“When I was a kid, children’s stories and movies were all about being perfect to fit in. In my favorite childhood movie, The Little Mermaid, Ariel felt like she had to change everything about herself in order to live happily ever after. Sure, by the end of the movie the evil Ursula was caught and Ariel gets Prince Eric, but no one ever talks about how she had to be a completely different person to get him. She traded her fins for legs in order to live happily ever after.
As a young girl growing up in the 90s, I was deeply influenced by the subliminal messages being told to me. I needed to be perfect in order to be happy, and if I wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t happy. I either had to find a way to achieve that or be forever miserable as an unloved imperfection. Up until the age of 9 or 10, I looked like all of the other skinny blonde hair, blue-eyed little girls. When puberty hit, everything changed for me. I began to gain weight, along with hair in new places. This was the first time that I felt different from everyone else.
My older brother made it his mission to point out each and every flaw on my new body. I didn’t know then that it was his way to try to get people not to look at his own flaws. Society had unspoken rules for boys as well, but for a chubby preteen girl, I could only see how unfair life was becoming for me. I can honestly say that my brother was the only one pointing out my weight, but it was enough to make me feel like all eyes were on me, and not in a good way. In my teenage years, I hid behind baggy clothing and hoodies to feel like I was blending in, or at least not standing out as badly. Now, as an adult, when I see kids acting like that as I sub in their schools, I feel almost a sense of responsibility to tell them how amazing they are. That they don’t need to hide behind extra fabric. I know it would have meant a lot to me to have heard that growing up.
In high school, I didn’t have any boyfriends, unless you count talking to boys only online. I felt like the only way I could really be seen was through my words on my computer. When anyone would take my photo, I would put something over my stomach to hide it or if it was a group photo, I would hide in the back. Looking back at these photos now just makes me feel sad. I was so afraid to be seen. I was so afraid to fully live. All of this, because I had been taught my worth was based solely upon my body.
I remember when we would visit my grandparents for the weekend or a holiday, I was always shamed for how much I ate. My grandmother would always point out when I was eating a second helping as if I had committed some horrible sin. This just made me want to eat more. Food was comforting, even if I knew it was a part of the problem. I would sneak food to my bedroom at night so I could feel the comfort without any of the guilt or shame that came with other people knowing I was eating more than what they felt I should eat. I don’t know if I began eating more because of the shame of gaining weigh from puberty or if puberty made me hungrier. Either way, I was hiding my guilty pleasure and feeding the negative cycle in my life.
Looking back on my teenage years, I can see now how much I avoided just because I was afraid of other people’s opinions of my body. I should have auditioned for the lead role in the play, instead of only going after the small parts. I could have auditioned to sing a solo in choir or gone to the beach more with my friends. Not all bodies are beach bodies according to society back then. I would swim in a shirt and shorts most of the time. It felt awkward and uncomfortable in the water, but at least I was keeping myself from the harmful stares of judgement to show off any of my skin.
College was a change for me emotionally. I started to get attention when I was wearing low cut tops. It was the first time I realized that my cleavage was powerful. Breast fat was the one acceptable fat for society, and I was learning how to use it to my advantage. Sure, I still wasn’t comfortable with most of my body, but I was now happy to show off that ‘good fat.’ I married my college boyfriend the day before I graduated. He was the only person in my life who made me feel absolutely comfortable naked. The way that he looked at my body was totally different than how I had always looked at it. Every curve was like an exciting rollercoaster for him, but for me, I was just getting sick on the ride. I may have been comfortable with myself around him, but I definitely wasn’t comfortable with myself around anyone else.
Looking back though old photos, I realized I purposely became the only person to take photos. I needed the control of what was being saved for the world to see. Unfortunately, this meant I was missing from so many photos. Even now, when I look back at my wedding photos, I cringe a little at how I looked. I couldn’t afford a photographer, so I only had photos taken by people who were there and none of them knew my good angles. Once the selfie came along when phones got forward facing cameras, I was able to take photos of myself, and I could control exactly how they looked. I was now in photos again, but only the top half of my body and only at the perfect angle. I was so ashamed of my stomach fat, double chin, thick thighs, etc. that I had begun completely eliminating them from history by never having them in any photos.
Throughout our relationship, my weight fluctuated, especially with each pregnancy. I actually lost weight at the beginning of each pregnancy and each birth. It all came back eventually, but for those moments, I felt like I was more attractive when there was less of me. As my children grew, I made sure to constantly tell them how amazing they are exactly the way they are. I did not want them to see life the way I did.
Spreading Love Through Teaching
I became a teacher, just like my parents, and it was my job to make sure students not only knew the content, but felt good about themselves as well. I took that as a personal mission in a way. Every student who I encountered needed to feel cared about and seen by me. I wanted to be for them, something I didn’t have at their age. I could see a huge difference in the children I taught after they knew their worth was way more than a score. Yet, I was still telling myself that my worth was still based on my body. I may have been preaching the good word of self love, but I wasn’t living the life.
In 2019, after a few years of dealing with pain and doctors acting like I was lying for prescription drugs, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I felt devastated by the news. Not only was my body not good enough from the outside, but it was beating me up on the inside as well. I hated my body even more at that point. A diagnosis of an incurable chronic illness is like being handed a life time torture sentence. I even gave up my teaching career due to the symptoms, but I couldn’t stay away forever. My love of helping others was too strong to just stay in my own pity party forever. I began to sub for my children’s schools, and I went back to my mission of helping others see their true beauty and self worth.
It would be easy to end the story there, and say my life was lived for the mission to help others, but I was still hurting so much inside. This year, during a separation in my marriage which was very painful to deal with, I began to embrace my sexuality. To my surprise, I got a lot of attention on dating apps. I only used the perfectly angled selfies which made me look attractive and hid as many flaws as possible. What surprised me even more was how the men looked at me when I went on dates. There wasn’t any disgust in their eyes like I assumed there would be. Instead, I could see how excited they were to be near me. My husband and I got back together and have been continually working on our marriage, but those experiences changed something in me.
After years of hiding myself, I began to take more and more photos of myself. I created a separate Instagram account to show myself I am not alone in this self love journey. I wanted to encourage other people to embrace themselves exactly how they are, but the biggest goal was to let down the walls I had built up about my body. I started out with just sexy selfies, and was getting a lot of attention. Most of the attention was coming from men who wanted to see all of my body for their own pleasure. I wasn’t used to that kind of attention, but I was enjoying how it made me feel. For so long, I had hidden so many things about myself so I wouldn’t stand out, and now I was so happy to be standing out and getting all of the attention.
After many selfie posts, it was now time to do the harder emotional work. I had to share photos other people took of me that weren’t in the perfect angle, or even photos I hated of myself. It has all been a work in progress. Sharing parts of me I wouldn’t normally share is scary, but liberating. I have felt so vulnerable sharing photos that show barely any skin, but isn’t in an angle that I like, and I feel absolutely comfortable showing photos with a lot of skin showing, but it is posed just right.
I enjoyed being seen as a sex symbol for a moment, but the real work is being seen as a genuine person. Too many times, we see photos of people online and we just judge it. We don’t think about the real person in the photo. This process was really been an eye opening one. When I first started embracing my body, I thought I had to go to an extreme in order to do it. I opened an OnlyFans account and was fully prepared for what that meant. Fortunately for me, you can only get people to pay for your OnlyFans account if you pay a lot of other people to promote you. I happily closed the account and started looking at how to find self love in another way.
Now I am focusing on baby steps of sharing the parts of me that make me feel unworthy. No part of me or anyone else is unworthy of love. We have to undo what society has taught us in order to see the truth about life. We are all humans who deserve love, kindness, and respect. It takes just as much energy to build someone up as it does to tear someone down. If everyone would just treat each other the way that they want to be treated, the world would have a lot more happiness and self love.
My body positivity self love journey is not even close to being over. I am going to keep pushing myself past my comfort zone and not apologizing for it. All we really need is love. Love for ourselves. Love for each other. Love for humanity.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Heather Gonzalez of Fayetteville, Arkansas. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her website. 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.
Read more body positivity stories:
‘I was attracted to you before you put on weight.’ It broke me. Now he’s dating a woman half my size and 15 years his junior.’: Woman works to be body positive after being fat-shamed, urges ‘You matter and you are enough’
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