Imaani Soto

Perfectly Imperfect

     I am imperfect, and the stretch marks on my thighs are constant reminders of that. Jagged, thick lines permeated my legs, and kept me locked up in a cage of my insecurities. I am imperfect, and I would die to be otherwise.

       Growing up mixed is a blessing and a curse, because where I've benefited from rich culture, and fascinating histories, I’m burdened with the expectations of beauty from two sides. When you're a kid, you aren’t conscious of the fact of your imperfections. There’s an innocence of childhood that’s lost when you grow up, and that’s hard to get back once it’s taken. For me, I was robbed of it earlier than I would have liked. I’ve never had high self-esteem, to begin with, perhaps this was at the fault of being a big sister, getting lectured for not being responsible enough despite being a child myself, or maybe pressure in academia to be a star student at the cost of mental wellness. Whatever it was, it was there within me, but my Pandora's box was opened at the age of 9.

 “You gotta look like this, es buena,” my Abuela replied, urging me to eat more of my breakfast as she motioned an hourglass figure with her hands.

     A simple expression at that, but one that would begin my spiral, a downward spiral of my attempts to achieve physical perfection. In Puerto-Rican culture una chica bonita was a woman who had an hourglass shape, who was full in the legs, butt, and bust, and who was tall enough to be proportionate but not giant as to prevent surpassing a man. This was one of my two sides, and I was proud of who I was, but as I gazed in the mirror at my 4’11’’ft body with minimal curves, my heart sank. I had fallen below the bar, I tried to learn to ignore my imperfections because of how much they pained me, but it would never truly leave my mind. Every time I passed a mirror, car window, or tried on clothes, the phrase was on the back burner, keeping me chained to my low self-esteem.

   Fast forward to age 12, and puberty had struck me like lightning to Franklin's kite, what was once the thin short frame of my 9-year-old self, became enlarged legs, a slightly taller height, and an interesting chest. Even though it was abrupt, I barely noticed my change, not until my stretch marks were pointed out to me. I dropped to the ground completely dazed, as tears began to fill my eyesight. UGLY, FAT, UNDESIRABLE, were headlines in my brain that I couldn’t control.

“It's ok, those are completely normal, almost everyone gets them. It just means you grew fast,” My mom coaxed, as I let my warm tears stream down my face.

“No! I don’t want them, I hate them! Why does this have to happen to me? I don’t want to grow fast if this is what happens!” I retaliated.

    My mother consoled me till I finished crying. Regardless of her words, I felt imperfect, ugly, fat. How could I be loveable to anyone if I looked like this? I wasn’t the hourglass figure my Abuela had described to me years before, but a short, now stubby, round-faced little girl, A little girl who now couldn’t even stomach looking into a mirror. Later that year we would leave for Taiwan to visit my grandfather and at that point, I had become so consumed with trying to gain perfection that I let my mental health take a turn for the worse. I was overjoyed to go to Taiwan because it gave me hope to put a pause to all this madness in my mind. It was my happy place, where I could be in the sun, and just enjoy myself.

      My sister, mother, and I got off the plane jet-lagged and weary. It had been a very long trip, with delays for miles, but at last, it was over. It felt good to be home, and even better once the humid, hot air of the island kissed my skin. For a moment, it felt like everything was fine, and the white noise of my insecurities silenced for a brief second, and I felt happy. I was back in the place which I loved so dearly, and the memories of previous trips played in my head as I watched the glorious Kaohsiung scenery whiz by me. As we parked in the driveway of my jiu jiu's 舅舅 (Uncle in Mandarin) house, I jumped out of the van and I excitedly ran throughout the familiar house; there was the solid wooden couch that I had learned to find comfortable, the cool tiled floors of my amah’s (grandma in Taiwanese) kitchen, and the beautiful garden where my amah’s vegetables grew.

   After we had dropped our bags off, we set out to see our family. When we arrived, I was welcomed by the sound of laughter and chatter echoing throughout the public courtyard, and I knew it was my family. We greeted them with heartfelt hugs almost as if to make amends of the time spent apart, and as the courtyard settled down we all sat to catch up. The sunlight spilled through the trees, with my skin sticky from sweat, I was home at long last. The courtyard buzzed with the voices of my aunt’s and uncle’s, as I smiled and nodded sleepily, struggling to fight the jetlag I was facing. When a short, fast utterance was thrown into the air, an utterance that jolted my being into alertness:

“Imaani, you’ve gotten bigger since the last time, huh?” my youngest uncle chuckled to the entirety of my mom’s family as he enacted a rounding gesture towards his waist.

      He locked eyes with me as he said it, with a toothy grin emerging on his face. My family's attention was brought to me alone, and a downpour of chortles soon followed. I felt my face flush from embarrassment, as my hands began to sweat, and I felt a pain in my stomach, an anxious, sickly pain that was all too familiar. All I could respond with was an uncomfortable laugh as I quickly folded my arms in front of me to cover my stomach which had seemingly taken the spotlight. They promptly moved on to the next topic, but I was entrapped in a stupor of shame. A Měinǚ 美女 in Taiwan was a lady who was tall, fair, and most importantly thin. So now as a short, tan, chunky 12-year-old girl, I was dirt on someone's shoe. Every single negative thought I had worked so hard to suppress resurfaced in my skull once more. The intensity was so great, that it was almost as if they never left at all.

 I wanted to cry, and hide my wretched body. I hated the fact that from Puerto Rico to Taiwan I fell short on what was beautiful. I was the definition of imperfection and detested myself every day for it. I went through my early teenage years creating unconscious habits so that I could feel perfect. It started simple, with sucking in my stomach every second of every day, standing up straighter, and doing more exercise to allow me to lose weight, but as I got older, around 7th and 8th grade, it took a turn for the worse. I spent many sleepless nights researching diets that I go on, diets that would help me lose leg fat, stomach fat, any type of fat that would be good for me. I started to enjoy food less and became ashamed when I would feel full, and after all of the fad diets I attempted to tackle, I started to simply not eat. I would skip breakfast, lunches, and snacks, and even dinner most times. Instead of meals I would sleep or drink water to not give my body the chance of feeling sustained, and in my own twisted way, I felt like I had control. I still practiced those unconscious habits from earlier years, just with these habits on top. I didn’t think of the fact that I lost so much energy, that I couldn’t focus in school, or the fact I was almost constantly feeling lightheaded. I gave myself excuse after excuse because I felt like I was doing the right thing for my body. Even when I went to the doctor for an annual check-up and they saw that I lost 11 pounds in a short period, I felt glad knowing that what I was doing was “working”. But even though it was seemingly “working” I still felt unsatisfied, my physical health was on the fritz because of my reckless decisions, but I never felt like I was beautiful. It was never enough for me.

     I worked against myself for so long, putting myself down, depriving myself of basic necessities, and keeping my shame a secret, and it didn’t work. I would still wake up every morning feeling undesirable. Even if I was losing weight, my emotions remained constant. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t shake this feeling of ugliness. I was at rock bottom and I felt myself giving up…

“If you want to feel better from the inside you have to love yourself first…”

     Much like phrases of yesteryears, It was simple at that, but it was a phrase that slapped me across my face and allowed me to start swimming up. Throughout the years, people whom I decided to be vulnerable with had repeated this phrase in variations, to which I simply pushed away. But, now in this moment of self-reflection, it arose to my mind once again. I had suppressed my pain for so long that it started to overflow into other aspects of my life, so I allowed myself to go through the motions. I knew it would be hard but it was worth it all, I finally allowed myself to grieve for the childhood confidence that had been taken from me so early. From there I went on a research frenzy, discovering different methods of practicing self-love because in honesty I didn’t know how. Quarantine gave me a lot of time to heal. I promised myself that I would put as much effort as I did into harming myself, now into nurturing the little girl who was still learning and most importantly still growing. I created new habits, of self-affirmations in the morning and at night, to allow myself to receive compliments from others instead of denying them mentally, but the important one was to allow myself to eat without feeling ashamed. By listing these habits it seems like it was easy, but that would be far from the truth. I had really gotten in the muck in unlearning all of the self-hatred I cultivated and deconstructing the beauty standards from both sides.

    I had learned to love myself more and view myself apart from the standards. While I tried hard, I also permitted myself the mental graces of sometimes falling short. Finally, after a long while, I started to look at my reflection in the mirror again, but this time when I looked I began to love who looked back at me. Granted, I still deal with occasional lapses of insecurity, because in truth one’s insecurities never truly go away, but it's how you overcome the lapses that makes all the difference. So yes, I am imperfect, that much is true, my stretch marks, thick thighs, and muffin top are a reminder of this fact. But no longer do my insecurities keep me locked up in a cage, for I am free to live and free to love my being, every pound, and every ounce.

About the Author: Imaani Soto is a 15-year-old, 10th grader currently attending high school at The Queens School of Inquiry, in Queens, New York City. She is passionate about writing and uses writing as a means of expressing her innermost thought that can be hard to portray verbally. She has been writing ever since she has learned how, but has decided to pursue her writing passion in early 2021. She often writes about social issues speaking out against the injustices in the world. She is an avid spoken word poet, however has broadened her content to narratives and much more.