This is a letter is a long time coming. It nags at me every day, when I chat with my 15-year-old daughter. I watch her sorting out the business of becoming a woman, absorbing the world’s messages about what that means, looking at herself through the lens of media, celebrity, and yes, her mother, too, and wondering to herself how she measures up. I want, so badly, to find the words to free her from all that comparison and worry, because I know that struggle all too well.
And then I think of you, my teenaged self, lying on your bedroom floor, tearfully wrenching yourself into a pair of Calvin Klein jeans — the ones from that Brooke Shields ad — willing them to fit and knowing they never will. Because you are not Brooke Shields. And the sooner you know that, the sooner your life as Emme will begin. What magic words could I say to convince you to get up off the floor?
Things weren’t easy in that house, I know. Your mother always on a diet, and your stepfather, obsessed with controlling his weight — and yours. In his disordered eating, he was struggling with the wounds of his own childhood, inflicting his suffering on those around him too. That’s how it works with bullies. They’ve been hurt, so they hurt others. But how could you know that then? All you knew was that, in the eyes of those who should have loved you unconditionally, your body was unacceptable.
At school, things were different. There, your body wasn’t “fat,” but strong and capable. You were an athlete, excelling at sports. You became a star rower and eventually would go to Syracuse University on a full athletic scholarship. Even then, you could not see your body for the incredible asset it was.
And no one else could see the truth either. Your coaches applauded your strength and ability, urging you to hone it — but inside you still carried those lessons learned at home. You didn’t want to be stronger; you wanted to be small. You guzzled diet soda and carefully calculated the calories of each meal, then went to practice to burn them off. Everyone praised your athletic aptitude, but really, that athleticism was the perfect mask for disordered eating.
Back then, though, people didn’t talk much about eating disorders — especially not when it came to girls who looked like you. (Years later, shortly after you begin modeling, you will take your first big paycheck and go straight to therapy. “You look perfectly fine,” your therapist will say. “Next!”)
Still, you will begin to understand that you need help. Even as you step into the world of plus-size modeling, where your body will be praised and championed — and where no one will tell you to lose weight — you will know you need help. Eventually, you’ll find the right therapist and begin to mend those wide-open wounds inflicted all the way back in your parents’ house. At last, you’ll grow into the woman I am today: a creator, a mother, an author, a speaker, and a fighter on behalf of girls just like you.
If I had the chance to knock on your bedroom door that day, and find you there, wrestling with a pair of too-small jeans, here is what I would say: It’s the jeans that don’t fit — not you. You are going to do such magnificent things with this body of yours. You’re going to use it to make love. You are going to give birth with it. It’s going to help you build a career. These are the arms with which you will hug people, the middle your children will run to and wrap their own arms around. This body is the vehicle that will carry you through the rest of the beautiful, astonishing life ahead of you. So, please, stop fighting it.
This is my earnest plea to you, and to every young person out there — because you are certainly not the only teenager lying on the floor, wishing they were different. If others aren’t giving you the respect and love you deserve, give it to yourself. Demand it. Know that all those bullies and critics are dealing with their own pain. So let them deal with it; don’t absorb other people’s problems.
And don’t try to fit yourself into someone else’s mold either. If the jeans don’t fit, don’t wear them. Find the clothes that fit your body and the life that fits you. Speak up for yourself and soon enough, those bullying voices will fade away, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who do treat you with respect and love, and so much more. But you have to do it for yourself first.
I wish you didn’t have to fight this battle. I wish nobody did. But I know you have it in you. So, get up off the floor, girl. Start now, the sooner the better. Look in the mirror and tell yourself, “This is who I am. Take it or leave it.” Then get out there, and tell the world.