I spent all of high school hiding my body. Baggy jeans and oversized t-shirts blanketed my thin limbs. I avoided mirrors, avoided changing in front of others. I brushed off compliments, assuming their givers were just being nice. I put unnecessary effort into my school outfits, conning myself into thinking I could accept my body as beautiful if I clothed it in beautiful garments—endless acts of desperation to bar the outside world from seeing how bare-boned I actually was.
To be beautiful was to attain some unattainable body, a construction of societal standards of beauty that value thinness over all. To be beautiful was to neglect one’s health, to endure pain, but to relish the end result of beauty. I knew not what I wanted to look like, just that I wasn’t right. My identity, my body—it was wrong. I was wrong. During frequent occasions of vulnerability I would quietly mutter something like “I hate how this dress makes me look” or “I look terrible today” to a friend, only to regret directing that friend’s attention to my own appearance. Drawing attention to my appearance, I thought, would subject others to thinking about the same appearance that brought me to tears, that inspired all those missed meals and fake smiles. My unhealthy state of mind thrived on the assumption that others saw me how I saw myself, the assumption that I could not be worthy. In retrospect, I was unaware of the little things I did to conceal my body. In a crippling, unnatural state of mind, these behaviors were natural, almost subconscious. I did not understand the depth of my absurd standards for myself, my deep-rooted fear of the capacity of food to change a body “for the worse”, whatever that meant.
At last, I have reached a place where showing skin and even imperfections no longer chills me to the bone. I no longer work towards society’s backwards beauty standards; I reject them. This renewed self-confidence has translated to more “me” everywhere. Crop tops. Skin-tight skirts. Instagram selfies. Photos lying in skimpy pajamas in bed that my mom thinks are slutty, antithetical to what empowered women share online. To share yourself, she says, is to “put yourself on the market,” to narcissistically seek attention; to post “sexy pictures” is to prove you are weak, to objectify yourself. And yet my newfound confidence continues to result in more “me” everywhere.
In social media spaces where physical beauty and showing skin often translate to more followers, more likes, I have a complicated relationship with what I choose to share online. There is something inherently transactional about posting to receive approval from others, as if one’s content is being bought and sold, one’s follower count artificially quantifying their worth. The very inauthenticity of social media, whether it materializes in posed photos or the selective details one chooses to share, promotes unrealistic standards of beauty and success. Photoshopping a smaller figure suggests that one size is more valuable than another, that one’s natural self is not worthy. Sharing only moments of confidence and joy likewise contributes to a culture that normalizes masking feelings of sorrow and discomfort. On the daily, I am badgered with restrictive “what I eat in a day” videos and weight loss photo transformations glorifying thinness, content that is not exactly helpful as I move along the non-linear, erratic path that is eating disorder recovery. I am ever-conscious of the toxicity of social media, and yet, in moments of confidence or even desperation, it is what I turn to. The instant gratification and serotonin boosts are too tempting to resist.
As a thin, white, eighteen-year-old, I have the privilege of “measuring up” to Western beauty standards. This privilege, however, in no way bars me from the damaging toxicity of them. As I confront content antithetical to recovery on the daily, I am left confused. Can I free my self-image from comparisons to societal beauty standards? Am I posting pictures of myself for me, or for external approval? Where do I draw the line between overt expressions of female sexuality and expressions of confidence? Whenever I watch a TikTok of a girl dancing in a bikini and see dozens of comments akin to “well, I’m not eating dinner” or “I would have to starve myself to look like you,” a part of me recognizes how easily I could fall back into disordered eating patterns. Nonetheless, a part of me also recognizes that rejecting backwards beauty standards that value comparing sizes is part of recovery, one that is uniquely my own.
Truth be told, I do not know the answers to my questions. I do know, however, that I do not need to. The very acknowledgment of social media’s toxicity helps me disconnect my recovery journey from others’ triggering content, a monumental first step. My recovery is not linear and persists, yet this is growth. And that is enough for now.
By Sophie Johnson
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz for Vice