What I would tell my younger self about body image

Excerpt:

I decided to start a thread of articles on this topic because one, I feel confident in what I am saying given my own experience and two, it is prevalent as I sit in quarantine and pick apart the way I look and how that reflects my current state of mind. As well, I know that body image, home fitness and mental wellness are relatable popular topics in today’s current environment. Daily lives are changing in this pandemic and people are forced to learn and adjust to new ways of being healthy and active with limited physical resources.

To My Younger Self:

Having some form of body image issue almost feels like a rite of passage for a young girl. It’s as if we are all required to go through a period where we body shame ourselves or have judgement passed on us before we even fully develop. Why has society pressed into our brains this diet culture and obsessiveness over being thin? At least that’s what it used to be when I was a kid. Now it’s not that you should be thin, in fact, you can’t just be thin; you have to be fit, but not too muscular and thin in the waste, but thick in the right places, and then somehow have the confidence and mental capability to accept your body with all its flaws. Even now that we’ve graduated as a society from needing a thigh-gap to accepting a more diverse range of body types, the way a woman’s body look is still harshly criticized. More importantly, for the girls who have grown up and struggled to learn to love their body, that seed was already planted and that battle with the mirror remains ever present.

Some girls have a taste of it and for others, it’s a more severe experience that impacts the way they think about their bodies throughout their entire lives.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, mine was the latter. Body image has been a monumental chapter of my story, and as life continues, it’s obvious that this theme keeps reoccurring. The one extremely important detail that I want to point out right away is that as time has passed, the way I react when a negative thought about my body crosses my mind is tremendously different between then and now.

That right there is the significant distinction from someone who has recovered from an eating disorder and from someone who is still recovering. I’ve studied and read up a lot on different types of eating disorders in young women and the effects that they have and I can say this: someone that has recovered will never always love their body, it is how they handle the moments when they don’t love it that makes the difference.

I’ve briefly touched on my experience with body image issues in other articles, but I think it’s necessary to reiterate the important stuff for those of you that aren’t aware of my background.

I am a professional ice skater that performs on Royal Caribbean cruise ships around the world; well at least I do when the travel and arts industries aren’t at a global standstill. A few months ago, I returned home after being stuck out at sea at the start of the pandemic (you can read about that experience in three parts, here). For now, I am back at home living a temporary life while I wait to get back to doing what I love.

At the peak of my competitive ice skating career, I was an impressionable fifteen-year-old, mislead in nutrition, and obsessed with competitive progress. I had an advisor of sorts, you could say, that saw something in me, wanted to explore that for their own personal gain and without real knowledge of what they were doing made a mess of my body, my competitive career, and most importantly, my self-worth. I dropped from a muscular and healthy 125lbs to a frail 90lbs in a short few months. Keep in mind, at that time, I was already about 5’5. I lost all of the skills I had worked so hard for.

I was exploited by influence and abused by my own mind.

Now, having an eating disorder doesn’t necessarily mean, I over-exercised or threw up what I ate. I had Anorexia Nervosa, which by definition is “a physical and emotional illness where an abnormal fear of being fat leads to unhealthy behaviors”. Every day I was consumed by the voice inside my head that was constantly telling me, “you’re too big”. When my eating disorder was spiked, I was criticized for what I was doing, when I wasn’t even aware I had a problem yet. I was told, eat only this much, make this part of your body smaller, workout this way, and you’ll be a “machine of an athlete”. That’s what I wanted, so to me it seemed simple and harmless.

However, when it got out of control, I was seen as worthless and weak. I was told that my body was the reason that my worth was lost. This isn’t some misdirected, jumbled interpretation, this shit is verbatim. I was told by others that I was a problem, not a person. I was looked down upon, felt bad for, and completely misunderstood. I went from being a role model to those I skated with, to being someone that parents called “a pathetic excuse that didn’t deserve to be an athlete”. Parents, not just their children; but grown adults telling a teenager that their body reflects what they have to offer directly. Why? Well I’ve surmised it was a mental ploy in the competitive game given that it came from skating parents of the “advisor” I had. Really all that doesn’t matter anymore, but I wanted to paint a clear picture of my experience; this was what every day looked like.

It took years and everything in me to pull myself together and finish my competitive career off decently. I was weighed in everyday by my family and coach to make sure that I didn’t drop below 100lbs again or they would put me into a mental institution. I don’t blame them, in fact, I’m grateful that they stood by me, fighting back tears watching me disintegrate. I struggled to eat again and find the beauty that I had to offer. I didn’t find my worth in men, I didn’t find it in friends, I found it in countless hours of putting in the work to have a healthy relationship with food and fitness.

It was quite an exhausting journey becoming confident in my appearance, understanding all that I have to offer, and unlearning the relationship between worth and appearance. I am still working on knowing that especially on the bad days. While I am well aware that the person I am today would be vastly different without that time in my life, there are a lot of things I wish I could have told my younger self to help a lot of the pain. If you’re still on that journey to accepting your body or just need a little reminder, maybe these things can help.

I’m not going to sit here and simply say to just love your body flaws and all that what is within matters. Although that is true, its not a snap-your-fingers easy fix. Coming from someone that struggles with body confidence, that advice is flat, generic and not really very helpful. It sounds really nice but that’s not the world we live in. Whether you want to admit it or not, you notice someone first based on their appearance, plain and simple. How you interpret the way they look and what value you put in that is entirely up to you. It’s quite interesting because I closely tie my own worth with my appearance, but my perspective on body image isn’t propelled onto other women, hence I don’t have those thoughts or interpretations of their body. (Side note, it’s never anyone’s place to have a say about your body, but I’m talking about personal thoughts). Maybe it’s because deep down I know that there is so much more to a person than their body so I only harshly judge myself? I’m not sure, but I’m working on appreciating and being kind to my own bodies, the way I am about others.

No. 1: Your worth is not defined by your body

The most important thing I wish I could’ve known when I was going through an eating disorder as a teenager was that my worth didn’t and would never diminish depending because of my appearance. That thought has consistently been difficult to unlearn. We can all recognize what we’re good at, what we’re known for, or if not that, at least what we believe we offer the world. However, when we feel down about one aspect of our lives sometimes it can transfer to how we see ourselves in another way. For me when I’m going through a low point, my physical appearance is the automatic target. If I don’t feel as good about myself internally, I don’t like what I see on the outside. When I recognize this, I force myself to come back to reality; acknowledge it’s a bad day and not let my worth be defined by what I think I see in the mirror.

No. 2: Desire to be healthy and strong, not a certain weight

That point brings me to the next point: have a desire to be healthy and strong, not a certain weight. Having goals and wanting to look a specific way or have the energy and ability to do particular activities is not a bad thing. What becomes a problem is when you put a number to it and have harsh restrictions on how to get that way.

You’ve probably heard many times that “muscle weighs more than fat” or you know someone that is extremely fit and you’re surprised by how much they actually weigh. If I could’ve told my younger self this, I would’ve saved many days of crying in front of the refrigerator. Get rid of your scale people, you don’t need it. Measure yourself a different way by what you are able to accomplish, how your clothes fit, and how you feel. I will give you a personal example of why this is so important from someone that struggles with body image.

I have body dysmorphia, meaning I do not look at myself in the mirror and see an accurate depiction. Instead, I’ve learned that whatever I see is an altered interpretation of how I feel. Meaning, when I’m feeling down, I pick apart every little improper indent, unsculpted muscle, stretch mark, the list goes on. However, when I’m feeling confident, staying busy and feeling good about where I am at in life, I see a different body, one that is strong and beautiful. When I was stuck on the ship, eating poor quality foods, stressed and missing my family, I felt completely out of shape and overweight. I looked in the mirror and saw something entirely unlike what I see now when I look at pictures. I look back and notice how tiny I was during those few weeks, which makes sense because I was barely eating and getting proper nutrition, due to the situation. It’s crazy because that’s not at all what I saw during that time. All that to say, learn the way you see yourself and figure out how to measure the way you look without numbers on a scale.

No. 3: Celebrate your beauty

This is one of my favorites. Do not be afraid to love yourself on the days that you feel radiant and confident. Hype yourself up for all the hard work you’re doing. Compliment your friends for the way they look. We all love the to be admired, so be sure to do that for yourself on those good days.

No. 4: Find a healthy way to maintain and achieve your desired body

As an athlete, it is important for me to maintain a healthy weight and stay in shape. My body weight fluctuates whether I am on tour performing or at home practicing and working out. There is always that transition phase from when I come home and rest and when I get back into training mode that I have finally learned to accept. I’m always trying to better my appearance through healthy eating and workout out, but never diets anymore; rather is a lifestyle. Whatever you need to do that works for you, make sure it’s a sustainable healthy way to achieve your goals. If it’s a temporary fad, it will only be a temporary solution.

No. 5: Life is about balance

I wish my younger self could see me eating a pizza in Italy one moment and doing a two-show heavy cardio day the next. I would tell the younger me that it’s all about balance. Enjoy the culture, the good foods, the moments you want to enjoy, and combat that with physical exercise. Be healthy and strong, and enjoy the life you’re given the opportunity to live. Being on tour, skating on a cruise ship has been the best experiment for a life of balance, where I am happy with the way I look and what I am doing; enjoying the food and enjoying putting in the work. Learn how to balance what you love to eat with a physical regime that keeps you body positive.

No. 6: Your beauty and value doesn’t drop next to another beautiful and successful woman

Dear teenage Samantha, look up to other women that are beautiful, talented, and successful and when you get older and meet one of them, understand that their beauty and success doesn’t diminish yours. This is incredibly important for young women to learn and understand. So often we compare ourselves to other women in a negative way. It is important to start understanding that just because someone else is gorgeous or someone else is talented, doesn’t mean that you all of a sudden aren’t all these things. Guess what, you can both be beautiful and capable women, how great is that? Stop comparing and start appreciating and surrounding yourself with more women you admire; the people you surround yourself with directly fuel your energy.

No. 7: Rephrase the way you talk about your own body

This is important for several reasons: 1) it can be harmful to how you view yourself and 2) it can be hurtful to others around you. I used to always say how fat I was because I genuinely believed that, but also because I wanted someone to turn around and say “no you’re not”. What I didn’t realize was how I was constantly reinforcing that idea into my own head. Not to mention, I was making those other people around me who were bigger than me think “well if she thinks she is fat, then what does that make me?” I wish I learned earlier how inconsiderate and hurtful that was. What I am learning to say now when I feel insecure about the way I look is “I’m not where I want to be for me”. Because I am currently not on tour, I am not in as good of shape as I am when I’m performing countless shows a week. I know that for an average person they’d think otherwise, but for me, where I know I can be and what I want to be, it isn’t my prime. I’ve found that in speaking this way about your own body, you’re reinforcing the positives, identifying that you want to improve, and not shaming other’s bodies along the way.

My hope is that this perspective has been helpful into wherever you are in your journey and has also given insight into more of who I am. I hope this normalizes that everyone goes through ups and downs, and learning to love your body and all that you have to offer is a constant journey.

If you know or think you know someone that is struggling from an eating disorder and have any questions, feel free to comment or contact me for more personal insight. Here are also good professional resource for more information on body image and ED:

The Eating Disorder Foundation, National Institute of Mental Health, ANAD

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