Growing up, I can remember a handful of times in which I would express a longing for a physical attribute I wanted to change. I wanted icy blue eyes like my grandmother's, but instead I ended up with muddy brown-green eyes that I was convinced looked like duck poop. "Ughhh! Why can't I have blue eyes?!" I would whine to my mom, who would respond, "You're lucky you have eyes, and eyes with which you can see!" When I stopped growing at 5 foot 7 inches, I wanted nothing more than to grow three more inches so I could be a better basketball player. "You're lucky to have legs!" my mom would say. And I would roll my adolescent, not blue, eyes and hiss, Whatever.
These exchanges were quite rare because I seldom expressed outwardly my disdain for my physical appearance, but they have stuck with me. As someone who, from a very young age, never felt completely at ease in her own skin, I figured it was normal to feel that way. Besides, my flaws were so flagrant, I thought, why complain? It would just make the people around me feel uncomfortable, and I certainly didn't want to be the cause of that. Instead, I decided I would just fix the problem. The "problem" was more or less everything about myself that could be seen by the human eye, or so I thought. Little did I know at the time that the problem was not in how I looked, but how I felt about myself.
This has not been a feeling I simply outgrew as quickly as I did my two-month career playing T-Ball. Learning to love myself has proved to be the greatest challenge I have undertaken in my 25 years of life, and it has not come naturally. No-sir-ee. Having to go to war with one's own mind has to be one of the most difficult experiences there is, but I can assert that self-hatred is not a good alternative.
An eating disorder caused me to sacrifice everything on account of the belief that my worth was dictated exclusively by my appearance. I was heading straight for the grave with a headstone that read, "Here lies Xtina... she was thin." Morbid? Totally. But at a certain point, a huge motivator in my recovery became the awareness that my capabilities and potential, even in the most basic sense, were going to waste as long as I was fighting my healthy self, or quite bluntly, dying.
A couple of years ago when I was a patient on an eating disorders unit, the only mirrors available were those that would just reflect the shoulders up. Initially, it drove me into a fury of panic as I worried my body would undergo dramatic change overnight, and how would I know if I morphed into Shrek without a mirror?! But after a few months it began to click -- I was feeding myself properly, I was not exercising compulsively, and eventually maintaining a healthy weight without turning to unhealthy measures to do so. Sans mirror, I had to focus on what my body did for me rather than how it looked, something that three years later I am still practicing.
I have had to consciously challenge negative thoughts with positive ones, similar to the way my mother did when I was little. For example, on the days I am bothered by my arms, I remember that without my arms, I could not fulfill my greatest passions such as writing, painting, playing the piano, or poufing my hair. During moments I may be unhappy with my legs, I remember that they have allowed me to travel around the world and enjoy over 20 years of dance (at times on top of bars, because YOLO).
In response to the pressure to be thin, society often tells us, "real women have curves." In doing so, it has created a dichotomy between curvy and thin, and pit the two against one another as if there were not 7 billion other body shapes and sizes in between "curvy" and "thin" that make up the beautiful, diverse, colorful world in which we live. A real woman, or a real man, for that matter, lives in harmony with her or his natural, healthy state. That may be curvy, and that may be thin. Maybe it's something in between with purple cornrows and a handlebar mustache. You do you. A person's "realness" does not necessarily increase with his or her number of curves, and similarly their power and worth do not increase with degree of thinness. Realness comes from being comfortable in one's own skin and creating a life worth living.
Throughout my 12-year battle with an eating disorder, my body has fought to keep me alive when it would have been just as easy to give up and give out. My body loves me so much that it has healed me time and time again, forgiven me, and given me countless mulligans. I have fought long and hard for every pound and ounce of my healthy self, and it deserves to be defined not by its shell but to be loved unconditionally by the big heart and brave, weird soul it houses.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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