I know when you first see this photo; your immediate reaction is probably something along the lines of, “Well, that’s extremely offensive.” But before this photo is taken out of context, let me tell you the backstory behind this self-portrait. What I’m about to tell you is very personal and I debated on whether or not I should share it. But I know there are people out there like me and I feel like my story needs to be heard… I used photography as my artistic outlet and form of expression to overcome the embarrassment of my stretch marks, now I’m hoping to do the same about my weight and negative self body image. My ultimate goal is to inspire others.
First of all, I would like to address the fact that yes; this is indeed a shirt that exists. I didn’t just Photoshop those words on it. I bought this shirt when I was 13 years old, back in 2005, at the consistently controversial clothing company; Abercrombie and Fitch.
My story begins in 7th grade. Middle School. Quite possibly the worst and most awkward stage in everyone’s life that majority of us would rather forget ever happened. It’s also the time where kids are downright mean to one another. Cliques are formed, bullies emerge, and everyone is just trying to find where they belong. Enter, me. I didn’t care about popularity. I didn’t care about what I looked like or what clothes I wore. I was smart, kind, a little on the weird side (ok a lot), and tried to be friends with everyone. Oh yeah, and I was incredibly SKINNY.
I struggled with my weight in a way that most people do not. I struggled to gain weight. And until I got to Middle School, it was an issue that went unnoticed to me. I was tall and thin all my life and I never knew it was a bad thing. That was until, someone pointed it out to me. I had just sat down in the cafeteria with all my friends, preparing to eat my lunch, when someone asked me, “Are you sure you’re going to eat all that? You look like you barely eat at all. You’re so skinny!” I thought to myself, “Of course I’m going to eat all of it. I’m hungry.” I assured them that yes, I was going to eat all of my food. My friends were constantly surprised at how much food I could actually eat. I ate more than anyone else at the table, but yet I was still so skinny. At one point I asked my mom why that was and she explained to me what metabolism was and that mine was just faster than most. It was in my genes. Both of my parents were tall and thin, just like me.
My friends and family were the only ones that knew of my special ability to seemingly evaporate food the minute I ate it. Because soon, other people began to point out my weight, or lack thereof. It started as just a few random anonymous comments yelled or whispered at me in the hallway, between passing periods, “Hey Chelsea! Eat a hamburger!” “You’re just skin and bones.” “If you want, I can give you my leftovers from lunch.” “There has to be a reason why you’re so skinny…” And then it escalated. These people began to make themselves public. During lunch, girls would drop extra food off at my table on the way to theirs. They would say things like, “Eat…” “You need this more than I do.” “You should eat more or everyone is going to think you’re anorexic.” At first these comments didn’t bug me and I laughed at most of them, thanking them for the free food, except for that last one. Anorexic? What even is that? I went to my mom and explained to her the things that were happening to me at school, and I asked her what anorexic was. Once she explained, I thought it was insane that anyone would want to starve themselves to lose weight. Why would anyone want to deprive themselves of food? It’s freakin’ delicious. Food is awesome. I love food. She also told me that these people were bullies and they were probably just jealous that I was so skinny. I didn’t even realize that I was being bullied. I had always thought that it was the fat kids that usually got bullied and picked on in school. I didn’t think it could happen to skinny people too.
The bullying at school kept getting worse. I had just gone shopping and bought a really pretty skirt. It made me feel beautiful and I was so excited to wear it to school. Waiting in the lunch line the next day, one of the popular girls was standing behind me and said, “That skirt looks ugly on you because I can see your boney legs. You look like a skeleton.” I didn’t wear that skirt again, for a very long time. I started wearing baggy clothes so nobody would point out my scrawny limbs. Even when it was hot, I would wear pants. I loved that skirt so much; I started wearing it over my pants. But then of course I got teased for that too. I figured it was worth being uncomfortable, sweaty, and unfashionable because nobody could see how thin I was. I thought if I hid it, nobody would notice. But the bullying didn’t stop. I was getting picked on in the hallways, I was getting picked on during lunch, and I was getting picked on in class. “Get away from me you anorexic bitch.” “I don’t talk to anorexic people.” I couldn’t escape it. Apparently the word had spread that I was anorexic. Because that was the only middle-school level explanation to me being as skinny as I was. Once my friends heard of the rumor, they thought it was ridiculous. They had seen how much I ate and knew it wasn’t true. “That’s crazy. You’re not anorexic… You eat like a pig!” “You eat more than all of us combined.” “Those girls are just jealous because you make them look fat.” They would say. I knew my friends were right, because I did eat, A LOT. But the words still hurt.
Along came winter and I was relieved that I could finally wear pants and long-sleeve shirts without sweating. My parents took me shopping because I was in need of a new jacket. I insisted that we go to Abercrombie and Fitch because ‘that’s what the popular kids wore.’ I found a perfect jacket, but I figured I would look at the shirts too. And then I saw it. A navy blue t-shirt with the phrase ‘DO I MAKE YOU LOOK FAT?’ in bright blue lettering on the front. The shirt spoke to me. I felt as if it were specifically made for me and my situation. Of course, I was only 13 and couldn’t process how offensive and potentially hurtful it could be to others. I could only imagine myself wearing it to school; the bullies would read it and realize the only reason they were picking on me was because they were insecure with their own bodies. Maybe if they realized that, they would leave me alone. It was worth a try. So my parents let me get the shirt.
I hesitated wearing the shirt to school at first, because I wasn’t sure if it would make things better or make them worse. I continued to try my hardest to gain weight. I would bring my own packed lunch as well as eat the school lunch. Then a new rumor began spreading that I was bulimic and would throw up all the food I ate. Someone had actually said they heard me throwing up in the bathroom. So that proved it, right? I must have an eating disorder. A few of my friends actually started believing the rumors. After all, they had never followed me into the bathroom to see if I didn’t throw up. I was damned if I didn’t eat enough food and I was damned if I ate too much food. I didn’t know what to do. I felt so alone. No matter how hard I tried to dispute the rumors, nobody would believe me. I felt as though I had one last resort… the shirt.
The day I finally wore the shirt to school, I made sure the bullies saw it. I had had enough. I didn’t wear a jacket to cover myself up. I got several dirty looks from people as they read the bold letters, ‘DO I MAKE YOU LOOK FAT?’ But nobody said anything. It felt good. I thought that this shirt had done the trick and now they will all leave me alone. But later in the day, I got called to the office. A collective, “Oooooooo” came from the rest of the students in the classroom as I got up and walked out. On my way to the office, I knew exactly why I had been called there. They sent me to the counselor’s room and she began to explain that my shirt had been reported as offensive and I was ordered to remove it immediately. Since my parents were at work and weren’t available to bring me a different shirt, I was forced to wear one of their extra spirit shirts that had our school mascot on the front. The shirt that they gave me was a small, but on me it looked like an extra-large. Once I had changed, they brought me back into the counselor’s office to explain why I was wearing such an offensive shirt. I realized at that moment that I was the one being labeled as a bully. Oh, the irony. I told her what had been happening to me at school. People were making fun of me because I was so skinny and now rumors had spread that I had an eating disorder. I broke down and cried. I spilled out every hurtful thing that had been said to me. I clarified that I didn’t wear the shirt to hurt anyone’s feelings. I wore it because it was my way of standing up to the bullies. I’m not sure if the counselor just didn’t listen to me or if she misunderstood what I was saying. She said, “Often, girls who have eating disorders have a hard time admitting it to themselves.” She just told me to continue to eat healthy and then handed me a brochure with information about anorexia and bulimia. I looked up at her blankly and utterly speechless. Her final words to me were, “You can come talk to me for support or questions anytime, but right now you need to return to class.” As I left the office, I had to ask myself, “What just happened? Now adults think I have an eating disorder too?” I was only 13 years old and I came to the very mature conclusion that nobody was going to help me, but me. The rest of that day was miserable. But I was determined to make the following days better.
I ignored the hateful words and just tried to be my normal, outgoing, bubbly self. Throughout 7th and 8th grade, I did continue to get bullied here and there, but once the anorexic and bulimic rumors died down, I started to get picked on for other things. My hair was too flat, as was my chest, I hadn’t had my period yet, I wasn’t tan enough, I was too tall, my pants didn’t fit me right, I didn’t wear perfume, my head was too small, my voice was annoying, and someone actually tried to make fun of me because my middle name was Marie. Like really? Is that the best you can come up with? I discovered that some kids are just mean and they will think of anything to bring others down because that’s easier than facing their own insecurities. Although I still got teased, I didn’t let the words of others hurt me. I continued just being myself. And when 8th grade graduation day came, I wore my really pretty skirt and a camisole top. I didn’t hide my body, because I knew I looked beautiful and confident. I tried to be strong on the outside but inside, I was secretly still tormented by the words that had been said to me.
Once I got to High School, the bullying never really stopped, it just evolved. I had a cell phone and a Myspace account. And eventually I became a victim of cyber-bullying. I still remember the day I got that first text… Eat. That’s all it said. It was from a blocked number, so I didn’t know who sent it. I was immediately brought back to those whispers behind my back in Middle School. I would get the same text during lunch almost every day. Eat. Eat. Eat. And when I got home, I would see that there were comments from anonymous profiles on all my Myspace pictures… You really need to eat a cheeseburger. Skinny bitch. Stop throwing up your food. Go crawl in a hole and die you anorexic whore. I would just ignore them, delete the comments, and block the profiles. But just like in Middle School, the words still hurt. When I met some new friends, we were walking to lunch one day and they pointed out the deep valley between my shoulder blades. Again, something else that I had never noticed. After all, I couldn't see what I looked like from behind. I remember them feeling my back and remarking on how 'weird' and 'crazy' it was. They would innocently laugh and I didn't let them know how uncomfortable it made me. I felt like a freakshow attraction. I didn't want to feel weird and abnormal anymore. I told my mom about it and she took me to the chiropractor. He determined that I didn't have enough muscle and was told to do specific exercises every night to build up the muscles. It didn't help much. I was never fully confident in my own skin and I started to obsess about eating and gaining weight again.
I would weigh myself before meals and eat as much as I possibly could. I ate an entire pizza to myself once. I would then weigh myself after meals to see how much I gained. “90 pounds, yes! Now just 10 more to go until I hit the triple digits!” I would say. I would do this all the time, no matter who I was around. I wanted to make it public that I didn’t have an eating disorder. My friends and my family all knew that I had struggled with my weight, so they didn’t view what I was doing as wrong. I remember the day I finally hit 100 pounds. I practically threw a party and told everyone around me. “I finally weigh one hundred pounds!” I yelled when I arrived at the tennis courts after school. I received high-fives and congratulations from my teammates. “Way to go Chubs!” They said. We all gave each other nicknames at the beginning of the season and mine was Chubs because it was funny and obviously ironic. I liked it because at least it was something other than toothpick, string bean, stick figure… skinny bitch. At this point, my weight defined me. And as painful as it was to admit, it controlled me.
I continued to eat and the weight continued to fall right off of me. But I was making some progress. Shopping with my friends was often embarrassing because I had a hard time finding clothes that fit me right and it was a chore to find size 00 pants or shorts. I was so thankful when I finally fit in pants that were size 0 rather than size 00. And once again, I told everybody. I was so preoccupied with publicizing my weight gain; I was oblivious to those around me that I was impacting in a negative way. I had forgotten that there were people who were dealing with a struggle that was the exact polar opposite of mine. They were uncomfortable with their bodies, just like I was, but they were struggling to lose weight. Multiple people around me developed eating disorders; real-life medical disorders…not just the rumored kind that I had experienced. I was shocked. And I felt ashamed of myself. Maybe if I hadn’t been so open with my inability to gain weight, they wouldn’t feel the need to starve themselves to lose weight. I thought about my shirt that I had tucked away and the question, ‘DO I MAKE YOU FEEL FAT?’ I really did make people feel fat. I blamed myself. Maybe if I wasn’t so skinny, other people wouldn’t try to be like me. I kept to myself after that and struggled with my weight in secret.
I was always labeled as ‘the skinny one’ in my group of friends. Never the pretty one, or the smart one, or the one with the huge rack. I knew I wasn’t the only one who was labeled in High School and I knew my label could have been a lot worse. But that didn’t make it hurt any less. Most people don’t think of ‘skinny’ or ‘thin’ as insults, because being thin is something that’s sought after. People would always tell me how lucky I was. But after all I had been through, I would have given anything to be rid of my fast metabolism curse and actually be considered normal for once. All throughout High School, I was never asked to a school dance and no guys ever took interest in me. I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t pretty enough or wasn’t popular enough. But I just assumed it was because I was too skinny. I didn’t have a big butt or big boobs, and that’s what guys liked right?
I met my husband in my Senior year of high school. He was the first guy to ever ask me on an actual date. For the first time in a really long time, I felt comfortable in my own skin. He loved me for who I was and he didn’t want to change anything about me. Shortly thereafter, I became pregnant. Being a pregnant teenager came with its own stigmas and complications. And of course there was the issue with my weight. I only weighed 100 pounds and my doctor told me to gain more weight otherwise I could run into problems with my pregnancy and my baby would be unhealthy. I honestly think she thought I had an eating disorder because she really stressed the issue. During the first few months I had horrible morning sickness, but once I could eat again, I ate A LOT. I gained a total of 40 pounds during my pregnancy and I was so proud of that. I think I was so concerned about eating, I forgot to pace myself. I gained a bunch of weight in a short period of time and ended up with stretch marks all over my body. I had them on the back of my knees for heaven’s sake! But I was less concerned with my body and more concerned about making a healthy baby.
I gave birth to a 7lb 15oz baby boy on October 9th, 2010. He was healthy and we were so happy. After having my son, I reacted differently than most women do about their postpartum bodies. I felt really good about mine; minus the stretch marks. I felt normal. Many people actually pointed out that I looked better after I had a baby than I did before. “The weight looks good on you.” They would say. And I agreed with them. Within a few months, the 40 pounds that I had gained during my pregnancy magically fell off. I think breastfeeding played a huge roll in that. But people were jealous of me once again. “You’re so lucky that you lost all your baby weight so fast!” “I would kill to have a body like yours!” “Stop complaining about your stretch marks. At least you’re skinny.” “You should be thankful.” And believe me, I was thankful, but many people don’t understand how much comments like do more harm than help. I didn't want people to be jealous of me. I wanted nothing more than for them to be comfortable in their own bodies. When people saw that I lost my baby weight so fast, they assumed I was on some strict exercise regimen and ate super healthy. But in reality, I tried to keep the weight on by sitting my ass on the couch and eating oreos. Everyone has hidden struggles that we know nothing about. So please think twice before you speak.
People often don’t associate thin girls with prejudice, but the fact is we DO experience prejudice. I've overheard plenty of things said behind my back, by strangers in public. Are we still in middle school? When applying for life insurance a couple years ago, I discovered that I would have to pay more each month because I was considered underweight. I was told that if I gained another 20 pounds I could reapply to get a better rate. Since when is health solely based on weight? All throughout my childhood, I was always in the lowest percentile for weight. I recalled a time my pediatrician couldn't even point to where I was on the graph because it didn't go that low. Some people would call that a blessing, I called it a curse. Again, I tried my hardest to ‘put some meat on my bones’ with no such luck. To this day, I continue to eat like crap and purposefully don’t exercise for fear of losing more weight. I’m now 21 years old and it’s been 3½ years since I had my son, and my body is still a sensitive subject. I’ve battled with my own opinions as well as the opinions of others for a very long time and I feel it’s about damn time I conquer all the negativity and finally feel confident in my own skin.
For those of you who made it through reading my entire story, I thank you. I’m sure there are going to be some people thinking to themselves, “Overweight people have it way worse than you!” And I’m not denying that. In fact, I know that it’s completely true. Thin and lean people still have the upper hand in society, it's undeniable that we are more privileged, but that does not mean we haven't had personal struggles and demons. It's not a walk in the park, like a lot of people think, and my story is a testament to that. I see women in magazines, actresses, clothing ads, etc. and most of them look similar to me. (Minus the airbrushing and photoshop) I understand why there are people who strive to look that way when they see it on a daily basis and I understand why others are trying to bring those images down as the norm, but I want to live in a world where we can all be confident with the body we have and stop shaming each other. In a world that obsesses over body image, it’s hard to escape it. It’s especially prominent on the internet. I constantly see people sharing photos of heavier-set women with quotes like, “This is what a woman should look like,” “Bones are for boys, real men like curves,” or my personal favorite, “REAL women have curves.” When clothing companies share advertisements, they are bombarded with comments about the model being too skinny, boney, emaciated, disgusting… anorexic. When I look in the mirror, I see the same things. Eventually some companies submit to the comments and remove the images or start using ‘normal’ models in their ads. This trend is making it socially acceptable to bash thin people. The ‘skinny’ models and actresses are now facing backlash while the ones who are ‘plus-size’ are applauded. And now there’s a fixation on ‘thigh gaps.’ People going to extreme lengths to attain one and those spewing hatred toward it. I have a natural thigh gap and I never even noticed it until now! Thanks media.
Seeing and hearing about things like this brings back all the agonizing memories that I experienced throughout my adolescence. I worry about my son, because it seems as though he's inherited my fast metabolism. And I worry about the current younger generation, because I know there are some just like me. And then there are others who are the exact opposite of me. Because you know what? WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT! Fat, skinny, tall, short, black, white... We are all real, with real insecurities and struggles. Last I checked, I was a REAL woman. I’m not just a figment of your imagination. My body type isn't 'unrealistic' and neither is yours. We are ALL real and words will hurt me just as much as they hurt you. If it’s ok for you to love your curves then why is it not ok for me to love my bones? I am very non-judgmental and wouldn’t dream of telling an ‘overweight’ person to stop eating. Why is it acceptable for someone to tell me to eat more? Body shaming is body shaming, no matter what side of the weight spectrum. Of course there are extreme sides of the spectrum where it's simply NOT healthy. I think, as long as you're healthy, you should be able to love your body, and others should too. I wrote most of this blog about a month ago, but just like when I was hesitant to wear that t-shirt to school, I was hesitant to publish this. But a recent article shared on The Huffington Post, inspired me to finally share my story. Jenni Chiu wrote ‘Banning thin models and calling them anorexic isn't the answer. Plus, it will never happen. Thin-ness isn't the enemy -- exclusivity is. Instead of banning one body type, we should instead be demanding all body types.’ Can I get an Amen!? I look forward to living in a world where we see all body types used in advertisements and body shaming is a thing of the past.
My name is Chelsea, I’m 5’7”, 112 pounds, I’m healthy, I have imperfections, and this is me being confident with my body. Please do not use my photos as your ‘thinspiration.’ You are perfect, just the way you are. We are all real and we are all beautiful. Every BODY is beautiful. It’s time to put an end to body shaming. Those who put others down are just insecure about themselves. If you're confident and comfortable in your own skin, words can't hurt you. I’m done being ashamed about my body. Are you?
**UPDATE: You know that really pretty skirt that I bought in middle school? I still fit into it... Someday soon, I will take a self portrait while wearing it, loud and proud!