By Betty Ngo
My girlfriends never outwardly mocked me, but I could feel their judgement when they looked at me. When we’d go shopping, it was routine for me to be excluded; they wore XS which was on the other side of the store from M. I couldn’t borrow their clothes simply because I couldn’t fit them. I wasn’t fat or overweight, I was simply the bigger girl. But this was never a big deal to me. My girlfriends were very accepting. They’d never tell me to eat less or question my exercise regime. Out of the four of us, I was always the biggest, but I never distinctly noticed it until middle school.
Logan Norman and his big blue eyes, strong calves, swoopy hair—the epitome of the basic first middle school crush that I drooled over. Alphabetically, he sat behind me in the classroom and I took that as a sign of destiny. We became casual friends, he’d greet me every morning with a smirk and my heart would flutter when I turned back around to face the front of the classroom.
It was our first field trip to the park when Logan sat next to me on the bus. Afterwards we ate lunch together with our groups of friends. We parted ways afterward when I heard his friends say, “Who the hell is that girl?” He answered, “Oh, Betty.” They laughed and smirked as they said, “Sounds like a cow’s name, which is the perfect fit for her.” After that, Logan stopped talking to me. And worse, I began hating my own name as he began mocking my body along with his friends. His snarky comments crushed me but instead of hating him, I felt the pressure to change my figure to prove him wrong and so that maybe he’d like me someday. By the end of the school year, I decided to devote my summer to losing inches from my thighs, arms, and stomach—to look less like a “cow”.
My entire search history became things like, “Best Waist Exercises to Lose That Muffin Top.” My walks outside for enjoyment and fresh-air became hour long rigorous exercises up hills and crunches in the basement. The sweatier and longer a workout, the more accomplished I felt. The lower the number on the scale, the happier I was. In a matter of two months, I dropped multiple dress sizes and pounds. From then on, two sizes smaller would be the goal at the finish line and I was determined to run as much as I could to get the trophy. To meet the goal sooner, I began engaging in disordered eating habits.
I eventually met my goal, but in the mirror, I did not feel as skinny as the other girls. So, I aimed to be even smaller, and even when I reached that goal, I was not satisfied. In my eyes, my thighs were still thunderous, arms still flabby, and stomach still pudgy. School began and my friends complimented my new body, asking for my workout routine. Little did they know, I was deep into my eating disorder.
But more importantly, when I saw Logan again, I didn’t know what to expect. Was he supposed to run towards me and ask to be my boyfriend? Was he supposed to suddenly flirt would me? Would the snarky “cow” comments stop? My face was hollowed, wrists bony, eyes sunken. But I didn’t notice this, all I noticed was how I was finally able to fit into those skinny jeans from Hollister, how my collarbone was much more noticeable, and how my thighs now had a distinct gap between them. These became measurements of my happiness. Growth of my mind no longer mattered, it was the loss of my body that did.
The cow comments stopped and Logan began talking to me again, his friends pushed for us to “date” (or whatever dating means to middle schoolers), I was no longer excluded from trips to the mall, he was able to pick me up off my feet with ease. It was perfect, everything I could have dreamed of. But a part of me realized how pathetic this was. Do you have to be skinny to not be bullied? Do you have to be thin for a boy to like you? Do you have to be afraid of food to not be excluded by your friends? Was this all that I amounted to?
One night, I had an uncontrollable sense of hunger. It was two a.m., I tried to sleep but my stomach growled for attention. I got up, went to the kitchen, and shoved bread into my mouth. My body craved sugar, carbohydrates, anything but lettuce and my occasional treat-yourself-sushi. I shoved these foods in, each bite a guilty pleasure. The next morning, I woke up and raised my shirt up to check my waist. I cried uncontrollably. “I’m fat again!” I stepped on the scale. Months of running, engaging in disordered eating, all for nothing, I thought. I was furious with myself, feared that I’d lose Logan, and broken that I had let myself get here. Was this all that I amounted to?
My mom walked in the bathroom and held me. “Xuan, come eat some soup. And don’t be afraid for being too skinny, you may blow away with the wind.” She was worried throughout the summer, but knowing that she couldn’t do anything about it, she let me figure it out by myself. She cared about me, like any mother, but in her eyes, my drastic weight loss was not drastic and perhaps normal. I was recognizably smaller but never as small as she was at my age. She cared about my happiness, but she was never fully able to realize that the things I was doing to lose weight were extreme as the outcome, my loss in weight, was not extreme relative to the Asian norm.
I did my best to stop my eating disorder and after a few years, I began to recover. I will never forget the first full meal I ate without my instinct to reject it. The feeling was indescribable. I was able to take control of myself again. I felt more accomplished in that moment than I felt coming home from an hour run or seeing my weight loss on the scale. It was difficult at first, but like they say, nothing worth having comes without hard work.
I wish I could say that Logan and I remained together throughout the time I was figuring out myself and my body and that he encouraged me to become healthy, even if it meant gaining weight. But sadly, that’s not what happened. We stopped being together as soon as he saw an “unpleasant figure” return. But I wasn’t devastated because from this experience, I began to learn more about who I am and what I needed to do to keep myself happy. And those plans did not include a boy who cared for nothing more than the size of my thighs.
I did such extreme things to my body and my loved ones for the number on the scale: the number that does not love me, hold me, or talk to me. I will never forget the day I looked at my body in the mirror under the flickering lights of the Hollister dressing-room without wanting to see any less of it.