When I made the decision to have lipo, I know that part of it was based on a hope that it would make my mother like me. I thought she hated me, that she thought I was ugly, and that she was disappointed that I didn’t turn out the way she wanted me to. I wanted to talk to her about all this, so I agreed to accompany her on a weekend yoga retreat. Doesn’t that sound relaxing? “Yoga retreat”? It did to me too. But once we got there, she was her old self, criticizing every little thing I did. I stayed silent and tried to just get to the end of the trip without exploding, but on the last night, as she drove me home, it started to rain, and she went on a tear: “Why are you wearing sandals?” she asked. “Didn’t you know it was going to rain? You should be wearing socks and shoes.”

That’s all it took. Years of resentment and anger and hurt welled up in me in waves, and I finally let them out. “Can’t you see how miserable I am?” I shouted. “You did this to me! This is your fault!”

Then something miraculous happened. My mother apologized to me. “Everything I did was wrong,” she said. “I should never have told you to lose weight. You were fine as you were, and I’m sorry.” She explained that when she brought up liposuction to me at the mall, she was going through an incredibly unhappy time. She also implied that “other people,” like her own mother, had pressured her to do something about my weight, but I don’t really believe that, and I didn’t then either. I wish I could say that the apology part of her apology brought me some relief, but unless she could go back in time and deal with her destructive feelings around bodies and weight before she cursed me with them, there wasn’t really anything she could do to make up for what she did to me. Maybe this sounds pessimistic, but it’s actually freed me a lot: I no longer expect my mother to make me feel better or to mend our past, so I don’t dwell on that part of our relationship anymore. I accept the imperfect bond we have now, and I’ve come to understand that loving and respecting myself is my choice—not hers.

Since then, I’ve gotten very good at taking care of myself. I go to therapy and take medication for depression, which I was diagnosed with a long time ago but didn’t truly deal with for years, because obviously being thin was SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT than feeling emotionally OK. Not being depressed anymore has been invaluable in letting me recognize parts of myself I can and do feel proud of: I’m a caring friend and sister, a responsible employee, and a loving girlfriend. Amazingly, some of the things I love about myself are physical: I have a really pretty smile, and my butt looks good in a pair of jeans. I happily wear the sleeveless shirts I once dreaded, which show off a tattoo I love on my upper arm. Shopping is still not the most fun thing in the world, but it’s not traumatic anymore, either—I make an effort not to berate myself when I can’t fit into something that’s too small for me, and I usually find stuff that makes me feel OK about how I look. When I get home and show my boyfriend a new outfit, he tells me that I’m sexy, and I believe him. I get this validation from myself, too—when I look at recent pictures of myself, I think, Wow, she’s super cute. I exercise to feel good nowadays, not to lose weight, and it helps me remember that my body’s got more important things to do than maintain some unrealistic physical ideal. This is what progress looks like for me.

I’m not saying my body image is totally perfect these days. I’ll always find this part of my life difficult to some degree—you don’t all of a sudden magically forget about this shit one day. But the moment I begin to feel self-hatred about my weight, I talk about it with someone I love—it’s a lot easier to come to terms with these things once you can be open about them with others. During one such conversation, a friend told me something about her relationship with her own body that’s always stuck with me. She said that she’d realized that she had a choice: She could be thin or she could be sane, but with the body and the brain she has, she can’t be both. That’s true for me, too. Sometimes, the fact that I have to choose between them really pisses me off. But that’s OK. I don’t beat myself up anymore for not always being able to extend the militant body-positivity I have toward others to myself too. I forgive myself for not being “perfect.” I can even allow myself to have the occasional shitty afternoon and not let it consume me, because I know acceptance is something I can, and will, continue working on forever. I recently wrote this in my journal, which sums it up pretty well:

I embrace the work I do on myself. I get to work on loving myself and being healthy. I get to have emotions and struggles and I get to fuck up and progress and cry and learn new things about myself. I get to ask for help from and develop relationships with people who love and support me.

Being honest with myself about my experiences—including the negative ones, like my surgery—has made them far less powerful, shameful, and scary. I’m learning to say that, yes, I had liposuction, and even though the aftermath was incredibly hard, I actually don’t regret it anymore. The way my body was affected by it tells a story of emotional pain and damage, but that story ends in survival and perpetual growth. My stretch marks and scars remind me that, even if I’ve been through some serious shit, I am strong and beautiful. Sometimes, it just takes a lot of reflection (and therapy, and pissed-off afternoons) to finally feel OK in your body—no matter what that looks like for you. ♦

Katie McMahon is a writer and a wannabe high school English teacher. She lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend, an adventurous indoor cat, and an adorable perma-puppy. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram and read about everything she’s ever wanted to be on her Tumblr.