Hookup culture made me feel bad about my body, but I’ve learned to love myself again

Three years ago, I had never even heard of the term “hookup,” let alone knew what it meant. Fast forward to my junior year of college, and I’m more familiar with the term than I ever imagined myself to be.

When I was in high school, I never had a single romantic relationship — in fact, I didn’t even come close. I only had one or two love interests for the entire four years I attended my roughly 1300-student school. Dating and romance just weren’t on my mind. It wasn’t that academics or tests or AP courses were particularly all-consuming for me, but rather that I just wasn’t entirely sure about the notion of being someone’s other half — in fact, I didn’t even think I was capable of it. Even though I was in cross country, fit, healthy, you name it, I never really had much confidence in my appearance or body. It’s only now, looking back, that I realize I really was beautiful, in a skinny adolescent sort of way.

But my staunchly-defined opposition to dating changed as college loomed in my near future. One day, a few weeks before the end of our senior year in high school, two of my friends and I sat outside at a table in front of Dairy Queen with shakes and smoothies, discussing our romantic wishes and predictions. We took turns guessing who in our friend group would be the first to date, even the first to get married. I put myself firmly at the tail end of the list, enthusiastically denying that I would ever have a boyfriend throughout college.

Turns out, I was the first of my friend group to have one, and it happened only a few weeks into my first year of college at a small liberal arts school in Minnesota. Long story short, it wasn’t a healthy relationship and it ended badly; I was incredibly hurt and damaged from a traumatic experience my boyfriend had subjected me to in the crumbling final months of our partnership. My self-esteem was left even lower than before, especially my body image. My parents continually insisted that I had lost too much weight, but I tried to reassure them by claiming that it was due to my manual labor job and not to heartbreak or post-traumatic anxiety.

As many people probably feel after a breakup, I was lonely, lost, and frustrated with myself. After weeks of stumbling upon articles about hookup culture and hearing telltale rumors of who on campus was sleeping with whom, a new friendship app came to our college. It was called Friendsy, but we all knew it was hardly about friendship. I decided I’d take a chance and see if it had any redeeming qualities. After a few clumsy, drunken meet-ups with students on my campus whom I’d never met before, I began to use the app regularly to seek out new sleeping partners. I started viewing my body as a tool that I could leverage to feel wanted, even if that projected desire didn’t include love or affection.

The men I slept with frequently made comments about my body, one even told me I had the most beautiful figure he’d ever seen. I felt desired, noticed, almost respected for my body’s appearance and the things it could do. As time went on, I began to realize that the only times I really felt comfortable with my body, or good about it, were the times when someone else was using it or I was using it to make someone else feel good. Without anyone else to appreciate my body, I had no respect for it. I couldn’t appreciate it on its own.

When I finally got into a new and healthy long-term relationship, I became so much more aware of what hookups had done to my view of my body. Instead of only feeling wanted for sex, I was wanted for companionship, whether through watching Netflix together, going to a movie, or studying together. Unlike my first boyfriend, this one never hurt my body in a traumatic way. Whenever I went to the gym, it started becoming more for my own health than for any desire to look a certain way for a partner. I started eating what I wanted more often and not taking so much care to dress up every day. I started wearing the clothes that I felt most comfortable in. My days on Friendsy were over, and I was no longer concerned about how I might appear to potential sleeping partners. I had someone who thought I was beautiful no matter what, and even when we weren’t sleeping together, I felt beautiful too.

I still vividly recall all the times my second boyfriend had called me cute, and the ones I remembered the most were the ones that happened during everyday moments rather than sex — during conversation, or watching a movie, even when we were just hugging. And finally, one day, it happened: I looked in the mirror and thought, hey, he’s so right. I wasn’t in the middle of hooking up with some fellow student I barely knew, or having just finished a hookup, but just being me — no validation from someone else or sexual expectations involved. For one of the first times in my life, especially since the trauma of my first relationship and the ensuing hookups that followed, I felt beautiful on my own, without anyone else. My experience with hookup culture taught me that I could only love my body when it was pleasing someone else’s body. Getting away from that culture taught me that I could love my body. entirely by itself.