‘YOU’RE going to run? Your boobs are going to hit your face.’ I went to see a plastic surgeon at 16.’: Woman overcomes years of negative self image, ‘If you’re not feeling good on the inside, you’ll never feel good on the outside’

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“I know when someone from another generation reads this, they’ll probably roll their eyes back and think, ‘Ugh, millennials,’ which is okay. I can’t force anyone to think a certain way. All I can do is try to connect and reach out to others to help them understand how we as millennials feel, or how I feel as an individual. I think we just want a better quality of life. And we feel like we achieve this by speaking about how we feel, standing up for ourselves, and making sure we really take care of ourselves mentally and physically.

This piece I’m writing is touching on how things in my life affected my mind, body, and soul and how I’m trying to achieve feeling comfortable from within. So, let’s start from the beginning – or at least, my earliest memories of my mental health and physical body issues – so other generations can see how important our childhood is, and how our minds, bodies, and souls are so well connected.

Courtesy of Jessica-Leigh Kelly

I don’t look like anyone in my family at all. They’re all light-skinned, with light hair and eyes. I’m dark-skinned and haired, thanks to my genes from my father’s side, who are Egyptian. As a child, you don’t pay too much attention to this, because it doesn’t really matter to you. It only matters when someone comments on it. I realized that usually when a child points something out, it’s because a parent or elder has probably pointed it out first. This isn’t something I say coming from my own memories, but I’ve seen it first-hand from teaching young children in Thailand (more on that later).

Courtesy of Jessica-Leigh Kelly

I went to a primary school mixed with different races and cultures, which as kids, we all embraced. Naturally, as children, we wonder why people are different physically. However, wondering about someone’s differences is never a malicious act. And like I said, our differences were pretty much embraced. What wasn’t embraced so much by some older children, were specific features of mine. I had a bully who I remember clearly. I’ve seen him around every once in a while up until now (I’m 24), so I guess I’ve never had a chance to really forget him.

I was teased because my eyebrows grew together, I had hair on my legs, and I had a ‘flabby tummy.’ To this day, I’ve never ever had a ‘washboard stomach,’ even at my lightest weight. But it didn’t stop there. My boobs started growing before all the other girls’ in my grade, which added to the list of things people made fun of me for. And by this time, it wasn’t only my main bully.

I ended up becoming so self-aware of my body, I refused to do sports because of a specific incident before I was about to run for our athletics day. A boy I actually had a crush on said something along the lines of, ‘Haha, you’re gonna run? Your boobs are gonna hit your face.’ As a child, how are you supposed to respond to something like this? Heck, I even had a teacher respond to an urgent question of mine with the words, ‘What, you mono-brow child!?’

Courtesy of Jessica-Leigh Kelly

Just a side note – as a child and as humans, we all say silly things sometimes, and put our foot in our mouths. I know I have done so plenty of times. These words are what stuck with me over the years. I’m in no way trying to live in the past, because I’m sure these people aren’t the same as they used to be and have probably changed positively. Apart from children and the odd teacher saying silly things, so many of my mom’s friends would also constantly feel the need to comment on my weight and stomach.

I do love them dearly, and I know they meant well. They were only like this because they were groomed to believe if they, or anyone else, weren’t of a certain look or weight, then the world was going to end. It was the era of ‘big hair and cocaine skinny.’

Anyways, since the athletics day, I shied away from any physical activities because I was so self-conscious. People would think it was because I was lazy, but it really wasn’t. I do have my lazy days, don’t get me wrong. But the majority were because I was too scared to move and be myself, just to end up being teased.

My primary school years go by with being constantly reminded of all my physical flaws and being told, ‘Those people are just jealous.’ When I speak about those times I’m told, ‘Well, it’s made you stronger, hasn’t it?’ And yes, it has. But I’m pretty sure there are healthier ways to make people ‘stronger.’

The way my ‘mind and body’ were connected during this, was me working through some anger management and anxiety issues. I went to see a psychologist. I think I just wanted to be heard, you know? Suffice it to say, I’m all good now, except for some minor road rage sometimes (which I’m not entirely proud of – haha).

Fast forward to high school. I wasn’t really being made fun of, but people would blatantly point out how big my boobs were and how chubby I was every now and then. To add to all this, puberty blessed me with severe acne. I got put on acne medication (which I am on again as I write this). I cried after leaving the dermatologist. The thoughts in my head were, ‘First my hair on my body, then my boobs, then my acne. It’s not fair. Why am I so ugly?’

Courtesy of Jessica-Leigh Kelly

I got over being put on my acne medication and started to feel more confident. The struggles of shopping for bras and clothes are still there. But wait! Time flies by and I’m going to see a plastic surgeon! I went to see my plastic surgeon at 16. I barely said anything, and he told me everything there was to know about me within 5 minutes of sitting down.

Courtesy of Jessica-Leigh Kelly

He starts with my weight and cup size. Hits the nail on the head! Then he talks about my posture saying, ‘You sit crouched with your arms crossed because you’re self-conscious and trying to hide your body.’ He tells me he’d like to operate, but only once I’m 18. Since I’m overweight, he wants me to lose some weight before the surgery. My low self-esteem is slowly going away because I have a breast reduction to look forward to!

The April just before I turn 18 is here, and I get my surgery done! I feel on top of the world. I still have a little belly going on and I’m not perfect, but I felt so good – free and excited to go to the shops and get bikinis and bras that don’t look like something made from a badly designed curtain. I’m growing, living my best life during university, and feeling content.

I only managed to complete one year of my studies in sound engineering. I decided on that major because I wanted to be in the music and events industry (I still do). But it ended up being too technical and scientific, where I’m a more ‘artsy-fartsy’ person.  By the end of my first year of university, I got into my first serious relationship. It got serious very quickly. Not only was I in a relationship, but I was working at my then boyfriend’s live music venue.

I was in love. Not only with him, but the venue. I’d found my passion for events and live music. This was where I was meant to be. I’d been going to his venue almost every weekend for a few years because I loved it so much, and we became friends. Being with him made sense. I was in love with the venue and everything he created here, so being in love with him came naturally.

Eventually, we were not only working together, but living together and owning a dog together. (I know I make it sound like I had a baby, but if you’ve ever had a dog, you know they have a special place in your heart). We were like a power couple running the venue. It was pretty much a tourist attraction. People wouldn’t only come to the venue for the venue, they’d come to see us!

Wow, was I in my element. Planning amazing events and making connections with different artists and people was a dream come true. My mind, body, and soul changed drastically. I’d be working crazy hours most days, running up and down, barely eating, and not really being healthy.

I lost a whole lot of weight during that time and would tell people, ‘I’m just really active,’ which I truly was, from running up and down the venue. ‘I make sure to eat healthy,’ when in fact, my diet consisted mainly of alcohol. Obviously, so many people commented on my weight loss. This was the smallest I’d ever been in my life. And I think subconsciously, I’d gotten the feeling of validation when I’d lost so much weight.

Courtesy of Jessica-Leigh Kelly

This is why I think it’s so important not to comment on someone’s weight loss, because they can instantly feel like they’re only valid if they’ve lost, or are at, a certain weight. Not only was I physically unhealthy, but mentally I was on a roller-coaster. My relationship ended up being toxic. Not just with my ex, but with his family too. I’m not going to go into detail, because I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to turn people against them, but I found myself in a situation where I wasn’t surrounded by truly good people.

One thing I will give specific details on, is an example of mental trauma. One night, a ‘friend’ (we aren’t really friends anymore) came to the venue and got really drunk. He was starting to get aggressive, so I called his parents to pick him up and drive him home, since he couldn’t. As I was walking him out, trying to keep him from antagonizing the other customers and bouncers, he put me in a headlock and strangled me. I was in tears because this person hurt me. This person, who I trusted, hurt me.

All I wanted to do was go home. I was emotional and obviously not in the best mood. Instead of being taken home, I got told by my boyfriend, who KNEW what just happened, ‘You need to stop being sh*tty to everyone just because you’re in a sh*tty mood.’ Oh, alright then. I’ll just embrace the fact someone I loved just hurt me physically, and someone else I love hurt me emotionally and doesn’t actually care for my well-being. Cool.

In the end, I stood by the quote, ‘Your vibe attracts your tribe.’ Those people were not my tribe.

Sometimes I wish I got out of the relationship earlier, for the sake of my mental health. I think I stayed so long because I was so in love with my career. I also feared losing everything.  Eventually, I moved out with no money, no job, no dog, and, to add to that list, not many friends. Everyone who said, ‘We’re still your friend, and we love you no matter what,’ didn’t stick around for me. It was literally a breakup with everyone and everything in my whole damn life.

So here I am, in the worst mental state of my life. Thinking horrible thoughts like, ‘Maybe if I were dead, someone would care.’ I honestly never had the guts to do something that would end my life though. And this is something I’ve probably only told one person in my life, because it’s such a sensitive subject. I have people dear to me who have lost someone to suicide, or also had severe mental health issues, so I could never bring myself to talk about it. I’d think, ‘Jess, you’re so selfish. This person has been through enough already,’ or ‘They’re going through so much emotionally that you need to be there for them.’ This is how I was conditioned to think in my previous relationship.

I know for a fact, people who don’t know me, who don’t understand, think, ‘It’s just a breakup. Get over it.’ But it wasn’t about a boy. It was about losing a whole lot at such a young age. I’m still young and have my whole life to live, I know. It’s about trying to recover from being broken down so much you don’t know who you even are anymore. For months, my life consisted of battling depression, eating, sleeping, and being unemployed.

Now, to add to my mental health issues, I picked up a whole lot of weight. I would never leave the house because I didn’t want anyone to see me and how I changed. I would feel guilty every time I ate. I’d feel like I’d ‘failed’ when I’d eat something, and then I’d start to binge because, ‘Jess, you already messed up.’ I mean, what else was I going to do in my time? And if it wasn’t me feeling like someone was thinking, ‘OMG, she’s picked up so much weight’ while I was out, it was me trying to escape every second person from referring to me as ‘Jess from said venue’ or ‘Jess, said ex’s girlfriend.’

I was defined by my weight and by my ex. I was never defined as ‘just Jess.’ And believe it or not, this still carries on up until this day, and it’s been literally years since I was with him. But luckily, it doesn’t bother me too much anymore. I eventually found a job and saved up money to go to Thailand. I lived there for 9 months and slowly started recovering from this whole mess – from these horrible things I’d say to myself. I became more active and more confident within myself.

Courtesy of Jessica-Leigh Kelly

I met so many people from all over the world who are strong and confident, which made me open my eyes! Being in Thailand was a breath of fresh air. I was ‘just Jess.’ I was happier than before. I was in love again. In love with Thailand, in love with all the people I met, in love with the children I was teaching (I know, a totally different industry from the entertainment and music industry). I was being loved, and I was slowly falling back in love with myself.

I, unfortunately, had to come back home to SA, which broke my heart. I’d do anything to go back there, but I’m just going wherever the universe takes me. Despite my heart being broken, the mental and physical health issues I’d been recovering from were nowhere near what it was like the previous years before.

I’ve been back home for about 2 years now, with some travels in between, and now we are all stuck at home due to COVID. There are still some not so nice people out there – people who will do anything they can to hurt you because they have nothing better to do. But I’m slowly starting to block out those people, and I’m becoming less of an enemy to myself than I was before. The feeling of guilt every time I eat something is slowly fading away. The feeling of failure is slowly going away. People’s harsh words are going away, and my own harsh words are slowly going away.

Courtesy of Jessica-Leigh Kelly

I’m not the most sensitive person, and I have a pretty good sense of humor. But the repetitive comments about my body, my boobs, my belly, and my cellulite, get annoying and old – like when you’ve heard the same joke 10 times and it’s not funny anymore.

I guess what I’m trying to conclude here, is our mind, body, and soul are all connected. If one part of us isn’t feeling good, then the rest of us won’t feel good. No matter what you look like or how much you diet. If you’re not feeling good on the inside, you will never feel good on the outside. No matter what weight you’re at (your weight does not define your validity). People will say things to hurt you and your reputation, but that says more about them than it does you.

So, get out there and do whatever makes you happy (if you don’t hurt someone intentionally). Say no to being around people who hurt you. Say yes to eating that cookie, taking that picture, and wearing what you want. Say yes to your tribe who loves you. Say yes to patience and self-love.”

Courtesy of Jessica-Leigh Kelly

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessica-Leigh Kelly of Pretoria, South Africa. You can follow her on Instagram. 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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