College was a bit of a bumpy ride in the beginning. I went away to college, then transferred to another out of state college before finally settling back into my childhood home just before the beginning of second semester my freshmen year. I attended community college for the rest of freshman and sophomore years before transferring to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I commuted throughout my junior year and then finally moved to Amherst the summer before my senior year.
Needless to say my first 3 years of college did not at all mirror the mental image I created before leaving high school. I struggled both physically and emotionally. My weight crept up higher than ever. By the time I moved to UMass I was not only obese, but I was indulging in some terrible habits. I was, at that time, a pack per day cigarette smoker. I drank coffee first thing in the morning and other times throughout the day which would be ok if it hadn’t been loaded with milk and sugar. I turned 21 the summer I moved to Amherst and subsequently enjoyed my share of Zima (anyone remember those!), wine coolers and Kamikaze shots that summer and well into the fall semester. It took me all of a few months to realize that drinking was not my thing. Instead I began drinking Diet Coke like it was going out of style.
My eating habits went from bad to worse. Once I moved from my Mom’s house to an off campus apartment in Amherst my diet consisted of things like bagels, calzones, pizza and burritos. I didn’t eat vegetables then and I was most definitely a meat eater. I also didn’t cook, so much of what I ate was from restaurants or a box, as in Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
During my winter break junior year I did a 3 week intensive Spanish class in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I quickly became friends with the two other women from UMass. Within days of knowing each other they both encouraged me to stop wearing my big baggie T-shirts. They told me that I didn’t have to hide my body. One night before going out my new friend suggested I tuck in my shirt (gasp!). Not very fashion forward but in many ways better than the shirt dress I had been wearing. It took some getting used to but it was the impetus for thinking about what I was wearing rather than simply covering myself.
The second semester of my senior year I lived in Mexico again for a study abroad experience. I had the time of my life. This time I lived in Taxco, a beautiful silver mining town located south of Mexico City in the state of Guerrero. The town was carved into the mountainside which made for lots of hills. I walked everywhere and naturally slimmed down enough to feel somewhat comfortable with my body. I was still pleasantly plump and curvaceous, but it turns out the Mexican men find that attractive. For the first time in my life I was asked to dance at the discotecas. I received harmless cat calls and one funny marriage proposal on the way to school in the morning. It didn’t go to my head if that’s what you’re thinking. I found the attention a bit comical, but it was never crude or degrading. Honestly it made me smile. I met a lovely man towards the end of my semester abroad. We dated briefly. He was kind, thoughtful and made me feel beautiful. Our time together was short but it left a lasting impression on my self-confidence.
There was one other factor in Mexico that significantly improved how I felt about myself. I became friends and later roommates with two young women from England. They were the two most confident, brazen, hilarious women I had ever met. As if that wasn’t enough they also had those great British accents! Only a Brit can tell you to F off and make it sound like they are paying you a compliment. They put up with my self-loathing for all of a minute before one of them was fashioning together an outfit to wear dancing and the other was giving me a makeover. They simply wouldn’t stand for my negativity and therefore in order to hang out with them I had to start liking myself…at least a little.
At the end of the semester I spent an extra few weeks traveling all around southern Mexico by myself. This was a very empowering journey. It was a tremendous experience. I learned a great deal, met interesting people along the way and saw some amazing places like the pyramids of Chichen Itza, the quaint colonial town of San Cristobal in Chiapas, the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque, and the pristine beaches on the Oaxacan coast. I discovered that I was resourceful, capable and much more confident when exploring life on my own.
Family and friends couldn’t help but notice how much better I looked upon my return home. It wasn’t just that I had lost a little weight, it was that I had gained some self-confidence. I was refreshed and so enamored with my entire experience in Mexico.
I still fell prey to the vicious cycle of dieting throughout college. The negative self talk seemed to be most rampant when my friends were dating. I felt left out and lonely. These feelings were inevitably linked to how I felt about my appearance. I set unrealistic goals on the weekend, vowing to make drastic changes just about every Monday and by Tuesday I would be back uptown chowing on a huge slice of pizza. I joined the gym, I quit the gym. I began vigorous walking and roller blading routines only to find other more important things to do with my time like hanging out at a pub with friends.
My college years were fun. I finally had friends and a social life. College life didn’t quite end upon graduation for me because I took a job on campus. My bad habits continued as did the yo-yo dieting. The little bit of self-confidence I developed remained, but I wasn’t truly happy. At a time when I should have been meeting the world head on with enthusiasm and ambition I shrunk back. I had dreams and plans, but they were buried under doubts and skepticism.
“If you really put a small value upon yourself, rest assured that the world will not raise your price.” ~Author Unknown