I got my first period a month before I started high school. It was 2008 and I was 12 years old. I was the first out of all my friends and wore my pad like a badge of honour. I was proud to be a baby woman, taking my first steps towards adulthood with a sanitary napkin taped to my underwear.
One early-February school day, at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I felt a wet puddle forming in the concave seat of my chair. My second period ever, glazing over school property like butter on hot toast. With this realisation, my face and body became hot with fear and dread. I wasn’t wearing any protective gear. There was no cotton blanket to catch my crotch drippings. In about two minutes, the bell would signal the end of another day and I panicked at the thought of standing up.
I wiggled in the damp discomfort, avoiding eye contact with my peers. I didn’t want to be known as the girl who bled on a chair. I was at the mercy of being made into an example. High school is a cruel place to be socially damned and by then, I’d only been in year 7 for a few weeks.
Thankfully, I was wearing my uniform spray jacket over my school dress. It was mostly black, insular and just long enough to save me from the humiliating menarche ritual of leaking fertile mucus onto things. The bell rang like a laugh, the teacher dismissed us and I zipped my jacket up to the neck, pulling its long hem straight towards the ground. I subtly turned my head to my backside, looking for any visible proof of dribbled blood. Nothing, thank god. The chair I was sitting on was another story. A smear of red coated the dark, sage green plastic like a stroke of fresh paint. My cheeks deepened to a similar shade of panic as I quickly shoved the base of the chair under the table, clenched my innards and sprinted out the door without saying a word.
The next day, before school started, I snuck into the unlocked classroom and hid the chair in the adjacent computer room. The lights in the room were broken, so I trusted that my secret could stay hidden in the darkness. And if anyone found it, I could just say it wasn’t me. It felt safe to abandon the chair, and with it, any chance of being publicly shamed. To my knowledge, no one ever found it, and I never became a classroom joke. But the experience heeded a warning. For a long time after, I hid more secrets than I told, fearing judgement and ridicule from others. It seemed that becoming a woman meant accepting that my body and other people’s perception of me were out of my control.
The following year, hormones raged through my bloodstream. My appetite grew into a voracious hunger that couldn’t be satiated no matter how much I ingested. I binged until I was sick with hatred for myself. And then ate some more because I craved the comfort that food afforded me. Within the space of a few months, I gained 20 kilos. A boy in the year above who’d been friends with me in primary school told a girl in my year 8 class that I had gotten fat. The girl and I were walking out of the school gates as she revealed his observation. Suddenly a thought crossed my mind: Is this what everyone thinks about me?
The mirrors agreed with the boy. I felt mortified by my reflection because I could see what other people could see; a teenage girl who’d gained a lot of weight and didn’t know how to hide it. I wanted to push myself into a dark room, away from the pressures of other people’s gaze. My cellulite jiggled like soft pudding, so naturally, I wasn’t desirable or worthy or good enough for anything or anyone. At least that’s what I told myself.
Magazines and the media reinforced my insecurities, presenting tall, skinny, hot women at the forefront of television and front covers. I didn’t know anyone else my age who struggled with their weight so I never told anyone about my own struggle. The foundation of my self-worth was measured by whether or not I deserved to be seen. If I wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, then I had to be skinny, and if I wasn’t skinny, then I had to be smart, and if I wasn’t smart, then I had to be funny, and if I wasn’t funny, then I had to be nothing. If I lost weight, I eventually gained it back, so I punished myself with exercise.
I would run up and down the long set of stairs at the local running track, achingly pulling my knees up every step until I could feel my rib cage burn. I was 14 years old and wanted a boyfriend, like many girls my age, so I stomped furiously, commanding the fat to evaporate. Films and TV shows only ever showed boys falling in love with girls who wore a size eight. I wore a size 16.
One day, I stood at the base of the steps, gasping for air and water, rubbing my hands over my leggings to soak up the sweat. I’d been climbing the stairs for at least an hour when a tall, middle-aged man walked up to me. He was wearing a tracksuit and runners, with a whistle dangling from the lanyard around his neck. He introduced himself as an athletic coach and I shook his hand, anticipating a conversation about fitness.
A look of concern pressed over his face. “Good work you’re doing there. But ah–” he paused, looking me up and down from behind his sunglasses, “–You know you’re a little bit big, right.” It wasn’t a question. Just another unsolicited observation, confirming what I already knew about my appearance and how others perceived it.
In retrospect, I should’ve told him to fuck off. But at the time, I was confused. Was he allowed to say that? I guess it was true. I didn’t even know if I should be offended, so I shrugged. “I know,” I said. It came out like a whisper and I regretted it immediately. I didn’t want to be visible. I wanted to shrink away; to curl and curl and curl like a snake biting into its tail, chewing until I perforated my whole being. Maybe I was a little bit big and yet, his words made me feel so small.
The years piled on like the weight around my midsection and upper thighs. I avoided swimming and dancing, both things I used to enjoy as a child, because I didn’t want to deal with the attention. If I was noticed, I was vulnerable, so I withdrew. The spiral of shame warped everything around me and I didn’t see clearly again until I admitted that I had a problem. And when I did, I realised that other people’s shame was hidden in dark rooms, too. Everybody has blood-stained chairs in secret, I thought it was just me.
When I turned 22, I sought help from a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). BDD is an extreme form of body image disturbance, motivated by obsessing over one’s physical appearance. By that age, I’d wasted so much time, dieting and starving myself and comparing my body to others. I realised that I looked at a person’s legs before I looked into their eyes. Just like the man watching me run up and down the stairs at that running track eight years earlier.
I realised that people aren’t as one-dimensional as my insecurities made me believe. Everybody has flaws and fears. For so long, I wanted to erase myself because it was easier than accepting the things I couldn’t control. I imagined that my worth would manifest when I finally fit into a smaller dress size. In reality, it was there all along.