Reimagining a different narrative

Words by carol eugene park

Photo by hana nikcevic

How i’m learning to feel comfortable in my own skin

Content warning: discussions of body shaming, disordered eating, and misogyny.

As many teenagers do, I struggled with body image during my adolescence. I was an aspiring writer, so I sought out a place of belonging in the stories I created when I felt isolated from my peers and loved ones. I wrote about girls feeling lost and depressed and developing eating disorders. I romanticized eating disorders so intensely that I began to write myself into the protagonists of my short stories. Eventually, I could no longer differentiate my fictional life from my reality.

When your craft continuously romanticizes stigmatized social taboos, you can fall in love with them and subconsciously reimagine your own narrative, incorporating events from the fiction you wrote. It’s easy to blur the lines and to lose sight of what is real.

Being “Woman” Enough

My upbringing was traditionally conservative, meaning that gender norms were heavily enforced. I was told that being a size 00 was what a woman should strive for. It was constantly reinforced that if a woman was taller than five feet, eight inches, she wasn’t desirable or feminine enough. These comments planted within me the seed of internalized misogyny at a very young age. “Real women” are petite, skinny, pretty, and have long hair—general stereotypes that the media perpetuates.

It is one thing for the media to tell you your body is undesirable or unwomanly, but it is another to have loved ones criticize and shame your body:

Carol, do some ab exercises so that you can lose those awful love handles.

Sweetie, drink more water and cut down on dairy. Acne is the ultimate ruin on a woman’s face. Who would want her if she doesn’t even look like a woman?

Why don’t we skip dessert since it appears you’ve put on a couple pounds?

I was never woman-enough for my family. I was too bulky or too vocal about my opinions, or my walk didn’t have a feminine sashay to entice passersby. One day, my aunt called and scolded me for speaking in a lower voice register: “What kind of a girl has such a low voice? Speak like a woman.”

After being told that you are unworthy for a while, you begin to believe all of the negative comments. It becomes difficult to find your own voice when you are forced to believe in all the negativity.

A Fear of Mirrors

When I was 16, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a shop window near my house. I panicked at the sight of what appeared to be an extremely overweight version of my size-6 body. I felt the beginning of an anxiety attack and had to wait for my mother to find me in an alleyway.

Episodes like this became a theme for most of high school; I would see my reflection and be consumed by anxiety. I took down the mirrors in my bedroom and turned off the lights when I used the washroom, because I was too afraid to look at my body.

I hated seeing my reflection so much that I removed myself from social gatherings in high school. I made excuses to avoid hanging out with friends or going to parties, to reduce the likelihood of experiencing more public anxiety attacks.

The healing process

My mother had enough of my anxiety attacks and since I wouldn’t talk to her about it, she advised, or rather insisted, I see a therapist. I felt apprehensive about going to therapy but I knew my mother was right, so I agreed.

I found myself waiting for my therapist on a Monday morning, while nervously trying to reassure myself that my experiences were valid—that I was valid.

The first session was unsuccessful. I barely said a word while my therapist patiently passed me Kleenex after Kleenex. Her silence was unnerving, yet comforting. The second session was no different: an hour of loud sobs filling the office.

It took a few more sessions until I was confident enough to confide in her. I showed her the jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces that was my teenage life. I quickly realized that she didn’t have all the answers; fancy degree and all, she only had methods to allow for healing.

“Write me a short story and a poem about how you want to feel,” she said, insistent on finding a medium that inspired me.

A week later, I walked into her office with my Moleskin notebook in hand, unable to give it to her. I wasn’t ready to expose myself to more vulnerability as a patient and writer. I was worried that she wouldn’t like my writing.

She didn’t comment on either short story or poem. Instead, she continued to assign me the same task week after week. Our sessions were transformed into weekly book clubs where we would discuss and explore themes of belonging, forgiveness, and identity.

A few months ago, I re-visited the creative pieces I had written for her in chronological order. I don’t know why or how her methodology worked, but it did. A subtle shift in tone, perspective, and narrative exists as the dates of the stories draw nearer to the last few visits with my therapist. There’s less anger in my writing; I wonder if the reason I allowed myself to heal was because I was tired of feeling angry.

It’s been two years since my last therapy session and three since high school. I still struggle to look at my reflection when I walk by glass windows. I may never be completely “healed”—whatever that means—and truthfully, I don’t care. Reaching a particular point in self-growth is unimportant to me. I’m focusing on the healing process itself, rather than the outcome. And for now, that’s enough for me.