Perfectly Imperfectby Imaani Soto My body was imperfect, and the stretch marks on my thighs were constant reminders of that. Jagged, thick lines on my legs kept me feeling locked in a cage of my insecurities. I was imperfect, and I would have died to be otherwise. Growing up in a family with mixed cultures is a blessing and a curse. I’ve benefited from rich culture, and fascinating histories. But I’m also burdened with beauty expectations from two sides. My ethnic heritage is Puerto Rican and Taiwanese. I’ve never had high self-esteem to begin with. Perhaps this was the fault of being a big sister, getting lectured for not being responsible enough despite being a child myself. Or maybe I felt pressure to be a star student at the cost of mental wellness. Whatever it was, it was there within me. But my Pandora’s Box opened at the age of 9. “You gotta look like this. Es buena,” said my abuela, grandma in Spanish, urging me to eat more breakfast as she made an hourglass figure with her hands. That began my downward spiral of trying to achieve physical perfection. In Puerto Rican culture, una chica bonita is a woman with an hourglass shape, full in the legs, butt, and bust, tall enough to be proportionate but not taller than a man. I was proud of who I was, but as I gazed in the mirror at my 4’11’’ body, without many curves, my heart sank. I tried to ignore my imperfection.But every time I passed a mirror, car window, or tried on clothes, it was on the back burner, keeping me chained to low self-esteem. Fast-forward to age 12. Puberty struck me like lightning to Franklin’s kite. My legs got larger, I got slightly taller, my chest got bigger. I barely noticed my change until someone pointed out my stretch marks. Dazed tears filled my eyes. “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 warm tears streamed down my face. “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. Regardless of my mother’s words, I felt imperfect, ugly, fat. How could I be loveable if I looked like this? I wasn’t the hourglass figure my abuela had described years before. I was a short, stubby, round-faced little girl, a little girl who now couldn’t even stomach looking into a mirror. Later that year we left for Taiwan to visit my grandfather. At that point, I was so consumed with trying to gain perfection, my mental health was suffering. I was overjoyed to go to Taiwan. I hoped to pause the madness in my mind. Taiwan was my happy place, where I could be in the sun and just enjoy myself. My sister, mother, and I got off the plane jetlagged and weary. It felt good to be home, with the humid, hot air of the island kissing my skin. For a moment, it felt like everything was fine. The white noise of my insecurities silenced, and I felt happy. I was back in the place I loved so dearly. Memories of previous trips played in my head as I watched the scenery whiz by. As we parked in the driveway of my jiu jiu’s (uncle in Mandarin) house, I jumped out of the van and ran excitedly throughout the familiar house. There was the solid wooden couch, the cool tiled floors of my amah’s (grandma in Taiwanese) kitchen, and the beautiful garden where my amah’s vegetables grew. After dropping our bags off, we set out to see our family. The sound of laughter and chatter welcomed us, and I knew it was my family. We greeted them with heartfelt hugs, and as the courtyard settled down we all sat to catch up. The sunlight spilled through the trees. I was home at long last. The courtyard buzzed with my aunts’ and uncles’ voices. I smiled and nodded sleepily, struggling to fight the jetlag. Then a short, fast utterance jolted me into alertness. “Imaani, you’ve gotten bigger since the last time, huh?” my youngest uncle chuckled as he made a rounding gesture towards his waist. He locked eyes with me as he said it, with a toothy grin on his face. My family looked at me, and I heard a downpour of chortles. My face flushed from embarrassment, my hands began to sweat, and I felt a pain in my stomach, an anxious, sickly pain that was all too familiar. I laughed uncomfortably and quickly folded my arms in front of me to cover my stomach, which had seemingly taken the spotlight. My family moved on to the next topic, but I was trapped in a stupor of shame. A Měinǚ in Taiwan is a lady who is tall, fair, and thin. 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. From Puerto Rico to Taiwan, I fell short on what was beautiful. I wanted to hide my body. Unconsciously, I started creating unhealthy habits so I could feel “perfect.” It started simple: sucking in my stomach, standing up straighter, and exercising more. But as I got older, it took a turn for the worse. I spent sleepless nights researching diets. I started enjoying food less and feeling ashamed when I felt full, and then I started skipping meals. I lost so much energy, I couldn’t focus in school and I was constantly feeling lightheaded. I wasn’t sustaining my body. But in a twisted way it felt like I had control. I worked against myself for so long, depriving myself of basic necessities, keeping my shame a secret. But it didn’t work. Even if I was losing weight, I still felt like I wasn’t loveable or beautiful. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t shake the feeling of ugliness. Then I realized, “If you want to feel better from the inside, you have to love yourself first.” I’d heard variations on this phrase before. But now, it reentered my mind. I went on a research frenzy, discovering methods of practicing selflove. I let myself grieve for my lost childhood confidence. I promised myself that I would put as much effort as had gone into harming myself into nurturing the little girl who was still learning and growing. I created new, self-affirming habits. I let myself receive compliments instead of denying them. Most importantly, I allowed myself to eat without scrutiny. It wasn’t easy. I had to get in the muck, unlearning self-hatred and deconstructing beauty standards from both sides. I learned to view myself apart from these standards, and I accept that I sometimes fall short. Finally, I started looking at my reflection in the mirror again. But this time, I began to love the person looking back at me. I still deal with occasional bouts of insecurity. But it’s how I overcome these bouts that makes all the difference. I’m imperfect, but my insecurities no longer keep me locked up in a cage. I’m free to live and love each and every part of myself. Imaani, 15, NY, is passionate about writing. She is an avid spoken-word poet and writes narratives and other content too. She uses writing to speak out about social issues and injustices in the world, and also as a means of expressing her innermost thoughts that can be hard to convey orally.