NYC254 cover image See all stories from issue #254, November/December 2016

Self-Love Is a Process
Overcoming putdowns about my weight

“Wow, look how she eats!” my grandpa said, smiling down at me and rubbing my head. It was the day of my uncle’s wedding. I was 6. The rest of the family looked up from their food and smiled at me too, the small, chubby-cheeked girl with her mouth full of roti and pumpkin.

“Sarah, you should start watching what she eats,” an old uncle chimed in with his Guyanese accent. “You don’t want her to turn out like one of them big women.” He laughed, the rest of the table chuckling along with him.

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“No, she’s not going to turn out like them,” my mom said. “And don’t say that to her. She’s the perfect weight for her height.”

In spite of what my mom said, I looked at my plate of food and decided to only eat two more bites. I wasn’t full, but when asked if I wanted more food, I politely declined.

Chubby and Insecure

Thanks to my male relatives’ constant comments throughout the years, I’ve been self-conscious about my weight since I was little. The other women in my family didn’t have “chubby” stomachs. They were slim and petite, and I envied them. I noticed that when they sat, their stomachs remained flat, but when I sat, I had rolls.

In my pre-teens, I would try to lose weight by running, doing sit-ups, and changing up my diet. I replaced bread and chips with fruits and vegetables.

But I grew impatient waiting for results and quickly gave all that up. Then I cut my portions, but I was hungry afterward. I drank water to try to suppress my hunger; sometimes it helped, but not enough. Ultimately I would give in and binge-eat, which upset me physically and emotionally.

My arms and broad shoulders were an insecurity of mine as well. My mom is petite; the only real curve on her body is her smile. She has skinny, delicate arms. Mine looked like stuffed sausage links. I thought they were squishy and gross. I hated the way they jiggled when I moved.

I’d compare myself to female celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato. “I have a long torso and love handles just like Miley! Once I get this fat off my stomach, I’ll be so pretty.” Like me, Demi was a young, chubby girl (on Barney). Then she grew up into a hot Disney star. I would google images of her in bikinis, hoping that one day I would grow out of my chubbiness and become pretty and skinny like her.

Hiding Behind My Hair

In 6th grade, the pressure finally got to me after a particularly embarrassing incident. In homeroom one morning, one of my good guy friends said: “Yo, you have some fat arms, dude.” He began to play with my arm fat, moving it with his fingers, making it jiggle. “Can you stop?” I snapped at him.

He laughed and a few kids next to him did too. I was mortified. Luckily another male friend of mine lent me his sweater. After that day, I stopped wearing tank tops or tight T-shirts that emphasized my broad shoulders and thick arms.

I wanted to be cute or hot. I wanted guys to think of me as a potential girlfriend, not the cool best friend of the hot girl. I felt like I was second choice, and I hated myself for it. Whether it was true or not, I convinced myself I had this status because I wasn’t skinny.

My self-esteem continued to plummet. I would hide behind my long hair to distract others from noticing my protruding stomach and big arms.

Dubious Diets and Despair

At 13, I tried a diet consisting of fruits and water. In the beginning I had more energy and I was in a better mood even though I was usually hungry. The diet started paying off and my stomach began to shrink. But the acidity from the fruits left my stomach unsettled so I quit.

There were times when I would go for a few days without eating. Or I would eat half of my meal, making a line down the plate with my fork. One night as I was throwing half my dinner into the garbage my mom unexpectedly walked into the kitchen. I froze, not making eye contact, then quickly walked toward the sink and placed my dish inside. “Is there something wrong with the food?” she asked.

“No, it was good. I wasn’t that hungry.”

“You? Full?” she said jokingly. “But you love macaroni and cheese! I’ve never known you to not finish a plate of it.”

I awkwardly smiled. “That’s the problem,” I thought to myself.

“Is this about your weight?” she asked. I looked at her but said nothing.

“Honey, starving yourself is not the way to lose weight. That is not healthy at all.”

“Well I need to lose it,” I quickly responded, staring at my feet.

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“No, you don’t, you’re 13 years old. You are not fat and it’s normal to have a little bit of weight on you. You’re still a child.” She walked over and hugged me. “Now let’s get you some more food.”

Conversations like this helped make me feel better about myself, but only temporarily. Soon my lack of confidence and my desire to be skinny would return.

My Lowest Point

Then, in 9th grade, I stuck a toothbrush down my throat after eating a large meal, and forced myself to vomit.

I’d been disgusted with myself after eating a bowl of leftover spaghetti. The thoughts flew around in my brain, stinging me internally. I glared at the now-empty plate of food. “I’m disgusting,” I whispered under my breath.

My face burned as the hot tears of disappointment and regret spilled down my face. I headed toward the enemy, the mirror. My eyes shifted down toward my stomach in the reflection.

I pulled at the skin of my stomach. I roughly released the flab. Frustrated, I stomped toward the bathroom. Jumbled thoughts flooded my mind. “Fat.” I pulled my toothbrush out of its holder. “Pig.”

I lifted the toilet seat. “Chubby.” I plopped down on my knees, the soft rug preventing them from bruising.

“Disgusting.” I opened my mouth, toothbrush shaking in hand as I looked into the toilet. For just a second I saw myself reflected in the water; my red puffy eyes, quivering lip. “Ugly.”

I jammed the toothbrush into my mouth, forcing it to the back of my throat. My eyes widened as I gagged, the brush tickling my esophagus. But I continued. I bowed my head as I felt my stomach turn; hot acid-filled, not-yet digested food making its way up. I threw the toothbrush to the ground, tears from the burning of my throat filling my eyes as I threw up.

I flushed the toilet, and sat against the wall. I stared at the toothbrush on the ground. What did I just do? I was so upset that I had done that to my body. I didn’t realize it then, but that was a form of self-hate.

Thinking It Through

I had watched documentaries and read articles and books about eating disorders. I didn’t think I would reach that level. Yet here I was. Despite that realization, I continued binging and purging for a week until my boyfriend, who I confided in, convinced me to stop.

However, I still continued to have low-self esteem. I would still pick at and criticize my body, instead of embracing it and loving it.

Throughout the years I continued to struggle with my body image. Then, last year, two close relationships ended, and it made me want to make a change. First I lost my boyfriend, whom I had dated for most of high school. I had become accustomed to depending on him to lift me up when I was feeling low, and to tell me that I was beautiful. His love and support had helped me to begin to see myself in a better light. Once we broke up, I felt unstable and unsure of myself.

At the same time, I also lost a close friend. One day he suddenly stopped speaking to me. He acted like our friendship was just a short phase and now he was on to better things.

I felt worthless. “Am I boring?” I thought to myself. “Do I talk about myself too much? Am I weird?” I didn’t understand what I had done wrong, and in both situations I blamed myself.

But after lots of tears and thinking, I realized that I was depending on these guys to determine my self-worth. I told myself that I didn’t need anyone to make me happy but myself. I am the only person I need to see myself as beautiful, to see myself as worthy. I don’t need the validation from any guy, or from any person for that matter, to make me feel beautiful. I decided it doesn’t matter what others think of me, it matters what I think of me.

No More Negative Self-Talk

Although I’ve gradually shed the baby fat, learning to love myself is not easy. When people compliment me on my figure, I find it difficult to shake the perception I’ve had of my body for so long. I still hear the voices of my relatives calling me chubby and teasing me about how much I eat.

Being 5’1 and 120 pounds may be a dream for some, and to mostly everyone I know, I have a nice size and figure, yet I don’t see it myself.

Still, I’m trying to break the cycle of sporadic dieting and constant self-hate that I’ve been engaged in for years. For instance, I’ve found things to love about my appearance—like my long curly hair, my smile, and my chubby cheeks. And I try to focus more on my talents. I began writing more and doing makeup and styling outfits for people. I am proud of these attributes. They make me who I am.

I am also working on not being so hard on myself. For instance, in the past when I would go out to eat with my friends, I would try to eat the same amount they ate, although my appetite is bigger. Now I don’t do that. I remind myself that it’s important that I satisfy my hunger. If I do eat a donut or something fattening, I try not to feel horrible about it afterward. I don’t always succeed, but I try.

I used to think that I could never wear a bikini instead of a one-piece; people would stare and judge me. Now I push myself to get comfortable with the idea of wearing one some day. This step may be small, but it is helping me in my journey to feel content with my shape. Self-love is a process.

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