Rosemary Donahue
Updated May 19, 2016 11:16 am

A few weeks ago, I was at a party with a bunch of friends. This party also included a clothing swap and I brought some of my old clothes, including some vintage denim that my dad gave me. One of my friends tried a pair of the jeans on, and she looked amazing in them. Later, we were sitting on the couch talking while she was still wearing the pants, and she said something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since.

“Did your dad give you more pairs of these? You’re probably too small for them.”

The reason this shook my world is because, while I haven’t known her long, I’ve compared myself to her ever since we met. She’s incredibly talented and beautiful, but I also have always thought she’s smaller than I am — and by the sound of her statement, she’s compared herself to me before as well, at least in that moment.

The thing is, these offhand comments about size can sound like nothing, especially to someone who isn’t well-versed in the strict standards that we women often put on ourselves. Add body dysmorphia, (a disorder which makes it nearly impossible to see yourself as you really are and which causes you to think about your “flaws,” whether real or imaginary, nearly all day) into the mix and statements like that are escalated tenfold.

When I was younger, I had a real problem with body dysmorphia. It still lingers today, though I’ve gotten it more under control. During the worst of it, I often felt out of control of my body, comparing myself to others all the time — which, frankly, is a very dangerous thing to do, especially when you have a funhouse image of your own body. When you don’t really know what your body looks like, and you’re then comparing it to others, those comparisons become scary and warped — you end up resenting yourself and other people for things that neither of you are to blame for, some of which are entirely in your imagination.

During this time, I found My Body Gallery, an online project dedicated to showing “what real women look like” (a phrasing I’m usually wary of, because all women are real women — but that’s kind of the point here, because all women are allowed to post images of themselves on the site). On the site, women are encouraged to post body pictures (of their own volition, of course — faces may or may not be included for privacy), and are asked to be completely transparent about their height and weight so that women can search and see what other women with their body type look like.

While it sounds like this might have been a bad thing for a young woman with body dysmorphia, it actually helped me tremendously. I spent hours on the site, looking at images of women with measurements close to mine to help me familiarize myself with what my body might look like in reality. When I looked in the real mirror, it was almost as if I blacked out, but this was a different kind of mirror; it was like looking at myself through someone else’s eyes — through the eyes of a friend. While not everyone who is the same weight or height looks exactly the same, these approximations were enough for me, and this website became a little secret weapon that helped me see myself as I was, by looking at other women. I never told anyone about how frequently I looked at the website, and over time, I completely forgot about it — until that day at the party.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what my friend said, and I brought it up to her the day after. We basically just agreed that one another was gorgeous, and said that if we ever needed reminding, we would be there for one another. After our conversation, I revisited My Body Gallery. The sheer fact that it still exists means that this is something many of us do — we see beauty in our friends, but often need to see our own beauty reflected on something a little bit unfamiliar to believe it truly exists.

These days, it’s easier for me to see beauty on my own face and body. Part of this is a result of maturity, and associating beauty with things like my accomplishments and the love that I receive from my friends and family. Another part of it, though, is that I’ve spent more time looking myself straight in the eye in the mirror, and learning to like what I see. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve come to accept that this is the face and body that I have, and that I might as well be kinder to it — life will be a lot more beautiful that way.