A few months ago, I found myself surrounded by a bunch of women, who, at their own free will, decided to meet for an hour or so once a week to vent about body issues and food and weight. We all tried to give helpful tips to each other (like, "I hear running is good!" and, "Has anyone tried carrots?") but mostly we used the hour as free therapy.
It was at one such meeting that I had an epiphany.
"You know what I hate?" I announced loudly. "I thought that when I got into a real, serious, healthy, loving relationship, my body issues would go away." And then everyone violently nodded, and then everyone violently laughed.
As a woman who is alive, I have body issues. You too? Shocking. I get it, and you get it; it's part of the deal. We hate our arms, but at least we're not just a brain and two eyes in a jar unable to move. I have spent most of the last 20 years obsessing over my back fat, my arm fat, my thighs, my ankles, and my chin, and about 2 percent of that time doing something about it that would make me happier. Growing out of my teenage years helped for sure, but I still had bad days. Having a job where I felt validated and challenged helped, but I still wore light cardigans every summer to hide my arms, cursing myself for not skipping every meal from March until "bikini season."
I'll never find love, I moaned in my head—and also to whoever was on Gchat—totally sure that love would come to me when I was skinny. Because when I finally got skinny, I would deserve love.
Surprise! I met my boyfriend in a bar after not having showered for several days. I wasn't even wearing my (Miranda voice) "Skinny. Jeans." We fell in love at the end of August, my personal peak season. I could finally stop pretending to be a chill woman who was fine with wearing summer clothes, and spend September morphing back to my state of flannel and dark denim and many coats. And he, a man who also did not like to work out and who also liked to consume sesame noodles not for a meal but rather just because, became my boyfriend and together we ate on the couch, watched TV, and had sex.
During the "honeymoon" period, my body issues briefly disappeared under a heavy cloud of new love and intercourse with a man who did not care if I shaved my legs every other day or even every other week.
"THIS IS THE BEST," I said, shoving pork buns into my mouth. "HE DOESN'T CARE WHAT MY BODY LOOKS LIKE!"
But it was on our first big vacation together, a trip to Mexico about six months into our relationship, that I realized I still cared what my body looked like.
I packed up my summer clothes in the middle of an intensely cold February and flew down to Oaxaca, where I unpacked those clothes only to realize I could not fit into them. My dresses were not as flattering as I remembered, my shorts were a size too small, and my bathing suit made me feel like a sausage. But we went on this vacation because we wanted to spend it eating—mole, pastries, tacos, tortillas—and experiencing a city, together, that has been largely lauded for its food. And so that's what I did, each night returning to our hotel feeling mildly guilty, very rotund, asking my boyfriend if he still loved me.
I felt gross and bad, and it was becoming a thorn in our trip. And I started wondering the same things that I had wondered before we started dating: Did I deserve love? Was I going to ruin this? Will he get tired of me?
Annoyed with my state, I demanded that we "work out" each night of vacation so I could punish myself for the sin of consuming food. On one of our sightseeing adventures, we came across the Auditorio Guelaguetza, an amphitheater overlooking the city of Oaxaca that sits above 15 staircases separated by small inclines. Walking it is a struggle for most, and I was determined to run it, several times a night.
Each evening as the sun began to set, we'd make our way from the hotel to the bottom of the stairs. The daily tourists had come and gone, so we were mostly on our own, save the locals who walked the stairs daily to get home. By the second round of running, I was dying, cursing myself for coming up with this idea, which I knew my boyfriend would hold me to the second I suggested it because he's annoyingly supportive and wanted to hold me to a goal I was trying to hold to myself.
"I hate you!" I screamed at my boyfriend, three laps into our first evening running the stairs.
"This was your idea!" he screamed back at me.
"I hate me, too!" I screamed back.
When we got back to New York, we both joined Weight Watchers, where we both lost a good amount of weight and then gained it back after congratulating ourselves with French fries. I made it through another summer, started working out pretty regularly in the fall, stopped around the holidays when I threw my back out at a spin class, and now spend the majority of my mornings researching the rates for personal training sessions at the gym I joined three weeks ago and have visited exactly four times.
My boyfriend and I now live together, but I am still debating signing up for Weight Watchers again. I'm thinking about buying a set of weights for the apartment that I can use every day. I still constantly wonder if the size of my jeans is true or if I shop at a place that produces forgiving denim.
I come home every night to someone who loves me and tells me I'm pretty, but I wake up every morning silently pinpointing the ways I'd like to look different by some far-off date.
There's something comforting in the fact that after all this time, my self-worth really didn't ever have to be decided by anyone else. It could never be saved by a job or a paycheck or a boyfriend. It was only ever up to me. Something else to get down on myself about? Sure. But definitely something from which to learn.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.