Learning to Love My Body

03/25/2015 05:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015
Françoise Rachez Photographie via Getty Images

I was a chubby child, but I didn't really know it until someone pointed it out. The summer before the sixth grade, mother nature paid her first monthly visit. I entered puberty, and as a result, my built changed. I went from a pudgy, awkward kid with buck teeth to a lanky one with braces and a training bra.

On the morning of the first day of school, I received "compliments" on my new appearance. Old teachers and parents of classmates asked if I had lost weight. "Continue the exercise, you look beautiful," one mother said while patting my shoulder.

I was confused by this comment. I remember thinking, Was I this ugly duckling that suddenly transformed without knowing it?

During recess, I walked into the girl's bathroom and stared into a mirror. At 12 years old, I became aware of my body, and by 15, I started hating it.

I weighed 128 pounds, which was healthy based on the BMI range for my height. But I was too big for the media and my family's liking. At family gatherings, relatives never failed to mention that they were thinner than me at my age. I felt like my body wasn't good enough.

I was bombarded with images of incredibly thin women and a collection of fad diets showing up in everything from fashion magazines to movies and TV shows. At the time, I wasn't really aware of the different shapes and sizes that women came in.

By media standards, there was only one size that was acceptable. So I went online to find extreme ways to lose weight. I bookmarked "thinspo" (thinspiration) blogs and constantly checked the scale. I skipped meals and ate off small plates.

At 16, I took my diet too far. I shed pounds to go from a size 4 to a size 2 for a high school dance. As I zipped up the back of my pink chiffon pleated dress, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I felt like I was finally beautiful.

However, the dance was anything but fun. I was weak from the lack of food, and I could hear my stomach growling louder and louder. It seemed to overpower Kelly Clarkson's "Since You've Been Gone," which the DJ randomly played after playing rap and hip-hop songs.

I wish I could say that I made this up, but maybe it was a sign. "Is the universe telling me to head over to the snack table?" I thought. I headed over to the long table filled with bowls of pretzels, chips and licorice. As I grabbed a few of each, a parent tapped my shoulder from behind.

"Wow, you are so skinny now. Feel free to grab more food," she said with a smile. As I walked away, I heard a few parents talking about my "skeleton-like" appearance. I was dumbfounded. It didn't matter if I gained or lost weight; I was always going to be body-shamed. When the dance was over, I went home and cried.

One day after I came home from school, my mom looked me dead in the eye and said, "I'm going to make lasagna and you're going to eat it." Lasagna is one of my favorite comfort foods. I never told her about my diets, but I think her mother-senses were tingling, because she gave me a lecture on eating disorders.

I cried a little inside each time I took a bite of the sausage and ground beef lasagna with its creamy tomato sauce. Oh, how I missed food. The noodles were tender and each layer was filled with three cheeses: ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella. I'm salivating just thinking about it.

After finishing three plates, I went to the upstairs bathroom. I took a good look in the mirror and recited to myself, "I AM beautiful!" From that day on, I stood in front of the mirror each morning repeating that quote until I no longer had to say it.

And you know what I realized? Other people's opinions don't matter if you feel good about yourself.

I stopped starving and started eating again. I watched The Food Network without guilt and got back into cooking. I started taking better care of my body.

Women come in all kinds of beautiful shapes and sizes. Girls should never feel like their bodies aren't good enough. I was never going to fit the media's beauty standards or my family's, and I finally realized that's OK.

It's been almost four years since high school, and a lot has changed. I'm in a much healthier weight. I don't have braces anymore, and I don't starve myself. Yes, I have stretch marks, and sometimes I'll get bloated from eating too fast. But I feel amazing.