I was 11 years old. My brother and I were visiting family members in Puerto Rico for the summer. I was so excited to spend time with my grandparents, who I hadn’t seen in years. They lovingly greeted us at baggage claim and escorted us to their car.
My hair was curly and cut very short. My mother had decided to cut it off after my third case of head lice. I was very self-conscious about being mistaken for a boy, which had happened on several occasions. I didn’t want to look like a boy in front of my grandmother, who I always thought was one of the most beautiful women in the world. So I wore my prettiest floral dress. It came to just above my knees. It had a collar and had to be buttoned from top to bottom. It was a little snug, especially around the chest and hip area, but it was still my favorite thing to wear. No one could mistake me for a boy in it.
My grandmother was very loving and affectionate when she first saw me, and we chatted cheerfully on our way to the car. We sat in the backseat together, and the “men” (my brother who was only 14, and my grandfather) sat up front. While seated, my dress rose and exposed my thighs, which were always thick. My grandmother noticed and took a long hard look at my legs. After a while she looked up at me and told me I was overweight. I shook my head no. I had never been told I was overweight and was in disbelief at her assessment. She said she could tell by pinching the fat above my knees. She said I was not supposed to be able to pinch anything but skin. I pinched the meat above my knees attempting to prove her wrong, but to my dismay, I grabbed a pretty big chunk of thigh. She said, “You see?” She told me that I would have to start dieting. My heart sank.
I was probably somewhere between 4’9” – 5’ tall, and I weighed 120 pounds. I had very thick thighs, but looking back at pictures I took at the time, I was nowhere near overweight. In hindsight, I realize my grandmother was concerned about how fast I was developing. I had a woman’s shape already at the age of 11. I guess she felt the solution to me developing so early would be for me to get skinny.
All summer, my grandmother attempted to get me to eat less. She criticized my portions and my desire to have seconds. If I wanted a snack between meals I was forced to wait and drink water. I was encouraged to go outside with my brother and play basketball with him so that I could be more active, but I preferred to sit in my room all day reading books and completing word puzzles. My grandmother disapproved. She told me I needed to act more like a kid. She wanted me to go outside and play and make friends. I was discouraged from socializing because I did not speak Spanish. The only other girl who lived in the mountains of Utuado did not speak English. I attempted to spend time with her once or twice, but it was fruitless for the both of us.
My grandmother grew increasingly frustrated at my unwillingness to behave more like a child and my inability to shrink my thighs. My body continued to mature, and I got my period. In her frustration at her lack of success in stopping my body’s maturation process, she said some not nice things to me about my body, and I in turn developed a complex about it.
I began to see myself through her eyes: BIG. I started to obsess over my thighs. I eventually stopped wearing shorts. I kept pinching the meat above my knees, disappointed at the fact that it was never just skin I was grabbing. My relationship with food also changed. I tried so hard to restrict myself and found that doing so only made me hungrier.
Looking back, I wish I had the perspective I have now, so that I could have seen that weight was not the issue for my grandmother. I wish I understood then that underneath her fear of me getting “too big” was her disappointment that I was no longer her grandbaby. The last time she had seen me before then, I was a very bony 8 year old child. She was not expecting to see her little Tammy with C-cup breasts and thighs thick enough to make men turn their heads. What I had once interpreted as disapproval was really love. Yes, love. She loved me and she meant well.
Some of us have people in our lives that love us dearly and mean well, but say things we probably would be better off not hearing, especially when it comes to our bodies.
As women, our constant hatred of our bodies is not something that comes natural to us. It’s learned. And there are numerous experiences that contribute to this hatred, from disparaging remarks from people in our lives to various media outlets brainwashing us into believing we can and should strive to achieve society’s standard of beauty and physical perfection.
Can you pinpoint the time when you started to think about your body differently? When did you become conscious of your appearance and others’ reactions to your body? How has that experience shaped the way you view yourself today? How has it influenced your behaviors?
And while it may be hurtful to look back and reflect on something so sensitive, I encourage you to do so, and I encourage you to forgive the person or experience which shaped your hatred of yourself. I also encourage you to forgive yourself, for perpetuating a pattern of self-hatred in your life which has not served you up to this point.
Sometimes, forgiveness is not a one-shot deal. Sometimes, it is a daily commitment. I forgive myself daily for struggling with my body image. I forgive my grandmother over and over again. I forgive the kids who made fun of me and called me an ugly whale. I forgive the man who shouted to me in the street that I needed to tone my thighs up before wearing shorts again. I forgive myself for believing my imperfect body rendered me undesirable and unworthy of love. I forgive, over and over again, in order to make peace with it all, because I deserve peace, and so do you.