. Far too many people are in abusive relationships with themselves—be it emotionally or physically.
I’m proud to say I’ve managed to win over that side of myself. I’m not sure it is or will ever be gone entirely, but it stays to itself. But my heart goes out every day to those who haven’t—for those who can’t see the beauty in themselves, for those who have chosen to take action against themselves with eating disorders or self-harm.
I want to help you just as much as I wanted to help myself that morning after Black Swan, puffy-eyed from crying but strong with resolve.
I want to help you understand that it’s all in your head, and that you can’t get better until you make the decision to flip that switch and do so. Hating yourself can feel so helpless, like you’re no longer in control of your thoughts. Take back control.
I want to help you find the power that lies within you to do this. It’s there, I promise. Anyone who can feel such strong hate has just as much capacity to feel love. Anyone who can take control of his or her body in a hurtful way has just as much control to do so in a caring way.
I want to convince you to take the journey up. I’m not saying it will be easy. Some days will be treacherous, some will be awe-inspiring. Some days you’ll have people walking behind you, keeping you company and keeping you going, some you’ll be going solo, having to be the one to push yourself to take each step. But the beauty of an uphill climb is that, as long as you keep going, eventually you’ll reach the top.
And let me tell, the view up here—well, she’s stunning.
[i] This was when I really started fighting. I fought with those jeans for months: It started with sucking in, then laying on my bed and tugging and tugging to try and get them on. I kept those jeans tucked away for months, trying them on occasionally to see if anything had changed.
[ii] At no fault of his—this was all in my head.
[iii] It’s important to note here that this was not just about my body—though that was the most obvious way it presented itself. The ways in which I wasn’t loving myself were vast: I focused all my energy on my shortcomings rather than my positive traits, I always felt others were better than me and strived to be them, I needed the acceptance and validation of others to accept myself, I expected utmost perfection from myself. And, yes, there was plenty of body hate to go along with it.
[iv] The latter being a habit I have yet to kick…
[v] “I want to be perfect,” says Nina to the artistic director as she’s begging for the role of the Swan Queen. “Perfection is not just about control,” he replies, “It’s also about letting go.”
[vi] “I feel so fat today.” “Ugh I look so horrible.” “I’m not good enough/cool enough/hot enough for her.” This kind of talk is far too popular among friends. If you hear it, stop it.