I'm in a tough spot. I am not thin. It is highly unlikely--given personal history and evidence of genetic predisposition--that I will ever be thin. It is possible that I will be thinner than I currently am, but it's not really a goal. What is a goal, though, is to lift heavier weights, run faster miles, and participate in more obstacle courses and races. I have achieved, for the first time in my entire life, the ability to care for myself without hatred.
And that's the only word I can think of that adequately fits the feelings I used to have toward my body: hatred. Its absolute refusal to fit into the narrow (literally and figuratively) confines that had been set for it left me with nothing but disdain.
That's no way to live. This body, after all, has served me quite well. It grew, carried, and birthed a healthy baby girl. It has survived car accidents. It has fallen out of canoes and managed not to drown. It has walked miles and miles and miles of city asphalt, country gravel, and backwoods dirt. It has stayed up into the early morning hours to watch the sunrise or hammer out a paper before deadline. It has, to be fair, done a pretty good job.
But hate was all I gave it. Hate for the chin that didn't look right, the hair that was neither straight nor curly, the calves that were too bulky, the belly that was too round, the frame that was too short, the shoulders that were too broad.
If anyone else treated me the way that I treated me, I'd have sent them packing a long time ago.
At first, I thought this newfound frame of mind was a fluke. After all, there had been moments in the past where I thought I'd found clarity. I'd start a new diet (drinking Slim Fast twice a day and eating bland, dry handfuls of cereal as a "snack.") I'd drop 10 pounds and think "Yes! Look at all my self control." Then I'd start doing mental math. "If I can lose 10 pounds in three weeks, then just think of how thin I'll be in three months." Of course, you cannot live off of cardboard and chalky milk substitute for three months, so two weeks later, the ten pounds would be back and I would be a failure. The power I felt in the moment of "success" was replaced by an immense, sometimes all-consuming sense of ineptitude.
So when I first realized that I wasn't hating my body anymore, I just sat back and waited. Surely, I thought, it's coming. I looked in the mirror in the morning and waited for the voice to come back, the one that zoned in on all my flaws and broadcast them to me while I brushed my teeth, just in case I had forgotten.
It stayed silent.
Here I am, over a year into (dare I say it) liking myself.
What changed? My diet.
Not my food diet (although, that has changed a lot as I started eating food that made me feel good, consciously avoiding the chemicals and crap I used to rely on as "healthy" alternatives). I changed my media diet. I stopped feeding myself messages that told me my body was worth hating and started consciously seeking out messages that made me realize that health was much more than a number on a scale. And it's health I'm after.
I won't (though I certainly could if I chose) be wearing a bikini to the beach anytime soon, but I did squat 120 pounds in the gym yesterday. My shirts are still size XL, but I did run for an hour in the rain on Sunday. My BMI is still in the overweight category, but my blood pressure is better than it was when I was twenty (and dieting). These are certainly not the only ways to be healthy (and we all have to find our own versions of fit and healthy from within the bodies and abilities we have), but they have certainly been a lot more rewarding for me than my old goals of "get thin" and "be prettier."
So here's my tough spot. I have found what I was really looking for: the ability to take care of myself without hatred, the ability to work out regularly, eat healthy, and not see myself as a failure for not meeting some arbitrary standard of "beautiful." And I want to share.
I have several friends who want to lose weight, and I wish them luck with all of their goals. I hope that they get where they want to be, and I have nothing against someone having a goal of weight loss. I know that there was a point when my body was carrying pounds that were not healthy, pounds that slowed me down and made my blood pressure jump.
And if someone wants to lose weight just to look differently? I think that's fine, too. If you want to dye your hair or wear contacts instead of glasses or dress in stiletto heels or get a tattoo or pierce your tongue, I think you have all of those rights, too. We should be able to do what we want to our bodies, including changing their weight if we choose.
But I can't help but look at these friends who are trying to lose weight and feel a little sad. It's not because I think they shouldn't change their bodies if they want to. It's just that so many of these friends are so beautiful. I don't even mean like in that "oh, we're all beautiful in our own ways" beauty (even though, sure). I mean these friends are beautiful in the "Damn!" way. And I'm not sure they know that. Perhaps they are busy listening to a voice that's broadcasting in their heads, and I wish they could turn it off. If they still want to change their bodies after they shut that voice up, then by all means, they should. But if we're making decisions while a deranged drill sergeant barks commands at us to hate ourselves, then they're not really decisions made freely.
I don't know how to broach that conversation, though. I don't know how to tell someone that I think they're not being fair to themselves. I'm sure they'd get defensive (I know I would have if someone had tried to tell me that). Instead, I am going to leave here a list of the things I wish these friends would read.
The biggest thing that's changed the way I feel about myself is reframing my goals. Realizing that losing twenty pounds wasn't going to change who I was (and thus solve all of my problems with magic) made me try to figure out what was really bothering me, and I fixed (or am fixing) those things instead.
- Erika Kendall's entire blog (Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss) is worth reading for anyone who is concerned about health, fitness, and eating right. I particularly recommend a couple of her posts about body image: The Quest for Healthy Body Image and Feeling Like You're Never Enough.
- Here's an important reminder that for mothers (especially of daughters), what we say about our bodies matters for more than just us. (And here's a bonus post on body-positive parenting).
- This woman (a very fit athlete) has a post explaining how she's still "overweight" according to BMI charts.
- Here's an interesting post from Anytime Yoga wondering whether beauty should be the goal at all.
"Fitspo" or "fitspiration" are the pictures we pin on Pinterest or post on Facebook that have muscular people (usually without heads) and "inspirational" sayings on them.
- Beauty Redefined has an excellent post about how "fitspo"aren't actually all that inspiring.
- Along the same lines, here's a great post explaining just how irresponsible a lot of those "inspirational" posts can be. Work until you puke and crawl on the floor? Not exactly a recipe for health.
- Here's a discussion of why shows like The Biggest Loser are also not very good inspiration for actual health.
- Also, remember that anytime you hold up an image of a celebrity as an inspiration, they may very well (and by that I mean almost certainly) be on the Photoshop diet. You can't compete.
So if "fitspo" isn't good for us, what should we look to for inspiration to work hard and get fit?
- I love Fit and Feminist, a website that does a great job of examining the complexity of beauty image and actual health goals. (They also have great discussions on their Facebook page).
- There's also a Tumblr called Feminist Fitspo which aims to find positive images of fitness.
- I started a Pinterest board with a similar goal, and I try to feature images and videos that focus on actually doing something with our bodies. If the goal is strength, that can only be shown through action, not standing around in a sports bra.
- Here is one of the most inspiring fitness videos I've ever seen. Yes, the woman clearly transforms her body with weight loss, but when I watch this, what I see is someone using her body to become stronger and more skilled and to have fun. She's not afraid to make mistakes, either.
We exist in a world saturated with messages about the obesity "epidemic." And it is undeniable diseases like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes negatively impact (and end) a lot of lives. With everyone from our news anchors to our doctors telling us that we must immediately lose weight in order to be healthy, we can forget that there's a body of research out there that demonstrates a lot of gray area in just how "healthy" and "skinny" do (and don't) intersect.
- The Fat Nutritionist (another site that's worth exploring in its own right) has put together an excellent collection of resources.
- There's a lot of evidence (this article touches on some) that diets don't work and only lifestyle changes have any sustained impact on health/weight.
- Here's an article about how BMI isn't really a useful measurement.
We should make goals, and we should strive for them, but we must remember to be kind to ourselves along the way.
Photos: puuikibeach, Robbie Sproule, Igor Klisov