Eighth grade is a time of life I’d never revisit. That in-between period where everyone is going through puberty yet exhibiting its signs in various ways. It’s not pretty—well not for everyone. Of course, there are always the girls who seemed to blossom into young womanhood with ease, their bodies becoming lithe and womanly overnight, with clear skin and eyes that didn’t need glasses to see. Whatever they lacked naturally was made up with access to salons and the best stores.
For a girl such as myself, whose gift from the puberty fairies were extra layers of fat and unruly hair, thicker glasses, and zero access to the fashions I wished I could wear, the inequities of middle school womanhood were never more apparent than in the locker room. Yup, we all had to dress out for PE, changing from our school outfits to shorts and school-logo shirts.
You can tell how females feel about their bodies by the way they will change clothes in shared spaced such as a locker room. Those with nothing they wish to hide would strip off shirts and jeans, taking their time transitioning to PE attire while laughing and chatting in their underwear, which was decidedly more adult-looking than not. The rest of us would change clothes quickly and efficiently, taking special care to expose no part of the body to anyone as much as possible. At that age, you either had too much of something, not enough of what you wanted and a shared loathing of the unfairness of it all.
I didn’t grow up with female role models who paid attention to healthful eating and exercise. What I had been exposed to be many women who married and had babies and no longer looked like the women used to be. This was usually blamed on the marriage and the babies and accepted as the price one pays for the life they got. It was a cultural thing because our move to Southern California when I was 12 years old showed me a very different narrative. These girls who floated past puberty woes were the daughters of women who appeared to have floated past pregnancy and childbirth woes. My insecurities were only further inflamed.
But here’s what didn’t help—adults in my world who felt compelled to comment on what was none of their business—my body.
While trying on a junior bridesmaid’s dress, the bride brought over a size 5, which was too tight on me. She commented that her waist was 24 inches and how was it that at age 13, mine was not? Her fiancé walked by and saw me in the dress and said, “well, you know you need to lose weight, right?” But the more tragic part was the shame I felt, tainted with the foolish notion that it was my duty to answer them all and acknowledge that yes, I needed to lose weight.
I got chubbier and high school started. That summer I got a turquoise lace, tea-length formal dress on sale (hideous, but this was 1989). There was a family wedding in the fall, and I was excited to debut the monstrosity there. When I arrived at the wedding and greeted uncles and aunts I hadn’t seen since I was a child, whatever bubble of loveliness was popped when the relatives gave me the up and down and said, “What happened to you?” with looks of disappointment on their faces.
Those experiences and my teenage desire to be someone different from I was, got me motivated. I got serious about improving myself halfway through 9th grade and started doing aerobics classes I’d tape on VHS off of ESPN. When you are young, it doesn’t take too much to kick your body into great shape, and before long all sorts of people made comments about my body again. But this time, the flattery filled a hole that had been dug by the cruelty. And it wasn’t long before my sense of worth became completely propped up by someone else’s approval of my body.
Then I had my first baby, and the pregnancy weight didn’t fly off. Again, relatives and even casual friends made comments about how large I had become. About how I’d need to commit myself to work harder to look better. And I took it, smiling through humiliation, yet seething and hurt on the inside.
How was this anyone’s dang business?
In South Asian culture, there is this very unfortunate phenomenon where pretty much anyone, but especially if they are related to you, feels perfectly entitled to comment, even ask for explanations, about one’s weight gain. Those same people will clamor all over you like ants on an unsupervised slice of watermelon at a summer picnic when you lose weight and, in their eyes, are now acceptable. All of it is wrong.
All I choose to say is this: If you have ever told someone to lose weight or fix themselves up, shame on you. If you are a parent or other adult meant to love and support a person who was verbally assaulted with such unkindness and did nothing about it, shame on you.
And if you’ve been on the receiving end of this BS, know this. Those people who dared to make hurtful comments about something that is none of their ever-loving business are the ones with problems beyond your care or control. And if the ones entrusted to do better by you stood by while you were hurt, they were the ones with the problem.
I was enough then. I am enough now. You were enough then. You are enough now.