As a young girl growing up in 21st century America, my body image was, for lack of better terms, fucked up. For as long as I could remember, I decided that I was going to be the three things that all girls “should” be (according to society, at least):
As a kid, I measured my worth based on my grades at school. As I got older, I measured my worth based on how many people gave me compliments on my appearance. And from age 11 through my entire adolescence, I measured my worth based on the number on the scale.
I watched my naturally petite mother weigh herself constantly, scrutinize herself in the mirror, and try every diet from keto to vegan. I was 10 when I saw my aunt diet before her graduation from dental school in an attempt to squeeze into her dress. My grandmothers would point out if I looked chubbier or thinner before even hugging me hello. My mom, aunt, and grandmas learned the same thing from their mom, aunts, and grandmas: that thin = good and fat = bad.
Girls at school would skip lunch, to do the “apple cleanse” (i.e. only eat apples for 5 days) before prom, and run on the treadmill until they were dizzy, all while bragging about it to one another. And the worst part: I was one of those girls.
Though intelligence was always important to me, come middle and high school, being thin became my first priority—for myself and for those around me. There was a girl in my high school who was technically obese, meaning she was over what the CDC considers a healthy BMI (body mass index). My best friend and I would discuss her weight, saying things to each other like, “she cares more about eating cookies than being healthy” or “why would she let herself go like that, she can’t even walk!” And the line I’m most ashamed to admit: “I’d rather die than be that fat.”
What I didn’t know at the time was that she had a brain tumor that completely destroyed her thyroid, which inhibited her metabolism and her body’s weight regulating mechanisms. I found out about her condition through one of my teachers. But at that point, we had already graduated, and the damage had already been done.
As a teenager I didn’t realize how black-and-white my idea of health was; I thought that losing weight/being thin = healthy, while gaining weight/ being fat = unhealthy. Now I know better, but it took me a long time to realize that health does not depend on body size, shape, or weight. It only hit me after going through an eight-year battle with my own eating disorder, gaining a lot of weight in the process, and learning to accept my own bigger body.
I can’t imagine the kind of discrimination this poor girl faced all throughout her life, and I’m so ashamed that I was a part of it. Everywhere she turned, people would tell her to “just lose weight” not just so she would adhere to beauty standards, but also so she would be “healthier.” The truth is, I was the one with the unhealthy eating problem. The only difference was that I didn’t get bullied for my body. Even though I was struggling inside, my body was socially acceptable on the outside.
I don’t know exactly how my eating disorder started. Perhaps it was a combination of forces: beauty ideals I saw in the media, all the women in my life who dieted nonstop, and knowing that people admire thinness more than anything else.
When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, people were telling me how healthy, dedicated, and inspirational I was. I also competed in bikini fitness competitions, won trophies, and modeled, but no one knew that behind that “perfect bikini body” was a broken girl.
What I know now: we idolize weight loss as if it’s the best thing a person can achieve—considering that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and weight loss is a sign of myriad mental and physical health conditions, including depression, diabetes, thyroid problems, HIV/AIDS, and cancer. Also, BMI guidelines are based on a 200-year-old measurement that is quite frankly, bogus. Also, studies have shown that people considered overweight and Grade 1 obese on the BMI scale are not at a greater risk of death than those in the normal range.
The way we see bigger bodies and how we treat people in them is something the Health at Every Size Movement, which originated in 2003, aims to tackle. The HAES principles were created by the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) and they promote the idea that health should be treated holistically and independently of one’s body size. HAES pushes for weight inclusivity by not idealizing or pathologizing specific weights or body sizes. They also advocate for equal access to health care, respect for all, and eating for well-being rather than weight loss.
It’s important to note that Health at Every Size does not imply healthy at every size. HAES does not mean that everyone is healthy, but rather that everyone, no matter their body, weight, or ability, should have access to health as a resource without stigma. This means that someone like the girl I told you about from my high school should be able to see a doctor and be treated fairly, equally, and without judgement or criticism. She should also have access to appropriate treatment for her symptoms without anyone telling her to “just lose weight.”
I personally discovered HAES during my eating disorder recovery journey. I was desperate for medical advice that would not just tell me to just go on another diet and try to lose weight. I wanted something that took mental health and emotional well-being into consideration. HAES was a godsend to me; it expanded my definition of health and gave me permission to accept my body at any size, shape, or weight.
What’s great about the HAES movement is that it actually encourages us to see beyond the body, which makes it a little different from body positivity. Instead of putting so much focus on body image, HAES grounds itself in a social justice framework that takes into account our complex social and cultural identities, issues of accessibility, and individual needs and desires.
Because the thing is, the body is not an image. Even the term “body image” is incorrect, because the body is an experience, not an image. As children, our bodies are the vessel that lets us sing, dance, jump, play, create, laugh, and love. Somewhere along the way, we lose that. I lost it at age 11, when my eating disorder robbed me. But even at my highest weight, I never faced societal discrimination that people in larger bodies face. Even though I endured mental health battles, I never had to deal with people labeling me as “fat and lazy,” employers not hiring me, or people bullying me for my size.
Body positivity creates a catch-22. The movement tells us to think positively about our bodies. But what about the days that you simply can’t bring yourself to do that? What then? Did you fail? Of course not, but it sure feels like it. Similarly, we see influencers on social media preaching “love your body!” But most of them are all able-bodied, relatively thin white women. This message can be incredibly discouraging to women who do not fit into the typical standards of beauty no matter how many affirmations they say or how many inspirational quotes they read with #selflove.
So what if this hyper-focus on body image, whether positive or negative, is actually what’s causing our insecurity and lack of confidence in our bodies in the first place? There’s no denying that women’s empowerment has been equated with body liberation, but it’s important that we look at the nuances of the terms so easily thrown about today.
Words like HAES, body positivity, anti-diet, non-diet, intuitive eating, positive body-image, body confidence, fat acceptance, eating disorder recovery, and self-love have been clumped together, weakening their respective differences. Women are admired for posting pictures of their cellulite or tummy rolls on Instagram, forgetting that while it’s awesome to be proud of your body, it only addresses a small part of the problem. There’s a lot more to the picture. The bigger question is, what’s it going to take for all of us to evolve to see past our physical appearance, accept each other’s differences, and step into the most empowered version of ourselves?
It’s an overwhelming, multi-layered topic that’s rooted in patriarchy, consumerism, capitalism, racism, and much more. According to Naomi Wolf, a feminist author and political journalist, beauty standards are used against women to compromise our effectiveness and acceptance in society. In other words, this deep-rooted issue definitely won’t be solved overnight.
I don’t know what the answer is but what I do know is that in order to change, we must be willing to change. We must recognize that it’s important to be:
1. Curious and keen, not just smart.
2. Beautiful on the inside with a kind heart and compassionate character, not merely pretty on the outside.
3. Full of love, for ourselves and others.
By making principles like these our resolutions, we’ll be the moms, the aunts, and the grandmas that set the example for generations to come.
Mary Jelkovsky is a former bikini fitness model turned self-love advocate, TEDx speaker, and women’s retreat host. After recovering from an eating disorder, she started her online platform Mary’s Cup of Tea, to inspire women to be more confident in their bodies and love themselves unconditionally. When she’s not writing, speaking, or hosting retreats, Mary spends time with her spunky, confident, 11-year-old sister—and biggest inspiration.