Illustration by: Melody Wong
Illustrated by: Melody Wong

Making Peace With My Body in the Middle of a Pandemic

Content Warning: eating disorders

During the first few months of the pandemic, I lived with my extended family. Like many people, I was working from home, so why not work near my loved ones? It was incredible, except for the fact that my uncle is the best chef I’ve ever known, and my aunt, grandma and I basically turned the house into a wine bar. Don’t get me wrong, good food and drinks every day? It was a dream. I wore leggings and baggy sweatshirts for months, just enjoying quality time with my family. My makeup lay untouched, and I couldn’t remember the last time I styled my hair or wore jeans. Nobody cared how I looked or what I ate. 

The not-so-great part? Coming back to reality when I went home.

A Pile of Jeans and the Breakdown That Started It All

Illustration by: Melody Wong
Illustrated by: Melody Wong

On my first night back at my apartment, I made the mistake of trying on my jeans. All that delicious food, wine and months of not working out had caught up to me. I sat on the floor, surrounded by pants that no longer fit, and cried. And cried, and cried, and cried. Before opening that drawer, my self-worth was intact, but now it lay scattered across the floor with the rest of my closet. I was quite literally surrounded by a symbol of our society’s beauty standards. How did it come to this? I had just spent three blissful months with my family, and I never once thought about that drawer of jeans. So why did I suddenly care so much? 

That’s when I realized my body and I were in a long-term toxic relationship. One minute I loved it, and the next, I was disgusted by it, spewing out insults and putdowns in my head. So when did this vicious cycle start?

Over the years, my weight, health and relationship with food have fluctuated with the ebbs and flows of life. Whether it was losing 20 pounds during an anxiety-riddled breakup, gaining weight from out-of-control stress eating or struggling with body dysmorphia, my body never felt right — it never felt mine. 

Sitting there on the floor surrounded by denim, I realized it was time for an intervention with myself. I wanted to make peace with my body for good, but where do I even start? Well, in the words of Julie Andrews, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

College, California Girls and My Closet Mirror

Illustrated by: Melody Wong

Ahh, college — the place we get to discover ourselves and shape who we want to be for the rest of our lives (or so the rom-coms always told me). College was the first time I had complete control over my life — over what I ate and how much I worked out. Midnight snacks? Yes, please. Second helpings in the cafeteria? Absolutely. No mandatory P.E. or training for sports? Hell yeah. At least, that’s how it felt until I started to gain weight. 

College was also the first time I began to form strong negative feelings about my body. 

I had always been pretty fit in high school and I had a fast metabolism, so I never worried about what I ate. But then I got to college, and my body began to change. My mom liked to say I was finally coming into my “womanly figure” (eesh, Mom), but I felt like I was just losing control over my body. Plus, I was surrounded by skinny girls in bikinis (thank you, Southern California weather) who looked like they spent hours in the gym every day. 

At the same time, Instagram was more popular than ever. I spent my free time scrolling through pictures of tiny, smiling sorority girls and influencers. It felt like I was the only person on the planet who wasn’t a size zero. I’d never worried about my weight or the size tag on my jeans before, but suddenly it was all I cared about. 

As a result, I spent what felt like hours every day standing in front of my closet mirror and stressing over every tiny flaw. When did my thighs get so big? Have I always had that roll on my stomach? My abs looked so much better yesterday when I skipped lunch. I should definitely only eat salads and spend more time on the treadmill this week. 

It became a compulsive obsession. I was constantly bombarded with these toxic thoughts that served as a reminder of (what I perceived to be) my shortcomings and mistakes, until one day, I truly hated my body. It didn’t happen all at once, but gradually every day, as I passed the mirror, scrolled through social media and compared myself to every girl on campus. My mind began to warp and twist the image I saw in the mirror until I could barely stand to look at myself. I felt as though my body would never measure up to those around me. 

The next three years of college carried on this way with lots of highs and lows. There were months when I was ashamed of my body, avoided tight clothes and stress-ate as a result of the pressure to fit society’s “beauty mold.” You know the one: the flat tummy, curvy hips, thigh gap, toned everywhere type of body plastered all over Instagram. 

But then, there were the weeks or months in between when I felt good about my body. Whether I was getting into a regular workout routine or eating healthy, my body and I worked out our differences and lived in the honeymoon phase. This vicious cycle carried on, and on, and on.

Squeezing Into Society’s Beauty Mold: Size XXS

Everything changed during my senior year when I went through a bad breakup. My anxiety was at an all-time high, and I was living through the worst season of depression I had ever experienced. While I didn’t intentionally starve myself or purge, the anxiety and grief had taken control of my life. Trying to eat was pointless; my appetite was gone, and anything I ate just came right back up. I spent more time in the bathroom than anywhere else and lived on crackers and a few bites of toast every day for months. 

Then I started to lose weight. Dresses and pairs of jeans that hadn’t fit in years were suddenly loose. I felt giddy. I was the most unhealthy I had ever been, both physically and mentally, and I was somehow rejoicing over it, reveling in it. I was at my weakest point, but I didn’t fight it. I wanted the weight to stay off, to see the numbers on the scale keep dropping. 

It was as if this weight had been lifted, both metaphorically and physically. I no longer had to stress about gaining weight or what I ate. I had finally escaped the constant pressure of societal norms to look a certain way. I gave myself a gold star — I made it! But what did it cost me? My mental health, physical well-being and even my ability to just get through a day without overwhelming exhaustion. The only thing I cared about was the way my body looked, and I had completely tied my self-worth to it.

When I finally began to heal from the breakup and the constant nausea subsided, I started to eat again. And, of course, I began putting back on the weight I’d lost. I felt out of control. Everything I had tied my identity to for the past three months began to slip away. My body was begging me to nourish it, and I resented it. I felt like I wasn’t strong enough to skip meals; I wasn’t committed enough to keep the weight off. Every time someone told me that I was looking healthier or that color was coming back to my face, it stung. My body had betrayed me, and I was too weak to do anything about it. I felt like a failure.

Looking back now, I realize that the only time I ever felt like I was meeting society’s expectations was when I was emaciated. Something is very wrong with that statement. No, scratch that; something is very wrong with our society’s beauty standards.

Drafting a Peace Treaty With My Body

Now that we’ve established society’s beauty standards are fucked up, why am I still living by them? And how can I make strides to unlearn what I’ve spent my whole life believing? Let’s be clear: I don’t have all the answers. I’m no self-love guru, but I just know that I have to start somewhere, so I’m drafting a peace treaty with my body. Here are my terms:

Remember that society is fickle.

In the early 2000s, society was all about having a stick figure and zero curves. But when the Kardashians came to pop culture power, curves were suddenly in. Hell, we’ve seen society’s flippant opinions about the “ideal” body type throughout history. During the Italian Renaissance and in ancient Greece, round, full bodies were all the rage. The Roaring Twenties gave the nod of approval to boyish figures and small chests. The history geek in me could go on for days. So what is the point of placing my worth in something so temporary? So volatile? Society’s view of my body might change, but I’m stuck with myself forever. I might as well learn to love what I see. 

Don’t expect perfection.

Healing, both physically and mentally, is going to be messy, imperfect and frustrating. I’m not going to make peace with my body in a day or two just because I want to. Trying to be perfect and have the “perfect” body is what got me into this mess, so why would I expect my healing process to be perfect? There will be days when I’m frustrated with my body or fall prey to society’s beauty standards. I get that. I just need to give myself grace.

Would I want my future children to feel this way?

If I have children, I never want them to hate their bodies or believe they’re not enough like I have. I owe it to them to lead by example, to show them what it means to love yourself and to teach them how to see past society’s shallow and impossible standards. The only way I can give them that example is if I truly make peace with my body. Thinking about children I don’t even have yet might sound strange, but it helps me consider how my actions and perceptions could directly impact my loved ones. Plus, it helps me check in with myself. Would I want my kids to feel the way I do today? If I don’t, that’s okay. It just means there’s still work to be done. 

Leave the past where it is.

I’ve been thinking back to that night on my floor surrounded by jeans. In that moment, I felt like I had failed, like all of those months I spent with my family were a mistake. But that’s so far from the truth! Would I want to take back that quality family time? Do I wish that I hadn’t spent all of those nights listening to my grandma’s stories about our family history over a bottle of wine and a tub of ice cream? Would I pass up any of the incredible meals and conversations we had over dinners and backyard barbecues? The answer to all of these questions is no, never. Those months were such a beautiful gift. Could I have been a little more conscious about what I ate and how active I was? Absolutely. But I can’t change that now, and I wouldn’t take any of it back, so why am I dwelling on the past?  

If I had been hyper-focused on my body and living up to society’s expectations during those months of quarantine, I would have missed out on building relationships, loving my family and supporting each other through the most brutal year of our lives. I wouldn’t trade that for the world or a size zero. Ever. 

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