Learning to Love Myself

By Sabrina Pinksen

I’m not sure where it started exactly. Some of my earliest memories are bright red, the color of shame. My mother still laughs about it, but it’s less funny and more pathetic, that she would sometimes find food hidden around my room, stuffed in crevices where I thought she wouldn’t look.

I also did this with my hair. I’d cut off tendrils of my long blonde locks and hide them behind the couch. Maybe I was just trying to hide things. Maybe I wanted to cut away parts of my body and disperse them around the house, like if I cut enough away, maybe I’d finally be small enough. Maybe I’d disappear altogether.

I must have caught the idea that there was too much of mesomewhere. It may have come from my parents. We don’t think children are listening but they hear every word we say about ourselves. Maybe I took my mother’s comments about her body and buried them in my stomach, where they sprouted and became thoughts I had about myself.

Young me

Or rather, maybe it was standing in dressing rooms as a child and never finding clothes to fit. My mother had to buy me pants that were too long in the legs in order to fit my waist. When we got home, she’d complain about having to hem them, and I would complain about how they looked when she did.

The clothing issue was a constant theme of my childhood. I remember vividly, my mother holding me in my twin bed as I cried. I guess I had become very tired of the never-ending attempt to try to cram myself into clothes and spaces in which I did not fit.

Being an adolescent girl is arduous even in the best of circumstances. Adolescence itself is a lot of navigating lands we have no maps for. But growing up alongside my thin mother complicated it, nevermind my sister who to this day, I cannot stand alongside without feeling a sense of inadequacy.

My sister is seven years older than me. Not only was she a teenager who paraded boys through our house while I was violently insecure and impressionable, but she was skinny while doing it. I hated her and I wanted to be her. It’s likely that in someplace I’ve buried and repressed, that envy and hate still lives.

Myself, my sister, my mom, and my two first cousins

Somewhere around the time she moved out, I went on my first diet. It was the summer before fourth grade. I was eight years old and it came about in an off-handed comment while I sat at my aunt’s kitchen table: "Why don’t we put you on a diet, Sabrina?"

It might have been the "we" that caught me, like a hook in my fleshy skin, like someone was going to walk the road of the excess pounds I carried with me. If I remember it correctly, my aunt dictated a lot of my food choices that summer. I heeded her warnings for the stretchy, languorous months of July and August, watching my friends eat sugary snacks on hot days but refusing to join them. Already, I was coding a toxic relationship with food that would take me fifteen years to undo.

When September came, my aunt took me back-to-school shopping and I was finally able to properly fit into a pair of pants. I remember perfectly, walking into my classroom on the first day of school and feeling, perhaps for the first time, pretty.

The memory is vibrant, its texture soft and proud. It is one of my strongest memories of that age. The validation and confidence that came with losing weight stamped out everything else. It would not be my last diet, but it would be my most successful. And I would spend the consecutive years of my life chasing that same, unattainable high.

2008, a photo I was very embarrassed of when posted

Maybe if I had grown up in a household that valued vegetables and healthy eating, I might have stayed at a healthy weight. But that is not a characteristic of the diet of where I’m from, where we fry things in pork fat and boil our vegetables with salted beef and cans of sausages and packs of bologna are staples in our kitchens. My mother worked shift work and my dad was an offshore fisherman, gone for weeks at a time. There wasn’t a chance in hell that I could maintain what I’d accomplished under the supervision of my aunt that summer. I gained the weight back and I accepted the brunt of it as my own personal failure. It dug itself into my skin, as shame does, and it stayed there.

When I was twelve, someone gifted me the Holy Bible of dieting: Weight Watchers. My mother was a nurse at the local hospital where the system must have been passed through the hands of middle-aged women, only to land in mine. I had a manila folder containing dozens of photocopied sheets that listed all the food I could possibly eat and their respective points.

I was in the sixth grade and adding up everything I ate in a food journal. It was green and had a soccer ball on the front. If I think about it long enough, I can still feel the fuzz of the cover under my hand, and the satisfaction I felt when I tallied the day’s points and found I’d come under my limit, and the humiliation on the days I went over.

I had not even gotten my period yet. I was a child. Not one single person in my life told me that what I was doing was unhealthy. Instead, they encouraged it. I’d weigh myself in the morning and if I had lost a pound, I’d tell my parents and they’d compliment my hard work. If I stayed the same, or god forbid, had gained a pound, I kept my mouth shut and the failure became extra weight I carried around.

My worth was measured by how much I weighed. It was not in the report cards sent home from school, in which I did well. It was not my intelligence or my kindness or the way I liked to write stories and poems. I was taught that the most important thing about myself was my appearance. And that it was never going to be good enough.

2012, another photo I was embarrassed of

If I think about high school, the image that comes to mind is one of me in the evening, on my bedroom floor, crying because I’d just eaten a bag of chips. I remember wishing that the carpet would open up and I’d fall into some place of oblivion, where I could cease to exist.

Too many times to count, I sat in front of the toilet and stuck my fingers down my throat. I guess, somewhat thankfully, vomiting is high on my list as one of the worst possible things my body can do and I’ve never been very good at it. But the fact that I couldn’t stop myself from eating, and I couldn’t force myself to throw it up either, only compounded the failure.

The thing is, this story isn’t rare. It’s the story of girlhood; it’s the story of adolescence. It’s knitted inside each of us, and it lives in the way we made fun of girls in the changing room and the way we bullied ourselves after school. I gained weight and lost weight too many times to count, and I was bullied by other girls and I was a bully myself. I can’t help but think how different all that could have been if someone had just looked at me and said that I was enough. If someone had just grabbed my shoulders, looked at me and said, “Sabrina, you know, there’s nothing wrong with your body.”

But it would be years before I heard that message.

In university, I had my quickest weight loss that came in the form of a mysterious illness. An outbreak of sores in my mouth prevented me from eating for a month. It hurt so bad I could barely speak but I did lose twenty pounds. I went home to my parents’ house because they were concerned about my health, and was complimented and flattered because I’d lost so much weight. Finally, a doctor told me what was wrong with me. I had mono, an infectious disease that if left untreated can lead to serious complications. Nevermind all that though. The weight I’d lost by being severely unhealthy was a cause for celebration.

2012, a photo I loved but was still embarrassed about

It’s not to say that my family or friends or parents are terrible people. They aren’t; they’re normal. Like everyone else, they’ve internalized the narrative that skinny equals healthy and anything else doesn’t. It didn’t matter that my body is just not built to look a certain way, that I’m genetically predisposed to be larger than some.

The people who raised me were not taught acceptance. They were not taught the language of shame, how residual it can be, how it embeds itself into the skin. They were not taught that health does not come through telling people their bodies aren’t good enough as they are. They did not know that acceptance fosters comfort, that acceptance breeds health. Nothing flourishes in shame. It withers and dies.

I’m nearly twenty-eight now. My body and I have gone through a lot together. Most recently, we just spent two months living on a Thai island, wearing bikinis and feeling sexy and being free of the kind of insecurity that once paralyzed me.

I could credit it to four years of living in Asia, or becoming a vegetarian, or just becoming older and softer with myself. But it would be missing a very crucial part of the story. Losing weight did not free me of the contempt I regarded my body with.

Thailand, 2019

Surprisingly enough, Instagram did. On it, I found a community of womxn who paraded and celebrated their bodies in a public space, giving me permission to do the same.

When I was still in university, after the bout of mono and I’d gained back some of the weight I’d lost, I read an article that said if you consume different images for a certain number of seconds each day, you can rewire what your brain recognizes as pretty.

I unfollowed every person on Instagram who didn’t represent me. I found plus-size models, body-positive influencers, artists and creators and womxn having conversations about acceptance and unearthing the collective shame we all carry. For minutes and hours each day, I watched and listened as they moved through the world, confidently, bravely, and free of embarrassment. I applauded their crop tops and their dimpled stomachs and their stretch marks, the way they tore apart anyone who tried to deny them the space they took up in the world, and I restructured the narrative I’d been living.

Today, I am a version of myself that I once dreamed of being. I don’t know how much I weigh and I don’t care. My body is soft and dimpled and round and I am not ashamed.

Vietnam, 2019

A while ago, a man said to me, "You have a very dominant body." At first, I did not know what to make of the word dominant in reference to my body. But I rolled the word around on my tongue, and after a while, I decided I liked the taste of it.

If dominant means powerful, if it means that I own this vessel I inhabit and I have scraped it free of shame, I am dominant. This body is dominant.

And thank you to the womxn who gave me permission to be. I owe so much of my happiness to you.