I’ve never been a skinny girl.
In fact, I’ve always had a round belly and an equally round face. Hips. Legs without that yearned-after gap slender girls have. As a child, I was cute in a chubby sort of way, with ringlet curls and a penchant for girly dresses, overalls and funky colored tights. I loved Marvin the Martian and often bummed around in Looney Toons t-shirts and leggings (hello, child of the ’80s), rocking out to Meatloaf and the Bangles with my mom. I didn’t think about my body and how it looked compared to other girls or in the context of what others might think about me. I didn’t think at all about what I put into my body. I had no interest in sports and was never pushed to be athletic (minus my 2 year stint with karate) or to join any sports teams. I read, I wrote poetry, I aced all my classes, but riding my bicycle? No thanks. When I was little, I was blissfully unaware of what it’s like to feel shame and I undressed in front of friends while we played dress up without worry, swam nearly-naked at one of my father’s colleague’s house parties, wore clothes that didn’t fit my body without a second thought.
I don’t remember when my mindset changed — probably sometime around middle school — but cute and chubby morphed into impossibly awkward, my ringlets changing to an unruly mess of hair (made worse by terrible haircuts), my sense of “style” became a source of anxiety, and I was suddenly acutely aware that a round belly and short, fat legs were not what all the traditionally beautiful girls were sporting. I was uncoordinated, slow and weak in gym class, and somehow that mattered in a profoundly public way. I went from shameless and carefree to insecure and self-loathing overnight. I was unfortunately fat and ugly and there was no way out of that body. When I see pictures of myself from this time period, I still hide them from my friends and husband, as if those who love me now, as an adult, would hate me if they saw me during this gawky, adolescent phase.
I grew out of the ugly, but the worry and self-doubt over my appearance only got worse as I got older, but I was conflicted, having been raised to be strong, independent, and not fit into a mold. So, I still dressed differently, but I daydreamed of being model-thin, with perfect, perky breasts, flawless skin, grace, poise. I still had curly hair, so I cut it until all of the curl was gone, and dyed it black. I remember wishing that I’d get into a horrible accident, convinced that having to be bed ridden and tube-fed for months would be the weight-loss miracle I hoped for. I ate almost exclusively one type of Kashi cereal for a year. I stole weight-loss pills from the pharmacy I worked for and hid them in a box in my nightstand and took them every night before bed. Instead of judging my self-worth more on the classes I aced, the poetry contests I won, and all the community work I had taken on, I was only concerned with what others thought of my appearance. When my boyfriend at the time talked to me one day about all of the girls he thought were pretty (and I was not on that list), I tried to emulate them. I didn’t let myself off the hook — every time I looked into the mirror all I saw was a worthless, ugly, klutzy girl.
College was a little better. I had worked through things with the boyfriend and he came with me to Boston, desperately in love with me. Other boys noticed me. I did well in school. I made friends. I let things slip a little, gained weight back. I broke up with the boy and felt ugly and unwanted all over again. That nagging, insulting little voice took up residence once more in the back of my head. I lost the weight again, this time with Weight Watchers and a gym membership and not a borderline eating disorder; I started hiding behind makeup; I started dressing like other girls. But I only ever felt pretty or sexy when men told me I was — this feeling was never self-generated. I never felt comfortable in my own skin.
I’d love to tell you that one day I snapped out of it, but to be honest, feeling beautiful is still a struggle for me, but I have definitely come a long way from the girl who wished a terrible accident upon herself. Running has given me the greatest gains. It has helped me gain confidence and given me a sense of grace I have never felt before. I feel strong and capable when I lace up my sneakers, and it doesn’t matter what I look like. It’s the only time I don’t feel like I need makeup to leave the house, the only time when men in trucks honk at me that I feel angry instead of, secretly, like my appearance and worth has somehow been validated by their horn or cat-calling.
I guess the confidence running has instilled in me has also trickled over to my non-running life, too. I enjoy dressing in clothes I find pretty and flattering, not those some male in my life finds alluring. I don’t automatically compare my body to every other female’s in the room, I don’t feel clumsy and out of place every time I’m in a group. I enjoy eating healthy and working out because I know how much better I feel inside and out and how much better I function in my day-to-day existence. I am not obsessive or restrictive anymore. When I gain a few pounds these days, I don’t fixate (though sometimes I do need to remind myself not to), and, most importantly, I like who I see in mirror. She isn’t perfect (but who wants to be?), she doesn’t look like anybody else (and that’s a good thing), she still doesn’t have a gap between her thighs (but these legs have run marathons, climbed mountains), and she doesn’t need anyone else to approve of her to feel whole (but she does still have a compulsive need to wear makeup when leaving the house).