I have always been what my boyfriend lovingly describes as “thick”. Growing up Asian American, I had ingrained into me a very specific image of what a beautiful Asian/Asian American woman looked like: willow-thin with small breasts and hips, long flowing black hair, fair skin, large dark eyes, sharp cheekbones, and full pouty lips. The beautiful Asian woman of my youthful imagining had a dancer’s grace, a queen’s poise, and looked a heck of a lot like Zhang Ziyi.
Most of the women in my family bear an uncanny resemblance to Zhang Ziyi. I, on the other hand, do not.
I have always been short, darker-skinned, and round in both face and body. At the age of ten, it was already clear that I was going to be — ahem — well-endowed. I was the polar opposite of everything I understood to be beauty; worse yet, the other women I knew embodied this ideal so completely that I couldn’t even pretend that it was somehow an impossibility. My aunts, cousins, mother and sister were all capable of achieving this level of beauty, so there must be something wrong with me, right? Growing up, I felt exposed, alien, awkward, and so incredibly obviously ugly. I felt like there was something inherently, possibly genetically, wrong with me. I felt like a failure. I hated myself.
In retrospect, I realize now that I wasn’t a terrifically fat child or teenager. Sure, I looked like a tiny Asian Michelin Man in my baby photos, but I did lean out somewhat by my teenaged years. I was heavy and unathletic, perhaps, but I was never morbidly obese. I might’ve warranted a few cautionary words from my family doctor, but no one was going to be making a TLC/Discovery Health reality TV special about how they had to cut a hole out of the side of my house. Yet, I still felt like a sideshow freak. Whenever I looked in the mirror, this is what I saw:
I hated the way I looked and felt about myself. I would spend hours pinching the belly fat in my midsection, wishing it away. There were nights that I cried myself to sleep, praying to whatever gods might or might not exist that I would wake up lean, lithe and beautiful (I did mention that this was when I was a kid, right?). Eventually, after having woken up enough times looking exactly the same as I did when I fell asleep, I came to accept it: I would always be fat and ugly and out of shape, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to change it. There would be beautiful people in the world who could do things like run and jump and climb, and I was simply not one of them.
(Incidentally, this is also why I pushed myself to be well-educated and at least vaguely witty. I figured I had struck out in the looks department, so I’d better strive to be the chick that people would at least appreciate for having a “good personality”.)
This all sounds vaguely pathological, doesn’t it? That’s probably because it is.
I don’t pretend that I’m not a mess of self-image and self-esteem issues. My insecurities about my appearance are so much a part of who I am that I scarcely notice them anymore. But I would bet that my pathos is familiar, and possibly even shared to some extent or another, by a lot of women out there.
As a child, I was so resigned to my fate as a fat girl that I largely gave up taking care of my appearance or my health. Through undergrad and grad school, my weight slowly increased at a rate of about 5-10 lbs a year. In 2008, at my heaviest — 190 lbs on a 5’2″ frame — I was starting to physically resemble the Jabba the Hutt that I saw when I looked in the mirror.
By 2009, after my weight started to affect my cardiovascular health, I started working out (mostly to stave off any further deterioration of my health); you can read a more detailed account of my decision to start working out, my mindset, and what I started out doing, here.
Today, I am the healthiest I’ve ever been in my entire life (and I continue to improve every day). I have climbed (very small) mountains, run triathlons (very slowly), and I am currently in-training for a half-marathon. I have also lost between 40-50 lbs since December 2008.
An objective look at my progress would say that I’ve achieved quite a bit. You might even imagine that now that I’ve lost a bunch of weight (I’m not skinny, but I am much skinnier relative to my starting point), my self-esteem must be sky-high.
Well, I have a confession to make. There are some days when I look in the mirror, and this is still what I see:
Still sound vaguely pathological? Again, that’s probably because it is.
You see, as a kid, I always figured that I was unhappy because I was fat, and that being skinny would magically transform me into an incredible, self-confident, beautiful Zhang Ziyi-resembling woman. On Fitocracy, a health and fitness site that I frequent, I’ve seen a lot of beginners express a similar mindset: they believe that losing the next (or last) five, ten, twenty or fifty pounds will mean all the difference between their current state of depression and self-loathing and some hypothetical state of skinny euphoria that the beautiful people must chronically experience.
But, let me share a little bit of wisdom I have gleaned with you: low self-esteem is a mental problem, not a physical one. Being fat is a mindset as much as it is a physical state. Losing a few pounds or a good half your bodyweight will not, in and of itself, create love for yourself where now there is only hate and disgust. No matter how much you force your body into a shape that resembles your beauty ideal, if you fail to address the underlying self-esteem and self-confidence Jabba the Hutt demons that plague you at your heaviest, you will still find yourself obsessing over your body’s imperfections regardless of your weight. In short, if you are trying to lose weight because you hate the way you look, you will not love yourself because you are skinny.
That’s not to say that weight loss cannot help you build self-confidence and self-esteem. I confessed that Jabba still haunts me in my reflection, but I will also confess that I am hugely more confident and happy in who I am (and what I look like) today than I was five years ago. I’ve not only got greater self-confidence in my physical appearance, but I’ve found that I’m more confident, optimistic, and assertive in other aspects of my life.
Self-confidence and self-esteem is a mindset that has nothing to do with your appearance. It is built when you realize that you — yes, you — are beautiful and incredible and valuable and worth the effort to take care of, both mentally and physically. It is nourished by the sweat and tears and frustrations of setting seemingly impossible challenges for yourself and then proving to yourself that you — yes, you — are capable of meeting and even surpassing those challenges. It flowers with the realization that you — yes, you — are capable of being and doing anything you set your mind to.
Loving yourself does not come from being skinny. However, it does sometimes arise through the process. So please, don’t embark on your fitness journey expecting that the weight you shed will make you better, happier and more confident. Please stop obsessing over every morsel of food you eat, every minute you spend frantically working that elliptical machine, and every shudder in one direction or another of the scale — none of these things will make you happy with yourself.
Instead, you will love yourself when you prove to yourself that you are incredible and awesome and capable of so much more than you thought you were. Realize that you are forging a better, happier, and more self-confident you through mental and physical work and dedication. There will be frustrations, and maybe even a few false starts, but I promise, if you stick with it — with the specific goal of challenging yourself to break the physical boundaries you’ve never thought you could overcome — you won’t regret the pay-off.
You are already an incredible and beautiful person now (regardless of your weight), but building the self-confidence to love yourself and challenge yourself will make you even more gorgeous both inside and out. And, you just can’t put a pricetag on that.