Last summer, I found myself working at a resort as a day camp counselor.
I worked with all age groups throughout the summer, but I mainly worked with teenagers. When I took the job, I had been in recovery from an eating disorder for about a year. I had gained a lot of weight and was struggling with my body daily. When I got dressed every morning, I would stand in front of the mirror and hold back tears.
As the start date for the job came closer, I reflected on what it was like to be a teenage girl.
I remembered being “the fat girl” and being bullied.
I remembered how all my friends had been “dieting” and how we developed our disordered relationships to food and exercise together, following each other’s examples; how people praised us for eating less and losing weight. I realized that my role models hadn’t modeled body positivity, but the exact opposite.
I began to think about how closely teenagers watch the actions of adults and model their behavior.
My behavior around food and my body would be on display for all these girls to see. When I understood that I asked myself, ‘What kind of messages do I want to send these girls about their bodies?’
Girls and women get messages about their bodies their whole lives.
When a mother says, ‘I’m so fat. I’m going on a diet,’ or a friend says, ‘We shouldn’t eat pizza or we’ll get fat,’ girls hear the implicit rules of womanhood: don’t eat this, don’t get fat, fat is ugly, and being fat is bad. They see the grown women in their lives modeling body hatred and disordered relationships to food and exercise, so girls learn to hate and abuse their bodies.
I decided to refuse to be a part of this vicious cycle.
Of course, I couldn’t completely change the course of any of these girls’ lives, but I could model something different than they were used to seeing.
I thought about what it would mean to model body positivity for these girls.
I would have to eat an amount of food that correlated to the amount of physical activity we were doing each day. I’d spent years counting calories and making sure I was always eating an insanely low amount, so eating a decent lunch with these girls would be a struggle.
But I was committed to modeling a healthy relationship with food, so I promised myself I would eat as much as I wanted/needed each day at lunch.
I would have to stop making negative comments about my own body. I was so used to bashing my own appearance that I often did so without even noticing. I promised myself I would pay attention to everything I was thinking about my body and try to not let it come out of my mouth.
I also promised myself that I would be hyper-aware of what the girls were saying about their own bodies and try to gently confront their negativity. Body shaming is a regular part of the conversation for girls and women, sometimes turning into a perverse bonding experience.
I committed to shutting down this kind of talk if I heard it.
With these promises in mind, I started the job and began trying to put my body positivity into practice.
The first thing I noticed was how much the girls policed me, and each other.
When I loaded up my tray at lunchtime they would stare at me incredulously and comment on how much food I was eating. The first few times it happened I had to pause and take a deep breath before I smiled and told them that I was hungry, so I was eating what I needed to fuel my body.
After a while, this became an automatic response.
When we’d go to the pool, the girls would start to stand in front of the mirror together and begin the ritual body bashing. I’d loudly declare that my camp group was a ‘body positive zone’ and challenge them to a pool handstand contest.
Some of the girls looked at me like I was crazy, and at first, I felt crazy.
I also felt like a hypocrite because on the inside I longed to join in their body shaming ritual. But as the summer continued, I began to believe my own hype. We were having too much fun to stand in front of mirrors feeling bad about ourselves.
Whenever I’d hear a girl offhandedly make a negative comment about her body I’d say, “I feel ya. I used to think that too. Now I just think my body is the way it is and there’s not much I can do about it. I might as well like what I’ve got.”
I started to talk about all the things my body did instead of the way it looked. I began to praise the girls for their accomplishments instead of saying they looked pretty.
I stressed the power their bodies had to do great things.
It was tough to maintain such a positive attitude about my body, but I was continually motivated by the reactions from the girls. They smiled, they sighed with relief, some of them even thanked me.
It was clear that they’d rarely if ever, received positive messages about how to relate to their bodies.
I spent the whole summer modeling body positivity, and I gradually discovered that I no longer choked back tears when I stood in front of the mirror in the morning. I didn’t hate myself when I got dressed. I didn’t want to hide when I put on a bathing suit.
I no longer hated my body.
All summer I had been acting as if I didn’t hate my body and by the end of the summer, I actually didn’t.
I couldn’t force myself to love my body, but when I was motivated by the desire to pass on better values to younger girls I had the power to change my own experience.