The Quest for Self Love
I noticed it when I was in kindergarten, when the Christmas concert would come around and the entire class tried on matching outfits for the show. The clothes weren’t labelled in sizes but rather, in colours. I would always be given the maroon skirt. Maroon is never anyone’s favourite colour, and it is never anyone’s first preference, but it was the only one that fit. While we all sang Christmas carols loudly and proudly, on the inside I secretly sulked that I wasn’t wearing light pink.
In primary school I was always one of the boys; I loved sport and was highly competitive. One day we were playing handball. I was annoyed at getting “out”, so threw the tennis ball down the multipurpose court. It was a bit of a joke; some harmless fun. Then this: “What the hell Ailish! You’re so fat.”
That boy was written in the bad behaviour log, and I was told not to worry by the teacher on duty. She told me I was a lovely girl, and that he was a silly boy. That was the second time I noticed it. I didn’t do anything about it because I was a child – my concern passed as quickly as a moving train.
At school camp we went horse riding. I already knew which horse I was going to be assigned. Tiny. He was the biggest horse at the stable. The instructor told me it was because I looked like a leader, and he was strong enough to take me on his back. But I knew the real reason. Once again, there didn’t seem to be enough of an issue for me to pursue change at 11 years old.
When I was in high school, the world of social media exploded. First there was Facebook, then came Instagram. They were amazing platforms where people could share their lives, no matter the distance or time. Some people started meme accounts, others established businesses.
It started with following my friends, but then I added body inspo accounts. There would be nights that I would cry. I would cry about never being able to look like that. Staggered, salty tears ran down my cheeks about wanting change. I couldn’t control my emotions: first bitterness, then anger, then sadness.
At 16, I lost 20kg. I was fed up: fed up with feeling insignificant, fed up with not being like other girls in my grade and fed up with the self-hate. I would leave myself written messages, deterring me from overeating. At Christmas time, I would politely decline any sugary sweet, because the anxiety about allowing those calories to terrorise my body was too much. I didn’t touch chocolate for over two years at the thought of what it would do to me.
For a moment in time, I was happy; but soon enough, I felt as though I was the fattest I’d ever been. Watching the number decrease on a set of scales was like a drug. It would provide a split second of satisfaction while I witnessed myself transitioning closer to those Instagram bodies, but I quickly tumbled from that high. I would never reach a place of contentment; there was always going to be someone skinnier, someone prettier and someone more attractive than what I perceived myself to be.
It is hard not want to be like those images I found on social media. They seemed to have it all. The likes of their social media profiles created a sense of intimacy for me. I felt like I knew the people – even if they were famous. As a result, I thought it was plausible to physically be like them.
What I was failing to see was this notion was unrealistic, and that losing the kilograms didn’t equal self-love. By staring into a toxic mirror of what I perceived as perfection, I distanced myself further and further away from being satisfied.
Now, at clothing stores, when I try on outfits, I still think about my younger self. The mirror scares me; it exposes every lump and bump, and feeds all negative thoughts that I have felt forced to encourage since losing weight.
I hate the colour maroon, but thankfully it hasn’t been in fashion for a while. I have changed my passion for handball to a love of keeping active generally, and I haven’t ridden a horse since year 6 camp. The people I have met while travelling have also alleviated my negative self-talk.
There is no switch to turn-off insecurities about body image, or if there is, I haven’t found it. The edges of mirrors continue to cut and taunt me, but the healing process doesn’t seem to take so long.
Building up self-love takes time; it’s a process. A part of me thinks that growing up in the technological era of the 21st century tends to be a double-edged sword, where these youthful years are about precariously juggling it in a way that no one falls victim to its danger.
What I have come to realise is that the days we long to be thinner are days simply wasted. But the first step in building up self-worth is choosing to acknowledge that I am just as worthy as any other 20 year old, despite the number on the scale. I am a flower; the stories of self-doubt are the stem. Finally, I feel like I am beginning to blossom my first petal.
Cover by Cedric Kalo