I remember the first time I thought I was fat.

I was about 10 years old, flipping through one of my mom’s magazines, when I saw an ad for body lotion. The girl in the ad was in a two-piece and was bending forward in a yoga pose. When I looked at her stomach, the skin was smooth with one slight fold.

Bending over, I grabbed at the skin on my stomach and was mortified to feel small rolls of flesh. It was then I experienced a feeling that I had felt before, but would not be able to identify by name for about 17 years: shame.

I learned that weight loss was something to feel proud of, while weight gain implied a problem that needed to be solved.

As my weight fluctuated over the next two decades, I learned that weight loss was something to feel proud of, while weight gain implied a problem that needed to be solved. When my pants from college no longer fit, I put them at the front of my closet to remind myself that I needed to be able to wear them again. I printed out a picture of Victoria’s Secret angel Candice Swanepoel and taped it to my fridge to stop myself from eating. I invented a crazy diet and posted about it on my blog at the time, hoping to get others to join me in “getting healthy.”

Because of my lack of self-acceptance, I couldn’t stick to a particular diet or workout plan for any real length of time, which made me feel even more insecure. I didn’t love my body. I saw it as something to fight with for the rest of my life.

Saved by Social Media

About a year ago, I was going through Instagram and found the account Healthy is the New Skinny. From there, I found other accounts of beautiful, plus-size models, such as Danika Brysha and Ashley Graham. If I could see nothing but beauty in Danika, who is around my size, I could do the same for myself.

My social media became a safe place, rather than a space that reinforced an unrealistic standard.

Over the next few months, I unfollowed many of the beauty and fashion accounts I was following at that time and replaced them with a handful of accounts based on body positivity. I began to recognize unhealthy thought patterns both on and offline. I caught myself in the middle of negative thoughts while shopping or getting dressed, and replaced them with positive self-affirmations. My social media became a safe place, rather than a space that reinforced an unrealistic standard.

A few months ago, a friend sent me an article in Elle about women who send “sexts” to their female friends. She and I, along with other friends, started sending each other photos that normally would have been reserved for partners or significant others. It was liberating to send a photo in which I felt gorgeous or sexy and receive positive, genuine responses. It’s not sexualized; it’s complete admiration and joy. The photos are by us, for us, and they make us feel amazing.

As I saw my friends’ bodies—without editing or Photoshop—I only thought of how stunning they looked. One morning, one of the girls sent a photo of herself in a short robe with her legs crossed, captioned: “Hello from me and my cellulite!” We told her that she didn’t have any cellulite, but she responded: “Yes I do, and I don’t care!”

It was refreshing to see photos that weren’t angled to hide imperfections, but in which the body in its entirety was celebrated and embraced. She looked so lovely and real that I saw beauty in my own body, dimples and all. Judgment and shame lessened, while self-love increased.

When I send selfies to our text chain, I notice things that I normally don’t, like my long legs. Once I asked if a picture was too sexy to post online, and they all said things like, “You look hot as hell!” and “Legs for days!” One of my friends always says “body goals” when she sees me, which makes me realize that we are all someone else’s “body goals.” Why not be our own?

Just Wear the Damn Shorts

Recently, I overheard a woman in a clothing store say she wasn’t “allowed” to wear shorts because her thighs were too big.

Here’s the thing: You are not required to look a certain way. You’re allowed to look however you look. You’re allowed to wear whatever you want to wear, whatever makes you feel confident and most like yourself. When we hold ourselves to standards that are unrealistic, it is harmful. We feel shame, jealousy, and other destructive emotions, rather than focus on the positive qualities we have to offer.

Buy those shorts and wear them proudly. Know that the folds on your stomach don’t make you ugly; they make you wonderfully human.

Now at 30, I believe I am more than the size of my clothes or the number on a scale. But still I have days I struggle with my appearance and how it relates to my worth as a person (and a woman). But on the glorious days that I’m able to stop comparing myself to others—people I see in public, online, or in magazine ads—I experience the freedom and joy of self-love and acceptance.