On Childhood Experiences & My Journey to Body Positivity

Self-confidence doesn’t just appear in our teens. It needs to be cultivated well before that before we even understand the concept. Self-confidence – and specifically body confidence –  needs to become an established trait from the moment self-awareness begins.

Unfortunately, though, this isn’t always the case. Most of my friends and I struggle with body confidence from time to time – some on rare occasions and others almost constantly. A lack of confidence can be a force that invades every aspect of our lives. And while some people have the mental and social tools to combat the nagging voice of self-doubt, many of us don’t. I tend to fall into the latter category, and it’s worth exploring why.

My consciousness of diet culture and beauty standards came early in my life. Some of my earliest memories revolve around hearing constant comments about my looks from family and strangers alike. From the age of 3 or 4, I began to consider physical beauty central to my identity.

I hit puberty young, around 8 or 9 years old. I was told that boys would look at me differently now that I was becoming a woman. A woman who mostly ate chicken fingers and still needed a babysitter, but still a woman.

For years, I watched The Biggest Loser obsessively with my sister, a show that proclaimed to fight the obesity epidemic. Each week, contestants would weigh themselves while dressed in bike shorts and sports bras. They would exercise until they threw up, sobbing, as ripped trainers screamed at them to keep going. I was hooked.

During long, boring nights in seventh grade, I read hundreds of beauty articles. They taught me how to get a flat tummy fast, what haircuts were appropriate for my face shape and how to dress for my body type (upside-down triangle, apparently). I was forbidden from wearing stripes, ruffles or high necks. I followed these rules religiously and did not dare deviate. These were the beauty rules.

Towards the end of high school, when I gained some weight, I took these rules to a new level and tried to limit myself to 1400 calories a day. It was an immediate success for about five days and then I’d inevitably give up every time. I managed to cut down even more in the days leading up to an event. I would look at myself in the mirror and sometimes feel great or ambivalent towards what I saw. Other times, I would cry.

One day, during my first semester of college as I sat in class obsessing over how hungry I was and what I was allowed to eat, I decided to delete my calorie-counting app from my phone. It turned out to be the start of a new era for me. Serious body-image issues had plagued me for almost a decade at that point. I’d spent countless hours obsessing over my weight, my body and my looks. I’d expended incredible amounts of energy forcing myself to count calories. This was the culmination of a lifetime of conditioning in the culture of beauty. My physical appearance had become the foundation of my identity; any normal age-related change in my looks threatened my self-image. Watching people who fell out of the beauty norm – particularly fat women – be humiliated had done a number on my own self-perception.

I’m incredibly grateful that body positivity and diversity exploded in popularity during my teenage years. I worry about what my mental health would’ve looked like had I been a teen just five or ten years earlier when stores refused to cater to anyone above a size six, but the body positivity movement came after my self-image had crystallized, too late for the middle-schooler who wanted to be skinny above all else. The damage isn’t irreversible, but it’s already done.

I have learned a lot over the past few years, though. The first step is to do a social media cleanse; unfollow every account that makes you feel bad about your appearance or causes shame. Instead of following models and fitness influencers, follow body-positivity advocates and cooking accounts. It’s pretty amazing how much the people we follow on social media shape our perception of normalcy.

The next step is to recognize damaging behavior and learn how to curb it. I realized that obsessing over calories made me obsess over food and affected my focus and my friendships. I usually love going out for meals but for a while I only cooked for myself because it gave me control over the calories in my food. Now, I order what I want at restaurants and end up infinitely more satisfied and less stressed. Meal prepping is a great way for some people to save time and money on food, but I enjoy deciding what I want in the moment. I like spending time cooking and baking, and I stop when I’m full.

The hardest step of all is to end the cycle of disordered eating and body shaming that so many families pass down. As children, we pick up a lot of our food-related behavior from our parents and friends, and many of us have dealt with less-than-perfect role models. I often catch myself judging what others eat or don’t eat or criticizing my own appearance in the way my family did to themselves. I babysit all the time and it’s given me the opportunity to consider the way these behaviors were taught to me as a child and how I can help other kids have a healthy body image. I’ve noticed how often I instinctively refer to little girls as “pretty” or “cute,” saying little of their actual personalities. I let them eat until they’re full without criticism or comment so they don’t learn food shame. It’s clear how kids absorb the philosophy of the adults around them; if I say something negative about my own appearance or body, it becomes part of how they will view themselves in the future.

From what I can tell, my childhood experiences were not uncommon. Many girls I know were sexualized far too young, sent subliminal messages that their bodies were not good enough, made fun of, rejected and embarrassed by family and friends. Some have dealt with the more extreme end of the spectrum in the form of eating disorders. I often hear stories of girls so terrified of gaining weight or trying so desperately to lose it that they abuse Adderall or buy random laxative teas from Instagram. Body hatred is just part of the shared female experience.

Despite this, many of us are working incredibly hard to try to completely reorient our understanding of food and self-image through body positivity. While this is absolutely essential to living fulfilling and happy lives, we should remember how we came to need such a radical change in the first place and consider the way kids today are absorbing cultural cues surrounding body image and self-confidence. When we’re around young kids, especially young girls, we need to offer them an alternative to a lifetime of low self-esteem and dieting. We owe it to our younger selves to show kids the compassion and confidence that so many of us lacked.