I pulled on my new bathing suit and stared at my body in the mirror. I’d had my eye on the bathing suit to wear at my friend’s bachelorette party in Palm Springs for a while: a white one-piece with lace-up sides. The model in the photo online looked carefree and thin, but I’d made the mistake of imagining that when I pulled on the same suit I’d look like her. Instead, I looked like a misshapen bag of mayonnaise somehow wearing an even smaller misshapen bag of mayonnaise. I couldn’t believe I’d spent $127 dollars to look like something that someone placed haphazardly in the back of a Subway walk-in refrigerator.
I could feel a familiar panic setting in. I felt dizzy. I peeled off the suit and curled up on the bed. Outside, I could hear the rest of the bachelorette party laughing, splashing around in the pool. I knew in a few minutes I’d have to come out ready to pose on the giant inflatable Pegasus in my mayonnaise suit. My breath got short just thinking about the photos that didn’t exist yet but I already knew I’d hate plastered all over Instagram.
I traced the cellulite on my legs with my finger, the surface of the moon on my upper thigh. If your life passes before your eyes when you die, then when I put on a bathing suit, every single thing I’ve ever eaten passes before my eyes: a guilt parade of fun-size Snickers bars and too many white cheddar Cheez-Its. Remember that cheese plate you insisted on finishing at Thanksgiving? When you ate a jelly donut at work last week? You never even went to that Spin class you signed up for. And then a familiar refrain: This is your fault.
I first became aware of how much I hated my body after seeing what I deemed to be an unflattering photo of myself in a multi-colored Limited Too turtleneck in fifth grade. But it really started in full force the summer before ninth grade when I saw the movie Blue Crush. If you weren’t a teenage girl in 2002, Blue Crush is the story of four women who live in a shack on Hawaii’s North Shore and live for surfing and wearing mismatched bikini sets. The movie is aggressively early 2000s: dark tans, beachwear as everyday clothes, the notion that anyone can pull off a puka shell necklace, and the introduction of Kate Bosworth and her surfer girl body.
Every magazine was saying the same thing about Blue Crush: Finally, a movie that features a woman with a real body. OK, maybe not every magazine—I’m pretty sure The New Yorker didn’t run a feature on Kate Bosworth’s abs—but every magazine a 14-year-old girl would read was talking about it. Kate had muscle; she looked different from the other, thinner leading women.
There were a lot of things that stuck with me about Blue Crush. Roxy brand was a staple in my wardrobe until circa 2008 (RIP Pac Sun). I occasionally told people in high school “I surf” because once in California I took a 45-minute surfing lesson. But most importantly: Kate Bosworth’s body.
By eighth grade, I’d already taken to hiding my body under oversize sweatshirts whenever possible. I had been comparing myself to the thin actresses I’d seen on TV, but now there was Kate. If the very thin models weren’t “real” and Kate Bosworth’s muscley (but notably still very slender) surfer girl body was “real,” shouldn’t I be able to look like her if I tried hard enough?
For roughly the next 15 years of my life, I worked out daily, banning specific foods arbitrarily because of things I’d read in magazines, like “French people never eat popcorn.” But it didn’t seem to matter how many weights I lifted, how many miles I ran, how many times I opted for salad instead of pasta—I still didn’t look like Kate. So I kept trying. My brain was always holding up a tattered Seventeen magazine fold-out page from 2002, squinting its eyes at me and saying, “Nope, not yet.”
It wasn’t just that I wanted to look like Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush, it’s that I blamed myself for not looking like her. Everything was about what I didn’t do: didn’t run enough miles, didn’t lift enough weights, didn’t say no to a side of onion rings because they are my favorite thing you can deep fry. No matter what I did do, I felt like a failure.
But lying on my bed in Palm Springs, I felt something I hadn’t felt before: exhausted. I was about to be 30. I was at a party with a group of funny, intelligent women who were all out there having a great time and I was doing the same thing I’d been doing since I was 14: hiding, missing out.
But what’s so important about looking like Kate Bosworth? It’s not like one day she and I will be walking down the same street and a paparazzo will yell, “Which one of you is Kate Bosworth? I can’t tell!” And even if that very unlikely circumstance were to occur, who cares? Certainly not the women who were having fun outside on the inflatable donut. They just wanted me to hang.
The only people who really cared were me and the invisible ghost of Kate Bosworth that lived in my head and controlled my every move. But she wasn’t real. At some point, I had to accept that there was no amount of effort in the world—barring a Freaky Friday body switch situation—that would turn me into Kate. It wasn’t my fault.
I recently read an interview with Kate Bosworth where she was asked her dieting secret. She admitted she doesn’t diet. She worked out to put on muscle for Blue Crush, but she’s just naturally thin. It turns out that I was working much harder at looking like Kate Bosworth than Kate Bosworth ever worked at looking like Kate Bosworth. If the Looking Like Kate Bosworth Olympics were judged by a panel of people watching us perform the act of looking like Kate Bosworth, I might actually win.
After I got home from Palm Springs, I experimented with the novel idea of cutting myself some slack. Instead of eating a donut and then panicking over how long I’d have to run to burn it off, I tried just eating a donut. It was hard. Some days I still catch myself trying to suck in my stomach in the mirror, even though nobody is in the bathroom with me. I still leave the gym occasionally crying because I saw my arm fat flap in the wind like the sail of a ship when I picked up a set of weights. And I’ll admit it, I’ve picked up a bottle of Sun-In in the grocery store and pondered if it would really look that bad.
I still work out. I still eat healthy. But I try to do it now because I want to, not at the demand of phantom Kate Bosworth. I’ve pushed her out to sea on a flaming surfboard, never to be seen again. Figuratively, of course. Because literally I’m eating a bowl of Cheez-Its.
Lucy Huber is a writer, multiple cat owner, and sufferer of Reverse Dawson’s Creek Actor Syndrome, which is a disease she made up for when you are 30 but look 15. To see her other work or ask more specific questions about her cats, visit lucyhuber.com.