CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)– On the first warm day of seventh grade, everyone wore shorts to school. All the girls in my small k-8 couldn’t wait to show off their new spring outfits, colored shorts and tank tops with cardigans to cover our shoulders, per dress code requirements.
Everything was going well until my friend showed me the texts his friends had been sending during the day: “Did you see Claire’s legs?” “Yeah, someone should tell her dimples are for your cheeks, not the backs of your thighs.”
Every time I remember it, I can feel my cheeks flush, my smile fade and my eyes well up.
In seventh grade I wasn’t fat but I was developed. I had the body of a 19-year-old by the time I was 13. (Now at 19, I still wear the same jeans, dresses and T-shirts as back then.) But to the eyes of 13-year-old boys, fat and developed are synonyms. And so, beginning in elementary school and for most of middle school, I was teased for my weight and my body.
Since the popular boys teased me, the not-popular boys didn’t want to talk to me. All of my friends, my tiny, barely developed friends, had crushes, went on dates and flirted with boys. I did not.
Middle school students often don’t know where to draw the line between bullying for weight and bullying for character. Like so much of our society, they believe how your body looks dictates who you are as a person. Fat girls are less attractive, less worthy, more obnoxious and more unwanted. Skinny girls are the opposite: pretty, worthy, smart and desirable. And because they thought I was fat . . . well, the rest fell into place, too. I became the girl no one, even the other girls in my grade, wanted to be friends with.
By the time I started high school, most people were more developed and most of my friends were sophomores or juniors (whose bodies, I now realize, looked strikingly like mine), but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that my body was something to be ashamed of. This feeling, combined with the swirl of anxiety, depression, self-doubt, family problems and academics, caused me to start restricting food in April of my freshman year. By May, it was a full-fledged eating disorder.
Luckily, my friends had the foresight to tell my parents. That started the two-year process of therapy, re-feeding, treatment, recovery, relapses, treatment, re-feeding, more relapses, more treatment and finally recovery, which I’ve been in for two years.
No one has said anything negative about my body to me since middle school. I’m in an incredible place in my recovery; I eat what my body wants and exercise when it tells me I should. I’m happy.
Still, I spend 20 minutes in front of the mirror nearly every day making sure that nothing in the way I look will prompt teasing. In my early teen years, I integrated other people’s beliefs into my own thought patterns. The parts of my body I’m most unhappy with are the ones that provoked the most teasing: my stomach, lower back and legs.
Beyond the body image problems, I struggle with believing that people are honest about liking me. Throughout middle school, people pretended to be my friends and bullied me behind my back. Now, five years later, I still worry about what people think and say about me when I’m not there. Learning to believe that people could truly like me has been one of the hardest journeys of my life, but I’m getting there.
What most people don’t realize about bullying is that it echoes throughout a lifetime. It’s easy to absorb others’ voices as your own. As a result, we have a generation of bullied kids who don’t know how to love themselves in the way they should.
I have since forgiven the people who made my life miserable for years. I’ve taught myself to rely on the voices of people I trust and adore, who never fail to support me: my parents, sister, friends and boyfriend. But regardless of the fact that I’m in a great place in my life, bullying had an indelible impact on my self-esteem that has taken, and will continue to take, years to unravel.
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