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I Found the Love of My Life When I Learned to Love Myself

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Growing up, there were two things I struggled to understand: loving your body and being in a healthy relationship. So by the time I turned 25, I weighed more than 280 pounds and had been on exactly three dates my entire life—one of which was my senior prom...to which I took a freshman. It wasn't the fairy-tale romance I'd dreamed of, but I assumed that was far outside of my reach. If I didn't look like the stereotypical princess then how could I expect to star in my own real-life rom-com?

Until then, I tried every way I could think of to lose weight, punishing my body with very low-cal diets coupled with strenuous exercise. And I guess I did lose some weight. The problem, though, was keeping it off. When I stopped punishing my body, I'd gain the weight back and then start the cycle all over again. So by my mid-twenties, I was done with the diet roller coaster. I couldn't do that to myself anymore—there had to be a better way.

I started reading books written by strong, smart women (my favorite of whom was Geneen Roth) who'd faced a journey similar to my own and had come out on the other side much happier and more whole than they'd started. Regardless of whether or not these women had lost weight, they were committed to loving themselves and their lives no matter what their size. It didn't take long for me to realize this was exactly what I'd been looking for my whole life. I was amazed; body acceptance was a real thing!

There were a lot of perks of learning to truly love my body. I started dressing better for work because I no longer spent very morning beating myself up. I started caring about how I looked because I wanted to look good, not because I cared if someone else thought my top made me look fat. I knew that if I was going to love my body and show it some self-respect, I needed to take care of it, so, I focused on eating a healthy diet and gently exercising every day as a way to show love for my body. It was a huge change, and the confidence and happiness radiated outward in everything I did...including dating.

During my dieting years, I'd tried online dating a few times, meeting up with a few sketchy guys and going on some very awkward first dates that never turned into seconds. Even under the best circumstances, dating can be a fraught experience. When you're self-conscious, it can be even worse. I was sick of getting messages from cute, interesting guys who liked my head shot but would ghost after I sent them a full-length photo. I got their message loud and clear. They didn't think I was worthy of their love.

Jen Bardall

The difference now that I started to recognize my own worth? I no longer believed them. I was done feeling like I had to apologize for my size as if I had to accept whatever little romantic crumbs were thrown my way. So on a whim, I took my dating rage to Craigslist. I wrote a tirade that included facts such as that I can quote The Godfather, love watching football, know most hit oldies by heart, am an amazing cook, and a voracious reader—oh, and that I also happen to wear a size 14/16. If any potential love interest has a problem with that, I wrote, they should move on and not waste my time. I hadn't meant it as a dating ad (more so just a digital place to vent), but to my surprise, I got a ton of replies, one of which really stood out. For one, he could spell and used correct grammar. Oh, and he didn't include a photo of his genitals—finally. But more than that, when I read his response, I just felt like this guy could be a really good friend.

My first "date" with Rob was a double date during which he barely spoke a word to me and I ended up getting along better with his friend (who wasn't single) than with him. But after a month of writing to each other all day, every day, we finally decided to go out on a real date, just the two of us. This time it was a totally different experience. We started talking, and 11 years later we still haven't stopped. That's right, our Craigslist-sparked friendship blossomed quickly into love and we were married in 2008.

Jen Bardall wedding

While my paths to #selflove and #reallove have been beautiful and fun, I don't want you to think it was easy. (Girl hates self. Girl reads book. Girl loves self. Boy loves girl. Boom, happily ever after. Nope, that's definitely not how it went down.) It took at least a year, maybe two, for me to really develop a love for my body. It did help, though, that the digital body acceptance movement started to take off around that time, and because of that shift, I found many other women to connect with and learn from. I could see them living life to the fullest on a daily basis—their outfits, their attitude, their wide smiles telling me it was okay to have fun and be happy regardless of the size of my jeans.

The hardest part was learning to no longer see my body through the lens of bullies or boys who didn't want to date me. Because let's be honest, when you're staring at decades of negative thoughts and behavioral patterns, you can't erase it all in a day. At the beginning, body love seemed like just another fairy tale—true for others, but not for me. It took a lot of work, kindness, and patience with myself to get to the point where I could even write that Craigslist post.

But it's no coincidence that when I did find the courage (and acceptance), I finally found the love of my life. I had to learn to love myself before I could accept real love from anyone else. That confidence, self-respect, and zero-tolerance policy attitude I exuded are what my husband says attracted him to me in the first place. Recently when I asked him why he loves me, he answered, "You're you, the whole package. Smart, funny, beautiful, you love me with your whole heart. Every part of you makes you who you are." And the best part? I believe him.

For more about Jennifer's journey, check out her book Delicious, or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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