I breezed into my classroom, ready to lead the day’s lesson on audience awareness to 23 writing students. I could hear a few students’ words before I spotted them. They were loud-whispering about a person looking emaciated. I knew immediately that the person they were talking about was me. As soon as my students realized I was in the room, after I’d plopped a stack of papers onto my desk, they awkwardly dispersed. I carried on, acting like I hadn’t stumbled upon yet another conversation about my body.
The previous semester, over Thanksgiving break, I had come down with a stomach virus. I wasn’t surprised, given it was my first semester teaching college freshman while taking grad school classes. I was constantly creating curriculum, grading essays, reading hundreds of pages from my own textbooks, and writing twenty-page research papers for my professors. I was exhausted and stressed. I figured my illness was my body’s way of telling me I needed a break—allowing my immunity to build back up.
During my three-day illness, I dropped a few pounds. I never weighed myself, but noticed that my jeans seemed loser. But in the weeks after, not only did I not gain back the weight, but I continued to lose weight.
Initially, I received loads of compliments. The ladies at my gym would ask me if I’d lost weight, and when I confirmed I had dropped a few pounds, they’d nod approvingly and ask me what my secret was. I had to buy new jeans and tops for winter—and the young store employees would say they wished they could “eat whatever they wanted without gaining a pound.”
As I shed more weight, the compliments turned to insults.
I worked out after teaching—the perfect stress reliever. As I walked into the gym one afternoon, an older man and gym-regular looked me up and down and said, “Eat a hamburger.” I was so stunned that I just stood there—speechless.
I caught some of my grad school classmates following me into the bathroom during breaks from our evening courses. They would lock themselves in stalls beside me, later admitting to me that they were investigating whether or not I was making myself vomit up the snacks I’d eaten in class. A concerned professor told me, “Enough with the weight loss,” assuming I was intentionally losing weight.
The reality was that I ate—all the time. I was also guzzling water. My thirst and hunger were insatiable. I visited five—yes, five—medical professionals who rendered various guesses as to why I was tired, hungry, thirsty, thin, and frail. I was told just to eat more high-calorie foods. One doctor, obviously annoyed by my frequent visits, suggested I was anorexic or a hypochondriac.
Here’s the truth: being thin was sheer torture for me. Of course, not feeling well was a huge issue. But the icing on the cake? The constant, unsolicited commentary on my appearance—whether it was whispered or exclaimed. I already felt absolutely horrible about my appearance. My depression grew worse with every snide judgment.
An acquaintance of mine once stopped me and said, “Maybe work on putting on a little bit of muscle?” I just nodded and kept walking, tears pooling in my eyes.
One spring day when my husband took me to the ER because I couldn’t catch my breath and could barely stay awake. Blood work showed my blood sugar was 700—and I was a type 1 diabetic. I went undiagnosed from the time I had the stomach virus—14 months. Weight loss is a classic symptom.
After an intense five-day hospital stay, during which I learned I was lucky to be alive, I rapidly gained weight. I faced more comments from family, friends, peers, students, and acquaintances. “I was so worried about you,” most admitted. These comments were often followed up with, “You look so much better now.”
Looking back, I realized just how damaging to one’s self-esteem and mental wellbeing comments about weight and body size can be. Whatever the reason behind a person’s weight and body type, the commentary about bodies is toxic. Insults are often not well disguised as compliments. Skinny shaming is real, it’s damaging, and it’s dehumanizing.
It took me several years to get past the 14 months of body-shaming that I endured. I had to practice self-acceptance and people-forgiveness—especially of those who never apologized. Pun intended, I no longer wanted to carry the weight of other people’s judgments. My stint with body shaming was short compared to some women—who are judged their entire lives—and I have a lot of empathy for them.
Being a woman and having any body type is freaking exhausting when you’re bombarded with unwelcome hatred. We all just want to have our cake and eat it, too—without someone looking over our shoulder and rendering their damaging opinion.
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