****Trigger warning: Sexual assault, self-harm*****
When I applied to Mount Holyoke and a slew of other colleges two years ago, I was going through quite a bit. The supplemental essays in my applications showed it. I struggled to find a way to explain how hard things were at home other than to pour myself out in these essays. I wrote about cutting all of my hair off and going natural when I turned fifteen. I wrote about my brother’s psychotic break. I wrote about living in a single parent home and the financial difficulties we faced. It was uncomfortable explaining myself to anonymous admissions representatives but, like every other nervous and unsure high school senior, it was necessary for them to “understand you as a person.” What made me most uncomfortable about the process was the fact that they did not have context. I was forced to limit my life to between 250 and 500 words. How could you possibly understand an entire being by reading a quarter of a page about their life?
During this process of picking and choosing bits and pieces of myself to present to schools, I went through a half-year reflection period. What I found when reflecting on my short lifespan was not pretty and sent me into a state of severe depression. I had discovered that -- until arriving in college -- there was not a point in time under which I could truly say that 1) I felt safe and secure in my living environment; 2) I was happy with myself and who I was as a person; 3) and I could share every facet of my identity with someone and still feel worthy of their respect and time.
When I was younger, I used to jokingly say that I had a hard childhood but that wasn’t entirely untrue. In particular, one of the hardest parts of my life was dealing with my weight. The issue with it spawned from many other problems I found myself struggling to balance. After I was sexually assaulted by two different family members at different points before I turned ten, I turned to food. In my family, we had a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” So while some turn to self-harm by cutting, or under-eating or running away after enduring trauma, I became a fat child with a binge eating disorder. It wasn’t taken seriously by my family and instead it was labeled as “simply overeating.” I started rapidly gaining weight after elementary school; always feeling taller, darker and bigger than my peers caused the disorder to become worse over time. It took a toll on me to be so visibly different and I coped by eating my feelings. I guilted myself into eating but yet felt guilty after eating. It was a never ending cycle.
At home, it was just my mother, brother and I. My mother worked double shifts and late shifts to take care of both of us by herself so I spent a lot of time with my brother, who was four years older. He had become incredibly hateful and a raging bully around the time he turned thirteen. After a while I just accepted that I was to be made fun for my weight and how others perceived me both in and outside of the home. I started wearing dark and baggy clothes to hide myself. I was a huge fan of hoodies and sweatpants. Anything that hid me from the public eye I took to like a duck to water.
Internalized hatred sneaks up on you like that. I felt like an anomaly while it seemed like other girls were able to be comfortable with themselves (though I would later find this not to be true). I tried my hardest to reject the harmful ideas of others but it seemed like every day I was being dug deeper into a hole with every comment on my body, lifestyle and future. Soon it seemed like the hole was about to collapse in, and more than once, I considered taking my life. The only thing that held me back was the promise of doing something greater than what other people claimed I was destined for. I kept telling myself I couldn’t wait until I could rub success into the face of others. And it worked, keeping me around to see another day.
After my fourteenth birthday, I made a Tumblr account and within a few months discovered the “fat positive” and “body positive” community. I felt a strong repulsion by how they dared to love themselves and confusion with how they all claimed to be proud of who they were. I thought it was a cover-up for more self hate. And it was. Many of the people in this community were in the “fake it until you believe it” state-of-mind and soon I joined them because I was enraptured by newfound confidence. With time I began to love myself and discover what it means to actually do that.
Loving myself meant not feeling guilty for when I got hungry. It meant to stop eating when I got full. It meant to understand that my weight may never end up in the “normal” BMI range but that I was still worthy of love and of being happy with who I am. Fat was not the worst I could be. There were plenty of other things I could focus on when it came to bettering myself. I increased my knowledge of things I was initially close-minded on or strayed away from for fear of persecution. I developed a case of wanderlust that I plan to remedy one city, one state and one country at a time. I am currently dating someone who makes me feel calmer, more beautiful and freer than I’ve ever been. I have a love for activism and for changing communities that will never die. I’m improving my relationship with my mother every day and I’ve cut off those who have made it clear that they don’t care if I’m happy or not. I can safely say that I’ve made progress but I can realistically say I’m not finished yet.
Self-love is a long, cynical process. You often convince yourself that you are not worthy of it or that all negative outcomes stem from overreacting. Despite what may be said and thought by you or others, it is not impossible to love and take care of yourself. It comes in a range of forms, from sleeping in for a few days to forcing yourself to finish stressful work to showering. There are so many people willing to help you through everything. You just have to find them and reach out to them. Self-care is not a dependent process, but it is not solely independent either. It is a constant reminder that there is so much waiting for you on the other side.