Content warning: The following story contains references to a survivor's experience with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia, which may be triggering for some readers.
"Don't Forget to Bloom," Sarah Cantu
The first time I remember realizing that I was fat (and that that’s a “bad thing”) was when I was 5 years old. I was on the playground with my cousin and one of her friends, and they wanted to role play the Little Mermaid. I think I volunteered to play one of Ariel’s sisters or maybe even Sebastian, but my cousin’s friend said I could only play if I was going to be Ursula because I was fat. Instead of saying “no, I won’t play Ursula” I burst into tears and refused to play at all. Although this encounter may sound fairly insignificant, most of my memories from elementary and middle school are a blur of similar interactions that ended with me crying or choosing to count myself out.
My mom put me on my first diet when I was 8 years old. After that, diets became a staple, a cycle, and a marker for the passing of time in my life. 4th grade was a nutritionist-curated meal plan, 7th grade was low-carb, 10th grade was Weight Watchers, 11th grade was Jenny Craig, 12th grade was the juice cleanse. Every time I started a new diet, I’d lose 10-20 pounds or so, but eventually, I’d get lazy or bored and gain back the weight and then some. I also endured a seemingly endless list of exercise classes on top of that (swimming, tap dancing, hip hop dancing, Folklorico, cheerleading camp, etc.), but I never felt at home in any of them. I just wanted to be reading books or memorizing Fall Out Boy lyrics or hanging out with kids who didn’t whisper about me behind my back. I just wanted to feel like I wasn’t taking up so much space.
When I was 16, things got even fuzzier. I started throwing up my meals. At first it was only when I’d eaten something “bad.” But it eventually became once or twice a day, and I started to associate the act of vomiting with a strange sense of control. I’d get headaches and almost regularly end up in tears on the bathroom floor. I didn’t just not lose weight, I also found myself feeling more out of control in other areas of my life. I was increasingly jealous of my thin friends and would say things I didn’t really mean. I wasn’t dealing well with stress or sleeping enough and I would sometimes find myself unable to hold back tears in the middle of class.
Maybe most disturbingly, I attributed most everything negative in my life to my body and my size. Boys didn’t like me? It’s because I was too fat. I didn’t get invited to do something? It’s because people are embarrassed to be seen with me. Friends haven’t answered my call or text? They’d rather talk to their prettier, thinner friends. My thoughts and self-image were a strange and bitter web of things I projected onto others and their interactions with me, but thankfully it didn’t last forever.
Although it may sound silly, I think the internet saved me. I’ve always loved to write, so I found something of a home in Tumblr. Even though I wasted a lot of time scrolling through my dashboard, it was also through Tumblr that I first discovered plus-size bloggers and body positivity. I remember being in awe of bloggers like Gabi Gregg and Nicolette Mason who seemed to take up space so beautifully and unapologetically.
When I discovered the body-positivity community, it was a genuine revelation in my life. It was the first time I’d ever heard someone say that being fat is not a bad thing, your body is not a bad thing. It was the first time I realized being pretty and being fat are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps more importantly, it was the first time that I realized that prettiness isn’t something anyone has to aspire to.
It took me a long time to realize that I had put years of time and energy into trying to cut myself into smaller versions of me, instead of letting myself bloom. Taking up space, literally and figuratively, is a difficult thing for women to do. Especially for a queer, fat, woman of color like myself, it takes so much time and energy to be okay with just being. But the thing is, even if we don’t have complete control over how much and what kind of space we take up, we do have control over how we choose to occupy it and navigate the world.
The thing is, being fat, I felt like I never had the option to hide. That frightened me and it still frightens me most days. But as I get older, I draw more and more strength from that thought. On top of that or maybe even because of that, I’ve come to terms with the fact that many of my identities or attributes are not “supposed” to coexist, and yet they do. I’m not supposed to be fat and not trying to change my body. I’m not supposed to be decidedly feminine and interested in dating other women. I’m not supposed to be a woman of color forging my own professional path, and yet here I am. It’s not perfect, and it’s not always fun, and it’s definitely not always easy, but here I am. I think of the many people whose visibility and whose stories have impacted me, and I take comfort in knowing that there are others like me and unlike me, who have forged homes for themselves in a world that tells them they don’t belong.
To anyone who worries that they’re too fat, too thin, too ugly, too broken, too loud, too much, I wish I had the answer for you. I wish I could give you detailed instructions for loving yourself and for uplifting others. I wish I could pull you out of the way that you see yourself, buy you a cup of coffee, and make you snort-laugh or ugly cry until you feel better.
But until I find a way to do that, I’ll leave you with a quiet intention that helps guide me. As often as you can, seek, show, and surrender to grace. It really is all around, and it never quite looks the same way. Sometimes it’s a pillow fight with your friend while “I’m Not Okay” plays in the background. Sometimes it’s gently pushing back when someone you love engages in negative self-talk. Sometimes it’s admitting to yourself that you look hella cute today. Whatever it is for you, and however it is you need it in your life, surrender to grace, and don’t forget to bloom.
About the Art:
Sarah's story resonated with me tremendously, as someone with body image issues/body dysmorphia. It's hard to view yourself in any sort of good light when your brain is fighting you constantly about your appearance. So, I wanted to create a piece that would make Sarah feel valued and enough.
This is a quote she supplied me, as one she looks to for inspiration, and I think it perfectly fit this story. The colors were tangentially suggested by Sarah, but I went with this scheme because I found it both aesthetically pleasing and different from the palette I usually use. The lines were a fun addition and I think it gives the piece a real pop!
Thanks to Sarah for sharing this story! I hope it inspires others to share theirs as well.