‘My mom said I was ‘ballooning.’ I was in 4th grade. She’d implement some new weird food rule for my ‘health.’: Woman is ‘blown away’ by body positive community, ‘I learned to love myself’

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“Stepping off the scale, I felt nothing but shame, disappointment, and frustration. The number wasn’t what I wanted it to be. What I worked so hard for it to be. But I was doing everything right, wasn’t I? Eating 500 calories a day, no cheating. Drinking all the nasty powdered water and making sure I had a full gallon a day. I was working out. I was even taking those repulsive drops under my tongue every morning. I was doing all of these things, so why did I still feel so worthless? ‘Why am I still fat?,’ I asked myself. I was 10.

Courtesy of Emily Clarke
Courtesy of Emily Clarke

I was in fourth grade, in the middle of my first, but certainly not last diet. Leading up to this though, before we took such extreme measures, were countless doctor’s appointments, awkward family dinners, and so much internalized body shame.

At the many doctor’s appointments, my mom would explain that I was ‘ballooning.’ She would rationalize that I was eating everything my thinner older sister was eating, but still gaining so much weight. Maybe she thought these words would go over my 5, 6, and 7-year-old head. Maybe she thought I wasn’t smart enough to hear what she was really saying: ‘My daughter is broken, how do I fix her?’

Every doctor’s appointment would end, and my mom and I would go home as she would inevitably implement some sort of new weird food rule that was recommended to us. Family dinners were the worst of it. My mom, dad, two sisters, and I all sat around the table, pretending to enjoy and see the benefit of these rules. Whether that was chewing our (my) food a certain number of times, making sure to place our (my) utensils down after every bite, or cutting out an entire food group for our (my) ‘health,’ the whole family would do it with me, in some sort of forced support. They did their best to comfort and encourage me by doing these things, but I felt that they hated it just as much as I did. And for that, I felt like 1% comfort, and the rest was straight-up guilt and shame.

Courtesy of Emily Clarke

Fast-forward a bit to me as a semi-adult, I had just turned 19. In the span of 14 years, I’d done countless diets and ‘lifestyle changes,’ and had at least tried just about every food rule and restriction you can think of. Yet there I was, still ‘overweight,’ literally very depressed (but didn’t know it), at the peak of my eating disorder, and feeling hopeless. I felt guilty about how much money my parents had spent on these failed ventures. I felt shame about the fact that not only was I not able to keep the weight off, but had gained back more each time. I felt failure and loss because the praises of my family, friends, and neighbors had gone silent. I was no longer losing weight, what else did they have to praise me for?

But it was there, in that despair, that my life started to change. It started with me scrolling through Instagram, no doubt comparing myself with every beautiful human on there, only further damaging my self-esteem. But then I came across a plus-size woman’s account and was… kinda blown away. In all of her pictures, she was smiling, wearing whatever she wanted, and WORKING it. Her photos were unfiltered and untouched, much unlike my own because it hurt too much to take a selfie without layers of filters–ranging from flower crowns to puppy noses, and any skin blurring, face distorting option in-between. Feeling her soul through these photos and empowering captions, my heart knew what to do: instant follow. Then I came across another account, talking about something called body positivity? Her posts were beautiful, bright, and spoke so much truth and peace to my soul. Another instant follow.

Again and again, I would soak up this knowledge and light from so many accounts. They were run by everyone- from professional therapists to Health at Every Size dieticians, to fashion bloggers, and normal humans. They were all educating me about learning to love myself and heal my relationship with my body and soul.

And slowly, so slowly, I started to believe them. I started to implement their words. Positive Affirmations? Scary AF, but okay. Learning about the impact of Diet Culture? Hell yes. Start to feel and embrace my feelings? Okay, I guess repressing and lashing out wasn’t really working anyway. Implementing Intuitive Eating? Holy sh*t, I never knew my relationship with food could be healed like this.

Something in me felt the light and goodness of this new lifestyle compared to the prison I had felt trapped in most of my life. I was free to embrace my body, to love and actually look at the woman I saw in the mirror instead of darting my eyes away as quickly as possible. I was free to leave behind the idea that I’m a ‘before’ picture because I was beginning to understand that my body is in a constant and beautiful state of change and growth.

And friends, something magical started to happen. I not only loved my body, but I loved… me. I started to see the true capacity of what I had to offer the world. I loved my talents and gifts, as much as I loved my imperfections. I accepted myself as I was, and made taking care of myself, and my mental health, a priority.

Courtesy of Emily Clarke
Courtesy of Emily Clarke

Not being so consumed with thoughts of food and shame made room for bigger and better things. I started exploring art and realized holy hell, I’m actually really great at it! I started recognizing how I can instantly light up a room with my smile and laughter. I realized not everyone is great at listening, but I am. I can be the best mother-freaking listener you’ve ever known! And when I stopped caring about people’s opinions of my body, you best believe I learned to dance my cares away, often while belting out the song at the same time.

I even asked my friend Rachel, a massively talented photographer, to take pictures of me. This was a radical moment for me because it was an opportunity to reframe the way I felt about myself in front of a camera. I showed up with outfits that made me feel beautiful, outfits that I had been too afraid to wear in the past. Rachel created a safe and empowering environment for me to feel beautiful. I was GLOWING, and it showed. I decided to be brave and vulnerable all at once, and share those pictures for the whole Instagram world to see. I wrote about how much I had changed, and how much I finally truly loved myself. Because of this, women I had known for years, who in my eyes, were deemed too perfect to struggle with things like body image, told me that my story resonated with them. They too said they were struggling, and needed my words and my story. I realized that we were creating a community. I realized that’s what love can do.

Rachel Naegle Photography
Rachel Naegle Photography

Love has turned some pretty terrible life experiences into beautiful chances to learn and grow. Love turned the sadness and betrayal I felt by my mother into empathy. I now know she was doing the best she could with what she knew. And I recognize that she had so much love for me, even though I didn’t recognize or understand it. I also have more empathy for the friends, family, and neighbors who praised me solely for my weight loss. I now understand the sad lens they were viewing life through at that time. I don’t blame them. It has been so ingrained in our culture, they were probably constantly worried about their own body and appearance so that’s all they could see in me too. Now all I feel for them is love, and a hope that they will learn to see life through a more beautiful lens as well.

I am in awe of the power love has to build and connect a growing community, to tear down shame and guilt, and to help us embrace our callings in life, whatever they may be. Love, education, and a community of powerful women, who know they are more than a number on a scale or the size of their pants, are changing lives. These women are coming to understand themselves as the powerful beings of beauty and light that they are. And now I understand that I am one of those women too!

I am a woman who supports and encourages others to embrace themselves and to come as they are. I do that beautiful, always sincere, and empowering ‘Instagram thing’ every day. And this community? We’re growing. We support, lift, and inspire one another to feel comfortable being authentic and vulnerable. We encourage each other to make space to love ourselves so that we can then send so much more love back into the world.

My friends, love is changing my life, and I know it is changing yours too. You’ve made it this far, and there’s something inside of you that can feel that. We all crave the light and freedom that this love can provide. We are all learning to trust ourselves and listen to the part of ourselves that knows exactly what we need to do. That part of us knows exactly how to love, we just need to listen. So when you need a listening ear or help finding that voice, I’m always here. So much love, your friend, Em.”

Rachel Naegle Photography
Rachel Naegle Photography
Rachel Naegle Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Emily Clarke from Ogden, Utah. You can follow their journey on Instagram and Facebook. You can also follow them on their website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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