Ten Years Old. Before even walking into the store, I am hit by the scent of Abercrombie & Fitch “Fierce” wafting into the mall. My fifth-grade mind had learned to associate this smell with attractive men shirtless on the beach, and preppy clothing galore. The smell of cardamom and citrus becomes even more pungent as I enter, my eyes adjusting to the dim lighting and taking in the upbeat pop music. It’s the definition of sensory overload. Before the obnoxiously attractive guy at the door can ask if I need any help, my friend already has her arm loaded with clothes to try on. I slowly make my rounds through the store, rubbing a sweater between my fingertips as if I am assessing the fabric, pointing out something cute to my friend, before finally making my way to the land of accessories. This is a safe space, a place that I know all too well. I bide my time looking through the earrings, scarves, and perfumes. My friend comes out of the dressing room ready to make a beeline for the register. She looks at me confused, “Why didn’t you try something on? Are you not buying anything?” I do not tell her that I know nothing will fit without having to try it on. I do not tell her that walking into this store makes me nauseated, only partially because of the smell. Instead I pick up a plaid infinity scarf, complete with the A&F moose stitched on to it: “Isn’t this so cute?”
Eleven Years Old. Sabrina sits down next to me in math class, sighing deeply. “I haven’t eaten in three days,” she remarks as she pops a piece of sugar-free gum into her mouth. “If I close my eyes, I can almost pretend this is a burger. With cheese. And fried onions. That would be so good right now.” I cannot help but scan her body, noticing how one of my thighs could consume two of hers. At lunch, I watch her as she picks apart her lunch box. She tears at her sandwich so that, to anyone who wasn’t watching as closely as I, it looks like she is eating along with the rest of us. She busies herself with talking to everyone and anyone until our thirty minutes for lunch have expired. The logical part of my brain knows that her behavior is toxic. I know that I should go to the guidance counselor. Yet there is this nagging part of my brain that is almost jealous of her. I admire her self-control and get mad at myself because I can not do the same. I try to limit my eating, try to fast for days, but I always give in to my hunger. I cannot help but think she is naturally one of the thinnest people I knew and yet she feels like she was too big. If that is true, what must she think of me?
Thirteen Years Old. I am pretty used to the drive from Jersey to Maryland to visit my cousins, but the combination of traffic and having not eaten yet that day were making it unbearable. The only thing keeping me going is the promise of burritos from Chipotle awaiting me when we finally get to my aunt’s house. After a flurry of hugs and greetings at our arrival, everyone sits down at the dining room table to enjoy lunch. There’s nothing quite like unwrapping a burrito from its aluminum foil packaging, the warmth of the burrito heating up your hands. The anticipation had built and so I dig in. Soon I am crumpling up the foil that I had so excitedly unwrapped. My head turns at the sound of disgust from my grandmother which is followed by a snide comment, “It’s no wonder you’ve gained so much weight given how much you eat. I cannot believe you ate the whole thing and devoured it like an animal.” These comments are not unique for my grandmother; you can always count on her for a critique of the way you look. She can always find something. But in this moment the wind has been knocked out of me and her words cut deep into my brain. Little did I know how long those words would stay etched into my mind, this weird little scar that has stopped me from buying a Chipotle burrito since.
Fourteen Years Old. Word spreads quickly when there’s a fight at school, and everyone is texting about how my boyfriend, Justin, had punched Patrick on the bus this afternoon. I look down at my phone, a thread of unanswered texts from me to Justin the only thing that I can focus on.
Justin. R u ok?
Plz answer me
From the corner of my eye, I can see Justin responding to Kathy’s texts. Why is he responding to her and not me? Does he like her? She gets up to go to the bathroom, leaving her phone at the table. I lean over, breaking all of my friendship rules, and look at her phone.
Kathy: Hey r u ok?
Justin: Yeah im fine
Kathy: what happened?
Justin: he just got in my face. he asked me if i was dating the fat bitch so i punched him.
Kathy: oh. Wow.
Justin: dont tell her. Plz.
Quite a punch in the gut.
Twenty One and Seventy-Five Days. I am crying in a Target dressing room. The first shirt I try on gives me uniboob. Not the worst offense, but annoying. The pants are tight around my stomach and baggy everywhere else. The dress fits my torso, but if I try to lift my arms I know the fabric would rip. With every piece of clothing I try on, my confidence is stripped down until it is close to nonexistent. I know that we have all had those days where nothing seems to fit right and you question why we have to put so much emphasis on aesthetics in the first place. Standing here, looking at myself in the mirror, picking apart every flaw, every stretch mark, the way I should have an hourglass figure except my hips decided to be nonexistent—all I want to do is cry. Being in a public place, I take a couple deep breaths and try to collect my thoughts before checking my phone for a message from my friend. However, I am met with a Facebook notification from one of my mother’s friends inviting me to a Facebook group for dieting tips. And the floodgates open. I know that she had no malintent. She probably did not even give the invite that much thought in the first place. But sitting on the floor in a Target dressing room it gives my mind all the validation it needed. This is not just the way I see myself, but how the world sees me as well.
Twenty One and Ninety-Two Days. I am trying to remember the last time that I have felt truly confident in my body. Maybe it was when I was five years old running around the backyard in my watermelon bikini, my stomach hanging out and my hair a complete rat’s nest. When is the last time that I looked in the mirror and felt something greater than toleration for my reflection? I cannot point to one specific incident and say, “There. That’s when it happened. That’s when I started hating the way I looked.” It’s just always been there. It’s my awareness of how much space I am taking up on a subway seat. It’s lending friends clothing so they can achieve that chic oversized aesthetic. It’s knowing that an average avocado has about 320 calories. It’s finding that old Abercrombie & Fitch scarf and feeling so bad for that ten year-old little girl who hated herself so much, knowing that she would never again be as thin as she was in that store. I want to hug her and tell her that things got better, that she learned to love her body. But I can’t. Instead I think back to these few moments in time where the voice got a little louder, a little stronger. All I can do in return is to work on being a little softer, a little kinder, to the girl staring back at me.