Toxic Beauty Standards
“When I first discovered body positivity, I was in the middle of a secret eating disorder, family trauma, and severe untreated mental illness. The community and resources in body positivity provided me with a lifeline I desperately needed.
Growing up, I was showered with praise from my parents. I was the prettiest and the smartest, and there was nothing I couldn’t do. But despite their affirming words, I saw how my mom lived her whole life on diets, which seriously impacted how I viewed myself. My self-image became even more damaged as I reached my early teen years and multiple incidents confirmed just how unacceptable my body truly was to others.
I remember being in a local community theater production, sitting with my peers and all of them bragging about how small their pants were. They boasted of being size zeroes or extra-extra smalls, and still needing belts because their pants, even at those sizes, were way too big. I sat there silently, praying no one would ask me what my size was, never having been less than a size 14.
A well-meaning Sunday school teacher would bring me Weight-Watcher snacks after she discovered we were both on the same diet. I was 12 years old. This was also when I switched to Diet Coke instead of ‘kid drinks’ like Sprite because it was fewer calories.
At church camp, a group of friends and I stood reuniting in our cabin, and the conversation shifted to how much weight we each wanted to lose. I watched a perfectly beautiful, lovely friend go from saying she never diets to talking about how much weight she needs to lose in a matter of minutes from the influence of the body shaming of those around her. We were all taught that ‘modest is hottest,’ which resulted in convincing impressionable girls that female bodies are shameful, need to be hidden, and of course, the cause of sin.
Mix all of that with relatives mocking anyone they deemed a ‘good candidate’ for weight loss surgery, the ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ vibe of the early 2000s, and it was little wonder I spent most of my teen years flirting with bulimia and being on a never-ending train of diets.
Ironically, I was diagnosed at age fourteen with PCOS, a syndrome which makes weight loss nearly impossible. Yet the most common medical advice to treat PCOS is to lose weight. And yes, that is every bit as frustrating as it sounds.
As I entered college, I was determined to be thin. My flirting with bulimia grew into a full-fledged relationship. I slept as much as possible and threw up what I ate in the middle of the night. If I was caught, I blamed it on ‘low blood sugar.’
By the summer before I started college, I had lost around 40 pounds. When I returned to church camp that year, people who had ignored me before suddenly wanted to be my friend. Everyone had questions about how I lost so much weight. My response was always the same. ‘It’s easy to lose weight when you stop eating!’ I’d say with a laugh and lighthearted manner so no one would take it seriously.
In college, I weighed myself every day, all day long. What my weight was after lunch controlled what I would eat for dinner, and if I would throw up later. I even took my scale on vacation to Florida. My saving grace, in some ways, was my parents’ divorce. That time of trauma for our family meant that I no longer had the strength or focus for my eating disorder. And because of that, the weight flew on.
I started working near full-time hours at a job that had a long commute. In that job, everything about my appearance was discussed constantly. My hair, clothes, nails, makeup, weight, breasts, if I was wearing perfume—every single aspect of my appearance was a topic of conversation. One night after work as I walked to my car, I discovered that someone had found my car and written in the dust, ‘Honk, if you like fat girls.’ That was scary.
Finding The Body Positivity Movement
On Instagram, I began to see the pioneers in the body positivity movement. I was immediately fascinated and began to follow more accounts, read articles, and research. I even completed a body positivity market analysis project for an advertising class. In doing that project, I learned that standard sizing was based on white women who needed money during the Great Depression and that only 5% of women naturally have the body type that is seen as ideal by pop culture.
A turning point came when I was 22 and doing homework with a classmate. He let me know that if I ever wanted to find a husband, I would have to become more demur, submissive, and water down my personality. That night I took a photo and posted it on Instagram, along with a caption sharing the conversation I’d had with that classmate, and how I rejected the idea that I needed to become less than I was to get a guy to like me, and I told the world that I was perfectly fine how I was.
I am still so proud of how well the post turned out. The response was small, but very supportive. Best of all, I had found something that I loved! I continued sharing my struggles, highs and lows, and the process of learning that my body is a good place to be. On Instagram, of all places, I found a community of people who shared my experiences and accepted me without question.
Battle With Mental Health
Despite my advances in body positivity, I was still struggling with mental health. It ended up taking me six years to earn a four year degree. I’d like to say it was because I was working so much, but truthfully, it was my mental health. I used to work two 12 hour days on the weekends, followed by oversleeping and missing my classes on Monday. Missing classes led to rampant anxiety, worrying about failing and what the professors would think, until I became unable to physically make myself go to class. I spent hours in bed.
If it were not for my support system of people helping me and sometimes dragging me to class, I never would have graduated. My depression and anxiety were unmanageable, and I was barely functioning. I kept thinking that once I got out of college, it would get better. It did not.
Less than six months after graduating, I wasn’t sleeping for days, crying uncontrollably without reason, and having panic attacks almost daily. This all came to a head the night before Christmas Eve. Around four in the morning, after crying for hours, I knew I could not go on like this. I decided to make an appointment with my doctor.
After having my appointment and getting an official diagnosis of anxiety and depression, things started getting better. I learned about the depression scale, where a zero meant a balanced mood and a ten meant being suicidal and in need of hospitalization. I came to realize that for much of my teen and adult life, I had been at a six on the depression scale, mixed with some really bad days plummeting me to a nine and a half. After three years, a few different medications, and seeing multiple doctors, I finally found the combo that worked best for me.
Becoming immersed in body positivity has truly changed my life and my brain. According to a study by Florida State University, plus-size models showing realistic representation actually improve women’s mental health. If you view images often enough, your brain begins to perceive them as normal. By changing your Instagram feed, you can essentially reprogram your brain.
Besides getting medication, the single best thing I did for myself was to actively change what the world told me was normal. There were many moments where professors, medical professionals, or even those in my life ignored the hold my eating disorder and mental illness had on me. But there are so many more moments where the people who love me fought to make it turn me loose.
My sister spent a good part of her college career taking care of me when I could not take care of myself. A best friend spoon-fed me cheesecake when I was having a hard time eating. My dad called multiple times a day when I lived alone to make sure I was still breathing. A photographer gave me a chance to model when hours earlier I had been called a whale online. My mom deep cleaned my depression pit over and over. My platonic life partner spent many nights sleeping in my room because the anxiety was trying to swallow me. My college bestie stood up to her own mom on my behalf, even when she wasn’t strong enough to stand up for herself. My cousin made sure I had access to accessibility resources at a theme park. And of course, my dog licked the panic attacks away.
I won’t pretend like it’s not still hard, some days impossibly so. But those days are now the exception instead of the norm. And when those bad days do come, I have the weapons to not only fight them, but to defeat them. I have built a life I love, a career that is my passion, and a platform to help others. I promise there is hope, and it will get better. You are loved, worthy of help, and deserving of happiness no matter who you are. And take your meds!”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sarah Becht of Chattanooga, TN. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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