When I was in high school I started Weight Watchers, a program that helps individuals count calories, manage food intake and lose weight.
Yes, Weight Watchers. Yes, when I was in high school.
You might be picturing most of the Weight Watchers demographic as middle-aged men and women who are looking to improve their physical well-being. However, I was a junior in high school who had issues with her self-image.
To set up the background for you, I’ll tell you I had recently moved across the country and quit the tennis team, meaning I had gone from intense workouts several days a week to comparatively limited physical activity, resulting in some weight gain.
Now, you might be thinking there was some drastic weight change in me which resulted in jeopardizing my health, but there wasn’t.
In reality, I gained some weight as my body adjusted to the loss of such an intense workout regimen, but there was nothing life threatening and I was pretty average for my height and age.
Did I have some poorer health habits which would have affected my overall health in the long run? Probably, if I left them unchecked. Did I add more than a few pounds? Not really, and definitely not more weight than I might have otherwise gained over the years as I matured and my body changed.
However, I remember being devastated. I started wearing blouses a size too big just to hide my mid section and I found myself constantly looking at my reflection in mirrors and windows and being disappointed by what I saw.
So I decided to start a program dedicated to weight loss at age 17.
Fast forward several years and I had just returned from an 18-month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Madrid, Spain. Because of the stress of coming home and readjusting to life as a college student in the United States, I struggled with bouts of anxiety which left me constantly nauseated.
It was relatively difficult for me to eat much and most mornings I could only get down a few saltine crackers as I snacked when and where I could for the rest of the day. I told almost nobody about my experiences outside of my immediate family members, who were incredible and supportive to me through it all.
In the end, I lost close to 20 pounds in a few short months.
Well-meaning friends and family commented constantly on the weight loss, telling me how good I looked and how hard I must have worked to achieve it.
Little did they know, it was one of the loneliest and most stressful periods of my life. I hadn’t lost weight because I started eating well and exercising daily, I lost it because I was struggling emotionally. Maybe I “looked” good but I had never felt worse.
The strangest thing about it all was that even though I knew it was a result of something unfortunate and out of my control, there were moments when I too was proud of the weight loss. I felt the satisfaction of validation and other people telling me I “looked good.” I was thrilled when I had to buy clothes in smaller sizes because my old ones no longer fit.
As I utilized resources for anxiety and learned to manage it better, most of the anxiety-induced nausea dissipated and I regained a normal appetite. Over the course of three years I regained some of the weight I had lost and once again felt ashamed and critical of myself.
Why was I not proud of getting back to a healthier weight and feeling less anxious? Why was I so ashamed of the way my body looked?
There are certainly a plethora of reasons for my lack of confidence. Maybe (probably) my overuse of social media where editing and filtering are the name of the game, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Now, in discussing all this, I don’t mean to say we should neglect our physical well-being as I am a huge proponent of exercising and eating foods that make you feel good and give you energy. Our bodies are gifts and allow us to do amazing things. I know that when I take care of mine, I can do things I love such as hiking, playing tennis and more.
I also enjoy painting my nails and curling my hair and putting on makeup — these kinds of self-care help me feel ready for the day and in a way, are creative outlets for me. Do what works best for you.
The problem was, at the time, my own well-being was pretty far from my agenda. I just wanted to be thin.
It felt like everyone I knew was obsessed with weight gain and weight loss. My friends at school, church youth leaders, sports coaches, movie stars and internet personalities… The discourse never seemed to end. When the conversation did end externally, it stayed in my mind for a long time after.
According to the National Organization for Women, a study reported 53% of American girls at age 13 are “unhappy with their bodies” and this dissatisfaction increases to 78% by the time girls reach age 17.
I often think about all my favorite people and how I don’t love them because they look a certain way. I love them for their kindness, humor, support, loyalty and friendship. I love them because they fill my life with value and fill my heart with love. I don’t love them because they have the whitest teeth, shiniest hair or wear a size 00 pair of pants.
We are more than our weight, clothes, hair, skin and whatever else we all seem to come up with as being the most important aspect of who we are.
We matter because we are human beings and we deserve love for the same reason.
It took me a long time to convince myself that my value is inherent and not tied to the way I look. I still catch myself glancing at my reflection and sucking in, or patting on concealer in the mornings hoping to hide the fact that I’m 24 and still get acne.
I suppose this will be a battle most of us will fight for the rest of our lives.
However, if no one has told you recently, I will: You are more than the way you look.
– Megan Zaugg