TW: Mentions of cutting, disordered eating, general body dysmorphia, and other body image issues.
I used to get made fun of for my big front teeth. Once, when I got home from school, I found my mom’s nail file and tried to file them down. The edge of the nail file caught on my lip after I sawed away for a few minutes and punctured a hole in my cheek. I sat there, crying, on the floor of my parents’ bathroom. I was crying because it hurt, crying because I knew what I was doing felt wrong, and crying because it wasn’t working, not as well as I wanted it to.
I shaved my whole body, starting at a very early age. I don’t remember the age, but I know I wasn’t old enough to be good at shaving. My mother didn’t know I was doing it — I think she thought I was just shaving my lower legs, but I was shaving my whole legs and more. I was shaving my pubic hair, even though it made me red and bumpy and hurt like hell when it grew back — no one had told me how to get rid of it properly. I was shaving the baby-soft hair on my stomach that I now love. I was shaving my arms, even though back then you practically needed a microscope to find any offending strands. I shaved my face, because a “cool boy” once said something about a mustache that apparently lived above my lips. I shaved between my eyebrows, careful to not remove too much so that I’d end up looking “unnatural,” because I knew, even then, that the point of most beauty rituals is to do unnatural things to ourselves while also maintaining the illusion that we were born with unattainable beauty.
When I was 15, I slept with my midsection wrapped in Saran Wrap for a week straight because I heard that it would “define my waist.” I woke up covered in sweat and developed a weird rash on my side, but this didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that it didn’t seem to be working. I still probably would’ve kept doing it if my mom didn’t notice that we were going through an abnormal amount of the stuff.
Even earlier than that, I tried the Special K diet — a diet I had seen on tv that promised a loss of 7 lbs in two weeks if you ate cereal for breakfast and lunch followed by a “sensible meal” for dinner. Because I was in school, this plan didn’t really work — it’s hard to bring cereal to school — but it was my first taste of feeling like a failure when it came to food. This was probably around the age of 11 or 12, and was the beginning of my life with disordered eating.
When I got sent away to boarding school at 17 and we weren’t allowed to use makeup, or wear any clothes except polo shirts and khaki pants, and had to eat whatever they told us and however much, I felt out of control in my own body and my self-image was the worst it had ever been. I had also been cutting my own hair prior to getting sent away, and it was growing out horrendously. We weren’t allowed to use regular razors for safety reasons, but I would use my electric razor in the bathroom to cut my bangs in minuscule amounts so that the staff wouldn’t notice — anything to make myself feel better about how I looked in a situation like that.
I’m very pale, and have quite a few moles and birthmarks on my body. I used to be very self conscious about this (not to mention the anxiety it gives me about potential for cancer), and was made fun of once at a swimming party for having a “constellation” on my stomach (although now, I think that’s pretty cool). I often fantasized about cutting them off my body. I thought about how I would do it; box cutters wouldn’t be flat or precise enough, so I thought about opening a pencil sharpener and using the edge of the blade, and almost followed through with that once. I thought about the knives we had downstairs for cutting steaks and how my dad used them to thinly slice carne asada meat, how I could slice off the bits of myself that I didn’t like and use gauze to staunch the blood, and Neosporin to heal the wound. Nobody would have to know, and my skin would be pink and smooth by the time I wore a bathing suit again — this is because I rarely wore bathing suits, if ever, especially after the incident at that party. I never let myself enjoy warm sunshine or cool water if it meant having to forget, even for a second, my bare body and how I felt about it in the presence of others. I never followed through with this plan, but it was something I thought about constantly.
This list is not exhaustive. I have fantasized for my entire life about cutting away bits of myself. It’s part body image issues and part dysmorphia, which are somewhat related but not the same thing. There have been times when I’ve looked either in the mirror or at pictures of myself and been completely shocked at what I’ve seen; the image in my head just doesn’t match reality, and I’m not alone in this. This is something many people face, and it can be all-consuming. However, over the years I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin — not from anything in particular that I’ve done, it’s just something that’s happened over time, probably because my brain just couldn’t hold that much self-hatred on top of all the other things I was cramming into it. To survive, I had to slowly learn to love, or at least be okay with, who I was and who I am. It’s a process, and it’s not linear.
I’m not sharing this all for pity. I’m sharing these things so that people realize that young folks have a lot more going on than you may think. Simple comments about appearance— the things we can’t control, like weight, or height, or how big our ears are — might do more damage than you realize. I still remember the faces of the kids who first told me my ears were too big, and exactly where we were standing on the playground when it happened. It’s the reason I’m still hesitant to wear my hair up, even at 28 — and I actually think my ears are cute now. It’s just something that’s ingrained in me, all these years later. We should be kinder to each other, because it makes it easier to be kinder to ourselves.