I don’t remember much about being 13. My memories from that year are a cloudy nebula of heavily applied eyeliner, carefully crafted AIM away messages and my mom’s beauty magazines, rescued from the recycling bin and read on the bathroom floor.
There is, however, one moment in particular that stands out in my mind.
It was a very short magazine article — almost a sidebar — featuring five photos of the same woman in nothing but her underwear. She’d been enlisted to conduct a week-long experiment which involved coming home from work, recording how she felt about her body that day and snapping a corresponding photo.
The woman’s feelings towards her body fluctuated wildly. On Monday, she might’ve logged something like, “I looked great today! I wore my favorite skirt to the office and managed to avoid carbs entirely,” while Tuesday’s was more along the lines of: “I woke up super bloated. I could feel my stomach spilling over the top of my jeans all afternoon.”
Regardless of her feelings (and maybe you see where this is going), the photos all looked exactly the same. Every day it was the same woman with the same apprehensive face and the same beautiful body. At the end of the week, she remarked at how out-of-touch her emotions were with the reality of her appearance. She lamented about how “feeling fat” could drastically affect her entire day.
I glanced down at my stomach, puckered up in my cross-legged position, and thought about all the pool parties I wasted feeling uncomfortable in a bathing suit. I thought about my abysmal test scores, a direct result of panicking about my weight when I should’ve been studying.
It was the first time I consciously categorized “fat” as a feeling. Suddenly my poolside anxieties, non-study sessions and other unnamed emotional slumps made more sense. I was barely a teenager; I hadn’t started high school nor gotten my period nor had my first kiss, but I’d already been socially conditioned to link size to success. No matter how I felt about my life as a whole — my passions, my classes, my friends and family, my rich inner life — if I felt bigger, I automatically felt worse.
For many women, this will not be a revelation. We have ruminated plenty on the importance of self-love and body diversity, and the toxicity of fat shaming. Still, it’s a difficult mindset to disavow. It’s baked into our culture. Most of us engage in habitual body monitoring without even realizing it. According to studies, the average woman subconsciously considers how her body appears to other people every 30 seconds.
I first realized the danger of linking my happiness to my physical appearance when I was 13. Unlearning that habit has been a relentless labor. In high school, I figured that actually losing weight would nullify the issue entirely and so I turned to diets and cleanses. Later, I settled for traditional self-care tips (oils! yoga! bubble baths!). Years went by. My body still felt like a private battleground. While I enjoy a downward-dog stretch as much as the next girl, a moment of inspiration and perfect bathroom lighting helped me devise my own method of unlearning; my own way to honor the temporary flesh suit that I call home.
I’m not sure if I’m paying unintentional homage to that nameless woman who caught my 13-year-old eye or just indulging my millennial tendencies (probably a little bit of both), but I’ve found that occasional exposure in front of my iPhone camera has done wonders for my self-esteem. Whenever I’m feeling particularly skin crawl-y, I make a date with my bathroom mirror. I snap a couple of photos and upload them to a passcode-protected app (I use Keepsafe, but there are many just like it). They settle there, neatly archived and awaiting my singular gaze. While it’s awkward to admit the existence of these photos, I have no shame in this little self-indulgence.
The photos are strictly private and completely innocent. Every once in a while, I sit and scroll through and marvel at the surprising sameness of my wide hips and pinched waistline. It reminds me that the power my physical shape wields over me is imaginary. There’s something very cathartic about this solitary expression of vulnerability. Reviewing my Keepsafe collection has become a quiet exercise in staying grounded.
In a recent piece for The New Yorker about Helen Oyeyemi’s short-story collection, “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours,” Morgan Jerkins reflects on the importance of self-definition in personal spaces — where you “can hold onto safety for a little while longer, in order to face the world anew, again, some other time.”
This is important for women and, as Jerkins points out, even more so for women of color in a world of white privilege. It allows those who are subjected to societal expectations and narrow paradigms to exist on their own terms.
When I take a moment to flip through my Keepsafe album, I remind myself that my body is my body — that it has a natural, healthy, comfortable shape — and it reminds me that it’s not my job to be visually appealing to anyone. Women and girls spend a lot of our lives being viewed and appraised. It’s therapeutic to be the only one who’s looking.
Everyone has their methods of escape, their own mental safe rooms. This weird little routine just happens to be mine.
Collage and illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; photos via Getty Images.