*trigger warning: talk of anorexia and disordered eating behaviours

In American society, the concept of girlhood is for those who are under the age of eighteen. The welcoming composed by society, more specifically the media, highlights the notion of girl power and plasters this image of “girls can do anything!” everywhere. However, this concept of girl power is a guise that girlhood and the girls in this stage disappear behind. We celebrate this power. But do we, as females, really have power? What is actually happening in the lives of girls? Certain things aren’t talked about. You can’t hear it over the noise of Barbie slogans.

Realistically, the media is centred around girlhood on a binary opposition: “the beautiful, successful girls” and “the ugly failures.” My girlhood was consumed by this opposition. My life was altered drastically, and I simply hid behind a Spice Girls mantra. I’m unmasking girl power and reclaiming it.

I remember the first time I questioned my physical appearance. I was seven years old. I questioned why I didn’t look like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Baby Spice, and the countless images of females plastered on the front cover of magazines. I questioned why I didn’t look like my friends. Each one of them resembled an “it” girl from the ’90s. These celebrities, these models in magazines, these “it” girls of the ’90s, were the definition of beauty and success. They were blessed with ideal body image. They had straight, blonde hair, and blue-eyes. They were tall, and the bones protruded out of their bodies. They were also white and predominately heterosexual. This made them the epitome of perfection. So, what did that make me? Ugly. A failure of beauty and perfection.

I continued to question my physical appearance as I braved elementary school. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of straight, blonde hair, blue-eyed, tall, thinness. As a little Italian, Hungarian, Puerto Rican girl, I stood out. My dark, curly hair, dark eyes, thick eyebrows, and chubby build were a stark contrast to the feminine beauty and perfection society exposed me to.

I observed the magazines at the checkout counter in grocery stores. I read the messages of weight loss, fashion, and beauty. I watched my friends as we walked through Limited Too. They purchased tiny outfits. I couldn’t. I needed bigger sizes. I scanned the pictures displayed throughout the popular 90’s girl’s clothing store. I was surrounded by tiny, smiling, girls who regurgitated the message: “girls can do anything!” The walls seemed to cave in. I went home. I cried for hours. I was angry with myself. I looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t look like the models in the magazines at the grocery store. I couldn’t wear the same clothes as my friends. I didn’t look like the young models in Limited Too. At that moment, as I looked in the mirror, self-hatred began to develop inside of me.

The self-hatred I felt for my body boiled inside of me with intense force. It boiled and boiled until it spilt over. Then, it consumed my life. I became obsessed with looking at myself in the mirror. I attempted to flatten my hair with my fingers. I stood on my toes to make myself seem taller. I pulled and pinched at the extra skin around my stomach. I whispered, “I hate you,” through gritted teeth and tears in my eyes. At such a young age, self-hatred was all I knew now. This was my girlhood.

I was twelve years old when I began to change my physical appearance. I straightened my hair every single day before school. I joined my friends with their pin straight hair. I began to swim in the sea of ideal beauty. I used to drown there, once. I looked at myself in the mirror. I smiled. When I was thirteen, I began to change my physical appearance even more. I convinced my mom to let me get blonde-caramel highlights in my hair. She agreed. My straight hair had hints of blonde in it now. I joined my friends with their pin straight, blonde hair. I began to swim easily in their sea.

However, I still wasn’t thin. Once again, I pulled and pinched at the extra skin around my stomach and hips. It hurt but I didn’t care. My tan skin turned pink. The imprints of my fingers were visible on my sore, blush-coloured skin. I inspected my stomach and hips at all angles in the mirror. My self-hatred overflowed. I cried hysterically. Why was I so fat? Why wasn’t I thin? I craved the thinness that surrounded my impressionable self. Actresses, singers, models, my friends, my family members; they all achieved the thinness required for beauty and perfection. My flesh burned, and I continued to poke and prod.

I was fourteen years old when I began to change my physical appearance in the most destructive way. First, I began to exercise. I exercised seven days a week. I ignored my aching muscles, even when I could barely get out of bed or walk downstairs. I ignored the feeling of nausea that was present during each workout. I pushed myself, and I pushed my body. I began to lose weight. But, I didn’t stop there. I counted calories. I obsessed over the food I was putting into my body. I didn’t think of food as nutrients. I thought of food as a substance that would cause me to gain weight. Food was my enemy. I continued to lose weight. The exercise and the calorie counting helped me shed the extra skin around my stomach and hips. But, I didn’t stop there.

My obsession with food developed into starvation. Anorexia. I stopped eating. I gave food to my dog when no one was looking. I lost a drastic amount of weight. My hipbones were visible. My ribs were visible. My cheekbones were visible. My face was hollow. It was difficult for me to sit down because the protrusion of my bones pushed into the back of chairs, causing immeasurable pain. I failed to sleep at night because my hipbones and ribs violently stabbed into my mattress. My stomach hurt and growled. I ignored the pain. I lost more weight. I became a shell of my former self. I became a skeleton (I no longer had the curves that my Puerto Rican genes gave me). I was constantly exhausted. My hair fell out in clumps. I stopped menstruating. But, none of that mattered. What mattered was this: I was thin. Emaciated. Not only that, but I achieved beauty and perfection. I was similar to my friends. I was similar to the actresses, models, and 90’s “it” girls that I grew up with. I was floating in the sea of ideal beauty image.

I stopped questioning my physical appearance. I was thriving. Or so I thought.

I remember telling myself, “you’re beautiful now,” and “you’re perfect now.” But, I wasn’t happy. I was ill. As I faded away, I needed to accept it that I was destroying my body and losing myself. All because society created this unattainable image, this unattainable standard girls and women must abide by in order to be successful. Well, I realized something through my painful journey of policing, self-discipline, and moulding myself- especially when I began to heal myself. I was always beautiful. I was always perfect. I was always successful. Exactly as I was, from a little girl to a young woman. My tan skin is beautiful. My dark, curly hair is beautiful. My dark eyes are beautiful. My thick eyebrows are beautiful. The extra skin around my stomach and hips are beautiful; my curves are beautiful. I am beautiful. I am my own epitome of perfection.

Today, I am reclaiming girl power. It should not be something society uses to hinder girls’ authentic stories. It should not be a curtain covering what really happens in girlhood: the detrimental, negative effects of ideal body image. Young girls, women even, should not hide behind this form of girl power. We need to speak up, speak out, and share our experiences. We need to normalize these discussions. Society, in a way, destroyed my girlhood. But, it doesn’t have to be like this for future generations. Girl power. Yes, we have this power. We are strong, intelligent, and fearless. We achieve amazing things. And, each of us is beautiful and perfect just as we are.