Loving the Body I Hate
Truth time - I have had major body image issues since I was 17 years old, which is one of the most uncomfortable and honest things I'll probably ever write. In fact, this is the exact post I have been avoiding since I began my blog, nearly 6 years ago.
You see, I stand for concepts like "self love" and "no body shaming"; my profession is helping women discover their strongest, healthiest selves. I wholeheartedly believe it when I tell my friends and my clients things like "you look beautiful" or "you're so fit", but I would never look at my own body and say that. I understand how sensitive this topic is, even down to the title of this post, and I hope you can stick with me as I attempt to break down some walls. So here's the story in a nutshell: I do not think I am overweight, unattractive, or need to change anything about the way I look, and that's exactly why I'm writing this.
I'm writing this because the people who don't admit how they feel about their bodies often have the worst wars going on inside their heads, and those wars are the most crippling barriers to living a healthy lifestyle.
I was always a small kid - I probably didn't hit 5 feet or 100 pounds until I was 14 years old. I danced competitively and was comfortable in the booty shorts and sports bra that I wore on a daily basis. I consumed junk food without a care and never stepped on a scale unless I was at the doctor's office.
Then, when I was 17, a few things happened. I started dealing with immense amounts of stress in school, applying for colleges, and performing. I went through a bad breakup, lost a good friendship, and watched a couple of my closest friends battle eating disorders. Somewhere in the midst of my spring semester, I lost about 10 pounds and my clothes didn't fit well. I had dropped to the size of the 13 year olds who were dancing alongside me, and the "figure" I had finally developed in puberty disappeared.
But when I looked in the mirror, something in me liked it.
What I liked wasn't based on my appearance, and that is so crucial to understand. Rather, I clung to the idea that I finally had something I could control when everything else in my world seemed uncontrollable. Unlike my friends who were harming their bodies by eating no food and/or vomiting, I decided I would gain back the weight in a "healthy" way. However, in my overly stressed, perfectionist mind, that meant controlling anything and everything I ate and did.
The habits I began to develop were small and difficult to notice. I began weighing myself every day, slowly increasing my increments of working out and doing cardio after coming home from a 4 hour dance rehearsal. I decided what my ideal weight would be simply because it was a number that sounded right to my 17 year old brain. If I was above it that morning, I would eat less at lunch; if I was below it, I'd feel pleased. I wasn't eating too few calories or depriving my body of nutrients, I was just obsessing on the inside. Guilt consumed me when I would indulge in foods that I deemed to be "unhealthy", as if one night out to dinner would undo all the good work that I'd done. Sometimes, I would avoid social obligations for this very reason. I never dropped below a healthy weight or skipped meals, so in my mind, I didn't have an eating disorder. But nothing about the way I treated myself was normal or healthy. My daily emotions and ability to be proud of myself were based around whether I could maintain a number.
When I was a sophomore in college, I remember waking up one morning and stepping on the scale, as was my routine. I glanced at the number, felt my self-worth drop a few points, and suddenly panicked. "What am I doing!?" I thought. "This is never going to stop." For the first time, I became acutely aware that there was no end game to obsessing about my body.
I would love to tell you that that was the end of it. I'd love to say that I threw my scale in the garbage, declared freedom over my controlling tendencies, and that I never felt any guilt after eating a cookie. Instead, that was my first wake up call to begin the long road of re-training myself, something I have to actively chose to do every day.
My story is not unusual, it just flies under the radar. I am one of many women who has treated her body with a lot of hatred for a very long time. Even though my physical health has never been in jeopardy, my emotional health and self image has been in and out of shambles for years. But you know what isn't the answer? Going to the opposite extreme.
Too many women preach the concept of self-love and simply say, "Screw it! Eat the donut! Live your life!" While I understand the heart behind that message, for people who like control, throwing caution to the wind when it comes to your health simply sends you down another rabbit hole. I can't just "live my life" and not think about a habit that I trained myself to fixate on for years and years. Plus, "screwing" your health isn't a good idea either; it's actually important to eat well and exercise. The point is, it's not that simple, which is why women hold onto their insecurities with a vengeance. They inflict them on their daughters, talk badly about other women, criticize the skinny girl, the fat girl, the one who exercises too much, the one who's never been to the gym. We do anything and everything to take the attention off of the hate we are slinging back at our own bodies.
So, what does it mean to love the body I spent so much time and energy hating for 4 years? Well, I believe that love is a verb. Love is an action. So many people write about the importance of loving your body and frame it in an emotional, fluffy way. I can be thankful for my healthy body, and I can treat myself with respect, but I have never once looked in the mirror throughout the last 8 years and felt warm and fuzzy feelings. If we're being honest, I still slip up. I step on the scale sometimes for no reason other than to be disappointed in myself and "encourage" myself to work harder. I speak meanly inside my own head and feel guilty having a glass of wine. How do I rationalize that girl with the one who is supposed to motivate everyone to find their healthiest selves?
I'm not perfect, but I try to choose not to give into something I know is a lie. I choose to ignore my emotions, the negative self-talk in my head, and my controlling tendencies, and instead act with compassion, rationality, and balance.
So, for anyone who has an internal war inside their own head, here are the things that have helped me:
1. Pure Barre
I love Pure Barre. Ironically, I found Pure Barre when I was 17, when I was really struggling with my self worth and my need to control everything. My love for fitness and passion for healthy eating definitely were born out of something much darker, and that has been an incredible reminder that God can turn something good out of anything bad. Pure Barre was the first workout I fell in love with, and it's still my number 1. Yes, it is difficult to have my background and be in the fitness industry. Yes, I have freaked out and felt "not good enough" when I've filmed DVDs and done photoshoots and critiqued my appearance after the fact. However, being in this industry forces me to deal with a problem that I'd otherwise hide. I have to learn how to practice what I preach to my clients. I love that Pure Barre focuses on helping you build your best body and a truly healthy shape for any person. In every training I lead, I talk about the importance of not throwing out "body-specific" cues and motivational sayings. In my class, you won't hear, "the higher the heels, the thinner the thighs," but you will hear, "the higher the heels, the stronger the thighs." I refuse to be someone else's trigger.
2. Real Nutrition
During the end of high school and beginning of college, I didn't care what I was eating, as long as it didn't make me gain weight. I would eat food with crappy ingredients and choose less calories over something with higher calories and real nutritional value. Learning about how my body responds to food, why real nutrition is important, and how I can eat with balance and enjoy myself have been crucial in silencing the guilt I always attached to "unhealthy" foods.
3. Prayer and Community
If you're not a Christian, this part may not hit home with you, but I know that any feelings of self-doubt I struggle with are because I'm not believing that my worth is found in Christ. Turning to God to free my mind of harmful thoughts and surrounding myself with people who remind me that life is about more than beating yourself up over a donut are huge in my day to day self-care. When I catch my thoughts in a downward spiral, talking to God or calling a friend are huge in resetting my mindset.
It's worth noting, not many of my outward habits, the "what" in my life, have drastically changed since I had that wakeup call in college. I still workout daily and choose healthy foods, but the "why" is so different. It all depends on the intention behind the action. I no longer look at food and exercise as a punishment for my body, and I genuinely love what I do, living a healthy lifestyle, and helping others to the same. To me, my backstory is why I love it so much - I truly understand the importance of having a healthy mind, body, and soul, because I've lived without that.
Not everyone will relate to or even understand this post, but I would bet that most will to some degree. Again, this isn't proposed as a cure for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder and needs medical attention. But, if you struggle with loving your body, like me, remember that love is first an action. One of the best things you can do is act in a way that's loving to your body, even if your mind is telling you otherwise. Don't give in to negative self talk, throw the scale away, and find a trusted person to confide in who will speak truth into your life when you're in doubt. Overtime, choices turn into habits, and habits have the ability to revamp your thought process. You aren't the only person struggling, but don't let that lie make you think you have to live that way for the long haul.