I.

I’m no older than seven or eight when I first notice my protruding stomach. 

It’s not fatty per se, just rounded in the way most kids’ stomachs are, but I realize at some point in the second grade that a stomach like mine is not attractive, not like the two-dimensional rectangles of the girls on Little Einsteins or JoJo’s Circus. 

Even at seven or eight years old, my best friend and I complain about how fat we are. Her wrists are bony, though, and I’m envious of the way her clothes hang off of her little-kid shoulders—I know all the while that she doesn’t really know how I feel.

While my mom is busy taking care of my sisters, I silently slide the stool out from the corner of the pantry so I can reach the open carton of Oreos. When my parents ask why there are only three left, I fake ignorance. 

I learn how to lie this way. I eat what my parents let me and lie about the rest. The Goldfish crackers go missing, then the Girl Scout cookies, and I either feign memory loss or blame it on my sisters. 

I learn that my protruding stomach is called a muffin top when I’m about ten. My mom and aunts complain about theirs, so I start to notice mine. I don’t worry about it too much, because I’m ten and I’m more concerned with class president elections, but I still notice that the girls who have boyfriends (or whatever the fourth grade version is) are all skinny and wear cool clothes: skinny jeans, Justice sweaters, highlights in their hair, and stringy bracelets loose on their wrists.

Every day, my packed lunch consists of a yogurt cup, a sliced apple, and a cookie, maybe a plain peanut butter sandwich instead of yogurt every so often. The skinny girls bring Vera Bradley lunch boxes bursting with packaged snacks; Cosmo Brownies and Lays clutter the round tables they gather around like flies. My parents tell me I am eating healthier than them, that I am taking care of myself, but I gorge myself on whatever chips we have when she is picking up my sister from preschool. I’ve lied about what I’ve eaten so many times that it doesn’t feel wrong anymore; it’s just what I do to keep out of trouble. Eating too much or not well enough will result in either chastisement or inner shame or both.

At eleven, I teach myself how to breathe so that I can suck in my stomach at all times without being noticed. My mom takes me shopping for a dress for my sixth grade graduation. When she asks me if I’m sucking in, I say no. If I suck in all the time, I reason, it doesn’t matter that the dress is too small. It hides my stomach, anyway.

I stand for the silly elementary school graduation photos and notice later that I am the second fattest one there, even as I suck in my stomach to the point of concavity. I can’t help but fixate on the fattest girl to make myself feel better. I know I’m wrong for pitting our bodies against each other, even as I’m doing it, but I don’t stop myself.

That summer, I realize why my mother always takes the photos on family vacations instead of getting in them. I start to look at the few photos of myself that are on my iPod Touch and measure all of the ways my body falls short of what I think it should be. I’m not quite self-conscious enough to shy away from photos with friends, but I notice how my body takes up twice as many pixels and discover that editing apps are very helpful in making myself look smaller on social media.

II.

When I’m thirteen, I’m put on a dance team with girls all two years younger than me. I’m the only one of them with any sense of a developed body. I probably weigh no more than 110 pounds (I check for fluctuations in even a tenth of a pound regularly), but they’re all taller and almost certainly weigh less. I’m strong but not muscular, graceful but not lean; my ribs don’t poke out over defined abs the same way theirs do. No one pressures me to eat less, but I do, anyway, except for the times I sneak to the pantry and steal what few snacks we have. I pretend it doesn’t count if no one sees it.

I stop eating breakfast. I say it’ll nauseate me that early in the morning, but it’s really just an excuse to include one less item on the calorie tracker. I limit myself to half of my lunch yogurt and just a bit of the dinner my mom has cooked when I get home at nine p.m., but excuse the dessert my friend’s dad gives us on the carpool home because my skinny friends are eating it too. 

My freshman year of high school, I quit dance and join the cross-country team because I think it’ll make my grandfather happy. I’m the slowest one there—too slow to compete—so I quit. But while I’m there, I look at the lithe, stick-like runners and decide to start limiting my calories, for real this time.

Toast with imitation butter for breakfast. A granola bar for lunch, or, if I’m feeling generous, a protein bar. Whatever my mom makes for dinner. I congratulate myself for coming in under 1200 or 1400 calories a day, and kick myself when I get ice cream with my friends or overindulge in crackers after school. My mom gives me a tip: “Weigh yourself every week, or maybe every day, just to keep yourself accountable. Use the fitness app on your phone to track your calories, your exercise—that’s what helped me.”

That summer is a dance of temptation and self-hatred. When I skip a meal, I’m hopeful at the thought of a flat stomach, daydreaming about bikini pictures I know I’ll never take. Hunger is a good thing. It means I’m healthy, means I’m not going overboard the way I used to do. I think I’ll stick with it this time (spoiler alert: I do not). 

It’s not an eating disorder, because I’m not getting skinny and I’m not making myself vomit, and really, I am eating plenty. I still sneak snacks from the pantry; I just hate myself for it more. I look up diet pills, easy ways to lose weight, but never use them. My weight fluctuates between the same two ten-pound markers on the scale, never dipping as low as I want it to because I simply don’t have the willpower to starve the pounds away.

When I have the house to myself, I fix myself little homemade desserts (we don’t keep sweets around, really). Afterwards, I remove every trace: I hand-wash the dishes and put them away, Windex every counter, fix the sugar so you can’t see that any has been taken. Indulging myself is forbidden, as it has been since the day I realized what the ideal body was and that I don’t possess it. 

III.

Throughout high school, I try at least three diet apps, start new fitness regimens and trends, and hate myself at least a little every day. When I finish puberty and go from a B to a D cup, I revel in what I think is my only good physical trait, just to realize that it’s only a byproduct of being heavier than I should be. I know the girls I’m friends with are all thinner than me, taller than me, have more self-control than me. None of us have boyfriends, and we’re all convinced it’s because our bodies aren’t good enough; we don’t have the figures to attract boyus immaturus

No matter how good my grades are or how well I do in my after-school clubs, I fight with my body. I’m happy when I lose ten pounds on a diet plan and hate myself for gaining the weight back, careful of what I eat in front of others and scared of losing control alone. It’s not an eating disorder. I eat junk and health food in near-equal portions and exercise regularly but not to excess. It’s not a fixation, just a constant struggle. Those two things are different.

During the day, I eat what I have to and binge when I can and hate myself for both. I run my fingers over my still-pudgy stomach at night and scold myself for not having the self-discipline to make it flat.

My senior year rolls around and I’ve stopped keeping such close tabs on what I eat. Out of rebellion, out of the body positivity movement, whatever, I tell myself I’m content with my body, even if it’s totally unlovable. I still feel as undesirable as I have since I was twelve, but it’s okay because I don’t want a relationship anyway. I start to realize that nobody’s body, especially my own, is something to be fixed and tinkered with and constantly modifying. I think there might be a light at the end of the tunnel where I stop trying to fix myself.

Then, that spring, I’m convinced to try yet another dieting app—this one a sleek-interfaced, millennial-marketed monstrosity. My mom and I are trying to get my sister into it. It’ll be good mother-daughter bonding, and we all could stand to improve our health a little more. My two littler sisters are excluded—I don’t know whether it’s because they’re younger, or skinnier, or eat healthier, or maybe all three. 

This diet is no different than any other. I mentally reward myself for not eating and consequently coming in below the recommended amount of calories, then shamefully eat handfuls of salty snacks or a Big Mac without recording it in the app. I’ve stopped hating myself as much for this cycle. A benefit of doing something you know is probably pretty messed up for all of your developmental years is that you become pretty numb towards it—it’s no longer good or bad, just a part of you. 

I’ve hated my body for so long that it feels like breathing. In fact, I don’t even remember how to breathe normally. I’ve been sucking in my stomach for so long that it feels unnatural and almost impolite not to do so. 

IV.

Then, I leave home. Despite a pandemic, I’m lucky enough to form a COVID-free bubble with three other students and embark on my first semester of college in a new environment.

The people I live with have nowhere near the same levels of self-hatred (or if they do, they don’t show it). We cook for each other—good, wholesome meals that are balanced and healthy, but not preoccupied with their own calorie count. Meals are a time to be together. It’s not a contest in self-control, but a way to appreciate each other, to show that we care enough to make sure we are all well-fed without worrying about how it will affect the number on the scale.

I stop hiding snacks, because there’s no one to hide from. I no longer stare into mirrors after the shower and analyze every bit of my body like a warped Narcissus, transfixed by every bit of fat that’s slipped on or off in the past twenty-four hours. In the absence of constant reminders from school friends, from photos, and cute little notifications from dieting apps, the obsession that plagued me for over a decade diminishes every day. Without anyone commenting on my weight, I forget to think about it too. Being isolated with people who don’t really care about how I look slowly erodes the instinct to put my body incessantly under construction.

For Thanksgiving, my best friend and I go to her hometown and explore every type of food there is to try. We make frequent excursions to small businesses and fast food chains alike, worrying ourselves not with the specter of saturated fats making themselves known on our stomachs but instead with how much we are going to enjoy ourselves. I know my parents would cringe at the junk entering my body, and probably for good reason, but I’m having too much fun to care.

By my second semester of college, I think I might not hate my body anymore. Under bulky winter clothes, no one’s worried about what their stomach looks like, and I’m not either. When I go on my first socially distanced quasi-date, I realize that despite not being skinny, I might be somewhat desirable. By the time I’m on my third or fourth, I realize I am downright attractive—not just for my personality, but for my appearance too. (And isn’t that crazy? I had never even really considered the notion that I might be attractive, purely because I didn’t look like the actresses on TV or cross-country runners in the halls.)

But the other day, my pants were a little tighter and I thought about skipping dinner. I snacked while watching TV and now I feel sick, even though I know I need to feed myself. As much as I’ve repaired my attitude towards my body, I still find myself thinking about taking a walk in lieu of eating a meal, feeling guilty for indulging in good food with friends. 

It’s something that has followed me since I was seven and probably always will, at least a little bit. But the point—I think this is the point—is that this thing, this self-hatred that follows most women and has affected a lot of people to a greater extent than myself—is a part of who we are. It is not, however, all that we are. 

I’ve been trying to live up to an impossible standard ever since I was made aware of its existence. But skinny is not the ideal and fat is not something to be avoided. My body is my own to do with as I please, to accept and feed and nourish so that it is healthy, not policed in accordance with some made-up laws about how it should look.

I will probably never think of my body as beautiful, not entirely. But it is not my opponent. If anything, my body and I are reluctant coworkers, squabbling and bitching at each other but ultimately working towards the same thing. I am starting to understand that we need each other to survive. And I am tired of fighting the very thing that allows me to live.