At 15 I spent a lot of time on a site called “myjellybean.com.” Which, in retrospect, sounds like my first online encounter with a clitoris, but in reality was a forum where teenage girls (and, let’s be real, 40 year old men hiding behind usernames like lilmamaponylover92) could come together to bitch about problems teenage girls are prone to have. For instance, I had just gotten my braces off and was essentially trying to bust out of my awkward “cocooning” phase with the grace of someone gyrating out of a straitjacket — so it was pretty cool to find a community of similarly afflicted tragic ducklings. It was a point in my life where I had outgrown taking care of virtual creatures on Neopets, and “family dinner” meant everyone ate in their respective bedrooms, giving me ample time to lurk message boards dedicated to convos about how to French kiss and what lip gloss brands would taste best while French kissing.
Not that I put my saliva swapping lessons to immediate use. Or retained much, for that matter (fast forward five years to a boy telling me I was “stiff as a board” while trying to tongue wrestle and it was like, “Well, yeah. Shit. You’re trying to tongue wrestle.”). But still, it felt oddly comforting to know there were other young women out there equally concerned with the possibility of “baby fat” being — gasp — regular ol’ fat. Other girls frustrated with their older brothers and mothers and that witch Samantha who never invited anyone unpopular to her sleepovers. Puberty stragglers and avid Sweet Valley High readers and timid virgins all gathered under one cyber roof commiserating the suckfest that was — and still is — becoming a woman. This was not a space for “A/S/L?” talk. We were all young, female, and wanted to be anywhere but where we actually were. Being locked in my room blinded by an eMac at 2 AM was ironically the first time I felt connected to other girls my age on a global scale.
While Jellybean offered a variety of topics for discussion, I never explored boards like “Talents, Hobbies & Sports” or “Current Events/Politics/Religion.” Frequenting a chat room meant I had no hobbies, and even now the only reason I care about anything political or religious is because I’m horrified the Republican frontrunner for President is basically Satan. Instead, a majority of my time was spent on boards like “Dating 911” and “Beauty 911” (note the recurring theme of comparing crush drama and makeup faux pas to a dire emergency). To say my interactions with boys were minimal would be generous. My foundation was a thick slathering of SPF 70. It wasn’t shocking I was drawn to tips on how to improve my sex appeal, even if I wouldn’t go on to engage in any sort of hanky-panky for another five years (“stiff board” boy now stiff in other regions). Sure, I had friends at school with boyfriends, and a mother with a staggering amount of wisdom regarding all things Trojan and Maybelline combined, but there was something that felt more honest about getting feedback from strangers. They didn’t know me in real life. They had no reason to lie.
I started posting pictures of myself asking for advice on what I could change. I hated my curly hair, the hint of yellow in my teeth, the way my chin disappeared when I stood profile. “What would you do if you were me?” I asked. These “Rate Me!” threads were common. At any given time dozens of girls under the age of 18 were eagerly sharing photos of their faces and bodies, begging for ways to improve their appearance. I’ll admit most of the time I was fishing for compliments. I felt uncomfortable in my own pimpled skin like any other freshman in high school, but I’d grown up being brainwashed to think I was beautiful anyway (thanks, mom). I didn’t necessarily want someone on the internet telling me to straighten my hair — I wanted attention. I wanted someone not related to me, not obligated by best friend code, to validate things about me I had always secretly hoped were true. In a time before Facebook likes and Tinder matches, little me got a little high every time my thread would be bumped up by someone saying, “Aw, girl, you’re already pretty! Don’t change a thing.”
Wasn’t enough though. I went on to participate in “Guess My Weight” threads, posting faceless photos of myself in the only bikini I owned. I was 15 years old and posting nearly nude photos of myself on a public forum. I knew my weight by heart. It let out a sigh every time I got pizza for lunch, wailed a bit any time I tried on jeans too small. Even though I was healthy, the smack-dab in the middle BMI for my age and height, I wanted someone to look past my slightly curved tummy and Neanderthal-esque posture and say, “You’re definitely not over double digits.” But when users came back with spot-on guesses — 5’3,” 120 pounds? — the honesty tasted wrong. Tasted like maybe I should start keeping a daily log of my food intake on the “Fitness/Nutrition” board. Like I should stop eating so much cake, as one girl suggested. Try some arm exercises, said another. Write all “bad” foods in red, shame on you. Post a sad face emoticon every time I felt disgusted with my results. Starve. Binge. Post. Repeat.
I wish there was a climactic end to the story. That I stopped going on the forums because I knew my behavior was edging on unhealthy. But in reality I got too caught up with the traumas of trig homework and driver’s tests and irregular menstruation to spend time thinking about anything related to my body other than how to shove a cardboard applicator up inside it. I often look back on my trysts with eating disorders and dismiss them for never reaching an extreme. I was never hospitalized. There were no interventions, no noticeable changes in my weight to warrant such. Part of me is incredibly grateful it never got that far. Another (sick) part of me is disappointed with my inability to commit to a full blown disorder. Thinks I’m a quitter. Still doesn’t understand food as a source of nourishment but instead sees it as an opportunity for punishment, control, proof of determination.
I can’t remember the password to my Jellybean account, yet it takes all of two seconds to tap back into the mindset of a teenage girl frustrated with her surroundings and using her body as the punching bag. I’m worried those feelings will never be something I “outgrow.” Nine years later and they still creep up after breakups; when work is killing me; while laying on my back in bed trying not to drop my phone on my face as I stalk some hot chick’s Instagram. There are runs when I am punishing my body instead of celebrating it. Group photos I have to actively resist the urge to Photoshop to oblivion. Bowls of plain broccoli followed by even more bowls of ice cream and days of regret. It is a never ending battle to accept that a balanced diet is a reflection of a balanced mind, and I’m not sure I have the latter.
I am in my mid-twenties calling myself a feminist and balking at body shamers yet crumbling under my own weight whenever I find myself in front of a mirror.
It is almost a decade later and I’m still forging online relationships in hopes I’ll find a community strong enough to push me away from the screen.
I am 24 years old and it still feels like everything I post on the internet is a half naked selfie begging for attention.