I remember a time when I was in 7th grade, and a couple of friends and I were all going to the Spring Fling school dance.
Now, for this story, it’s important to know that before I hit puberty, I was a chubbier kid. I wasn’t fat (I thought I was at the time, but looking at pictures I realize that I wasn’t as hefty as I had imagined), but I was big enough that I got picked on by a couple people, almost exclusively boys, about the way I looked. I was also a nerd–imagine that! So, I also had glasses and talked like a weirdo, just like I still do. I definitely was not popular…but as many 12-year old girls do, I desperately wanted to be. From about the age of 11 onwards, I wanted so badly to be pretty, and skinny, and liked, and super awesome like some of the girls at school that I looked up to.
Back to the party–the two friends in question that I was going to the Spring Fling with both lived within walking distance, so they were going to meet me at home, and my mom was going to take us down. Meanwhile, I was getting ready…doing my little makeup routine, which was awkward at best, and digging through my closet to find the perfect outfit.
I tried on a couple shirts…this one was too short, this one was the wrong color…and then I saw one of my favorite shirts. It was a long-sleeve leopard print shirt, with sleeves that belled out at the elbows, and a little tie on the chest. This, I thought, This is the one! I felt like I looked completely ugly in all of the other things I’d tried on, but I always felt great in this shirt. I put it on and looked in the mirror…but to my dismay, I still looked fat.
I started to get angry, throwing my clothes all over the place to try to find something that wouldn’t make me look completely ridiculous. My crush was going to be there, after all! And though I would never have the courage to ask him to dance, or to even say “hello,” there was a slim chance that if I looked really nice, that he would come up and ask ME to dance!
Then I knelt down in the middle of my bedroom floor and started to cry.
“What’s wrong?” my mom asked. She had been helping me get ready.
“I…I don’t know what’s wrong. I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHY I’M CRYING.” I started to cry more as the realization hit me that I couldn’t stop crying.
I thought my mom would laugh at me and tell me that I looked beautiful, to just put on whatever I was most comfortable in and to go have fun with my friends. Instead, she rubbed my back and calmly said, “I understand. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to…I’ll just tell your friends that you aren’t feeling up to it.”
I continued crying for a little bit longer, feeling miserable about myself, and then I got myself together. I’d like to say that I tried to put some of the clothes away that I’d thrown all over the place, but I definitely didn’t, because I couldn’t look at any of them. Now, I was just feeling confused. How could my mom understand, when I didn’t understand in the least?
She never did explain that one to me, and I ended up staying home from the dance playing video games instead of going out with my friends. Maybe she chalked it up to me being a hormonal mess, being only months away from hitting full-on puberty…but regardless, I now know as I’m older what exactly happened. That day is when I had my first “fat day.”
I want to let that sink in…at the young age of only 12 years old, I felt too ashamed of the way that I looked to go to a simple school dance with a couple of my (much skinnier) friends. Before I was even old enough to have my first period, I felt ugly, and I felt that my self-worth was completely dependent on my looks.
But where had I learned that? My mom had never pressured me into looking a certain way…my dad did make a fat joke to me once that scarred me, but he never meant anything by it. I know this because my mom was very heavy when they first met, and he never strayed or stopped loving her.
One time, my best friend’s mom had told her that “She wouldn’t be so heavy if her mom didn’t let her drink those sodas all the time,” in response to my friend asking her why they never bought soda, and she then told me. One boy made fun of me the year before almost every single day for the way I looked, and even hit me with a binder once. Furthermore, all of the prettier girls in school were complimented all the time, and everyone was always nice to them. Some of them weren’t very nice back. So, one day, in my tiny pre-adolescent head, I understood that if I wanted to be popular and if I wanted people to like me (which I very much did), then the best way to do it was to look the part, because if I was pretty, then people would automatically be nice to me, and adults wouldn’t say things behind my back. Instead, they’d talk about how wonderful and smart I was–which no one would know unless they liked the way I looked enough to get to know me and find these things out.
The main reason I decided to share this with everyone is that I realize now as an adult that children still go through these kind of self-image problems, and they still place so much of their value on the way that they look, because that’s what our media and culture tells them is important. And, as an adult, I understand that these standards still affect me–I just care a little bit less. Nonetheless, the pressure is and always will be there to look beautiful, over all other traits (e.g. being kind, thoughtful, intelligent, or hard-working). But why is this so?