How I finally accepted my body shape and stopped letting it interfere with my life.

By Paula Derrow
Science Photo Library/Getty Images

For a long time, I blamed my body for whatever was going wrong in my life. In the years before puberty, when I was (relatively) thin, klutziness was my problem, relegating me to the last half of kids picked for teams on the playground. Then, when the hormones hit, I was suddenly too busty, too hippy. My thighs rubbed together, my butt stuck out. I tried to be invisible. But I wasn’t invisible, not to the girls who snickered or to the guys who stared. “Derrow, you have big TITS!” declared a boy in my sixth grade class, when the teacher stepped out of the room one afternoon.

Maybe because my body was so much my focus, my family began focusing on it, too. When I was in 10th grade—barely able to squeeze into the largest available sizes in department stores and headed for Lane Bryant (the horror)—my grandfather began to taunt me. “Fatty, fatty, fatty!” he sang, when we visited, dancing around me while my parents and grandmother ineffectually tried to shush him.

I stopped visiting my grandpa. I also tried hard to make my body not matter. Instead, I focused on being smart and nice, always lending a shoulder to cry on. This approach made it relatively easy for me to collect a posse of loyal female friends as I moved through the school years and out into the real world, landing, ironically, at a glossy fashion magazine, where the perfection of a woman’s body seemed to be first and foremost on everyone’s mind. Though I thrived professionally, I was stressed by the scrutiny in the company elevators, the rush to keep up (and slim down). So I found a therapist, and, once in her office, said: “The first thing anyone sees when they look at me is my extra pounds. I’ll never fit in. Or find anyone to love.”

“It’s not the extra pounds,” she replied. Her name was Dr. Z, and she was very slim. “It’s not your body. It’s you—it’s inside your head.”

What does she know? I thought, as I gazed into a future where I was certain to be relegated to the sidelines of life, all thanks to my lumpy form.

When I was in a relationship, I inevitably spent too much time trying to make the romance work, worried that the man-of-the-moment was my only chance, hoping that my good conversational skills would make up for what I perceived as my too-ample form. “Do you like my body?” I dared to ask one athletic boyfriend, a man who told me he aspired to be gaunt. “I’m getting used to it,” he replied. It was easy to blame my body when, like the other romances, that one ended, too.

By the time I split up with gaunt guy, I was fast approaching 40, and my body was sporting new imperfections, the kind that come with time. Fine lines had cropped up on my face, puffy circles beneath my eyes. Even my hands increasingly resembled the way I remembered my grandmother’s hands looking—speckled, with prominent veins.

There is one good thing that comes with age, however: It brings with it a certain perspective. With a few decades behind me, it was easier to look back over my life and realize that my weight had gone up and down and down and up, but nonetheless, I’d had happy times during those peaks on the scale and occasionally been miserable when I was thin. I also had plenty of friends who were aging along with me, friends who may have been slender but were now doing some body blaming themselves, pointing out what seemed to me to be miniscule creases and the tiniest jowl sags. I could see how beautiful my friends were. Why couldn’t I see the beauty in myself?

So, on a visit back to my childhood home, I made a conscious effort to look closely at the family photos crowding the walls in every room—one of me sitting on our back deck at age 16, the “fatty” song and dance era. I looked solid, yes, but also brimming with youth, my hair luxuriant, a smattering of freckles on my nose. Not so bad after all. Next to that one was a photo of me in my early 20s, dancing with my father at a wedding, my eyes bright, my smile wide. Looking at her—at me—I realized that I had been desirable back then, but that my blaming habit had made me think otherwise, stealing years of pleasure and happiness in the process. Now that I was older, hurtling rapidly toward middle age, would I continue to blame my body, not just for my extra pounds but for every new age spot, every additional gray hair? The thought made me tired.

I’d always told myself I wanted to be loved for me, by which I meant for my brain, my heart, and my soul. I considered my body to be something separate, apart from my essence. But it is impossible to separate the mind and the body. My appearance would change, but I was pretty sure that the 80-year-old me of the future, looking back at photos of the woman I was now, most likely wouldn’t see the imperfections but instead someone who was still attractive, and comparatively youthful, with the same freckles and bright eyes.

In my 20s, I hadn’t been able to summon up the courage to meet a strange man’s eyes across the bar and give him a full-on smile to let him know I was interested. I worried he might think: Who is this chubby woman who dares to smile at me? But if I had dared to smile, if I’d ceased to blame my body for the rejection I’d imagined was coming my way, would my 20s have been different? Would my life have been different?

I’ll never know, but I am grateful that my 40s were different. They marked the beginning of my decades of confidence, when I allowed myself the fun of a few unpredictable Internet-fueled romances, and finally learned to smile at a guy across the room. “You’re pretty, and you don’t even know it,” one of the flings said. Could it be true? Was there nothing to blame after all?

As I neared 50, I finally married a man who didn’t have to “get used” to my body, but that’s not why I finally let go of my blaming habit. After a certain age, it’s easier to be grateful for a body that simply functions well. That truth hit home recently, when several close friends were diagnosed with late-stage cancer out of the blue. As we cried together, I found myself looking at my aging, ample form anew. A few extra pounds or gray hairs? Bring 'em on! I thought, knowing that these two friends would give anything to be in a healthy body like mine.

I could have learned this lesson sooner, but I can’t get lost in regrets. I’ve got too much living to do in the years I have left, while I’m healthy in mind and body, the two parts of me finally in harmony.