“I didn’t have to hate myself.”
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
My guest author’s journey out of body image issues.
Hey everyone —
Please enjoy this month’s article by guest post author Stefanie Bonastia, who is sharing parts of her personal story for the first time, below!
After a year of writing for Jessi, it occurs to me that I have never shared details of my own body image journey with you. There are moments when the road I have traveled hits me over the head though, and reminds me why I do this work.
Last week I had one of those moments, and I’d like to share it with you. Before this moment can assume its proper context, however, I have to go back farther.
When I was ten, our health class lined up to get weighed in the nurse’s office. Our weights were announced aloud after we stepped off the scale, which now feels violating and irresponsible, but at the time felt like my own problem. My weight was among the higher numbers for females in the class, and my face reddened to hear it splattered aloud into the air. I felt ashamed.
I think about this sometimes — why was there shame at all, at that age? I remember an implicit knowing among the females in the class that a higher number was a “too much” number. I imagine we inherited this knowing from our parents, the media, the world at large. Now having children of my own, I recognize the infiltration of social norms that seep into our everyday life, even against efforts to contain it. Disney movies, Slim-Fast commercials, and overheard conversations between teachers and mothers was all we needed to understand what the rules were.
It is worth noting that this was around the same time that my body was experiencing the early onset of puberty. Not only had I gotten significantly taller, but I had developed roundness in my hips, butt, and thighs that made fitting into straight jeans increasingly uncomfortable. I noticed that many of my friends looked the same as always — straight, slim, lean, no extra padding.
No one told us that our bodies would change, that this might be normal.
So I started dieting to make it change.
After that, life became an ongoing effort to shrink — to deny the padding that clung to my hips. To become a straight, lean, small person.
I suppressed my weight through my teenage years and felt like a success. I’d dodged a bullet, I thought. I almost didn’t figure this out. I wondered why everyone didn’t just restrict — it was so easy.
The thing about “successful” restriction is the knowing that you are self-suppressing. There is an awareness that you are “getting away” with something. It feels tentative, like you can never really get comfortable because you have to stay vigilant, or your truth will come to get you. I assumed that my truth — my authentic weight, and in turn my authentic self — was the dark side of me. I was ashamed to know it existed, even if it was suppressed.
This went on for as long as it could before my body began to fight back. I come from a family of larger-bodied women, and my figure wanted to spread out. My natural body type, which would now be labeled “mid-size” or “small fat,” knocked at my door for as long as it could until it had to beat the damn thing down. The binges flooded in to say no more.
I could not get on board with what was being asked of me. I could not accept my body’s inclination towards its natural weight. I flat-out refused.
There was no body-neutrality movement back then to reassure me that my body was okay, that it was simply my body, that controlling it was unnecessary and biologically ridiculous. So I fought myself.
I figured that if my body wasn’t going to cooperate with me, I wasn’t going to surrender to it. I withdrew from my life in the name of not being small enough. I denied my reflection. I refused to buy clothes because I couldn’t stand how they looked on me, opting instead to wear sweatpants and baggy t-shirts that suggested lack of self-ownership.
My binge eating and self-denial only resulted in weight cycling that brought my weight up and down, and then up a little higher, over and over again. Chronic dieting was doing the opposite of what I wanted it to be doing, and the self-loathing increased. I could not understand how this wasn’t my fault.
After the birth of my first daughter, my body felt foreign. I experienced the dichotomy between intense love for my baby and paralleled disgust for her mother’s body.
On the day of her Christening, I couldn’t find anything to wear. The outfit I’d planned (but had refused to try on until that day because I simply couldn’t bear putting on real clothes) didn’t fit right, and I sunk into a ball in my room and refused to come out. It took an hour for my sister to talk me off the ledge of not showing up to my daughter’s Christening.
Several years after this incident (and many others like it leading up until then), I found Jessi Kneeland. I listened to her with one eye open. She spoke about things I had never considered before, but I was afraid to think too much of it. I was comfortable in my self-criticism, and part of me wanted to keep it around so I wouldn’t get comfortable anywhere else.
Months later, Jessi announced that she was running a course called Authentic Body Confidence (ABC), and I decided to enroll. The Christening incident had exposed to me that I was out of control. In my effort to take back my agency (“I’ll show you, body!”) I had completely surrendered it.
The work I did with Jessi in that group changed my life, and although body confidence was not available to me for at least several years after that, something in me started to shift.
I started to understand that I had options.
I started to understand that I’d been duped, that diet culture was a Thing, and most of all that I would never climb out of this lifestyle without doing something to get out.
Within a year, I was deep in the work. I was where you might be now, give or take. I was listening and learning, and slowly my options were opening.
I didn’t have to hate myself. I didn’t have to use my body to distract me from the deeper emotions underneath.
This process led me to my own binge recovery process and within a couple of years I had started a business helping people heal their relationship with food.
With only a few paragraphs to convey this massive shift, I can confirm that these words don’t do it justice, nor do they aptly communicate the depths of emotion involved.
Those years were full of self-exploration, self-esteem rebranding, and honesty with myself that I had previously covered up with food and self-disgust. They were difficult, intense, expansive years.
Bringing me to last week, when I had photographs taken for my website.
Full length photographs. Whole body. Me, and my hips. A body I was once unable to tolerate. A body not good enough to show up at my daughter’s Christening.
The email in my inbox arrived. “Open Gallery,” the little button said.
I hit it.
There I was, full length, whole body, me, my hips.
There was a flood, initially. There was a thought, a judgment. I felt the familiar rise, the temptation to move out of my body, to self-abandon.
I didn’t do anything to shift it. Within 30 seconds, it lifted.
I was back in my body, with myself. I had zoomed out. I was looking at the person in the photograph without a distorted lens. It was the same image as it had been moments before, but the filter had changed. I saw it for what it was, I saw photos of me for my website that I built, without the judgmental stories.
I saw myself, and I was okay with who I saw.
This moment was pivotal to me, although it passed without fanfare. My youngest daughter came in and asked me to get her a snack. I moved on with my evening like nothing happened.
But I assure you that this was not nothing.
This story isn’t just about me making peace with an image in a photograph, although I recognize the feat in that. This story is about making peace with my whole, authentic self, because that’s what this journey is really about.
*Note: there is a difference between personal body image work and weight stigma. It is possible to find peace with oneself but still grapple with the pressure of a society that refuses to do so. The cultural layer is another piece of work that intensifies the difficulty of this process, and I recognize that there are layers I have not had to experience.
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