Between the ages of eight and 18 I believed I was ugly. Because the girls around me pointed out my flaws. Because I looked at magazines filled with perfect airbrushed supermodels. And because our society is simply cruel to women.
I was told my brown skin was weird. My arms were hairy. I had ‘four eyes’. I was way too tall. My eyes were too big. And my feet were huge. It didn’t matter what I tried to change about myself…I couldn’t win. Because the things that were ‘wrong’ with me were things I was born with. Things I couldn’t change, even though I desperately wanted to. So as the years went on, their comments slowly chipped away at my self esteem. And I genuinely believed I was ugly.
By the time I was 18, I’d started idolising supermodels — the pinnacles of ‘beauty’. The women that every girl secretly wanted to be. I noticed that while all of those models had different features, the one thing they all had in common was that they were thin. And that in itself was considered beautiful. So it hit me. While I didn’t have control over my skin colour, my eyes or my height, I did have control over how skinny I could be. Maybe, if I became really skinny, people would think I was beautiful. And maybe, just maybe, I would believe it too.
What was the quickest way to getting skinny? Forcing myself to throw up after every meal.
In a matter of weeks, I needed a new wardrobe. I was ‘supermodel’ skinny. And all those girls that used to tell me what was wrong with me started gossiping — in a ‘good’ way. They were talking about how amazing I looked. This had never happened before…so my strategy was working. My eating disorder was changing my life. People finally thought I was beautiful. And for the first time since I was eight years old, I felt beautiful.
But as they say, all good things come to an end. In this case, my perfect plan came screeching to a halt at the age of 21. My health started to suffer. It wasn’t pretty. It was painful. Agonising even. I won’t go into the details of how I got through it (that’s a story for another time), but I was definitely one of the lucky ones. My bulimia went undiagnosed (as many cases do), and no one ever found out. Slowly but surely, I stopped forcing myself to throw up every meal. I thought I was over my body image issues for good. Easy as that.
For the next few years, I focused on other areas of my life. My insecurities about my body were no longer the focal point of my existence. Just over a year ago, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. And while the journey to motherhood has been the greatest experience of my life, pregnancy and postpartum have been far from easy.
Throughout my pregnancy, I was trying to stay positive about my body. But as I was approaching the last two months, I became increasingly anxious about how I looked. As I watched my body grow, change and stretch, there were moments when I felt like I was going to suffocate. It was at this point that I realised that while I no longer had an eating disorder, I never stopped feeling insecure about my body. I only knew one version of beautiful — and I wasn’t that anymore.
Then there’s postpartum. Despite holding a beautiful baby in my arms, there have been days when I’ve looked in the mirror and hated my body. Hated my stretch marks. Hated my loose skin. There have been days where I’ve felt like my body is ruined — and it’s forever ugly.
A couple of weeks ago, while I was doing my habitual critique of my own body in the mirror, I saw my daughter watching me. As I was looking at her beautiful, innocent face, I started dreading the day that someone criticises her skin colour, her size or the way she looks. I fear the day that she’s made to feel like she’s not beautiful. And while I know that at some point, someone will say something to hurt her, I want to fiercely protect her.
It was in that moment that I realised that protecting her, starts with me. I have to stop. Stop the negativity. Stop criticising the way I look. And stop wishing I could change the things I can’t. Every time I have a negative thought, I need to remind myself that my body did something amazing. I grew, birthed and nourished a beautiful little human. Would I give this up to go back to having my tiny, toned and ‘perfect’ body? Not even for a second.
My daughter will learn so much from me. The way I talk about and treat myself. And the way I talk about and treat others. If I’m always looking to fitness models and celebrities for inspiration, so will she. If my life’s focus is on my body, hers will be too. And if I want her to believe that there’s no single standard of beauty, and that everyone is beautiful in their own way, then I have to believe it myself. So I’m going to deal with my body image issues, for her sake.
I know that I’m not the only woman that’s experienced this. And I know that my experience is far from the worst. But I just hope that if I share my story with the world, maybe it’ll help someone else. Maybe it’ll add to the conversations our generation is having, with our families, friends and particularly our daughters. And hopefully, by the time our children grow up, our daughters will believe they’re beautiful, exactly how they are.