‘Love Letters’ is a Petal + Sass blog feature that regularly asks a group of diverse women in their 20’s and 30’s about their experiences with health, sex, emotional wellness, body image, college, careers – and what they wish they had known themselves as teenagers. Visit the ‘Love Letters’ To My Former Self page to learn more about the contributors.
Question posed: How did you feel about your body as a teenager? How has your body changed over the last 10 years? Has your body perception changed as you got older?
Miss Lilac: As a teenager, I felt really awkward about my body. When I entered high school I resembled a dodge ball with toothpicks sticking out of it, but then sprouted 4 inches and dropped 20 lbs by the end of sophomore year. This was not for any real effort, just how things went. However, that early phase awkwardness defined how I felt about my body from there on out. I was surrounded by girls who were naturally skinny (and some who were not so naturally skinny). I became really aware of the fact that my stomach would never be as flat as so and sos. As I entered college (and beyond) this same feeling has kind of stuck with me. One thing that happened to me was that I went through a self-diagnosed “puberty the remix” when I was 20. I went from being the happiest B cup in the land to suddenly having pretty big boobs. Even though me and the girls have been together for over a decade now, I still struggle with them (especially when they’re pointed out to me by others). Flash forward to today, and there are times where I’m more accepting of my body. Even now, though, I look in the mirror every single morning, and assess the size of my paunch and suck in and wish it looked a little flatter. Alas, I’m not willing to give up french fries, and so it goes…
As I get older, I have come a little bit more to terms with my body. These days I just try to love on it (man, is that hard or what?). There are things I do actually love: my legs, mostly. Right now I’m kind of having a moment with my butt. However, there are a million things I would change. To counter that, I try to wear clothes that make me feel great. This is due to 1. my love for all things fashion and 2. the rise of candid photos. I photograph well about 20% of the time; the other 80% I think “is that what I really look like?!” I have this weird photographic memory about outfits and if I can remember how great I felt in them, I don’t really think too much about how it was captured on film and convince myself it’s just a bad angle.
Miss Rosebud: How was my teenage body image? Delicate. In high school through my early 20s, I put a lot of effort into maintaining an unsustainable weight. Fluctuations of 1 lb would make me feel either very fat, or attractive. (Reality: my “base weight” was around 105, so I certainly was not fat). I tried to keep my caloric intake to around 900 calories a day, which, as I’m sure you can imagine, made me a dream to be around mood-wise.
Lord knows what the root causes were. Probably a mix of being “in control,” not accepting/knowing how to work with my body type (I’m petite, but not stick thin and do have a bit of a booty!), and generally just being young.
How has my body changed? Pregnancy was a bit of a doozie! I’ve recovered from that as best as I can, but things are certainly different. And, as with most things, I’ve mellowed a bit. I still take pride in maintaining my weight (which is much healthier these days, thank you). I pay attention to what I eat. But, frankly, I don’t have the time or the interest in being quite that obsessed. First of all, I’ve realized that people don’t think about you nearly as much as you feel they do (i.e. no one gives a damn about you but you). I have other things in my life more that deserve more of my attention. I have a husband (who admittedly may give a bit of a damn!), a son, and a career. As long as I look good and feel good, I’m not going to be a sour puss all day because I was .4 lbs up that morning.
Miss Bluebells: I always felt like the “ample” friend in my high school circle of friends, but when I look back at photos now, I see that this was largely a post-pubescent self-hating delusion. Sure, I could have “toned it up” a little more in 9th grade, but “toning it up” wasn’t exactly a thing at that age. It was more like, “don’t eat,” and that was not a viable solution for me in the cafeteria on chicken patty day (or pizza day. or taco day.), or when my best friend would come over on a snow day to watch MTV and pop open a can of orange jalapeno cheese dip by 8am. When I actually did start eating healthier by junior year (the salad bar was all you can eat, which appealed to me much more than a single serving of fried chicken with a stingy pale fruit cup), I dropped 10-15 pounds without even trying. A rumor began circulating that I was anorexic (I had never been the center of a rumor, so this was admittedly a little exciting and I adored saying “That’s crazy, I wish I was anorexic!’ with feigned outrage). The truth is, you hate yourself in high school when you’re a little ‘on the fluffy’ side, but others hate you in high school when you drop the fluff and grow some tits. You can’t win, you can only try to feel good about yourself in your own skin.
My “fluffier than thou” perception, oddly enough, persisted throughout my 20’s. I just saw myself as the bigger girl in most peer-group situations. And now, every single photo I now see of myself from my 20’s, I think “Wow I looked amazing!” I have come to realize that there is a huge difference between “body shape” and “body fat.”It’s pitiful. I wish I saw myself then as I do now. I missed out on all of that sincere inner confidence.
Surprisingly, I have come to really love my body “in the present” since giving birth, when I am definitely 10 lbs heavier than I used to be. And not because I think “rah rah my body is a temple I pushed a human out of my vagina.” Maybe it’s just because I feel genuinely happy in my life now? Whatever it is, I’m certain I look killer in a bathing suit, and I feel better than I ever did in my teens and 20’s.
Miss Hydrangea: As a teenager, I didn’t think too much about my body. I was a size 0-4 and my biggest issue was that my boobs developed overnight. Seriously, it was as though I went to bed an A cup and woke up a C cup. I also always had a bit of a belly but I wasn’t overly concerned with it.
Over the last 10 years – man. It’s been something. I got to college and realized just how diverse body types can be! I was starting to get “curvier” and more reliably in the 2-4 range. That was REALLY hard for me. I had always seen myself one way and then all of a sudden my belly was an issue. Being a size 4 was soul crushing. For a while I became a “social dieter” – if I was out with people I had a salad in order to fit in. When I was by myself or with close friends I ate normally. I played sports in college so I worked out a lot and and food became fuel, I drank protein shakes and was probably in the best shape I had ever been in.
When I was in graduate school, working two jobs, my eating was totally rubbish. It wasn’t until I saw a picture of myself with a double chin that I knew something needed to be done. I started working out with a trainer and he asked me what my goal /ideal body type was. I responded that I just wanted to be thin again. He looked at me and said very matter-of-factly, “Your healthy body type is ‘Athletic.” I just about died. Muscles? Weight training? Ugh. I was not about that life. Bye, Felicia. Slowly though, I have come around to being more athletic and having “meat on my bones”. I actually loved going into the gym and lifting more than the guy next to me.
Where I struggle now is losing those post-baby pounds. It’s very hard- mentally and emotionally (yes, physically). I breastfeed exclusively so my breasts are HUGE, and I am constantly forgetting to eat – or opting to sleep instead of eat – when I have the chance. Having a little one who sees you as a role model, I try to eat my veggies (still hate them), have a balanced diet and am just recently getting in shape so I feel better, more comfortable in my skin. It’s funny, right now athletic body type sounds amazing as opposed to what I’m working with now (not skinny, not super fat, just squishy) but in time I will get where I need to be…or so I tell myself.
Miss Magnolia: I felt great about my body as a teenager and learned to hate it. I’d wanted to fit in and complain about my body like the other ‘L.L. Bean-type” girls, so I would say things like: “Ugh look at my cellulite,” or “I wish my hair was smoother.” Then I really did start looking at my body and notice how hairy it was or how I was lumpy in certain areas. I noticed this stuff pretty early on and would occasionally dress boyishly to hide it all. And then, worst of all, I began to look to boys to approve and like my body.
Ten years later, I’ve gotten softer and thicker, but Beyonce has made it acceptable so I flaunt it more. As I get older I care less about looks and more about how I feel: Meaning, do I feel healthy? Am I panting when I go up one flight of stairs? And if so, I better get my ass to the gym again. Do I feel strong or weak, do I feel flexible when I’m doing Beyonce’s signature high-kick? Things like that matter to me more now. But I won’t lie to you; there is the occasional whisper in my ear that I should be thinner, less hairy, and bigger boobed. But the other voice is just louder.
Miss Peony: In high school, I was never happy with my body. I was always thin, but I had a lot of friends who complained constantly that they were too fat, and hearing that really affected me. It reminded me constantly that ‘thin was good.’ My mother also used to remark about how much she weighed when she was young, noting how small her wedding dress was, and how she was under 100 pounds at that time. At 115 pounds, that always made me feel inadequate.
I went through a brief period of having an eating disorder in high school where I dropped to under 100 pounds. Controlling what I ate felt very empowering at the time, but the long term effects can be terrible.
I have spent a lot of time trying to overcome my body issues as an adult. I finally felt blissfully unaware of my body in graduate school. I was so focused on intellectual pursuits and honing my mind that the circumference of my arms seemed unimportant. Now I think about my weight and appearance a lot more than I did then. Someone always wants to talk about weight and size and “healthy” (which can be code for thin), and I have a hard time not engaging. I try to keep reminding myself that my brain is what matters.