As a child, I was never thin. I was always bigger than the other girls in school. I never thought much of it until I started noticing how much it was on everyone else’s minds.
All of a sudden, people I used to be friends with wanted nothing to do with me. I became the classmate your parents forced you to invite to birthday parties. I was no longer worthy of being friends with the other children in my small Catholic school class because my body was growing too much for their liking.
I can remember the stares and the nasty comments like it was yesterday. I found solace in books and did my best to lay low and become invisible. And yet, I was still unable to avoid the social ridicule thrown onto those of us who do not fit the norm.
I will never forget the day when one of my classmates asked me if I was losing weight and then whispered loudly to her friends, “because she was huge last year.” It was at that moment that I lost myself. From that day forward, at the age of only twelve years old, I began my struggle with anorexia.
Since that day, my body has been at the forefront of my mind, and I know that it probably will be forever.
I am twenty-nine years old now, and still, I am haunted by my classmate’s comment. What was perhaps a trivial remark to her became the words that have shaped my entire existence since that day.
The impact of our words can be so devastating, and often, we have no idea the extent of the damage we have done to someone. In a world where millions of strangers can judge your appearance through the internet in just a split second, we all must take the time to reexamine how we speak to others. The way we praise one body and chastise another. The way we hold some women up while simultaneously pushing so many others down. The way we raise our children to start hating themselves so young.
We have to do better.
For instance, have you ever noticed how we always exclaim how big someone’s baby or small child has gotten?
Every time they grow an inch or gain a pound, we are ecstatic for them. We cheer them on as they grow, and we could not be prouder of them for doing so. People love “chubby” babies; they are seen as perfect little cherubs. We excitedly mark on our walls every inch that our young children have grown so that we can always remember how far they have come. “You’re getting so big!” has become the ultimate compliment for all of our young, growing children.
And yet, just a few short years after our children are praised for getting bigger, we began to view this achievement with shame.
Girls’ bodies, in particular, suddenly become thrust under a microscope for the rest of the world to observe and judge. One day, the beaming smiles turn into sideways glances and hushed whispers. We start talking to them about dieting. We start talking to them about dressing modestly and covering themselves up around boys and men.
Somehow, the words that used to be filled with love and praise become full of pity and disdain. “You’re getting so big!” turns into “you’re getting so big….”
At what point do we stop praising little girls for growing and start telling them that they are wrong for it? What magical, invisible threshold do they cross one day that makes their growth deplorable?
They are simply doing what nature has intended for them to do. They are doing the very thing that brought them so much positive attention for the first few years of their lives.
And when younger girls see older women behaving in this way, it is inevitable that they too will pick up these horrible habits.
They will begin to look in the mirror and scrutinize every inch of themselves, because of a passing comment someone made about a body that looks similar to theirs. They will begin to see their reflection as the enemy, and they will stop at nothing to defeat it. They will start bullying other girls who do not look like them because that is the cool thing to do. If they want to fit in, they will do whatever it takes to stay on everyone’s good side.
They will hide their bodies under ill-fitting clothing, hoping that their peers don’t notice how quickly they are growing compared to everyone else. They will slouch when they are around their friends because they overheard someone commenting on their ever-increasing height. They will do everything they can to become undetectable so that they can be beautiful.
We teach girls that beauty comes with rules and conditions. We make sure they know what they can and cannot do to remain on society’s “it list.” And the worst part of it all is that I don’t even think we realize that we are doing it most of the time.
We make negative comments about our appearances without realizing that those younger than us are listening. We put ourselves on restrictive diets, and then they feel like they need to do the same. We never want them to feel the way we felt growing up, so we think that we will prevent all of that pain by helping them achieve this unattainable level of beauty.
All we are doing is giving the pain a place to grow. We are planting the seeds for self-hatred in young girls, and then we become shocked when they begin to suffer.
We have to do better for those who are coming after us. If you don’t want someone to suffer the same way you did when you were younger, then stop perpetuating that suffering. Stop idolizing unattainable and completely unrealistic beauty standards. Stop putting the fear of getting fat into girls’ heads. Stop making them feel like the entirety of their worth lies in their outward appearance.
And when they come to you seeking support, just listen. Be there for them, and be real with them. Make sure they know that the pictures they see and the comments they read are powerless unless they allow them to have power. These unrealistic beauty standards are all an illusion, and it is about time we all start to see things as they really are.
And if you can’t do that for yourself, do it for the next little girl who will look in the mirror and hate herself. She doesn’t deserve to spend her entire life trying to become something that no one can ever be.
And neither do you.