The body is a vessel. The physical form that holds us and transports us. It’s the most simplistic, stripped-down definition and understanding bodies can be given. And yet, our bodies define so much of our person and our story.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, recently and viewing my body as having a story. Admittedly, this could be my propensity to personify objects that leads me to figuratively step out of my skin and analyze it. It could be that this is a story that I’ve never had to tell, let alone wanted to tell. I swore my story would go to the grave with me and the photos of myself that made me cringe would never be shared. But here we are.
I’ve always been on the taller side. I would say from 4-8yr old I was a fairly tall, perhaps gangly, little girl. But then, something happened. I got big. All around, big.
I was a little girl that was not so little. A tall, chubby girl that felt absolutely and totally unworthy. In 4th grade, I went to a non-conventional, family school that mixed grades 4-8 together. This was me nearing my heaviest. This is also the age where you start becoming more interested in boys and they in you, well, unless you were me.
Just a girll and her Guinea Pig.
All of my friends and the girls around me were getting hot. They were starting to take ownership of their looks: straightening their hair, sneaking into their mom’s makeup, and even, dying the ends of their hair primary colors.
I grew up in a very conservative home that didn’t allow me to do any of the above. In hindsight, I understand this. I can’t say I would be down with my 10/11 yr old daughter wearing makeup. My parents were always very encouraging and even though I was teased for being fat they always told me, “you’re not fat! You’re cute!”
Why is it that, this somehow feels like the worst compliment to receive in middle school?? It’s probably because you just want to be pretty, liked and seen as special. Not cute. Not like a chipmunk. Boys don’t give flowers to chipmunks.
My parents also made sure I was active and despite all of the soccer I played and laps I swam I remained, again, big for my age. I remember watching SlimFast commercials, not understanding that it’s not drinking SlimFast that makes you slim. The way I understood it is, you drink one of those bad boys and pounds just fall off. With that understanding, I decided that, that magic elixir was going to change my life, as soon as I was old enough. My siblings and I were never allowed to consume anything “diet” and now that I’m older I see how my parents were trying to protect us from the preoccupation of crazy dieting and societal pressure to look a certain way.
Unfortunately, it gets to us in whatever way it can, doesn’t it? As valiant and pure as my mom and dad’s intentions were, the need and obsession to be “pretty and thin” would become just that: my life's need and obsession.
It was my second year at my weird school, my little sister went to the same school and I would meet her at her portable everyday after class to pick her up. There is one woman and one day I remember so clearly, I can still feel its bright, yellow sun on my skin. This woman was the mother of Tobias, a little boy in my sister’s class. I couldn’t tell you what her first or last name was but Tobias’ mom was a short-curly haired woman with bright eyes and an even brighter smile. She was a very natural woman who wore no makeup but was lovely, not the Anne Hathaway, Mary-Kate and Ashley pretty I wanted to be but undeniably beautiful. That day, I waited back as she and my mom chatted, I remember watching tiny, white butterflies flutter around tall, stalky flowers. Once they finished, we hopped into my mom’s car and my mom made a comment to the effect of, “she is so sweet”. I nodded my head, I had no disagreement with the statement.
“You know what she said?”, asked my mom.
“No, what did she say?”, I asked.
"She said, Sarah is so beautiful. Does she know that?... Man, she probably has no idea how beautiful she...” My mom mimicking Tobias’ Mom’s soft tone and pauses.
Full disclosure. I’m in full tears thinking of this moment. It feels just as raw as it did that day. I was so confused by her statement. Honestly, I truly remember thinking, “oh my god, maybe I look different than I’ve seen in the mirror. Maybe the mirror is wrong???” I couldn’t wait to get home and see if I had somehow changed in a matter of hours or if I had a faulty mirror this whole time; one that was showing me the wrong image of a tall, round, dark, not-so-little girl. This was the first time a stranger had given me such a compliment and unprompted too, it was mind-boggling!
I cry now, because I can receive it. I receive that compliment and truth that I didn’t feel I had permission to receive.
[Tobias’ mom, you should know: you spoke life into a little girl and eventually a grown woman who would struggle with feeling unworthy for years after; but would always think back to your compliment. The one that gave her hope and questioned the beauty norms she'd accepted with much sadness.
For that I am grateful.]
In 6th grade, I would be close to 5’7” and shopping a size 13/14 in the women’s section while my friends were still able to shop at Limited Too. As an 11yr old in the early 2000s this was my dream! To wear cute, graphic Limited Too tees with Coconut the Highland Terrier or that funny little monkey printed in glittery vinyl. Alas, I was too big and they were too expensive. Growing up, my best friend’s wardrobe was outfitted almost entirely by Limited Too. She had the silky, fun printed PJs, the graphic tees, the little, layering tanks with sequins, the patchwork pants and the tops adorned with tiny, round mirrors (what a specific trend, never forget). Meanwhile, I was shopping at Saver’s with my mom who would, delicately, try to usher me into the women’s aisle as everything in the fun girl’s section was all too small for me.
Do you remember talking to your bff on the phone until your ears got hot and hurt? I do. Almost every night, this same friend of mine and I gabbed on the phone before bed. It was the best. There was one night in particular that I expressed something I was afraid to say out loud, that I was chubby. I told my friend, “you know you were kind of chubby as a kid and I wasn’t. But now, I’m chubby in middle school and you’re not. We kind of switched.” She, in all of her middle school honesty said, “yeah… I’m glad I was chubby then and not now.”
It sounds silly but it’s a really scary and vulnerable feeling to “expose” yourself as big or fat or chubby or chunky or whatever others wanted to call it. It’s silly because anyone on the outside can see you already but, admitting and identifying yourself as "fat" just feels vulnerable. The last thing I wanted was for anyone to know that I know that I’m considered fat. It felt like, it only gave permission for people to reject me further. 2 more years of this mind-set, my SlimFast mission and a sneaking sense of unworthiness began to grow.
But then something new happened.
My brother and I at 12 and 10, respectively
My older brother was a chubby boy for most of his childhood. We both were. We were the two chubby kids together. But somewhere around the 7th or 8th grade he left my chubby self and got tall and slim. He is two years older so I watched as his whole life turned around, suddenly he was popular and girls liked him.
7th grade started with the same old me, round face and all. Except, welll... my sweet mother, bless her soul, was getting fed up with my eyebrows. They were becoming more and more Frida Kahlo inspired. Yes, I was unibrowing it up because, well, I didn’t know any better. My mom thought, you know what, let's just get that fixed; let’s get them waxed. My first waxing experience, at the most mediocre place in town. This was, a hole-in-the-wall “beauty” shop that did nails, hair, waxing, and also sold used cars. This whole experience is a story in and of itself and I swear to share it at some point but to skip to the end, I walk out with tears and Pamela Anderson eyebrows: pencil-thin and arched like a rainbow. I ALSO find out I am super allergic to whatever wax they used. I come home with no eyebrows, red bumps and a bunch of open wounds that would eventually scab over for a whole, different kind of trauma.
Again, 7th grade begins with a round, eyebrowless Sarah. The school year goes on, I have crushes, they don’t like me, I’m ignored, I’m really beginning to hate the way I look, other girls are developing, I’m trying to convince my parents to let me get highlights, yadaya, life goes on. That is, until the summer of 7th grade.
What happened to my older brother happens to me. Turns out, us Gonzales’ go through a chubby phase before we have one final growth spurt. I can’t believe it.
In a matter of months, I go from a size 14 to a 4. I get back to school and boys are kind of talking to me. It’s crazy. There is a day in P.E., while taking roll, that an upperclassman goes, “whoa! What happened to YOU? Wow!” I’m stunned. This is what I always dreamed of, it actually happens, I’m seen and not as a friend or just the funny girl, I’m wanted.
Yet somehow, I feel worse.
The feeling is stark and unavoidable because no one liked me a few months ago. It didn’t matter that I was a girl with character, creativity, personality, funny, athletic, or even a good friend. Nope. None of that mattered because only now that my body was slimmer did I matter. My body was the lock and the key. It was the only thing that new friends and boys found interesting about me.
Enter: a new, unhealthy mindset.
From 8th grade to almost high school graduation, I developed a pretty unhealthy view of eating and an even unhealthier view of girls’ worth. I would sit at lunch eating, you guessed it, nothing! While I surveyed girls’ bodies deciding which ones were better and worse than my own. All I wanted was to be skinny. I was already slender, but it wasn’t enough. There were girls smaller (probably naturally so) and I was going to be the same. I’d skip breakfast and lunch, I would sign up for extra P.E. credit so I could exercise all day, then I’d go straight to soccer practice to run some more uneaten calories off. I was getting smaller but it was never enough.
By this point, I’m about 5’9/10” and wearing a size 0. This is not to say that if you are this height and size you are wrong or unhealthy. Every individual’s frame is different and I took extremely unhealthy practices and measures to get to this point. So much so that my mom was beginning to notice. I remember the day she bought me new shorts at Anchor Blue (I would say Rest in Peace, but no). We got in the car and with teary eyes and a stern voice she said, “you will not go smaller than this. You promise me.” Growing up, my mom and I didn’t talk super candidly so this experience was different. I now knew that she knew what I was up to; and while it was easier to just ignore it, she didn’t. Not much else had to be said. I felt embarrassed that she knew and that my habits had been exposed.
I can’t tell you when I started really eating again. I wish I could. It’s not unlike my decision and the rough process it must’ve been to regrow my eyebrows out. I can’t remember it and I honestly believe it’s because it was semi-traumatic. Let me tell you this, I had NO CLUE that people filled in their eyebrows until AFTER I had grown them out. There was some period of time where I just had a bunch of nasty stubble surrounding my Anderson brows without any eyebrow filler to graciously hide the mess. Gross. Thank God for the mind's self-preservation tactics. I don’t think a clear memory of this time would do me any good.
This photo is years later and I was still eyebrowless!
Can't make this photo small enough.
Upclose and devastating.
So, I grow up. I start eating and getting HEALTHY, that means viewing exercise differently. Viewing it as a necessary and stress-relieving activity, not something to exploit. I gain back some healthy weight, a few years later, some unhealthy weight and, with doctor’s orders, I get in control of my health and wellness. In high school, I vowed that the fat-Sarah-photos would never see the light of day and would surely never be seen by any boyfriend. Even in college, I never looked at them. It always felt too soon. I was afraid any boy I was with would see the photo and think, “uh oh! What if she reverts back?” or even worse, “I can’t see her as anything else now”.
But I’ve gone back, I’ve not only seen the photos but, hell, I’m also going to share them because they’re part of my story and an important reinforcement of my understanding that, this is just my vessel. Going back through these photos was a much different experience than I had ever imagined and it’s what prompted me to write this blog. As I flipped through these photos I realized, “They were right, I was cute!” I wasn’t a female Jabba the Hut rolling into buildings like kids, magazines or I made myself to feel. The most unhealthy thing about me through all of my story was my mindset, I realize that now. And honestly, I can still,very easily go to that unhealthy place. It’s an ongoing battle within myself. It’s not nearly as active or huge as it’s felt in the past but it never truly goes away. That’s kind of where I am right now. Trying to stay healthy, think healthy and also be proud of where I’ve come from; and I mean that in a totally different way than we are accustomed to. I don’t mean that in the “glow up” narrative where I am so proud I have a body that isn’t considered “fat” anymore. I mean it in the way of understanding, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my formative, chunky years. Despite the striving and wishing for a new body, I learned how to be and was considered a good friend, funny, brave, strong, perceptive and smart. I worked to take ownership in areas in my life that are still helpful to my person today. I want to acknowledge that it is different for me to say this as I am not the size I was in middle school. I’m not big like I was then and no one has called me or made me feel fat, in sometime.
I believe, I stay in a healthy mindset when I remember that my body is a vessel that allows me to do what I love in this life. It enables me to love the people around me, create, travel, be active and express who I am. That’s what your body is for, really, that is its whole purpose. You and I are so much more than our bodies and while they do play an important role in our story and lives, they are not the beginning and end of our identity.
I’m so happy that the world is slowly catching on to this. That we, as women, are accepting this and acknowledging beauty in the representation of all bodies and even greater, in character traits. Growing up, beauty seemed limited to a select few and only for the physical. Today, its celebrated amongst many physical shapes and also intangible qualities. I’m proud that, that is our future; that beauty, for future generations, isn’t inclusive because it’s been refined but, inclusive because it’s properly acknowledged.
Here's to the hope that we may be the future Tobias’s Moms of the world.
She is a vessel. She sits in front of a mirror, accepting, open, knowing her existence is wonderful.
This piece is a special one, it is the first of many to come out of the understanding and ideas expressed in the blog. I've found new love and inspiration to create more pieces that highlight the diversity and beauty of the woman form. Coming to the website soon... More pieces to come.