Growing up, moving from one country to another, I didn’t really understand that there was a term coined for how one felt about their body. I just knew, I was different, and I tried everything to blend in while abroad.
Body image is the perception that a person has of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception. These feelings can be positive, negative or both, and are influenced by individual and environmental factors.
In my house, we didn’t really talk about our bodies, instead, I remember my Mother commenting on my height, my shoulders, my stomach chubs, and I watched her anxiously toss her cookies for days upon days leading up to massive receptions. We had a problem in our family, we just never discussed it.
By the time we had moved to the Philippines, my Father had become Ambassador, bringing on a whole new level of stress, and a life and household that was no longer ours, but belonged to the Embassy. I was 10, vulnerable, tall, lanky, and in no way shape or form, ready to understand body image, or my views of my body. My Mother, coping with her own multitude of change, that included, status, life, culture, and language, was confronted with a level of stress I couldn’t comprehend. I don’t think she could comprehend it either at the time. She was expected to show up at receptions, be by my Father’s side, host women’s groups, raise money, host massive receptions… she called it “being the flower” on my Father’s lapel, except, she didn’t get paid for it, and my Father’s salary wasn’t exactly that of a CEO’s.
I on the other hand, was confronted with one thing. I was one of 6 Caucasians outside of my brother and sister in our school. Not a problem, as a Diplomatic kid, you are pretty used to the internationalish of it all. Only in this school, the one my Father thought would be good for us, was a school that was made up of 98% wealthy Filipinos, we were the only 3 embassy kids. At 10, I was a head taller than everyone in my class. My shoulders were visually broad, my sandy blonde hair, freckles and long limbs made me feel like a giant clown compared to all of my tiny, gorgeously perfectly brown, black haired classmates. I left a school in Ottawa having been the middle of the road, not too small, not too tall. In the Philippines, at 10, my feet were the size of a grown lady, my height was the same as some full grown women, I was confronted with the feeling that I was all wrong, I was not thin enough, short enough, narrow shouldered enough… the list went on. It was a slow creep that would haunt me for many years to come.
To feel better about myself, I headed straight into gymnastics, and focused on perfecting my back handsprings on the balance beam. I focused on getting to the next level. Never feeling out of sorts on spring boards, uneven bars and balance beam. I felt strong, invincible, flipping in the air made me numb to the issues that would soon make its way into my brain.
It took a year, but by 11, I was the same height as my male coach. He began making little comments here and there, I was too tall, I needed to be lighter, I needed to spring higher. At the time, I thought nothing of it. I just slowly stopped eating certain things, and worked out harder. As school became harder socially, and my height was becoming an issue, I became more self conscious, I kept things to myself, becoming more introverted and unsure of myself. Gymnastics and tennis became my outlet, but food became my enemy.
My parents didn’t notice. My Mother had her own demons to face. She dutifully stood by my father’s side at receptions, having to take formal pictures with tiny Filipina ladies, a ballet dancer all her life, with the straightest of statures, she hunched, she would bend her legs and tilt, attempting to shave off 6 inches of her height to appear more balanced with her 4 foot 10 inched female counterparts. I watched how much she faded in those moments. how hard it was for her to find any clothes, or shoes in a country that size 000 was a thing, and skirts that came to a Filipina woman’s knees barely covered her rear-end. Her image issues were becoming apparent, but mine hadn’t even crossed her mind. At 12, how could I possibly have a body issue.
It wasn’t until I turned 12 and moved schools, that she realized just how skinny I had become. Our cook, a 77 year old grandmother figure had to tell my Mother that I was down to eating less than 1,000 calories and exercising 2 hours a day. My Mother, startled, and horrified that she hadn’t noticed, took me straight to the Canadian Doctor on staff at the Embassy. He diligently weighed me, asked me questions and flat out told my Mother it was just a “phase” I was fine. At 12, no one even thought that any of this had to do with body image, I was simply just exercising too much.
At 12, I was now taller than an adult woman in the Philippines. It was near impossible to find clothes. I would try on dresses, and my shoulders wouldn’t fit into them, if it were sleeveless I would zip it up, and find that there were darts and loose material where I had nothing to fill the material with. The teen clothing lines made for the opposite problem, I looked like I was a giant in baby doll clothes, dresses were more like longer shirts, shorts were basically underwear on me. If it wasn’t such a problem, it would have been funny.
In a new school, and out of an uncomfortable uniform, I got to pick my clothes each day. Which posed a whole new set of issues for me. Surrounded once again by a sea of kids from around the world, I didn’t feel completely out of place. But I was still confronted with issues finding clothes that fit. As many of my friends were going through puberty, I was still stuck with the body I had. I was all shoulder with limbs that stuck out. As I was growing like a weed, my choices were far from ideal. I began wearing stretchy straight skirts, and wore men’s baggy t-shirts tied in a knot on my hip, the men’s tops were closer to fitting my shoulders. When Esprit clothing went on sale, we would buy a pile of it. It was the only brand available in Manila that fit a pre-teen body with my height. Most of the time, I wasn’t bothered, I would make do and enjoy the fashion process, but it still chipped away at my confidence. I was anything but chip proof
At 12, I got mixed messages. My gymnastics coach complained about my weight, my now muscular frame was opposite to the young girls with Olympic promise, they were tiny, they could fit in my pocket. While the other girls seemed to bounce with no sound, it seemed that when I bounced it was deafening. My coach would joke that I had shoulders like a man, they were the same width as his. He no longer could spot me, as I was leaping higher and running faster than all the other young girls. He complained Every, Single, Practice. It slowly began to grate on me. My shoulders were too big for my frame, I felt I had a boyish figure, yet no matter how much I tried, i would never be as petite as any of my friends, nor was I developing like my petite friends.
At 12, the diplomatic life was taking its toll. I learned to only eat the bare minimum, to eat enough that no one would notice that I was calculating every last thing going into my mouth. It was my only form of control.
We would move back to Canada just before I turned 13, where I would be average again, invisible, but still battling a now deep seeded image problem.
My Mother was no longer interested in my sports, actually she never was, she decided once a week gymnastics was fine, I didn’t need any more than that. She just didn’t want to drive me. I went from training 2 hours a day, 6 days a week, to once a week for an hour recreational. She was suffering from depression and reverse culture shock, she was completely disengaged. My Father was now back in a horrid travel routine, he barely noticed weight, I could be huge, and he would still remark that I was beautiful, he was just like that. So I began to control everything going into my mouth, but this time, we were assaulted by images of waif like proportions, I still remember Kate Moss’s tiny body being revered as the ideal. My muscular body was now the target of jokes, the boys would gasp when they saw my legs in shorts, the girls commented that my shoulders were for boys, so I began to run my gymnasts body off, I wanted to be skinny not muscular. My parents didn’t notice, they were once again in their own daze of work, fear, exhaustion, and frankly after 3 years of having a personal driver, they just weren’t interested in driving me anywhere or noticing what was happening in my life. My Mother was more interested in my friends than she was of me. You see, she had drunk the Diplomatic Koolaid, that the exterior and peoples perceptions of you was more important than what was actually happening. If my friends liked her, than she was doing fine as a Mother.
My Mother constantly praised my now lean, skinny body. The only time we ever connected was when she felt she could dress me. We would go shopping and she would cluck at my size, praise me for a body that I was actually starving. She never noticed that I barely ate, that I would run for long lengths of time when I said I was at a friends house.
By the time I was 15, the only time I really ate, was when I would run for 2 hours and sit and eat a bag of chips in front of a movie when no one was home. With both parent’s working, and both siblings no longer living at home, I sometimes ate nothing at all, or sometimes, I would bake cookies and eat them all, then run it off again. I was always running.
Then once again, my world would be in chaos, we were about to move to Caracas, Venezuela. Right before my 16th birthday.
The sights and smells of my international school were incredible, a far cry from the school I had left behind in Ottawa. It always smelled of deep fried foods, sweet honey and an aroma of fresh coffee. My new tribe of peers, were curvy, gorgeous, tanned and dark haired. They swayed their hips when walking, they laughed easily, they always showed affection. They all sat at lunch eating full meals, passing food around, sampling each others plates, encouraging each other to share their food. Which in all of my life, I had never witnessed, not even at home. Diplomatic eating was formal, awkward and forced, it wasn’t communal, it involved lots of forks and knives, and platters of cheese. Eating seemed to be a thing in Caracas, curves were a thing, slowing down was a thing. I was not any of those. I was tall, very skinny, and had suppressed my appetite for so long, I had no idea what hunger felt like.
So there I was, confronted with a new image, a curvy image.
A few months into school, I was asked out on a date. After a day at the beach learning to surf, I found my athleticism, my freedom in my muscles doing their thing. He was a lovely tall, gorgeous Venezuelan, a University Student who happened to be a few years older than me. His tan from weekends surfing made his already white smile seem whiter, his black hair was slightly bleached on the top from all the days in the sun. His laugh was easy, intoxicating and fun. I was excited. I had never had anyone ask me out before, I had never felt pretty enough to be asked out. He was older, which didn’t seem terrifying on the beach as he was teaching me to surf, but the thought of the date was overwhelming, I was terrified of asking my parents, I didn’t want to bring him back to my house, to meet my Father or Mother, my Father was so stiff and formal and my Mother babbled about things that made no sense. So I decided to sleep over at a friends house, where my friend and her boyfriend would come with us on a double date. It made me feel more at ease, less worried about this new step into womanhood.
By the time we ordered, I did what I thought was proper, I ordered a salad. An eyebrow was raised. My date turned to me and said “it isn’t polite to barely eat in Caracas. You need a full meal” so he turned to the waiter and ordered a full traditional Venezuelan meal, shredded beef, plantains, potatoes, beans, and veggies. When the dish arrived in front of me, it was a platter I watched everyone else dig in, chat and casually take food from each others plate. This communal thing put me at ease so quickly, I was confronted with a pain in my stomach I don’t even remember having, EVER. I was hungry.
I started to eat.
It was shocking.
My date looked at me and smiled. He then said “you need to put some weight on if you are going to survive in Caracas.”
Caracas gave me a healthy dose of reality in terms of my relationship with food, but Venezuela was the capital of plastic surgery and liposuction. Women didn’t exercise to change their body, they went to their surgeon. It was yet another confusing and conflicting message. My ideal was now a more voluptuous look, yet eating my way there couldn’t achieve it. I wanted a rear end, I wanted bigger breasts, I wanted a tiny waist. Everything that I was at 16, I wanted to change, so in my head, I thought, when I am older, I will get plastic surgery like so many of my friends.
I had spent so many years running, and counting calories, my body looked more like a 13 year old boy. I did not look like Sophia Vergara or Jennifer Lopez. The ideals and images I was surrounded by, would be next to impossible for me to achieve, no matter how much weight I gained, it wouldn’t go to my derriere or my chest.
I spent years attempting to achieve various body shapes to fit into the country I was living in. Every move, there was a conflict in ideal. I never once thought, or was told, my body would never look like a Filipino or a Venezuelan, because I looked like me, I was long and lean.
I was so conflicted, confused, and in denial. I did not understand what eating disorders were or looked like. I believed I was fine, I was eating, there was no issue.
I didn’t know that my ever changing environments had a huge impact on me, were impacting what I was seeing in the mirror. I had no idea that other Diplomatic Kids suffered from Body image problems too. That would come later.