Accept it, fix it? Accept it, fix it? This is a question that I have been grappling with my whole life. When it comes to the shape of my body, I have constantly and perpetually struggled to decipher whether my physique is inherently wrong in some way (something to work on fixing) or whether it is beautiful and perfect as it is (something that I need to work on accepting). Do I need to try to become a slimmer version of myself in order to feel amazing in my clothes, sex appeal, and general swagger, or do I need to unlearn a fabricated societal notion that beautiful and slender are synonymous, while having curves implies that something is broken?
As a young adolescent, I was one of the tallest girls in my class (I am now 5' 10''). From the onset of puberty, it was obvious that I was not going to be that dainty, skinny girl whose legs slid into a tight pair of skinny jeans, or whose flat stomach and firm thighs remained intact while running around the beach in a bikini. I quickly towered over the boys in school and surpassed the waist sizes of most of my girlfriends. Skinny jeans were a struggle to wiggle into, causing my love handles to pour over the sides, and bathing suits caused the "scars" (my stretch marks) on my hips to be exposed.
Having grown up inundated with images of models and celebrities who looked light and graceful in their sample-sized, designer clothes, I desperately wanted to emulate them. My style icons were Mary-Kate, Ashley Olsen and Sienna Miller, their cut outs from magazines lining the walls of my bedroom. My real-life "girl crushes" were a pair of twins in school whose understated, bohemian clothing fell perfectly on their model-like physiques.
To top it all off, my mother -- my most prominent role model -- was gorgeous, stylish, and through an intense workout regimen and disciplined eating habits, maintained an exceedingly fit body. During periods of my life, I resented her for her discipline. "Why are you so controlling?" "Can't you live a little?" I would ask. Unlike many of my friends, my house contained no Oreos and Honey-Nut Cheerios, only a basement filled with a plethora of workout machines. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was already two inches and four pant sizes larger than my mom. Dreaming to look like her, I would leave every shopping excursion in tears.
Growing up, I would obsessively analyze what skinny girls would eat, comparing their diets to my own. If they ate what I deemed to be a lot (i.e. more than me), I felt a strange sense of relief. “Mother nature has just cursed me,” I would tell myself, preferring to play the victim.
In eighth grade I discovered dieting. Sick of feeling insecure and jealous, I put myself on a highly restrictive workout and eating regimen. I locked myself in my parents’ basement gymnasium at 6am before school, 5 days a week, and I limited my food intake to not much more than salads, veggie burgers and Skinny Cow ice cream bars. I got hooked on Splenda, diet soda and anything with the word "light" on the label. I was strict, foregoing hangouts with my friends if it meant missing a workout or intaking junk food. On a bad day, I would eat 1200 calories, but my general caloric intake was even less.
Lo and behold, it worked. I got what I wanted. Within weeks, I felt light and amazing. My clothes were loose and I was thrilled. I glided seamlessly into size 29 jeans and began to wear mini-skirts and tanks. I felt relaxed at my friends' pool parties, attractive in the face of men (my middle school crush, Brody, finally gave me the attention I had been dreaming of for years) and, for the first time, I truly loved looking at pictures of myself. However, my elation was always short-lived.
Here, I began what would become a lifelong cycle, alternating between depriving myself but feeling great about my looks and living a balanced lifestyle but feeling insecure. In my mind, food became something naughty and indulgent -- I would sneak downstairs in the middle of the night for chocolate chip cookies or a bowl of pasta, as if I was breaking the law. When I let go of even a modicum of control, I knew the moment where I’d break down crying, trying to squeeze my thighs into my "skinny Lily" jeans, was close at hand.
Ironically, when I was slim, I wasn't even skinny by society's standards. After all, I was still a size 29/30 in jeans, which most women in our culture would deem unacceptable. Even though I did not look anorexic, a disturbing side effect of my dieting was the complete loss of my period.
As I entered my 20s, I grew increasingly frustrated with my self-imposed roller coaster -- not only was the strain of yo-yo dieting having an adverse affect on my mental health, but it was also becoming increasingly clear that I was actually attempting to fight nature. Around that same time, I was beginning to delve deep into my work with StyleLikeU. Inspired by the confident women I was exposed to -- no matter their shape or size -- I realized for the first time that it was truly possible for women to tailor their style to their bodies rather than tailor their bodies to trends. This revelation, while it seems obvious in retrospect, was perhaps one of the most liberating moments in my journey with my body. At this juncture, while I continued to lead a healthy lifestyle (my favorite foods today are Kale Salad and Sushi, I am a dedicated exerciser and I rarely drink) I finally stopped my frantic calorie counting, obsessive workout schedule and my addiction to artificial diet foods.
Cut to today... While I have made immense strides from the girl who used to forgo most experiences in order to keep her diet under control, remnants of my conflict continue to haunt me to this day. In the last year, I have overcome my fear of exposing my bare arms in clothes and have begun to accentuate my curves in clothing. However, I still catch myself envying my slender friend Nina and the ease with which she moves naked or in a bathing suit. I remain self conscious and covered up on the beach. I hide my curves with long, loose fitting tops over a tight dress or skirt and I still look at pictures from my dieting days and feel a pang of longing for that girl. Lastly, though I think about them less, my "skinny Lily" jeans are still stashed in the back of my dresser.
While the Lily of today still faces these insecurities, an ever-increasing desire to be the most secure version of myself has changed my lifelong struggle into a full-on mission. A couple of recent experiences have also helped shift my perspective on this issue. Firstly, when I was in New Mexico this past September shooting a story for the Huffington Post, Anya, the style editor with whom I traveled, repeatedly told me that I looked like the model Crystal Renn. At first, I was upset at the idea that I would be compared to a "plus-size" model (as a side note, I really do hate the whole notion of “plus-size” models, mostly because they are totally normal-sized and I don't understand why we are perpetually sold clothes by people that are smaller than the average consumer being targeted -- ridiculous). However, after letting go of my qualms about the label, I began to look at images of the voluptuous Crystal and I fell in love with the beauty, poise and strength she exuded in her amazonian physique.
Secondly, I came across The Good Body, a play by Eve Ensler about her own hatred towards her stomach. I was touched by a conversation she had with an African girl. The girl, bewildered by Eve's insecurities, says poignantly, "In America, your bodies are just pictures to you. Here, we live in our bodies, they serve us, they do our work."
Crystal’s spirit, this newfound perspective from Eve’s play, and my determination to defeat this demon once and for all, has me thinking about the power of confidence. At 23, I am beginning to understand that in order to transcend a lifetime of feeling ill-at-ease in my body, it is time to turn off the broken record in my head that doubts my inherent beauty. I am seeing that it is that broken record, and not anything related to my actual healthy physical state, that keeps me from feeling and subsequently looking as beautiful and sexy as possible -- just as I am.
In light of all this, I’ve decided to make some commitments before God and StyleLikeU readers:
1) I will wear heels from time to time. I like the way they look and I am not going to continue compromising that for fear of standing out and towering over men.
2) I will uncover my hips in bathing suits. So what if my thighs jiggle a little when I walk?
3) I will acknowledge my real weight by stepping on a scale. I used to think that avoiding scales was empowerment, but now I’ve realized that being unashamed of the number is actual acceptance.
4) I will stare at my naked body in the eye (no dim lighting or skinny mirrors) in the mirror and learn to accept whatever contours God has graced me with.
5) I will be taking dance classes at the gym. This may seem trivial, but I’ve felt inhibited from expressing myself through my body in this kind of way.
In her closet interview, Lesley Arfin says, "I think it is sexier not to have a perfect body." I agree with her philosophy wholeheartedly and I now feel it is time to walk the walk myself.
Wish me luck and I will be in touch soon.