recovering from body dysmorphia.

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A few days ago, a mom of one of my high school friends posted some old photos of our group of friends on her Facebook. When I saw them, my thought process went a little something like this:

“Wow. Was the fashion really that bad in the late ’90s?”
“Holy crap. Thank god I found some tweezers.”
“I look small in that picture.”
“And that picture.”
“And that picture.”
“And that picโ€”wait a minute. I was small.”

In high school, I felt like I was the heaviest girl around. I was confident enough. I had friends. I was moderately popular. But I always felt like the reason why I wasn’t the teacher’s favorite/didn’t have a boyfriend/didn’t get {insert something}/wasn’t {insert something} was because I was grotesquely, unloveably overweight.

Perspective is a funny thing.

Now, I am happy, healthy, successful and in love with a very attractive man and I’m about the same size I was in high school. And I feel normal, small even.

(Red shirt. Khaki pants. Doc Marten sandals. I worked at Target in high school.)

Looking back at these pictures, I’m starting to realize that I had a nasty case of body dysmorphia. I’ve always said that I’ve been overweight my entire life, but I’m starting to feel like that maybe isn’t true. I’m starting to feel like it was my mind that made me feel like I’ve been overweight for so long. Because, as you can see, I may have been a smidge bigger than the other girls, but I wasn’t overweight and certainly not the kind of obesity I remember seeing in my mind’s eye.

Even though I seem to remember myself being as confident as any teenage girl can be, obviously something was going on to make me feel so out-of-place, awkward and abnormal. Why, to this day, when I picture myself in high school do I simply see a fat younger version of me?  I’ve seen a million photos of myself from high school and in every single one of them I am this size. So why is it always a surprise to me see myself looking so…normal…from this time frame?

Obviously, I wasn’t tiny.

I was tall, muscular and chubby. But not enough of any of those to fuel a decade long complex. Sure, I can blame it on the boy I was dating my junior year who told me he wished he could put my face and my personality onto another girl’s skinner body (true story). Or the kids on the school bus in elementary school who said it was a good thing my feet were so big so my giant stomach wouldn’t make me tip over (also, true story). Or the fact that I had to buy my prom dress from the limited plus size section while my friends got to try on dresses for hours (again, truth). But the fact is, that inability to see who I truly was came from inside of me. And those outside influences only reinforced it. I must have truly believed I was incredibly overweight. And that is so sad.

(Holy, plaid, Batman. And collar bones. What are those?)

I often blamed my weight as the reason why I didn’t have very many boyfriends in high school (looking back, I dated plenty for a high school girl). I always said that boys would like me more if I lost some weight, but I knew in my brain it didn’t add up. There were girls my size or larger who were dating some of the most popular guys in school. But still, something inside of me made me think, “it’s the weight.” Of course I thought that. How could I not when I saw my body so negatively?

It was also just flat out easier to blame something like weight. Weight was the easy culprit. Weight I could lose. I couldn’t change my loud, obnoxious personality or the fact that I was incredibly awkward and shy around boys. Instead of admitting those were the case, I dug myself even further into my dysmorphia and used it as a crutch for explaining my singledom.

(How is it possible that fashion from only a decade ago can look so terrible?)

I was so deep in this web of lies I’d told myself about being overweight that I went to college and fulfilled my self-penned destiny. I gained the weight that I thought I already had on me. I managed to gain almost 50 pounds in college before I ever even realized I had put on an ounce. I saw my body as huge from such a young age, so it was no surprise that when I actually got larger, I didn’t even notice the change. What I saw in the mirror didn’t change. It just meant that everyone was now seeing what I had been seeing for years.

You all know where this goes from here. I kept gaining and gaining. And then I lost most of it. And with that loss I’ve come to realize how amazing my high school-sized body was.

Perspective is a funny thing.

Technically, I’m the same girl right now that I was in these photos. I have the same name (well, first name). I have the same hair color (plus some purple). I’m the same height. I have the same puke green eyes. I wear the same dress size. I have the same parents. The same brother and sisters. I’m about the same weight. But my perspective is so incredibly different.

Then, to me, a size sixteen sounded like torture. Huge. Disgusting. Odd. Strange. Awkward. Undesirable. If you would have told me I’d be living my adult life at a size sixteen (and at sometimes, even larger) it would have sent me into a fit of teenage angst the likes of which had never been seen.  Now, a size sixteen feels strong, powerful, fit and healthy. I love being a size sixteen.

There are so many things I wish I could go back and tell the sixteen-year-old me. I wish I could explain to her how big the world is outside of high school. I wish I could tell her to stop worrying so much about boys. I wish I could tell her that, as an adult, people will embrace and love her obnoxious personality. I wish I could tell her and her friends to cool it with the self-hate and fat talk. But mostly, I wish I could stop her from drowning herself in an incredibly inaccurate self-image.

Because, over a decade later, and she’s just now starting to heal the wounds that it left.

What would you say to the sixteen-year-old you?

Cassie is the founder and CEO of Wholefully. She's a home cook and wellness junkie with a love of all things healthy living. She lives on a small hobby farm in Southern Indiana with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and 15 chickens.

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39 Responses
  1. I had such bad self esteem problems in high school due to my looks, mainly because… I wore glasses. I had it drilled into me from my mother that I’d never get a boyfriend because of the glasses I wore and how I dressed. I believed her, too. I dated one guy in high school and we didn’t even kiss once. I didn’t even get my first kiss until my sophomore year of college. My self esteem was so, so bad because I thought I was so ugly with my glasses.

    It’s funny now that I think my glasses ENHANCE my looks, not take away from them. I’m 100% comfortable wearing glasses now, but in high school, I thought I was doomed to be alone forever because what guy thinks a girl in glasses is hot?

    I still look back at those awkward pictures of me from middle school and high school and still think I didn’t look that great, unfortunately. However, barely anyone looked that great in the early 90s :).

    1. Cassie

      Oh gosh, the glasses thing. I could write a whole other post on glasses. But mostly, I was the exact same way. I got contacts the second my optometrist would let me in middle school and pretty much lived in them for years. I had a particularly not great relationship in high school where the guy was really, really possessive. He wouldn’t “let” me wear my contacts because he felt like my glasses made me look unattractive and if I was unattractive, no other guy would look at me. So that even more engrained in my head that glasses=ugly girl. That relationship? Whole other post, too.

      But now? Glasses are totally part of my identity. Sure, I wear contact sometimes, but glasses are part of who I am and I love it! I have fun with my massive number of frames. And girls with glasses are totally hot.

      Again, perspective is so weird.

  2. Zoe

    My body issues in HS were pretty terrible. I look back at my pictures and I’m like, “guuuuurrrll, you were fine.”
    Not that my body issues aren’t bad now, but YOU KNOW.

    I’d tell my 16 year old self, “In about a year you’ll meet a dude! He’ll be pretty awesome. But get engaged to him. Graduate and go to college. Don’t hold yourself back because of him. Also, invest in a padded bra. Just a heads up.”

  3. You know what I think? I think most of us felt this way about something as teenagers. For me? It was weight (and I wore a solid 16 too, but still think it looked different on my shorter frame). But my best friend was gorgeous and took issue with her hair. When a cut was a little too short for her liking she completely freaked out. For some people, it is braces or glasses or acne. I think what you are rehashing here is a part of the typical teenage experience (even for boys). I don’t want to minimize it in any way, I just want you to feel a little less alone in your experience.

    I was conscious of my weight in high school, but I really don’t think it bothered me until I started dating in college. My boyfriend never said anything to me about it, but I just became much more aware of my body when I was around new people. I spent 13 years of my life with most of the same friends, so I never had to make a first impression. And I became aware of my weight as possibly holding me back not just with boys, but with friends too.

    When I started losing weight a few years ago, my old boyfriend messaged me on facebook, telling me how good I looked and how much he missed me (no worries, he’s into boys now). I told him how good I felt and that I was finally starting to like how I looked. And he told me that one of the things he always loved about me was how secure and assured I always seemed in my skin. That I gave off a self-esteem and body acceptance that he wished he had. I had no idea that I came off that way, but it thrilled me that I didn’t appear like one of those girls that was fixated with her weight.

    …And my prom dress was plus-sized too. And I rocked it. And I knew that at the time.

    1. Cassie

      I think this is what I’m struggling with wrapping my brain around. I felt good. At least I remember feeling good. Confident. Self-assured. But I also have this picture of myself as none of these things. It’s a strange disconnect that I’m having a hard time figuring out.

      A similar thing happened to me with my sister last year. She told me that my blog has actually been really good for her because she was always so jealous of how self-confident I was and felt like nothing could phase me. And thanks to the blog, she’s realized I’m not that way. But it was a shocker to me that someone saw me that way. But just like you, it made me feel happy that I didn’t come off as a girl obsessed with her weight, even though on the inside, I was obviously struggling.

  4. Erin

    I love your blog and have been reading for awhile, but I felt compelled to comment on this. I could TOTALLY identify with this. I was always one of the bigger girls in middle and high school – but, like you, I was only a size 14 or 16 at the time. However, I thought I was enormous. Most of my friends were small(size 0-6), though; so in comparison, I was not only much bigger, but also several inches taller. I never allowed it to hold me back from being involved in sports, theater, etc. though. I didn’t date much which I do think had to do with my weight (and still does).

    I look back now and wish I could be that size again. Being a size 16 at age 16 seemed terrible but being a size 16 at nearly 30 wouldn’t be so bad. A “strong, powerful, fit, and healthy” 16 sounds wonderful. I have a while to go until I get there, but if I never fit into anything smaller than a 16, I think I will be OK with it. It’s amazing how time and perspective can change you ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Cassie

      I struggled with my height a lot in high school, too. It’s hard to blend in when you are physically built to stand out, you know? And I wanted nothing more to blend in.

  5. This is probably my favorite post.

    I think body dysmorphia is something all teenagers experience to a degree, and I wish they listed it among the many issues teens face in those health books. I hate that feeling out of place and awkward in our teenage bodies is normal. I hate that we chalk it up to teenage anxiety. It IS part of the “teenage experience,’ but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we talked about it differently? If we told our teenage daughters not “you’ll grow out of it,” but “you’re perfect how you are”? It’s sad to me that we carry our body issues with us into adulthood. I had a VERY similar experience to you–because I was larger than my friends, I felt that I was larger than everyone in the world, and I gained a dress size every two years once I was in college. And I also started yo-yo dieting. All because my body wasn’t what I thought it should be. And I still struggle with by body, even though I consider myself to be extremely confident. I see a picture of you in a size 16, and you look healthy, confident, slim, strong–all things that you are. I wear a 16, too, and don’t use those adjectives to describe myself nearly enough. In so many ways, I’m still that self-loathing band geek who just can’t seem to reconcile the image of her body with its strength.

    1. Cassie

      I LOVE the idea of bringing it out into the open and actually talking about it and phrasing it differently. I lost count of how many times I heard, “It’s just baby fat, it’ll go away.”

  6. L

    I agree that body dysmorphia plays such a huge, huge role. Last year, I was tiny, sub 100 lbs, and could only care about how thin I looked or how I wanted to lose 5-6 more lbs. Now that I’m at a healthier weight, I’ve cultivated more confidence and self worth in other aspects of my life.

    I admire your confidence and strong ideology, Cassie! I’m still struggling with how I view my body day to day, but it’s definitely getting better! Thanks for such a great post!

    1. Cassie

      Thank you so much for sharing this! It is so interesting that when in the depths of body dysmorphia, nothing can seem like enough. It’s always “5 or 6 more pounds until I’m happy” you know?

  7. Shauna

    I feel like I could have written exactly this, except for the weight loss part. Still struggling with that. I’ve never been skinny, but I have had SO many issues because of OTHER PEOPLE telling me I needed to lose weight (most specifically, my mom).

    I wish I could tell myself that none of it matters. That my weight doesn’t define me and it won’t prevent me from having all my dreams come true, and it won’t make me unhappy unless I let it. I wish I could tell 16 year old me that these aren’t the best of times and that I can do ANYTHING I really want to do as long as I make myself a priority.

    I wish I could give 16 year old me a hug and tell her that it gets so so so much better. 10 years later I am happier than ever, regardless of the number on the scale.

    1. Cassie

      My friend/boss once said that someone told her high school that she should enjoy it, because those were the absolute best times of her life. And she broke down into a deep depression because she was so miserable in high school and if wasn’t going to get better?

      Admittedly, my high school experience was fine, good even. But the person I am now is so much happier and fulfilled.

  8. Bre

    I was skinny in high school. My body dysmorphia has been a recent issue. Last summer I lost 50 pounds. I felt like I wasn’t thin enough and it was a plateau. I have gained 20 of it back and have a greater appreciation for the accomplishment I had attained. I realized that the weight I wasn’t happy with then, is actually a healthy weight that can maintain. In my mind though, I was still fat. So I gave up on my diet and exercise that actually made me feel good. I went back to eating poorly, being lazy and feeling awful. I am now back enjoying healthy choices in my life and working to that new goal weight. I guess you have to lose something to appreciate it. Thank you Cassie for this great story that a lot of us relate to.

    1. Cassie

      “I realized that the weight I wasnโ€™t happy with then, is actually a healthy weight that can maintain.”

      I’m just now getting to that point. Similar story. I lost 50 and then gained back about 10, I have no idea what I weigh now, but I’d guess it’s back down close to that original 50 pounds and I’m realizing that I LOVE it here. It’s a healthy weight that I can maintain. Sure it isn’t tiny, or small even, but it feels good!

  9. This is an awesome post. I think so many girls, myself included can relate to your message. I struggled with the “I’m bigger than most girls my age complex” from about first grade throughout college. I’ve always had to buy the larger sized clothing/pants and I hated shopping with my friends.

    Even now, I think I still struggle with it to a certain extent. I know somewhere deep inside that I’m healthy and could just drop a dime and go run 10 miles. But I don’t fit into the stereotypical mold of a “runner”, I don’t have the “runner’s body” (whatever that actually means), so to some extent it’s still hard for me to accept my larger frame.

    Thanks for writing this post, hopefully someday we’ll all be able to gain a bit of perspective.

    Also, I would tell my sixteen year old self that the reason I didn’t have a boyfriend was less because of my weight/appearance and more because of the fact that I was inexplicably in love with all things *NSYNC. I’d tell myself to cool it a bit. hahaha!

    1. Cassie

      Haha! It could be worse. You could have been in COLLEGE and totally obsessed with *NSYNC. You know, not that I know anyone that was like that or anything…

      I definitely still struggle with fitting into a mold of what a fit person should look like. The truth is, if someone didn’t know me and saw me walking down the street, they’d assume I spend my freetime on the couch instead of in the gym. But just because that’s true, it doesn’t mean I need to look at myself that way.

  10. Jessica

    This post is amazing, Cassie. I have literally had the exact same thoughts when looking back on old photos from high school. I had the same horrible body image back then, and felt like I was a whale compared to all of the other girls. I’m 5’10 and had other tall friends, but they had the more slender, athletic build, while I had the more curvacious, hourglass figure (which of course, I didn’t see the beauty of back then). I went through the same college phase where I already thought of myself as larger, and gained even more weight without realizing it. Since then, I’ve lost a healthy amount and still have my curves, but now I love my body. I look back on the photos from high school and hate that I had such an image problem, because in reality, my body was perfectly fine.. just different. Thank goodness I finally came to my senses!

  11. I’m so glad your perspective has changed, because you ARE beautiful, inside & out! Thank you for sharing your story with us ๐Ÿ˜€

    Oh gosh, what would I tell 16 year old me? Where do I start? I would tell her that she is beautiful and had no reason to feel insecure. I would tell her not to listen to the mean things people would say: it just brings to surface their own insecurities. I would tell her that high school will be over in just a few years, and how much none of the drama would matter again. I would tell her that she deserves boyfriends who are good to her. There is so much I would tell 16 year old me, I could go on and on.

    Thank you for this ๐Ÿ™‚ Perspective is a funny thing, you’re right. I used to think I was huge until I looked at old photos. Funny enough, sometimes I still do it, until I see myself in a mirror or photos. It’s all about perspective ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Sarah

    Ah the teenage years. My mom was also one that used to tell me that those were the best years of my life, at which I would cringe and think, “oh dear lord I hope not!” I was prone to depression, and had terrible self confidence, particularly when it came to boys. I was tall-ish (5’8″) and didn’t struggle with my weight until I got to college, discovered the dining hall (which gave me my boobs–thanks, late night pizza!) and dated a boy 3 inches shorter than me. He didn’t have the perspective to understand that 160 on me was very different than 160 on him, right at about the time Bridget Jones came out and gave him his favorite line: “You’re so squashy!” Now I’m 31, almost 32, and happy to report that those were definitely NOT the best years of my life! 160 is now my goal weight, and even though I still have a ways to go to get there, I feel more confident now than I EVER have in my life! Little trick? Buy a full length mirror, get naked, and check yourself out on a regular basis. No negative self-talk, just admire yourself. I think I read an article about Demi Moore AGES ago where she said a key to confidence is dancing naked in the mirror semi-regularly, and I have to say I kind of agree!

  13. Rikk Ofek

    You’ve definitely struck a chord with this post. I think if I could tell my high school self anything it would be that the best way to take control of your life is to eat clean, whole, fresh foods in correct proportion and exercise like a fiend. That being said, I think body dysmorphia is so strong, it takes a lot of work to overcome. I hit my heaviest 2 years ago at 202 lbs. and I’m now 151. I feel awesome. I’m wearing a size 8 (which I haven’t worn since like 6th grade) but still that gremlin sneaks in and whispers in my ear… wouldn’t it be awesomer to weight 140, or 130? How about a size 6? Could you get into a size, yikes 4 at some point? I find myself countering these demons with healthy thoughts about continuing on with what I’ve been doing and letting my body figure out the right weight for itself. I think the takeaway from this post is 1. to be kinder to ourselves, because we see often ourselves through a different lens than reality,and 2. how can we best raise the next generation to not be body dysmorphic? Thanks for shedding light on a very poignant subject.

    1. Cassie

      I wonder where those gremlins come from? Is it a natural part of being human? Or is that a result of our thin-centric society? Hmm. Sounds like a good thesis topic for someone (not I).

  14. I look back now and so wish I had been able to see how thoroughly normal I was for most of my adolescence. While I did steadily gain weight through high school as well, I didn’t really start packing on the pounds until I hit college. Yet I spent most of my high school years torturing myself for not being skinnier! Yes, going to high school in Taiwan where 98% of your classmates are genetically predisposed to be skinnier than you (being self-conscious about my height came into play here as well) was probably not the easiest way to go about that. But I just feel like I would have saved myself so much grief. Oh that pesky hindsight.

    1. Cassie

      Hindsight is such a bitch, isn’t it? I can’t even imagine how much happier I would have been if that self-hate wouldn’t have been occupying my world.

  15. I think every girl goes through that awkward chubby phase. I hit it in middle school, but instead of going away, that mentality just followed me. It was fueled by criticism and comments from other people. It is what caused me to develop a sincerely unhealthy relationship with food that has left me on a decade-long roller coaster. But looking back, I think geez… I was maybe chubby, at best. But I was tiny compared to what I thought I was! It is amazing how much our teenage perspective can affect our self-esteem. and even the rest of our lives.

    1. Cassie

      I hope we don’t let it affect the rest of our lives. I know it’s taken me this long, but I hope I can push it aside and move on from it soon. ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. I love this post. Looking at people’s old photos is always such a great glimpse into who they are.

    I guess I was pretty “normal” body-size-wise in high school, but I had other insecurities for sure. What I identified with most in this blog post is the comments you got from other people. The thing I would tell sixteen-year-old me (or even thirteen-year-old me) is that people (even otherwise smart or well-meaning people) often speak without thinking, and they would never actually say these things if they considered for a second how someone might feel upon hearing them. People never realize how deeply-embedded their offhand comment can become, even though they themselves were likely affected by someone else’s offhand comments. I received a few myself that I’m still struggling with years later.

    PS- I think green eyes are beautiful. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Cassie

      I love my puke green eyes, now. Especially because Babyface and I have the exact same eye color. ๐Ÿ™‚ But in high school, I hated them. I wore colored contacts. I wanted blue eyes so badly.

  17. Jen

    Isn’t it odd how much our perspective skews our vision of reality? I too suffered from body dysmorphia in junior high and high school. I thought I was fat and disgusting and remember being so happy when I had pneumonia and lost 10 pounds from being unable to eat. The sickest part of all? I only weighed 100lbs and wore a size 00. I look back in my high school journal now and all I wrote about was how much I hated the way I looked, etc. Now, I am a healthier weight and size and am much more comfortable with my body. We all have bad days, but for the most part I eat well and try to focus on how I feel more than how I look.

    Also, I have puke green eyes too. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Cassie

      I remember being happy when I got mono. Sad, right?

      It’s interesting how much of the society’s desire for thinness we pick up. My parents were very adamant about making sure I felt good in my body and to make sure I felt confident in who I was, regardless of my appearance. But even with that positive influence, I picked it up from somewhere else.

  18. I could not relate to this post more! In Jr. High, I was bigger than all my friends and was so convinced I was “fat.” Looking back, I wore a bigger size than them mostly because I was so much taller. In high school, I was slightly chubby, but probably just about 15-20 lbs overweight. I thought I was SUPER FAT and got down on myself all the time…then during my sophomore year of college I got pulled up on stage with one of my favorite bands and couldn’t wait for my friend to send me the photos. I was horrified when I saw them. I was huge. I weighed myself and I was 205 lbs. I had no idea how out of control my eating had gotten or that my thinking I was fat became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have since lost 55 lbs and feel amazing…and I’m only about 5lbs less than I was in high school. When I first started trying to get healthy, it was so weird to look at photos from when I thought I was fat and actually wish I had that body back.

    Even now, having lost so much weight, I sometimes forget that I don’t look like I did at 205 lbs. anymore. Like I actually have to go look at pictures from when I was bigger to confirm. It’s like my head just hasn’t caught up with my body yet. So strange and sometimes frustrating, but it’s gotten so much better.

    Thanks for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Cassie

      Oh gosh, I struggle with this everyday. Even today, I was pulling on my jeans and saw the “size 16” tag and literally though to myself, “I wonder if they mislabeled these.” Mentally, I know I’m smaller. But emotionally, it’s hard to remember I’m not a size 24 anymore.

  19. Sara

    In this post you said something about fulfilling your own negative self-image in college and I can really relate with that. I’ve been bigger than other girls my whole life but never as overweight as I thought. I look back at pictures from Freshman year of high school and think about how HUGE I thought I was and really, I was just a little over-weight. But since I thought I was HUGE anyway – I just fulfilled that image of myself. By my senior year I was into the obese category on the BMI scale. It’s amazing how our own perceptions can affect how we actually look.

    After losing almost 90 lbs in college I was suddenly, to my surprise, not only a normal weight, but fit! Nowadays I try to control the dormant bad habits, the years of emotional eating, by thinking “would a healthy girl eat like this?” in an attempt to shift my self-perception out of that negative zone and think of myself as a healthy woman, in order to maintain that on the outside as well.

    I would tell my 16-year-old self that she doesn’t have to give up. Just because you aren’t thin like your friends doesn’t mean you have to eat things that you know aren’t good for you. I think I made it worse for myself by thinking that I was already enormous and nothing would change that. But it can change. I am in control.

    1. Cassie

      Oh, I would tell my 16 year old self that, too! And my chubby friends. We would have “fat girl” nights where we would pig out on crappy food just because we could because we were “fat”. *shakes head*

  20. I felt the same way in high school and looking back I realize that although I was bigger than most of my friends, and couldn’t share clothes with them (I think this was the biggest problem in making me think I was fat as a teenager) I was actually normal – except for the blue/green/bleachedblonde hair. I had a lot of friends, was involved in a range of clubs and activities, managed to snag the guy I had a huge crush on and enjoyed my high school years. I will admit though that I was a bit of a “mean girl” at times (lack of self-esteem on my part?) so if I could tell my 16-year-old self anything it would be that everyone deserves to be treated with love and respect!

    1. Cassie

      Sharing clothes was definitely a big issue. No quicker way to point out a difference than all of your friends passing around a pair of jeans that you know wouldn’t even fit over your thighs.

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