I was thirteen when my mother first told me to love my body. She stressed the importance of exercise, healthy snacks and self love. Every meal she cooked came with a story of what it was like to coach girls through their eating disorders as a dietician. She begged me to never count calories as she added up the steamed carrots on my plate. My already disordered brain coaxed me into paranoia, “she’s only telling you to love your body because she knows it’s flawed and ugly. She wouldn’t be telling you this if your body was loveable in the first place.” I stopped allowing myself another slice of pie, and not another can of soda. No missing a gymnastics practice and if I was hungry, an apple would hold me over until I was allowed to eat my dinner of green beans and carrots. My mind had flashed red lights and sirens, warning me that I was fighting for my life in an environment that told me tasty food was a sin and to get into heaven, you have to go hungry every once in awhile. I decided my body wasn’t worth loving.

I was fourteen when I began my transformation into a ghost. Pinching at my skin and rubbing at my curves in hopes that I could sand them into straight lines, I wanted to blend in with the stripes in the wallpaper and disappear behind flagpoles. To sell the skin off my back and become paper thin and transparent would’ve been a fair trade. It became robotic, the mental reprogramming that had to be done to hear the scale’s whispering call to me every second that my brain wasn’t sorting out equations involving calories. My naked body, the bathroom mirror, and my thick tears became best friends, as I could not have more than one without the appearance of another. Friends and family would chatter over the weight I’d lost when my tiny frame had left the room. My mother would hug me tightly, crushing my porcelain bones and digging her nails into the loose skin on my back, whispering with shaking red lips and hot coffee breath, “you look like a twig.” But still, I was determined to complete my ghostly transformation.

I was fourteen when I was diagnosed with anorexia. The ugly word cut gashes across my tongue after it slid out of the mouths of multiple doctors in long white coats and sterile gloves. As soon as this conclusion had been reached, the image of my mother with her lips twisted down and her fingers wiping at her nose stained my brain forever the way that the tears stained her cheeks. Every word she had spoken at the dinner table rang in my head like a siren with flashing lights. Hadn’t she told me time and time again not to cut calories? She’d pushed self love, and I’d pushed it away. Ashamed and guilty, I continued to do so. It became my mission to wage my war behind the closed door of a chilly bedroom because no, I did not have an eating disorder. I’d heard about girls with eating disorders; they were the kind of girls that cried during meals and passed out during the day because their fragile hearts just could not take the pressure of one more malnourished beat. My family watched me eat every day, surveying me as every morsel of food that weighed heavily on my plate slipped past my watering gums. Their eyes traced my fork from my plate to my lips as if I were going to hide the food somewhere in between. They forced me to eat great feasts, and this was alright just as long as there was an audience to witness and testify for me when asked. Dinnertime became a meal and a show as my family watched me nibble at my vegetables with such scrutiny that it developed into an awkward performance. My shrunken stomach begged to burst open, and as a result, I’d cry off the uncounted calories in sweat as I did jumping jacks in the dark confines of my room. I wasn’t sure what it would take to them to realize that this was the norm, and there was nothing “unhealthy” about it. I’d already written it off as my depression, and that was all the wiggle room I was willing to give. But despite my repeated denial and futile attempts to prove my family, my therapists, and my doctors wrong, I still found myself faced with accusations of anorexia.

I was fifteen when I was hospitalized for depression and anorexia. The lack of weight on my bones became apparent when the shaky tremor in my legs threatened to knock me over with every step. Weakened by my parents’ sudden explosion of love for me, my knees buckled under the pressure of their tears and worry. This abrupt affection was unlike what I’d felt when they had been spectating me during dinner; this seemed uncontrollable, as if they’d been holding it in and this would be the last time to express their feelings. More than just my mother invested interest in reassuring me, everyone in my family chimed in to add how much they cared for me and didn’t want to live life without me. The nurses gasped and covered their mouths when they inspected my body under the harsh florescent lights. I’d only lost a couple pounds and only forgotten to take a couple pills. They were wrong for accusing me of wanting to die; that had never been the goal. But the feeling of an empty stomach that moaned against my ribcage was an addictive accomplishment that proved my strength, determination and willpower. I could’ve taken my disorder to the grave if it didn’t take me first; I had perfected the skill of not eating to the point where it was comfortable. For ten days I felt the scratchy embrace of a bed that didn’t belong to me and baggy clothes that urged me to gain weight. My nurses and roommates knew me as the girl “too thin to hate her body,” but my sadness was not restricted by physical appearance and surrounding circumstances. So I’d smile with quivering lips, too hollow to produce words to express what feelings replaced the food that belonged inside me. They agreed to release me with a signed safety contract and a hair comb after my sentence was up. And although I was still an anorexic with severe clinical depression, I was a medicated survivor that had been hospitalized for depression and anorexia.

I was fifteen when I found out that recovery was equivalent to hell. There was no such thing as going back to a healthy weight that anyone could be happy with. My family and doctors could stuff me with all the weight gain shakes, pills, and self help books they got their hands on, but I would never be happy with the skin I had been born into or the weight that needed to be on my bones. Life had become a mundane battle with the scale and its numbers that inched upward with every step taken to measure my value. I couldn’t see myself gaining weight, but I could see the tears welling in my eyes when my mother told me in an exasperated voice that she loved how I looked with my new pounds. Everyone told me that there were so many benefits to getting better, to being healthy again. In an effort to please my nosy spectators, I did my best to find new reasons to keep eating and breathing with every day that went by. Most days, those reasons all circulated back to, “my mom won’t cry anymore if I’m healthy.” It would’ve been easy to deal my soul to the devil if that meant I was able to give up without facing the detrimentally uncomfortable repercussions. But I had walked through hell and back in the recovery mindset and giving up would be a waste of calories.

I was sixteen when I heard my eight-year-old sister tell me that she didn’t like her tummy. It was a hot day in July, a day my parents had promised would be a “good beach day.” Reluctantly, the never ending background noise of self hatred that swam through my head and my tiny two piece swimsuit were packed into a sparkly beach bag with my sister’s purple one piece. In the bag, it was hard to tell whose suit was whose; they both looked about the same size although her body was much shorter and younger than mine. We both dressed in the quiet bathroom, avoiding the crawling bugs and winged dots to meet back in front of the dirty mirror. Nothing in my life could’ve prepared me for the bone crushing weight of looking at a corrupted mini-me, unknowingly speaking the thoughts that I’d held in for what had now been three years. I held back tears that felt hotter than nights on the treadmill when I told her, “bigger is beautiful, and I love your tummy.” But I was sent back to weak knees and an overworked heart when she said, “it’s too big, I can’t be pretty with a big stomach.” So I lifted up my baggy shirt that I’d draped over my self consciousness to show her my fleshy tummy that had been freckled from hours in the sun and stretched with years of struggle. I pushed out what I had recently sucked in, to show her that my tummy was round and bulgy too. “I’m pretty and I have a big stomach,” I heard myself say. And at that moment, it was alright. For the first time in several years, nothing felt better than pushing my stomach out and enjoying the look of my little curves. It was the first time I truly felt that recovery was mandatory and worth it. If no one that looked up to me or loved me ever had to experience the intense self hatred that came along with an eating disorder, that would be enough of a reward for me. Up until then, no eating problem had seemed real. My anorexia hadn’t bothered me until my sister voiced these disgusting thoughts that we shared. And I became determined to change. Unaware of the impact her words had on me, she smiled and turned back to the mirror, looking at herself and at me before ripping off her shirt, and running out the squeaky door towards the beach with a laugh and an “I’ll race you!” I gave her chocolate chip cookies, and rubbed her tummy when we cuddled on the couch and watched movies with stick thin actresses. I would’ve gone through the pain of a thousand pounds and a thousand failed recoveries just to never have to see my sister go through the battle that almost ended my life. I stressed the importance of unconditional love for a body that held so much more than just weight, even if it took a while for me to believe the words I preached. Her body was too little and young to accept any room that self hatred took up.

I was sixteen when I realized that I didn’t need to be paper thin to love my body. My naked body was just as beautiful as it had been when I was thirteen and listening to my brainwashed mother ramble on about self love and the importance of never developing an eating disorder. I finally understood that the scale couldn’t pick up the weight of my unclothed soul, personality, and values. My stretch marks, my scars, and my curves were flashy and conspicuous in the unforgiving truth of the cold bathroom mirror, but that didn’t take away from the fact that my body had always been good to me. It had held my creativity and memories and supplied me with a permanent place to live that would never turn on me when I needed a safe space to go. I was strong and worthy of all of the love and care in the world, and I deserved to reward myself with a weekend off the scale and a mouth full of sugar. I couldn’t take back years of crying over my reflection, but I could take away the fact that I never needed to be stick thin to love my body.

KIM FULMER is the winner of Product's 2017 prose prize. She is a freshman at the University of Southern Mississippi. Although she grew up in northern Indiana, she finds herself loving the south when it is not hot enough for her to break a sweat. Kim spends her life in varying shades of oranges and reds and spends her free time reading Stephen King and loving animals of any kind. She hopes to teach high school English after graduating.