Jailyn Menefee discovers if changing herself completely is worth meeting society’s beauty standards.
Words by Jailyn Menefee
“Do you eat?”
This was the norm. Constant reminders of my small stature, concerned looks and seemingly harmless jabs at how I needed to “put meat on my bones” were regularities in my life. As I got older, people’s opinions of me determined how I saw myself. The more people made remarks, the more I let them drill holes into my head.
Middle school was when everything changed. A time when kids’ awkward, pubescent bodies were impressionable and desperately seeking approval from peers; it was a rite of passage for many kids. Girls blossomed into their teenage bodies, and boys were cured of cooties. Needing to be socially accepted was at an all-time high, but I was quiet and nervous. I just wanted to go through those three years undetected.
I was a late developer and was constantly reminded of it while watching other girls develop breasts overnight. I was patiently waiting for my body to catch up to all the other girls in my grade, but it never did—my chest remained flat.
According to NYC.gov, by middle school, 40 to 70 percent of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body, and body satisfaction hits rock bottom between the ages of 12 and 15. Much of that dissatisfaction comes from comments that made me believe I needed to have certain assets to attract the attention of the boys in my grade.
I remember how the boy I liked at the time smirked at me like he was a predator sizing up his prey. His eyes gleamed of lasciviousness that was incredibly hard to ignore. “You’re pretty, but you don’t have anything to look at,” he said. My stomach dropped to my feet, and I had a lump in my throat the size of an orange.
To be picked apart by a guy who only used his eyes was my first taste of the sex drive of a teenage boy. His words stuck with me and only furthered my body insecurities. It wasn’t just my cup size being discussed; my butt size was also the topic of many conversations at the boys’ lunch tables. I was skin and bones, and I loathed it.
I remember praying to God to get my period with hopes that my breasts would start to grow. I would have done anything to change how small I looked, exhausting every option I could find on the Internet. I stuffed my bra, wore two bras at once and even washed my jeans three times to make them smaller, so my butt would look bigger. But until high school, all attempts failed me.
The next phase in my race to gain weight started when I was in high school. I woke up early one morning, making sure my mom and siblings were fast asleep, and went to the kitchen to make myself breakfast. I took a loaf of bread out of the refrigerator, pulled out six slices and toasted them. I arranged them on a large dinner plate and slathered butter over the steamy, browned surface, forcing myself to eat all six. I felt sick because of the carb-overload, but it felt better than being teased.
This was the first time I explored binge eating. Typically part of an eating disorder, binge eating is the act of eating large quantities of food in a short amount of time to the point of stomach pain. I wasn’t hungry after that first slice of toast, but I continued to eat. By the time I finished stuffing the last slice into my mouth, I hated what I had become.
Binge eating was an option I tried to avoid at all cost. Having read about it online, the thought of succumbing to an eating disorder killed my self-esteem, but seeing the black needle on my scale move up gave me a jittery feeling—that is until the next comment sent me plummeting back down.
“Are you anorexic?”
Those three words left me feeling as though someone had just punched me in the stomach. I wasn’t doing any of this for me; I did it so the bullying would stop, so the comments would stop, so I could look in the mirror and not hear the echoes of my peers in my head. I was doing this all for them.
Standing in front of the mirror, I’d imagine myself as a petite, 5-foot-2-inch girl, instead of a 5-foot-6-inch twig. I would push my breasts together and imagine what it would be like if they were bigger. I would feel so discouraged looking at myself because there was nothing I could really do about all the things I wished to change. I got sick pleasure in seeing my weight go up on the scale or when my clothes felt a little tighter. The binge eating took over my life, and how my body looked was my only concern.
The more I stared at myself, the more things I found that I hated—how my feet were abnormally big, how my nose seemed so large compared to everyone else’s—it was as if I just did not measure up to my own definition of ideal.
I was sitting in my residence hall my freshman year of college, skimming through magazine articles, when I found the term that summed up what I had experience my entire life: skinny shaming. I was reading about Meghan Trainor’s song, “All About That Bass,” and how the lyrics were hurtful to small women. I never knew such a term existed, and that other people could feel that way, but it explained why I felt the need to overindulge in food to gain weight, and how hurt I felt when people pointed out my size.
It took so much out of me to constantly let these ideas of what I was supposed to look like control me. To always feel insecure about how I looked, to constantly analyze every detail and dream of the “perfect” me had all become so exhausting. This unsure, unworthy feeling transferred into every aspect of my life. My whole life revolved around the feeling of not being good enough. It was emotionally and physically exhausting to continuously wish I could gain a few pounds, or wish I was shorter and more petite.
I had to realize that if I could not love myself, then nobody would ever be able to. If I hated myself, how could I ever expect someone else not to? It took time; I cannot lie and say it came instantaneously. I struggled, but to be able to look in the mirror and not completely loathe the reflection staring back at me was a start. I gradually learned to accept compliments without discrediting them. I took a step back and started to think how it must be to look at myself through the eyes of someone else. If they thought I was beautiful the way I was, then why couldn’t I?
I am affected by skinny shaming. The feelings and the effects body shaming of any kind has on individuals is not something to be dismissed. We live in a society where we are constantly analyzed and compared despite the evident differences we possess. I have grown a defense to the comments because I refuse to grant people the right to determine whether or not my body type is healthy. I have learned to accept the pure beauty in my body because regardless of the pressure, I will not conform to be what everyone else wants me to be.
Shaming someone for having a small waist and a fast metabolism is the equivalent to shaming someone for being bigger. It all hurts just the same and affects self esteem just as much. Constantly hearing and seeing on social media “real men like curves, not bones,” or “real women have curves,” is something that bothers me because being skinny doesn’t make me less of a woman. Real women come in different sizes. True beauty is not a quantitative measurement, no matter how much or how little a person weighs. It should not be a deciding factor in whether or not an individual is accepted by society. This is my life, my body, and I will not hand over the power to dictate its beauty to society again.
Read Marissa Barnhart’s companion piece on fat shaming here.