Coming out of both elementary and middle school, my self-esteem wasn’t anything to write home about. However, there was something about the summer leading into freshman year that hammered the last nail into the skewed-perception-of-self coffin.
Without going into too many unsavory details, the summer between 8th and 9th grade was a difficult transition for me. Eighth grade had ended, and because of redistricting, testing, and other life circumstances, my primary group of friends was forced to disband. I felt a strong need to be with these friends over the summer to help quell the anxiety I was experiencing about starting at a new school, but unbeknownst to me, my summer would not turn out as I had hoped.
In a last minute attempt to provide us with some level of structure, my parents sent my siblings and me to stay with my grandparents for nearly two months. It could have been paradise, as they lived in the Caribbean at the time. We weren’t terribly shocked or disappointed by this turn of events; we each expected equal parts beach time and coconut water. What my siblings and I didn’t know was that summer camp was in our future, as my grandparents were anxious about having to entertain 3 teenagers for that period of time.
Summer camp. Spanish-speaking summer camp. Spoiler alert: my siblings and I do not know Spanish.
Our stint at a local church’s summer camp lasted approximately two days, long enough to learn what the expressions “puta” and “chinga tu madre” meant. The counselors didn’t know what to do with us, and the other campers did not hesitate to make us feel different every chance they had. We were pulled out of camp just as quickly as we were sent.
My siblings and I spent the remainder of our days that trip plied with snack food and daytime television. It was initially relaxing. For the first time in a long time, I had the ability to eat whatever I wanted and when I wanted, and it felt risky and fantastic. It was a different change of pace for me. At home, my father would watch my food intake like a hawk, as I was (and am to this day) his only overweight child. His rationale was that if he stared at me while I was eating, I would feel uncomfortable enough to stop eating. That inspired some unhealthy eating habits, like eating too quickly and food hoarding.
What I didn’t know was my grandmother secretly favored my father’s method of portion control. Due to strain between her and my father (that continues into the present), she typically held her tongue to avoid conflict in the family.
But now I was on her turf, her terrain, and she faced no immediate retribution for her actions.
After a handful of days of eating what I wanted, my grandmother cornered me after breakfast. She offered to brush my hair, something she hadn’t done in four years. I sat down in front of her vanity as she untangled the bird’s nest atop my head. She and I were alone. She had me by the hair. She saw an opportunity to “tell it like it is.”
“You have such a beautiful face,” she said, “but you are so, so heavy.”
It wasn’t the first time I had heard this from her, but this was the first time that I couldn’t run away from it, as she had a handful of my hair wrapped around her tiny fist.
“I will give you $1000 if you lose weight.”
“You’ll never find a boyfriend.”
“People will say things about you.”
“It’s hard to love someone when they are this size.”
This encounter triggered a massive internalization of my feelings. Halfway into our stay with my grandparents, my thoughts and feelings about my body and my self-worth changed drastically and I treated myself accordingly. I skipped a few more showers than I would have normally. I stopped wearing “flattering” clothing and opted for the big, baggy t-shirt. I stopped making eye contact with others. I continued to eat with wild abandon, managing to gain a total of fifteen pounds over the month and a half that remained in the trip. I forced myself to become a fortress, an impermeable barrier against whatever pain or stress others could inflict on me.
And in my final act of looking as ugly as I felt, I cut off my long and wavy hair, what most regarded as my one and only asset.
I guess the message I was trying to convey to my grandmother, and anyone else for that matter, was that she couldn’t hurt me as much as I could hurt myself.
My freshman year began within a week of returning home and I attempted to rise to the occasion, forcing myself to partake in some amount of self-care again. My grandmother was far away, and I still attempted to fight the feelings I harbored when I was staying with her. I attempted to be open-minded about the experience ahead. I was going to school with an entirely new population; there were few people I knew from middle school and those that carried me into high school didn’t know or taunt me as much as the others did. I thought that I could be a new person, with no baggage, no history of shitty self-esteem as brought on by classmates and family. I thought people at this new school would be more receptive to me as a result.
Expectation and reality did not align.
The whispering commenced as soon as I took my seat at the freshman orientation. “Is that a boy?” “I can’t see around her!” “What is she wearing?” “Look at that nose.” “Her jeans are too tight.”
I threw every ounce of energy I had at gaining acceptance, to no avail. I was now sending myself new messages: if only I was thinner, if only I was smarter, if only I was prettier, people would like me. I had completely and totally made me self-worth contingent on the opinions of other and in doing so, I placed my well-being in their hands.
And the one thing I took away from the entirety of my high school experience was to not place your self-worth in the reckless hands of others.
I look back now and wish I could have been nicer to myself. But I can’t turn back time. All I can do is focus on fixing how I feel about myself now, and go from there.