I was eleven years old when I started reading food labels on everything I ate to look for calories and fat content. I was twelve years old when I began my time as a student at one of the most competitive high schools in New York City.
I quickly learned that with academic competition comes all other kinds of competition, especially the kind of competition that revolves around how you look. At twelve years old, I became subject to a standard of perfection while everyone around me was also fighting to be the best in every way possible.
As soon as I started the seventh grade, I befriended a group of incredibly smart, talented, beautiful women, but they didn’t see that. Far from it. They would say things like “I’m so fat,” and “I’m so ugly,” and “I need to lose weight” constantly. By my second month in junior high school, I started focusing on everything that I thought was wrong with myself, too. It became routine for me and my friends to skip lunch and instead spend our time exercising in the weight room in the basement of our school. We were constantly looking at each other and comparing ourselves, saying things like “You’re so skinny, why can’t I be like you?” And while they may have thought of those things as compliments, it only brought themselves and everyone else down, subjecting us all to a toxically competitive environment.
While I certainly already had body image issues coming into high school, this kind of behavior only made it worse. By the eighth grade, I had been skipping lunch for almost a year and started engaging in other detrimental habits. I was 90 lbs, but that wasn’t good enough for me. I was working toward something, but it would never be good enough for me.
This article is not meant to call out those women from my high school or blame them for my body image issues –– I certainly engaged in the kind of toxic, self-deprecating behavior that they did and thus fed into the competitive culture at my high school. Rather, this article is a call to womxn everywhere to stop putting ourselves down. When you put yourself down, you are not only doing a disservice to yourself, but to everyone around you. When you tell yourself you aren’t good enough, you perpetuate a harmful culture of competition that we all know too well.
Eventually, the idea that I wasn’t good enough controlled me. I felt in control of my habits, but really, these negative thoughts started to control me. I started fainting probably due to not eating or drinking enough, and I realized that my health would be put in significant danger if I didn’t stop what I was doing.
I saw a therapist starting in the ninth grade. Talking to someone outside of my circle of friends about body image proved to be extremely helpful. My therapist never compared me to anyone else. Those sessions were all about me and what was going on inside my head. She made me realize that my body image and behavior involving body image had become a serious problem, and something that I had to work on to become healthy again.
High school was hard. It seemed as if everyone around me was “better” than me, even though I knew I had good grades and my doctor told me I was a healthy weight. The problem was that my idea of “better” was not actually better, and that was the biggest thing I had to work on changing.
I eventually drifted away from that friend group, and while that ended up being a good thing for me, I truly hope that those womxn found ways to get better, too –– truly better, not their idea of “better.” When I graduated high school, I had no idea how much happier I would be in college. There was a pretty low bar, so when college turned out to be more amazing than I ever could have expected, it did wonders for my mental health. One big factor that helped was that my new friends were empowering instead of degrading.
I just finished my first year of college and I am so grateful to have found friends who lift each other up. I was pleasantly surprised when my new friends would say something like “You look so pretty!” and not follow it with a self-deprecating statement like “I am so ugly.” The sense of ever-present competition that followed me through high school began to fade away. There is no need to compare myself to my friends or vice versa –– we are all beautiful.
I have one piece of advice to anyone who struggles with body image: Surround yourself with people who lift each other up instead of tearing themselves and others down. In my experience, those who are the hardest on other people are also the hardest on themselves. We, as womxn, need to break away from this toxic cycle of competition for which the only prize is lower self-esteem.
This society was created by men for men –– particularly white, cisgendered, heterosexual, Christian men. And while it’s important to remember that men are also negatively affected by body image and disordered eating, it’s womxn who are disproportionately affected. Disordered eating also disproportionately affects transgender people, and people of color are significantly less likely to receive help for these issues. We need to stop giving in to a society that tells us – especially those who are already marginalized – to hate ourselves.
As I write this article, I can’t help but notice a bit of hypocrisy. How can I, a woman who just six months ago bought a scale for my dorm room to track my weight, write about body positivity? Well, it’s something I have been working on for years and will continue to work on forever. Improving body image is no easy feat. It’s so easy to fall back into old habits and thought spirals, and yes, I do constantly find myself having those negative thoughts that I am trying so hard to get rid of. It’s a process, and you can’t be too hard on yourself.
It’s especially hard to let go of these thoughts when friends might say something that they don’t realize is harmful, but is. For example, college students have a weird obsession with sharing how many meals they skipped or slept through and saying things like “I’ve been so busy that I haven’t eaten all day!” If these statements come from a place of distorted body image, then I hope you will read this article and internalize my main point about not bringing yourself and others down and get better. But if these statements are just things you say without realizing how harmful they can be to someone else, then try saying something like “I’m hungry. Do you want to get dinner with me?”
By writing this article, I am by no means telling anyone to stop doing things such as exercising or eating healthy. In fact, we should all be exercising and eating healthy as much as possible. What I am saying is, don’t let these things define your self-worth. Keep redefining what your idea of “better” is. Make sure that “better” means healthy in whatever way is right for your mental and physical health.
One of the women in my friend group at college confided in me that she also struggled with body image in high school in similar ways that I did. I am happy that we are able to go on journeys of self-improvement together but it also makes me wonder just how many other womxn at my college and all around the world have dealt with these issues. We are all in this fight together, and we need to remember that the fight isn’t against each other but against harmful thoughts and behaviors that we have been bullied into engaging in due to a toxic culture of competition. We need to remember that we are all beautiful.