Content Warning: Mentions of eating disorders
The summer after my junior year of high school, I wrote a personal essay titled “Big Shoes to Fill.” It was just raw enough to call my own and polished enough to actually call a personal essay. Here’s how it started:
When I was six, my friends and I would meet once a week to reenact the whole plot of Cinderella with alarming detail. We played at the front steps of a friend’s house that, to our young minds, looked exactly like the castle steps in the movie. We wore blankets around our waists and over our shoulders. We scrambled to move stuffed animals along to the beat of the songs and always held one dainty hand up whenever we pranced about. But even when I was the one who brought the Cinderella dress and clear plastic slippers, and even when I was the one who knew all the words and all the tunes, I could never wear Cinderella’s glass slippers. I could never be Cinderella. Instead, I was always one of the ugly stepsisters.
I cringe when I read it, not necessarily because I think my writing was terrible, but because of how much I pitied myself. But the fact that the piece makes me cringe indicates that I have changed. Then again, I wasn’t very far in my body-positivity journey. This is how the essay ended:
No matter how hard I try to slice off my heels, chop off my toes, and force a smile, I can’t fit the glass slippers. I can’t get that happy ending. I can’t make it to the castle steps.
I was at a time in my life when entering fitting rooms in malls made me anxious, when I only wore black because I thought that any other color made me look fat. I wrote this essay for myself. I wrote it because how I viewed my body was an issue that I had but never acknowledged. I knew that once I did acknowledge it, I would have to do something about it. I didn’t necessarily write it for others to empathize with or for others to pity me. I wrote it because I needed to have it on paper, in words and out in the universe. If I wanted to like myself even a little bit more, then I needed to know exactly how much I didn’t like myself to start. I didn’t write a happy ending because I didn’t have a happy answer at the time or any answer for that matter. That essay was meant to be just the beginning of what I predict to be a lifelong journey towards self-appreciation.
Leaving home for college was my next step. When I went dorm room shopping at Daiso, my mom told me that I needed to get a mirror. She floated through the aisles, searching for her reflection. I chased after her, saying that I didn’t think that there’d be enough room in the car to move it, that it’d be a hassle, that a mirror wasn’t necessary. Nonsense, she said. I’m a girl, so I need a mirror.
Eventually she saw herself. I saw her, too: a small face and button nose, eyes obscured by large sunglasses with soft black bangs hiding her forehead. A bun of hair rose over her head, wisps of it reaching the back of her neck. I moved my eyes towards the mirrors, all of different sizes and different colored frames. I glimpsed at my face looking back at me, but turned away before I could really see anything else.
My mom remarked on how small all the mirrors were, and that I had to get a bigger one. I told her that I didn’t need a big mirror and that a small one would be enough. It took reassurance, but eventually I bought a small, square mirror with a pink plastic frame that I brought with me to campus. We both knew that it was a compromise.
My relationship with my body has been held together with compromises. It’s been my way of coming to terms with myself, with the shape I am and the space that I fill. I’ll wear shorts if it’s hot, but only for five hours before I change. I’ll go into fitting rooms, but only if I change with my back facing the mirror. That’s the beauty of compromises: I never have to make a full commitment. It’s not about forcing myself to go the extra mile just to feel miserable. I’ll meet myself halfway, and halfway is a lot farther than I was willing to go before.
I used to never make compromises.
Yes, I never eat past 10 p.m. I don’t own a pair of shorts because I hate having my legs exposed, and I have never owned a tank top because too much of me spills everywhere. I feel proud of myself when I skip a meal and even more proud when I feel hungry. I cover the mirror every time I take a shower. I don’t say all of this because I want to throw a pity party for myself. I say all of this because I have realized that I don’t own shorts because it never gets hot enough for them, that I don’t buy tank tops because I could use the money on something else, that I skip meals because I’m just not hungry, or that I cover my mirror because I have no other place to put my towel. I kept making excuses just so that I could never acknowledge how my view of my own body got in the way of daily life.
Most of the issues that I relayed in that passage are no longer an issue now—I own shorts and tank tops. And reading it now has made me realize how much I’ve changed for the better. Revisiting “Big Shoes to Fill” has also reminded me of how I still have a long way to go to feel happy in my skin. I see my progress towards self-confidence like a line on a scale that keeps extending. I have no idea when or if it will ever end. The line only points one way towards self-love, but the fact that I have a lot of distance ahead of me is daunting, sometimes disheartening. I know that it takes time and work, but I can’t help but wonder how much longer before I’m able to buy clothing online without worrying about what my mom will say, before telling myself that I look good is affirmation rather than persuasion.
It’s been a process, and I wonder how it will change in college. I’ve moved to a completely new environment and social scene. Now, it feels silly to me to worry about what my mom will think about the clothes I buy when I won’t see her for months. It feels silly to me to feel guilty about eating past 10 p.m. when no one is with me to judge me. Back home, my actions and judgements blended into my environment. I wasn’t even aware of all these self-enforced rules and insecurities. But in college, my overthinking and doubts stand out like a splatter of bright red on a white background. I realized that my environment and the people around me affected how I viewed myself and enabled my own body image issues. Of course, relocating hasn’t fixed everything, but it has helped me acknowledge and take action against all my toxic and self-deprecating judgements.
And I know that this is only possible because I’ve met people who have had only kind things to say about me. In “Big Shoes to Fill”, I write about not knowing what that feels like:
She was the girl in my childhood who tore the blue tulle dress from my hands and said that I wasn’t pretty enough to wear it. She was the aunt that told me that I’ll be pretty once I starve myself. She was my friend who commented on how large my thighs had gotten.
My friends who have shaped this new environment are accepting and loving, and they have made me feel less self-conscious in my skin. While I feel guilty that it takes other people’s validation for me to feel more confident, I think I just needed evidence that I’m not distorted. I didn’t see anything in myself, but others did. Coming from generous and trustworthy people, their reassurance is never ingenuine, never sickly saccharine. I couldn’t think of why my friends would lie to me, so I’ve started to believe them.
So, as well as an update, I guess this piece is a thank you. Thank you to all the people I’ve met here that have seen the beauty in me before I will, for making me feel like Cinderella. Thank you to all my friends who don’t necessarily care about my appearance but compliment me, nonetheless. Thank you to everyone who has made me comfortable enough in my own skin to wear a dress outside, to wear a tank top, to eat when it’s midnight and not care about the calories. You’ve never shamed me for my compromises, never pushed me to either side of the spectrum of self-deprecation and self-loving. You understand that this is a process as much as I do. And now, I have found myself wishing that my little pink mirror was just a bit bigger.