By Mila Ellen Yehl
For my whole life, I grew up listening to people comment about my looks. From classmates to people in my family, it seemed to me like everyone had something to say about my appearance. Some comments were about my race and height, which are two things I have absolutely no control over and have no intention of taking drastic measures to change for the amusement of others.
I am a 4’ 11” Pacific Islander who grew up in America’s Deep South. To say that I was an outsider would be an understatement. I looked different from everyone in my hometown. I came from a multi-racial family, which – in the south even as I’m writing this in 2019 – is not always accepted by society. I grew up in a very small, religious town. It is a place so dominated by the Christian sub-culture that joining a youth group was the “cool thing to do” in high school. If you were gay, lesbian, bi, or anything else other than straight, you had to keep it a secret or else you are to face persecution or physical harm. If you were the artsy kid or if you dare had your own beliefs, you were seen as weird. Fortunately for me, I grew up with a great group of friends who had my back and taught me what true friendship is. Plus, they kept me entertained. However, I knew at a young age I knew I was made for bigger and better things and that as soon as I was old enough, I would make my great escape.
Not only did I struggle with people’s comments on my race and height, but my weight was the biggest insecurity I dealt with growing up. In elementary school, boys called me fat or chubby – to my face and behind my back. Even adults would say things like “you would be so pretty if you would just lose a bit of weight” – but the worst of it came from my own family. I was raised by my very strict grandmother who is what I refer to as the “weight police”. One minute, she’s cooking elaborate meals and telling everyone they’re not eating enough, and the next minute, she’s telling those same people they need to lose or watch their weight. Talk about confusing!
For decades, I listened to all of those comments and took them to heart. I bought the exercise DVDs and drank the slim-fast shakes that would guarantee that I would lose up to 5 pounds a week. I starved myself only to gain the weight back and then some as soon as I went back to my old eating habits. I even had a good friend in college say to me that our mutual friend who I had a crush on would not date me because I wasn’t “his type”. In other words, I wasn’t “skinny” or “white” enough. I believed that I wasn’t attractive enough for anyone worth dating to see as attractive as well, and that I would always be “the friend”. I thought that only creepy or strange guys that I wanted nothing to do with would like me. If you ask anyone who knows me, they’d say one thing about me and that is that I never settle. I either fall in love deeply or I don’t give it a single thought – whether that be with my career, my lover, my home, my possessions, etc. Whether what my friend said to me was actually true or not, I don’t know, but a few years later my crush wound up marrying a plus-sized girl and I’ve never seen him happier or prouder of the woman he’s chosen to love and commit to.
Anyone who has struggled with weight issues knows that it’s not due to lack of discipline, like others may think. Weight issues don’t occur due to a misunderstanding on the basic concept of demonstrating a balance of “calories in, calories out”. It’s a deeply emotional issue that takes time and takes the enforcement of consistent healthy choices to master.
Last year at the age of 31, I had the opportunity to travel to Italy for 4 weeks in the summer. It was my first time in Europe and the opportunity of a lifetime. I spent 3 weeks touring and studying some of Italy’s most famous architectural sites and art. I spent my last week by the water – both the Ligurian Sea and Lakes Como and Lugano (which the latter is actually in Switzerland). A friend of mine who had been to Italy before told me that my time there would truly change the way I look at life. Initially, I thought that she was only saying that because that’s what everyone says when you’re traveling. Well, she was right. It did change me – or perhaps, it didn’t change me at all. It may be that embracing La Dolce Vita and doing as “the Romans do” just gave me permission to finally let go of all the external noise that was being poured into me for years from other people – whether it be strangers or even my own friends and family.
La Dolce Vita is a famous saying that the Italian people live by. It translates to “The Sweet Life” in English but it basically means to live life to the fullest. Italian people in comparison to Americans do not have the most advanced or high-tech amenities. While they still practice many of the ways of the “Old World”, they sure know how to enjoy life in a way that all Americans can benefit from. Italians start their mornings and stay out later. They move at a slower pace, prioritize family time, specifically family dinners – and don’t even get me started on the food! Italians tend to grocery shop daily buying their produce fresh rather than frozen and filled with pesticides or processed. They walk and/or ride bikes a lot, and because the buildings and villages are quite old (and some very hilly) they have to hike up many flights of stairs, both indoors and outdoors. As far as fashion goes, they do not have an excessive collection of clothes, instead they invest in high-quality pieces and wear them more often. They have a very organized recycling and trash system. Essentially, they are not as wasteful the way we tend to be in The States. The Italians take pride in the architecture and art that has been a part of their history for centuries. True craftsmanship still exists in their contemporary culture as well, via their wineries and leather markets to name a couple of examples.
As I learned the ways of La Dolce Vita, I began to re-evaluate many of my old habits and ways that I viewed society, life, and my own self-image. I spent a lot of time at the beach while I was there. For the first few times I went, I wore a tankini and high-waisted bottoms. I felt very insecure about my thunder thighs so anytime I wasn’t swimming I had a romper or some sort of cover-up on. It partially covered my chubby upper arms but still revealed my cottage-cheese legs. As I saw the gorgeous, statuesque, Italian men sunbathing, I thought to myself there’s no way any of them would want to look in my direction. However, the more I would go to the beach that summer the less I started to feel that way. I started to care less about what others saw when they looked at me in a swimsuit and just simply enjoyed the moment. I started to that being in Italy was a luxury I may never have again. Moreover, I looked around and saw all sorts of shapes and sizes on the beach. There were men in their 60’s or 70’s wearing speedos without a care in the world. There were women with their children running around butt-naked. I even saw a topless granny in Cinque Terre giving zero f**** about what anyone thought.
I eventually got tired of wearing the same swimsuit to the beach everyday so I decided to go over to Tezenis and Calzedonia and tried on some bikini tops. This would be a first for me as an adult to wear a bikini top in public. I was nervous at first, but once I did it, I found that no one was laughing or staring at me. No one was whispering about me saying “ooh, look at that American girl, what is she thinking wearing that in front of everyone?” and if they did say that I wouldn’t know because I don’t speak Italian. And, let me tell you this: it was such a liberating experience! Ever since that moment, I feel like I’ve discovered a newfound love for my body just as it is. It has been a year since my trip to Italy and there has not been a day that goes by that I don’t think about it. I feel so much free when I’m naked or in a bra and panties. I actually feel sexy in my skin and I’ve even started wearing a bit of lingerie. Out of all that has happened in my life within the past year, the single most important thing is my ever-growing appreciation and self-love for my body and the skin that I am in – no matter what it looks like today or 10, 15, 30 plus years from now or even plus or minus 10, 15, 30 pounds from now.
As for those who have the nerve to comment on my appearance now, I really couldn’t care less. I’ve come to realize that they are just channeling their own insecurities onto me. I wish that someday those people will find self-love and respect as well as the ability to broaden their perspective on what is healthy, what is beautiful, and what is important in life.
Mila graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Interior Design. She currently works as a Colorist/Design Associate for a commercial-grade wallcovering company. One of her favorite quotes is “Strive to leave everything a little better than the way you found it”. Some of her favourite things include international travel, art, architecture, high fashion, concerts, road trips, reading, journaling, swimming, and trying anything new and exciting. Her mission in life is to empower those around her to love themselves as they are now and as they endure the changes that life brings!
She is about to launch her very own travel and lifestyle blog called “That Sweet Sweet Life” at www.thatsweetsweetlife.com. Follow her blog (@thatsweetsweetlife) or her personal journey (@mila_ellen_yehl) on Instagram.