The Body Series :: On Weight and Body Image

I lay in a twin bed surrounded by pastel pink, now darkened by the night. A dim glow seeps in through my curtains. In my head, I say a little prayer, still Catholic in convictions. I pray for my family and friends and for peace in the world. I wish for slim thighs and a flat stomach. I wish for a narrow rib cage and longer legs and for the pudge beside my armpit to disappear. I am seven.

 My precious upper arm pudge <3

My precious upper arm pudge <3

Growing up in Miami, I have realized is not the healthiest place for a young girl. Many places make it difficult to fall in love with yourself. There really is no haven from the parade of images of Photoshopped “perfection,” but, in Miami, you even see it IRL. On the beach, at restaurants, fake tans, hair, breasts, noses, asses. Bodies molded by starvation and an exercise regimen that would make earning a living impossible. This is what you saw and what you knew, so you believed this is what you’re supposed to look like. Having a gorgeous mother who easily slides into a size 0 or 2 and DID wake up like this #flawless didn’t help either. By the time I hit puberty I could fit into her clothes, but once my breasts and ass and thighs really grew in, I could only squeeze into a few pieces.

In 2nd grade, I started ballet lessons because I was apparently too fat for gymnastics. Yes, an 8 year old me was told she needed to be thinner in order to roll around and bounce on a trampoline. And so, I got my leotard and tights and learned how to wrap my hair in a perfect slicked back bun. I learned how to pirouette and apply makeup for recitals and competitions. And the the promise always lingered, doing ballet will make you thinner, which is what we were all striving to be.

 The strategically slimming lean.. ugh I wish I could tell 14 year old me that she is allowed to take up space!!!!

The strategically slimming lean.. ugh I wish I could tell 14 year old me that she is allowed to take up space!!!!

I look back at photos of myself and can’t believe how much bigger I felt back then. How much I felt I wasn't allowed to be bigger. It isn’t until you learn to love yourself that the effects body dysmorphia become clear. I knew what it was, of course. By the time I was in middle school, I co-wrote a “Stations of the Cross” play (hey Catholic school) where I played someone with body dysmorphia, having the “devil” character come in and show what my character saw in the mirror. You see, I thought because I liked myself a little, that it was just a little more weight I constantly wanted to lose, a little bit of myself that I wanted to disappear, that it wasn’t a problem. The character would pass out from working out too hard. I didn't. I was healthy. I didn’t starve myself. Not yet.

I had a tendency to show a lot of mid riff, despite how self conscious I felt about my stomach. Once, at my uncle’s house, he pinched the space between my belly button and the band of my jeans and said “if you can pinch an inch…” I’m not sure if he finished the sentence. Those are the only words I can still hear in my head, but the meaning is implied. “If you can pinch an inch of belly fat, there is too much of you.” And this message came from everywhere. From my stick thin friends who pinched themselves in despair, wishing for more bone and less meat. That scene from Mean Girls where everyone is hating on bits of their own body, that is hilarious because it's so true. Because it's so sad. 

Once the message was clear, I learned how to monitor my eating. This was especially difficult for a young Latina child growing up with a grandmother who wouldn't let you leave the table until you've cleared your plate and down your glass of milk and your dessert. Leaving any food behind was a crime, a travesty, a sin. But I had to rise above that Catholic guilt to be "skinny" right? I tried less carbs. I remember for a while in high school, I would just crush chick peas, drizzle olive oil on them and scoop it up with some vegetables. I thought that was healthy. When I rowed crew and had to stay under 130 lbs to compete in the Lightweight 8, an excusable cycle of starving and binging began because I “had to.”

 "Tankinis" and shorts were my favorite way to hide.

"Tankinis" and shorts were my favorite way to hide.

And then there were the insane diets. The Master Cleanse, where you drink only lemon, maple syrup and cayenne pepper in water. That lasted 2 days. My mother made me eat a baguette when I started going delirious on second night. This insane thing where you inject yourself with pregnancy hormones and eat only 500 calories per day. I don’t remember the name, but dear god, how did I think that was a good idea. After about a week of that, I caved into a box of Krispy Kreme donuts.

I thought because they were few and far between, it was ok. And to be honest, I'm one of the best case scenarios. I never questioned my self- esteem because at least I stopped openly stating "I'm so fat," like it was the worst thing you could be. At least, I didn't have a "real" eating disorder. By comparison, I was the model of health. But of course, it's never really about the weight or the food. When you have low self-esteem, that becomes the easy focal point. At least that's something people have "tips and tricks" to work with. And what came first? The issues with body image and eating or low self-esteem? Or did they swirl inside your psyche, manifesting almost simultaneously enabled by an environment of other contributing factors? 

Like many young people, I couldn't function without external validation, and measuring my worth through numbers on a scale and pant sizes became an easy game. Always trying to drive them down. This story isn’t new. This story is so unbelievably common, the sheer magnitude is the depressing part. This struggle doesn’t make me special. It makes me just like everyone else.

This is the story of how girls learn how to diminish themselves, and in turn, are told they are not worth taking up space. I look back at photos and I see the girl compressing herself, forcing wide hips to conform to the restrictions of a size 4, when she sits on a spectrum of 6-8. (Size 6 was the largest she felt allowed to be because Julia Roberts said she was a size 6 in a movie and she’s taller than me so how dare I be wider.)

But I am not your 00. These hips cannot be contained by designer jeans bought at stores where they scoff at your size. These breasts weren't meant to feel constrained by your too small button ups, or be pushed up by your bras. My thighs will not be shamed by pants that are too tight and too long. I don’t wear knee high boots anymore, because my calves are tired of your narrow bullshit. The rolls on my stomach are not forbidden folds I hold my breath to avoid. Sitting straight up or laying back to prevent the flesh from touching. 

 Blurry because I'm having to much fun dancing and jiggling!

Blurry because I'm having to much fun dancing and jiggling!

Last week, as I prepped for an audition, dancing about in my backless sports bra top and Lumpy Space Princess boy shorts, I filmed myself in the mirror. As I looked at my body, I thought so sincerely, “god damn you are perfect.” This feeling is new and it is incredible. I remember the girl who hated her thighs because at the top they become extra wide and soft. I look at them now and can’t imagine what it would be like to want so deeply to slice into. My belly, too, has a certain softness to it. I no longer cringe at the inch I can pinch. I play with it. My lovers have always liked my softness and, now, so do I.

I wanted to be hard for so long. Ripped and resilient. With lean muscles and an iron will. I wanted to stop crying all the damn time, but now I like the soft parts. The parts of me that receive and feel. I’m a Pisces Moon, baby, and these waters run deep.

Because of course, it was never really about my body and what I put into it. It was the impossible hope, that a certain shape or size would fill an empty space inside of me. “When I get back down to 120 lbs, I’ll be happy.” I wish I could tell teenage Alessandra it is unlikely she will ever dip below 130 lbs again, and that it’s beautiful up here.

I don't know when exactly it happened. When I started to really love my body and not only my body, but the shapes of all the people around me. When "fat" stopped being a bad word. I'm still figuring it out, because on one level, I never saw other people's bodies the way I saw mine, but on the other, there was always that thin layer of judgement. The "you know who got fat" and all the other whispers of judgement. I am not proud of this part of myself. The part of me that saw the world through the lens of the overculture. But in admitting to you this was once a part of me and that every day I choose to let those glasses go, I hope you can let yours go, too.

I don't know exactly when it happened, but I know that the irony of all this, is that the first shift came when I tried yet another diet. I started The Paleo Diet as part of an online New Years fitness challenge and leaned up pretty quickly. It didn't last. I missed the flexibility of eating out and, it's expensive to eat that well all the time. However, it was my first taste of eating food as fuel. Of noticing what felt really good in my body. What gave me more energy.

I don't know exactly when it happened, but I know that therapy helped. I know that meditation and yoga helped. I relearned how to live inside my body. How to listen. I have no doubt that learning to feel my anxiety instead of shutting it down, has allowed me to better listen to my body's signals for hunger and satisfaction. I say no to dessert, when I genuinely don't want or need it, not because of some overlying guilt. And even that we put pressure on. "Come on, don't you want to try it?" Why do we bully each other into eating and not eating? 

I don't know exactly when it happened, but I know that when I focused on becoming a better person, something shifted. When tarot and yoga became daily practices, when I realized there are things bigger than me, it all became a little easier. The weight and the inches seemed to find a natural resting place without me even noticing. And I don't know if I'm actually a different size or if finding way to feel good inside your body just make you feel like the right size. I breath and I move and I listen to the vessel I live inside. I see the magic of this flesh that tells me quite clearly when it wants meat or vegetables or starch. When it needs food or feels perfectly satisfied thank you very much. And non of it is an emergency anymore. Food has finally become fuel instead of a coping mechanism. (Except sometimes your soul craves ice cream and that calling is sacred <3)

I look at this body. In the mirror. Photographed. Recorded. I feel it beneath my fingers. Curl up into it. Twist and stretch it out. And I wonder how could I have hated you so much. Could have resented the fat cells adorning my thighs and glazing my stomach. And I know it is a privilege to work through that sense of projection looking the way I do. Because the only stigmas I’ve had to face are the ones I’ve created. I am not model or Hollywood skinny, but I am thin enough. And that in itself is a separate problem. That we have come so far, but still have such a ways to go in seeing the beauty of all bodies.

And as I've spilled so much, I feel like I've only scratched the surface. I hope to continue this conversation with you over the coming months exploring so much more of our bodies and our depth.