How A Summer Living With My Skinny Cousins Taught Me To Love My Own Body

Editor's Note: February 22-28 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. In recognition, each day this week, we'll be featuring a piece about women's body image. And please, remember: If you're struggling with your body image or an eating disorder, you're not alone, and help is available.

All my life, my three younger cousins have been thinner than me. So when I had to move in with them for three months this past summer, I dreaded having to spend time around them and their perfect, bikini-clad bodies.

I am the oldest child in our family, and Laura, Jamie, and Sarah* came three, five, and six years after me, respectively. We've always been close, but even at the young age of nine, I had to psyche myself up just to visit them. I always felt inadequate in their presence: They were prettier, more athletic, and I was sure my grandparents loved them the best.

See, as much as I hate the phrase, I probably could stand to lose a few pounds. I'm short, and any weight I gain is instantly visible on me. Add to that a hectic last semester of securing a job and graduating from college, and I was definitely creeping into chunky territory by summer 2014. But while I waited for my apartment lease to begin in August, I decided I had to move down the road from my college and stay with my aunt and cousins for the summer.

I dreaded the idea of staying with my cousins for so long. I'd never spent more than a week at a time with them, and now there I was, stuck for the summer in the land of models.

I've known for a few years that my cousins have an unhealthy relationship with food. Although none of them has an eating disorder that I know of in the classic sense, I hear things come out of their mouths that astound me. "Stop me if I eat anything tonight," I remember my oldest cousin Laura telling her sister Jamie on Thanksgiving a few years ago. Jamie agreed to be her sister's calorie counter without batting an eye. I tried in vain to remind Laura that she was gorgeous. And she is — tall, fit, athletic — I've been jealous of her my whole life. But she's unhappy with her body.

I set all the treats out on the table and brought four spoons from the kitchen. "Dig in!" I said. Sarah looked at me in wonder. "Are we going to eat the ice cream straight out of the container? I've always wanted to do that." It would have been funny if it wasn't so tragic.

As the summer progressed, I began to see where my cousins' negative body image really came from: It turns out the worst perpetrator of this unhealthy attitude was my aunt. She was overweight growing up, and even though she's amazingly fit for a 47 year old, I don't think she ever lost the mentality that she was fat. Her obsessiveness about staying healthy has trickled down to her daughters.

One Saturday, my cousins and I sat eating tortilla chips and hummus (not really the worst of snack foods) when my aunt came inside. "Do you really want to just keep eating those?" She said, running her eyes down her daughters' bodies and then glancing at the chip bag. Twenty-year-old Laura slowly packed up the food. The moment their mother went back outside, she stuffed several chips into her mouth. "Quick, eat up before she comes back," she said, guilt etched into her face.

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My cousins were endlessly worried about what their mother would think. If we went out for ice cream, they'd rush to eat theirs in the car so they could deposit the cone in the trash before walking inside.

At first, I played by these rules too. When my mother sent me a care package full of my favorite snacks, I stuffed them under my bed, fearful that my aunt would see them and judge me. But the more I noticed my cousins' behavior, the more I wanted to set a positive example. I had the privilege of growing up with a mother who was never negative about my body, and I wanted my cousins to experience what that felt like. So I put the snacks my mother sent me in the pantry for everyone to enjoy.

"Where does all this junk keep coming from?" My aunt asked one night. "Oh, it's mine," I calmly said. "My mom sent it for us to enjoy." I retrieved the bag of goldfish and opened it, offering the package to her. She shook her head but didn't say anything. Sarah took her silence as permission, and plucked some crackers out of the bag.

One night, I was craving a treat and gathered the girls to go to the store with me. Their parents were already asleep for the night and I knew this was my chance. Once we were at the gas station, I told them they could pick out whatever treat they wanted. Jamie got candy, Laura got ice cream, and Sarah got chips. I rounded out our snacks with some extra candy, chip, and ice cream flavors. It was quite the spread.

I set all the treats out on the table and brought four spoons from the kitchen. "Dig in!" I said. Sarah looked at me in wonder. "Are we going to eat the ice cream straight out of the container? I've always wanted to do that." It would have been funny if it wasn't so tragic.

Little by little, I tried to focus on verbally improving their self-esteem. "You look so pretty today!" I told Sarah. I made sure to steer away from words like "thin" and "skinny," because although she is, I didn't want to focus on that. "Oh, really?" she asked, her face doubtful.

The more I complimented my cousins, the more they started to accept the flattery. By the end of the summer, Sarah would toss her hair over he shoulder, laugh and say, "Thanks, I know!" Perhaps that sounds conceited, but coming out of her mouth, all I could hear was a confidence I'd always wanted her to have.

As the summer wore on, I started to notice that my comments were working. "Are you just going to eat bread all night?" my aunt asked 18-year-old Jamie one night. "Yes," she replied, working on her second piece. "But now you're just making me feel bad about it." Laura chimed in. "Yeah mom, when you talk about food all the time it makes me feel awful." I'd never heard them stand up to her before. I was secretly thrilled.

"Does it make you feel bad about yourself when your mom talks about her weight all the time?" I asked Sarah as we baked one day in the kitchen. "Yeah," she answered. "Like if she thinks she looks bad, what does she think of me?"

Here's the thing: I know my aunt loves her daughters. I truly think she's trying to keep them from feeling the way she did when she was chubby at their age. I think when she fusses over her food, or talks constantly about how many steps she's walked, or worries about her weight, she's not condemning them.

But those girls are listening — and have been since they were old enough to understand. And when you're raised by a woman who hates herself, you start to do the same. I don't think she understands the effect her words have. I don't think she knows she's raising daughters who think of food as the enemy.

In the end, I left my cousins' house in August feeling better about my weight than I had in years. There was something about watching my perfect cousins be miserable about their bodies that made me want to protect mine from the same negativity. I set out that summer to try to make them feel better about themselves — and I ended up helping myself, too.

That summer, I bought a bikini for the first time in over a decade. I hadn't "lost the weight" like I'd always promised myself I'd do before I wore a bikini; like it was some prize I had to earn. I was probably the heaviest I've ever been that summer, but I didn't care. I wanted to set a positive example for my cousins, so I wore a bikini like it was no big deal.

And I hope that next summer, we can all wear bikinis together, my aunt included. No matter what we look like.

*Names have been changed.

Images: only-in-grey, andreagifs/Tumblr; Martha Sorren (2); giphy