This is about one author's personal, anecdotal experience and should not substitute medical advice. If you're having health concerns of any kind, we urge you to speak to a healthcare professional.
I went on my first diet when I was 12 years old. I don’t remember exactly what inspired it—maybe a smuggled issue of Cosmo or something I saw on MTV. All I know is that one day I decided it would be a really grown-up idea to lose a little weight before summer. My family had booked a 10-day beach vacation in August, and I knew I’d be spending a lot of time in a swimsuit. I had recently learned that women were supposed to be this thing called “thin,” especially when bikinis were involved. I did a little googling and found out that to be thin, you had to eat less. So that’s what I did.
At some website’s recommendation, I decided to stop eating meat and to restrict my calories to 1200 a day. By summer, I had lost five pounds, which made me feel accomplished and adult, not to mention twice as confident in my metallic Roxy two-piece. Now I embodied this ideal that all women wanted: “the bikini body.”
Little did I know that inaugural diet would end up shaping my relationship with food and body image for a long time. I was only in sixth grade—another decade of trying to achieve the ideal “bikini body” lay ahead. Luckily, one day, things would change. To follow along, read on.
I went on my second diet when I was 13. This time, I wanted to look “hot” for the big pool party my school was throwing in honor of our eighth-grade graduation. Again, I restricted my calorie count to an itty-bitty number based on some website’s calculations, and every time I got hungry when I wasn’t supposed to, I chugged a Diet Coke and weighed myself. By the big day, I’d lost another five pounds and received compliment after compliment about how skinny I looked in my little black bikini. There was no question: This “dieting” thing really worked.
I went on my third diet when I was 14 (sensing a pattern?)—now my goal was to lose the weight I’d suddenly starting gaining from this pesky little phenomenon called puberty. I didn’t want big hips and a round stomach. I wanted to look slender and tan like the girls in Us Weekly. I was in high school now, after all. There were dating prospects to impress.
But you can’t stave off puberty forever. Despite my protests, my body eventually expanded. Plus, I discovered a newfound affinity for social eating. To accommodate, my dieting habits in high school transitioned from pure restriction to a vicious cycle of binging and fasting. I’d down an entire pizza with my best friend, and since that day’s diet was already ruined, I’d follow it up with a cupcake, an entire stack of rice cakes, and three bowls of cereal. Then the next day, I’d feel so bloated and ashamed that I wouldn’t eat anything at all. I dreaded summer. Between the ages of 15 and 17, I wore boxer shorts every time I had to go into a pool.
Fortunately, things evened out a bit in college. I don’t know if it was a simple shift of priorities or if my brain finally developed past that loopy teenage state, but I didn’t binge or starve myself anymore. That said, I still thought about my weight often, particularly when the weather started getting warm. Every time talk of “bikini season” came up in conversation, on my Facebook feed, or on the covers of magazines in the grocery store aisle, I’d start planning my next diet. I’d clear all the carbs out of my apartment. I’d decline dinners out with friends so I could stay home and eat Lean Cuisine. I’d Facetune every photo of myself in a swimsuit, nipping and tucking my waist and thighs until my body looked just right.
These later habits weren’t as extreme as the ones of my teen years, but they were still irrational and always kept secret. Here’s the difference: As I entered my 20s, I didn’t want people to know I was dieting. There existed this unspoken catch-22 where it was still cool and desirable to be thin, but it wasn’t cool to be a girl on a diet. By then, everyone I knew wanted to be like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton—girls who spoke outwardly about loving pizza and hamburgers, who stood for body positivity but somehow still had these gorgeous, beach-ready frames. Girls on diets weren’t effortlessly beautiful, self-possessed feminists. They were considered body-shaming fembots and bad for society. So I felt like I had to keep my food habits a secret.
The last time I went on a diet, I was 23 years old. Actually, it wasn’t even a diet. Six months ago, I went vegan, but this time, it wasn’t to make myself skinnier. For once, it was to do something kind for my body.
Last year, I discovered an online community of women who overcame years of disordered eating by switching to a plant-based lifestyle. Now their diets are rich in color and bounty. Their skin and smiles radiate. Their bodies are healthy and their attitudes positive. These women really inspired me.
I can say with confidence that by 23, my dysfunctional eating habits were a thing of the past. I actually felt pretty good about my body at that point (I’d long since thrown out my bathroom scale). That said, I still felt disconnected from my shape. The thought of “bikini season” still stressed me out.
But shifting my mind-set from seeing food as the enemy—something to restrict and avoid—to seeing it as something positive made me more compassionate about my body in general. You don’t have to go vegan to make this change in perspective, but that’s what did it for me. This year is the first year since I was 12 that having the perfect “bikini body” is not on my to-do list.
Actually, though, I am going to have the perfect bikini body this summer. But it’s not going to look like some model’s body, or even the body I had 10 years ago. It’s going to look like me.
Instead of beating my body into submission, I’m going to prepare for bikini season in a different way. I’m going to feed it a mountain of bananas, avocados, and other foods I love. I’m going to douse my limbs in Charlotte Tilbury’s Supermodel Body Slimmer Shimmer ($65) because it makes me feel sparkly and confident. I’m going to get rid of every bikini I own that doesn’t make me feel like a million bucks and write it off as something that’s wrong with the swimsuit, not wrong with me.
Because what I’ve learned is that the secrets to your “perfect body” are as follows: Find healthy foods you love, and eat them in abundance; indulge in fun, confidence-boosting beauty treatments that make you feel foxy; and, most importantly, remember the ultimate secret that the perfect bikini body doesn’t even exist.
As it turns out, being nice to your body and being happy with your body go hand in hand. I wish I’d discovered that 10 years ago, but I’m glad to have figured it out at all.