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Numbers This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

Everyone loved that day of middle school choir. But of course they did – we were a group of 35 girls and it was the day we got our choir dresses. I was last to get mine, the curse of a last name beginning with W, and I could feel every eye on me as I stepped to the front of the classroom where Mrs. Turley was ready with the measuring tape. When she told me my size, I winced. Did she have to say it so loud? I knew my classmates had heard, as I had heard their sizes. It was just another number to her. But not to me. I hurried over to the dress rack, grabbed my size and returned to my seat, thinking how much better my life would be if I were a smaller number.

That was the first time I really became aware of my body, especially in comparison to others. I spent my days staring at the other girls. I told myself I was just admiring their clothes, but it wasn't their outfits I wanted. I wanted to be their numbers. I knew full well that I was staring at their waists, their thighs, and their heights. I wanted to be small and skinny like they were. Every girl underwent my scrutiny, and with each girl, my self-esteem took a dive. By summer, I believed with all of my being that I was fat and ugly.

So that summer before freshman year, I was fed up and wanted to change, and change came. I ate less than 1,000 calories each day, counting every single one over and over in my head. Some days I would skip meals altogether if I felt particularly bad about myself. I pushed myself through hard swim workouts seven days a week, often not having the strength to lift myself out of the pool when I finished. I had no energy. I lost the color in my skin. I felt sick all the time. Yet, I saw results. I started my first year of high school 20 pounds thinner. Everyone noticed. That is, everyone except me. I still felt I would never be like the girls I admired.

“You are ugly, you are fat” was still the mantra in my head. Every compliment I was given I brushed off as fake. I had lost every one of those pounds, but I still felt as if I had them, and more. I looked in the mirror and saw imperfection. My hips, my thighs, a double chin – weight that didn't exist anymore. My choir dress was four sizes smaller, but that still wasn't good enough. Too large of a number. Even though I hated running, I joined the cross-country team to lose more weight. I kept telling myself I would run until I was one size smaller – then I would be happy.

I wore out three pairs of shoes that season, putting in extra miles before and after practice. My coach noticed, complimenting me on my hard work, telling me my long legs were an “asset to the team.” For the first time, I believed the compliment. My very first race, I ran two miles in under seventeen minutes, rare for a girl that early in the season. I pushed to that finish line, passing two others, feeling proud of me and what my body could do. As the season progressed, 16:58 turned into 16:40. The seconds kept coming off, just like the pounds had. With each race came a new personal record and more self-confidence.

By the state invitational, I finally liked myself. I can remember each second of that race. The gun. The start. The sweat. The final corner. The sprint. And finally, throwing my hands in the air as I crossed the finish line. Of the hundred girls, I finished thirty-sixth. I couldn't get that number out of my head: 36. Almost the top third. Now I had a new number to identify myself with, instead of my dress size. My teammates and I made shirts to commemorate our numbers. I wore mine with pride.

I kept running during winter break, preparing for track in the spring. I was eating right, keeping my energy up, and I felt healthy. But, I never made it to a track practice. During a five-mile run, I fell off a curb, hitting my knee hard which landed me in physical therapy for months. Suddenly I had lost what made me feel good. As quickly as my self-confidence was earned, it was lost. I feared the worst, and began to see myself like before. Not running made me feel lazy. My teammates were practicing while I couldn't. I forgot 36. My dress size was my number again. I begged my physical therapist to let me run, even though my body hadn't healed. My mantra You are ugly, you are fat slipped back into my head. I was headed on a downward spiral.

Then one day I ran into my coach. “Still looking good, even with that banged-up knee!” he said, pointing at my brace. “You'll just have to make up for it next season.” That struck a chord. He knew runners got injured all the time, and I was no exception. He expected me to brush it off and come back to where I was in the fall. I was still one of his athletes, despite how I felt. In that moment, I could see myself through my coach's eyes, and I liked what I saw.

I never made it back to cross-country. The tear in my knee led to long-term hip problems and surgery. Surprisingly, as I was healing, I didn't mind my life without running. I knew in my heart I was capable when it came to cross-country, and I was eager to push myself in other areas, focusing on academics and music for the rest of my high school years.

Sometimes, though, my negativity returns. Leaving high school and entering college was especially hard. The dessert bar in the dining hall and all the sorority girls – with their low numbers – certainly do nothing for my self-esteem. But I've learned not to dwell on negative thoughts. I know everyone has something they wish they could change, and most of the time, there's nothing we can do about what we wish was different. I've accepted that there's nothing to be done about the flaws I sometimes see in the mirror. I've learned to push aside the bad thoughts and focus on the good. After all, I am who I am and that's all right with me.

I know lots of people feel the way I did, going through life never satisfied with themselves. They wish change would come, but never think that it will. Change does come, if you look hard enough. And when that change finally does, there's no better feeling.

Nobody is perfect. Nobody loves every part of themselves. Everybody wishes they were just a little bit better. Everyone wants to change. I am no exception. But that doesn't define me now as it once did. I don't see myself as ugly or fat; I see myself as me. The numbers don't mean anything to me anymore. I am not a number, I'm a person. I don't let anything, certainly not any number, define me.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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