The first time I reread my childhood journals in their entirety as an adult, I cried. At first, this was from laughter; I had written what seemed like a hundred entries about American Idol (my favorite show). I had scribbled down hilarious rantings about how exciting it was to have my own cell phone and cataloged events like the school book fair, seeing Mean Girls in theaters, and the popularity of LiveStrong bracelets.
But amidst all the sillier entries, I had documented other things, too. Stuck in between entries about going to the mall by myself for the first time and how cute I thought Ashton Kutcher was, there were also dozens upon dozens of entries about how much I hated my body. For years, I wrote about how badly I wanted to lose weight and how I avoided wearing swimsuits at pool parties by avoiding them altogether. I outlined meal plans and exercise goals. I wrote again and again about how I just wanted to be thinner and "normal." So at 28, when I thought about my 11-year-old and 12-year-old self planning her summers around a quest to become thin, I cried then, too.
There’s something uniquely unsettling about reading words from a past version of yourself. As someone who’s dealt with disordered eating and weight obsession for most of my life, I could recall the events and emotions I wrote about right away, but that didn’t make it easy. I could remember hating the annual school field trip to a water park because I would have to wear a bathing suit. I could remember begging my mom to get a treadmill so I could exercise more. I could remember feeling constantly bigger than everyone around me. The remembering itself wasn’t the painful part, though. It was the perspective. What I failed to realize then—which I couldn’t have realized, of course—is just how young 11 and 12 are. I found myself picturing the pre-teens I know now saying the things I had written about myself about themselves, and it made my stomach turn.
[My heartbreak at reading the journal entries] wasn't just because I was sad for the younger version of myself (though, of course, I was): it was also because I saw in an instant how those same feelings I had at 11 and 12 had stuck with me when I was 14, 19, 20, and even 25. I saw how they never really went away at all.
The summer after I turned 11, I wrote: "I don’t want to be a size one. I just want to be normal. I don’t want to not be able to fit into sizes 1-16 in girls. I don’t want to have to be a size 13 in juniors. I don’t want to weigh more than my mom. I just want to be normal." As I read my journals from this year of my life and the year after, this was the theme that seemed to stick around—that I didn’t fit in, and I never would unless I finally became "skinny."
I was taller and bigger than kids my age, which made me feel inherently wrong, ugly, and unlovable. I wrote about it in a million different ways, year after year. I wrote that I wished I was anorexic and that I was angry at myself for not being able to resist pizza. I compared my body to my best friends’ and the popular girls’ in detail, often ending entries with plans for how I would end the summer thinner than at the start. Though I had friends and hobbies, it was clear that I was deeply sad and incredibly angry when it came to my body. Not only that, but I was bitter about it, and I was just 11.
To a certain extent, I’m sure it’s true that all pre-teen girls deal with insecurity. Still, reading my journals for the first time and grasping just how young I was when I wrote about how alone and ugly I felt was heartbreaking. It still is. But this wasn’t just because I was sad for the younger version of myself (though, of course, I was); It was also because I saw in an instant how those same feelings I had at 11 and 12 had stuck with me when I was 14, 19, 20, and even 25. I saw how they never really went away at all. I could instantly identify that those same feelings were there when I did Weight Watchers in high school, tried the military diet in college, or briefly stopped eating altogether at my first real job. I hated the words I was reading, and I hated even more that they still felt familiar.
If I didn't think it was acceptable for an 11 year-old to talk to themselves this way, why is it acceptable now?
But the journals also forced me to ask myself a question I had long been avoiding. If I didn’t think it was acceptable for an 11 year-old to talk to themselves this way, why is it acceptable now? The answer, of course, was that it’s not. It never is. So when I find myself slipping into old habits and having thoughts similar to those I had as a child—when I tell myself that life would be easier if I were thinner—I think of my 11-year-old, American Idol-loving, Mean Girls-watching self. I ask myself what I would say to her about her body and her insecurities now.
I imagine talking to her gently, telling her that this world doesn’t make it particularly easy for women or girls to feel good about themselves. I would say I don’t blame her for feeling pressure to change. I would say that she’s beautiful, but her body doesn’t have anything to do with that at all. I would tell her that losing 10 pounds won’t add value to her life, but enjoying the pool party or not missing out on that water park trip will. I would tell her it’s okay not to feel confident all the time and one day she will be more concerned with how much life she was living than how she looked while doing it.
I would say that she’s beautiful, but her body doesn’t have anything to do with that at all.
I'd let her know that one day, she’ll fall in love and travel the world and still spend most days writing about her feelings (but this time, getting paid for it). I’d tell her that she’ll still have moments where she wishes she could change, but she’ll have many more moments where she feels like the luckiest girl in the world, and she’s exactly where she should be. And absolutely none of that—not one single iota—will have to do with what she weighs.