I grew up like most young girls, possessing the seemingly innate belief that smaller equals better. Smaller legs, flat tummy, petite nose. Basically, the goal was to take up as little space as possible. This is because young women are fed, no, engorged with the reminder of what “beautiful” means, through media, Disney princesses, their own families. This “beautiful,” as we all know, didn’t contain any range, but meant only one thing. Be thin.

To be thin is all I ever sought after. I craved so desperately to be that cool girl wearing the cropped tank top showing my flat, unblemished tummy, dressing in cut-off shorts that displayed my noticeable thigh gap.

Ninety percent of my thoughts coursing through my brain weren’t regarding my school work, passions, or family and friends. It was all about looking a certain way. Vital aspects of my life were placed on the back-back-back burner because I didn’t even want to think about living until I looked “perfect.”

It began, I believe, right in my household. My mom always struggled with feeling confident with her body. She would try a multitude of diets, join a weight watchers support group, and when she’d come home from her weigh-in and announce to the family that she had lost five pounds, everyone would cheer for her. Congratulations, you’re smaller! Which is the way you should be?

In no way am I saying losing a few pounds for health reasons is a bad thing to do, but to my young brain, I just translated it as a simple equation. Weight loss for women = good. Yet, this interpretation didn’t occur to my brothers, who were, in fact, encouraged to "eat up" and that "it’s good for you!” Of course, men and young boys struggle with body image and eating issues as well, but this has just been my experience.

In short, my brothers essentially got to have dessert and eat it too. On the other hand, when I was served dessert, I had to first calculate how many calories it contained because god forbid I gain a few pounds − which doesn’t even happen from one slice of cake.

Women just always had to be pining for that size two − it's just how life is, I told myself.

As inspiration, I continued to cut out and hang on my wall photos of models who were 5 ft 10" and had the metabolism of professional athletes. One day, I would look like them. I’d grow six inches, and my genetics would completely mutate so that I can become someone I was never meant to look like. Seems possible.

I’d spend hours on my iPod Touch, searching everything from “how to lose ten pounds... NOW” to  “how to get a flat tummy" to “weight loss magic pills.” I researched and researched until I inevitably adopted the infamous 1200 calorie diet.

Ah, yes, my fond ole’ friend the calorie. I didn’t know what sort of mess I was getting myself into when I first downloaded a calorie tracker app in middle school, but oh boy, was I in for a terrible ride. Long story short, I’d track for a few days, eating nothing but turkey slices and cottage cheese, thinking I was doing this whole weight loss thing correctly. I’d go to bed hungry, wake up angry that I hadn’t lost any fat from my legs, and inevitably gorge myself on chips, ice cream, shredded cheese − anything I could get my hands on.

This was my life all throughout middle school, and into high school. I’d try a new diet, secretly order a strange pill off the internet that would give me incredibly painful cramps, and drink tea that would keep me on the toilet for an entire day. All because I just wanted to be thin.

My grades suffered, my body suffered. I turned down many social opportunities because I felt I didn’t look "good enough" yet. I had many days where I’d just inspect myself in the mirror and cry. I never wanted to leave the confinements of my house because in my brain, I was embarrassed. I didn’t look like the girls that were often idolized.

It wasn’t until college where I developed a love for my own body. Magazines finally began publishing women of different sizes, and body advocates were gaining massive followings on social media, sharing stories similar to my own.

However, with this new era of body positivity, there still remains so much work to do. I see a large amount of editing, shaming and weight loss propaganda publicized on all platforms. I witness naive young girls buying into the facade every day, with the same goal that I had honored for so many years: to be small.

But why should women always be suppressing themselves? Why should we constantly ridicule and torment ourselves with unrealistic ideals? Ultimately, our bodies are the least exciting aspect of who we are. We are students, sisters, daughters, friends, doctors, writers, actors, scientists, soldiers and inventors. We’re unique in every facet of who we are, yet a large percentage of us bow down to such irrelevant criteria.

Learning to take up space − no matter our size − through our love, our hate, our passions, our fears, is what matters. All bodies are valid. Scars, cellulite, rolls, chafing, leanness − all of them are brilliant.

Of course, there are days when we feel like crap, and that is ok. It is humanly impossible to feel absolutely perfect every single day. (Unless you’ve found a new elevated route that leads to perpetual positivity. But if you have, please share!) But, being ok with feeling good and feeling bad is what we must deal with. We must accept the tears and the failures, but in the end, we always stand up again.

And for the love of yourself, never be ashamed of taking up space. Your shape doesn’t shape you. 

Lead Image Credit: Unsplash