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My Years of Shrinking
looking back at your childhood self with pity and grace
There’s not much I recall about being seven.
Seven is not an age deemed an essential milestone during an adolescent's early life. You remember nine or ten because the cliques of friendship groups begin to form, media imprints itself on you at that age like never before, and for a lucky few, you begin to feel the first signs of childlike crushes and fancies.
What I most recall about seven is my breath. How my lungs quickened when I sucked in all the air I could to hold my stomach in, and how I let it all out when my brain began floating away into the unconscious void. I was trying to make myself smaller, and when I look back at photos of myself at that age, I am aghast because there was not much more I could shrink towards. But still, I continued, mainly hoping that if I could suck in my stomach enough, I would be treated differently. I wasn’t outwardly bullied; social tolerance was granted to me on the condition that absolute rejection was sure to be talked about by the mums of such a small neighbourhood.
The tolerance came in waves. I’d be invited to birthday parties but sit at the back where nobody would interact with me. My neighbours exchanged whispers in small groups about how much they despised how I looked, not in the formulated way adult women do with painted-on kindness, but in the precise and blunt way children do. When I was told of said whispers, I stared at myself in the mirror, wondering if it were possible for me to cut off the skin on my body and sew my flesh back together in a smaller size. That’s what tolerance did to me.
I didn’t want to be tolerated; I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be loved. I craved the feeling of belonging.
Is that not what everyone wants? For complete and utter adoration from others? Or am I merely falling into my worst traits by admitting this in the public forum of online newsletters?
I held my stomach in at seven, eleven, fifteen and eighteen. I shrunk myself mentally and physically for people to enjoy my company. I was vague enough that my friends could project whatever version they wanted onto my blank canvas. My personality was an accessory I could take on and off like an unflattering accessory.
I wonder what the point is in having a pleasant personality? In particular, how does it help when you’ve grown up around rich kids. I found that fitting into their aesthetics could never work. It was almost impossible to ply and squeeze myself into their mould. I believe that growing up around them has given me a complex of some sort. I could argue that I have tamed it through extensive years of therapy, but still, I cannot walk around without the idea of not fitting in looming in my mind.
And frankly, it’s ridiculous that I still feel this way at the age of twenty-three. I should be profoundly embarrassed, but if anything, I feel angry. I feel angry that my psyche has been so thoroughly beat down and broken because I couldn’t hold my stomach in at seven years old.
I believe the only time I didn’t think about my physical existence was during the lockdown.
I hated lockdown, not just because the air was unbreathable or the worries about getting sick. Not just because everyone decided to go masks off and become eugenicists, I hated lockdown because I had a breakdown. I have written about that breakdown before, so I won’t go into intricate details but know that it occurred at the same time my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself then and there, but I suppose that because everything happened within my house, I found a small amount of peace with the idea of not having to go outside again. I could stay in for as long as I wanted, and nobody would have to perceive me ever again. Nobody could stare at my body and dissect it as if I were a slab of meat on a countertop. I almost forgot I had a body at a certain point; I was simply a translucent woman making her journey in and around her house like a lone ghost. No men or gawking eyes to make me cower away in fear.
When I moved to London in 2021, I had to become aware of my body again. This isn’t to say my hometown is any better, but fewer people meant fewer eyes. Sat on train seats and bus rides, I could feel myself taking up space again. I apologised and smiled behind my mask for the embarrassment of daring to be seen on public transport; I felt like I had done wrong to those in my presence.
Taking up space was a theme during my 22nd year. I shrank myself down in all aspects of my life. My work self felt like a hollowed-out version of who I am, not wanting to speak for fear of my true self being volatile. In friendships, I have felt like an outsider looking on in, that even in groups of people (who I know to love me), I still have an inkling that the garden chair I’m sitting in was once meant to seat someone else. In dating, I can’t figure out where I stand with anybody, and I stop shy of being 100% honest because to get to know me honestly, one must see the ugliness inside.
The common idea is that we never truly grow out of high school, that the adolescent hormonal versions of ourselves are at our core, no matter how much fancy perfume or trendy thrifted clothing we throw over it. But I believe it is not high school that remains, but elementary. We are simply idiotic children at the root of it all, looking for answers to our ever-changing lives and having tantrums along the way.
The last time I felt seven was a month ago. My friend invited me to be their plus one to an album launch. I’m not one for events due to the ever-present criticism towards myself that swirls around in the toilet bowl I call a brain, but I went along because I adored the musician playing. When I arrived, I wished for once that I would stop being wrong about my instincts about how I’m going to be perceived because, once again, self-awareness has never helped me fix the issues at hand.
It’s such a dehumanising experience to be looked at from head to toe as if you’re not worth anything at all. From the very initial look, your entire life has been road mapped by people who do not know you, and you are assessed and dismissed within a second. It’s why I don’t network.
But still, I persisted; I wanted to see the musician perform after a year of already missing out on so much. When she got on stage, the room instantly became filled, hordes of people packed into what was already a tiny room, and as each new person came in and out of the room, they transfixed their gaze on me. Because to them, I was taking up space and making it uncomfortable, not the apparent issue of poor crowd planning. The stares came in from all directions, and I felt them wash over me like molten lava. My cheeks turned crimson red, and panic sat in. I left two songs into the set.
If I were to predict the reaction to this essay from a total stranger, I’d guess that it would be among the lines of “there are bigger fish to fry in this world, so suck it up.” This is true. Of course, there will always be a more significant, pressing, groundbreaking social matter to focus on. But I bring this anecdote up to say that the feeling of being seven never escapes you. Even when you’ve become popular, successful or “prettier” than you would deem your nineteen yourself to have been. It would seem easy to dismiss the insecurities, but when they reside in your mind day in and day out, you become haunted by them.
To end, I’ll leave you with this extract from Zoe Moss' renowned essay 'It Hurts To Be Alive And Obsolete', where she relays a similar feeling of shrinking that I have found to be one of the most insightful quotes of my twenties thus so far.
“To be, in other words, still a living woman, and to be told every day that you are not a woman but a tired object that should disappear. That you are not a person but a joke. Well, I am a bitter joke. I am bitter and frustrated and wasted, but don't you pretend for a minute as you look at me, forty-three, fat, and looking exactly my age, that I am not as alive as you are and that I do not suffer from the category into which you are forcing me.”
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