I found a document on my computer today that hadn’t been edited since 2004. It was a letter to a friend, apparently one that I typed, printed, and mailed via USPS because that’s what people did back in ’04. To be honest, the content was really not that exciting. It was more along the lines of, “woke up, ate toast, pined over the boy who sits behind me in math class,” etc. than anything else – exactly what you’d expect from an eleven-year-old.
Except the last paragraph, in which I completely brutalize my body. I mean, it’s really bad. It makes me uncomfortable to think that someone received this letter from me because those were not words that you’d want to casually share in a friendly letter. I feel a strong need to send this person a written apology, like, yesterday, for subjecting them to the completely inappropriate musings of my prepubescent brain. But we aren’t really friends anymore, so I feel like that would come across as more creepy than anything else.
It just got me thinking, like, I always claim that my eating disorder didn’t start until I was nineteen – which I guess technically it didn’t – but there were definitely issues long before that. Before I was run over by the mack truck that is puberty, I was weird-looking. I had a massive overbite with a huge gap between my front teeth, thick Coke-bottle glasses, and an extra six inches in height, a combination that didn’t exactly endear me to my peers. Then once the hormones kicked in, I started growing out instead of up; my hips widened exponentially as my chest very stubbornly refused to budge. My limbs were still too long for me to handle gracefully, and I developed this unyielding mound of flesh on my stomach. Basically, I was never even remotely okay with how I looked.
When I was in fifth grade, I filled out a questionnaire in a stupid book I got for Christmas that asked me all about myself. Favorite color, favorite song (it was Britney Spears’ “Lucky,” by the way), celebrity crush, all the questions you’d expect from a kids’ book. But the answer that struck me the most was the one I wrote next to “favorite thing about yourself.” In my bubbly kid handwriting I had written, “I’m so ugly but at least I’m skinny.”
Whoa, what? Hold on. First of all, when someone asks you your favorite thing about yourself, you can’t lead with “I’m so ugly.” Way to blatantly not answer the question, fifth-grade Gwen. But although my disregard for the rules was shocking, rereading that answer was even more so. I couldn’t think of anything else to write down in that situation? I really thought the best thing about me was that I was skinny (and also apparently ugly)? I was in fifth grade, and my body was already the only thing about me that mattered?
And then in this letter, the letter saved on my computer, I went on and on about how no one was ever going to like me because they wouldn’t be able to look past the disgusting way I looked. My boobs were too small, I reasoned, and my hips too disproportionately large. There was nothing attractive about someone as tall and lopsided as I was. I was destined to die alone and sad, spending my last earthly days surrounded by a clowder of feral cats.
I get that being a kid, and being a teenager, and pretty much just being a human, is really difficult. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in our society who doesn’t struggle with issues of self-esteem and body image every once in a while, especially in the scarring formative environment that is middle school. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that eight- and ten- and twelve-year-old girls, the ones who should be focusing on learning and exploring and all the wonderful things that childhood has to offer, are spending their precious time worrying about whether they’re pretty enough. And that’s heartbreaking.
When I was in fifth grade, I was kind of awesome. I was a great writer, a voracious reader, and a wonderful friend. I had teachers that inspired me and a family that loved me and an imagination that refused to take no for an answer. But when push came to shove, the only positive quality I could drum up was my weight. It’s no small wonder that when I was no longer “skinny enough,” I thought I had nothing left.
But skinny or fat, ugly or pretty, I was never down to nothing. I always had my family, and my sense of humor, and my way with words. Even in the darkest hours of my life, there was always something worth fighting for – something in me. Something that had absolutely nothing to do with what I saw when I looked in the mirror. Because that, what’s on the outside, is just the tiniest fraction of who I am.
I wish I could go back in time and tell my eleven-year-old self that there are so many more important things she could be worrying about, like reading more books or telling people how much she loves them. But since I can’t, I guess it’s just forward motion. Trying hard to remember that I’m so much more than how skinny I am, or am not, or whatever. Swearing that whenever I come across a lost little girl, I’ll do my best to make sure she knows that, too. We’re not just our bodies, no matter what anyone tries to tell us. We are fearsome, and we are beautiful.