The Work of Loving Oneself
Ahh, the lovely month of June. The sun starts peeking out here in Portland, and all of us city-dwellers start making weekend trips to the coast. Gone are the pants and layers of flannel and on are summer dresses and perhaps a bathing suit underneath. Sounds great, right?
Well, not so much. Being able to wear clothes that show off legs, arms and maybe even stomach mean having a body you don’t mind showing off. I once had a body that I felt comfortable showing skin in; hell, I even wore a tankini! But, much like the changing tides, my body has also changed and morphed into something softer, fuller and different than what it was. I’m feeling overwhelmed with the need to buy summer clothing, but having absolutely no desire to do so because I’m not happy with how I look. Is it the clothes? Maybe. Is it my body? Maybe? I don’t like admitting that. When winter is around, I can cover up with layers, and hats, but summer is here, and I’m suddenly feeling overwhelmed by clothing. But, this isn’t new. This is a daily struggle to accept my body for what it is, and what it will become over time, but also trying to love it. It’s very hard to do so when the clothes that are sold in stores right now are thin, tiny and not made in sizes that actually fit a lot of real people.
I have been overweight most of my life. I was a chubby baby (aren’t they the cutest?), and then a chubby child, a chubby teenager and adult. I have struggled with clothing options most of my life. Not only was I overweight, I was also short, with short legs so nothing ever really fit well, if it even fit at all. I was significantly overweight in high school, so imagine how much fun it was when I was told that my choral group was going to a costume shop to search for some Renaissance attire for our annual holiday tradition, Madrigal Mirage. I was excited to find something that would make me look as pretty as all of the older girls in the choir, the ones I’d looked up to. But, when it was very clear that nothing would fit me I felt terrible. Were there no heavier people during the Renaissance? I think there were. I ended up having my costume made. Everyone else wore the costumes they found at the store, but I had to get mine made special. It turned out to be gorgeous, but I still felt weird about it. Being heavy in high school comes with its own set of special issues, and I was not immune to them. I wanted boys to like me, and I wanted to have people think I was pretty, so I decided that the only way that would happen is if I were skinny. I started to throw up my food. It’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s alarming to think about how easy it was for me to start and continue to do. If I didn’t throw up my food, I would starve myself because the feeling of emptiness in my stomach made me feel like I had control. I was 16.
I look back on that time in high school and wish that I had known that being heavy wasn’t something terrible, or something to be ashamed of. But, that’s not how it was. It’s not how it is even today. Looking on the internet will provide people with tons of ways to “get fit”, or get “flat abs in 2 weeks”.
As I got older, I continued to struggle with my weight and joined Weight Watchers, and lost about 50 pounds. I suppose I’ve managed to keep that initial 50 off, but I’ve fluctuated greatly. When I moved to Portland, I lost a lot of weight simply because I walked everywhere. I don’t own a car, and I wasn’t familiar with the bus routes, so I walked. But, there’s also delicious food here, and a lot of beer, so I gained weight. I also fell into a depression here due to the lack of sunlight (the struggle is real, folks!) and missing my friends and family. Obviously, eating, drinking and crying don’t make things that much better. I joined the gym at work with every intention of going, but made it there less than I imagined I would, and after a while, stopped going entirely.
After I turned 30, I started making some changes in my life. I joined a gym with my roommate, and set a challenge for myself of going to the gym every day until I no longer wanted to go. Well, I sort of went to the gym for the next 5 years. During that time, I started altering my food choices, and cut out a lot of alcohol. I started adding more fruits and veggies into my diet, and eating smaller portions. Not bad, right?! I didn’t even realize weight was coming off until my pants were falling off of me. I remember sliding on a size-10 pants, and not comprehending how it happened. I’d never been that small before. People would comment on how “good” I looked, and I ate it up. I loved the praise, and I had been working hard. After a while, the exercise became my therapy, but also my punishment. If I ate something “bad”, I’d go to the gym and kill myself on the elliptical and weights. If I couldn’t make a work-out in the afternoon, I’d make sure to get up at 4 AM so that I could get in a yoga or cardio DVD. I would get grouchy if I couldn’t work out. I was also eating less and less, but calling it “portion control”. I was doing activities that were fun but also, in a word, punishing : hiking, running, yoga, weight lifting. I was still eating, but significantly less. I also became obsessed with looking at Instagram and Pinterest to find “thinspiration”. I would see those mantras that said things like: “Sweat is just fat crying” or “Obsessed is what lazy people call discipline” and identify with them. I started believing that looking at a fitness bloggers site simply motivated me, and it was normal. I read tons of fitness magazines, and would also look up ways to swap out “bad” foods with “healthy versions”. But, I was hungry all of the time, and thought about food constantly. I had very obvious cheek bones, my eyes were sunken in, and my clavicle was pointy like spikes. However, I was being told time and again I looked good. I was fitting into the smallest clothes of my life (size 2) and people were cheering me on. So many people asked me what my “secret” was, and I would simply say: oh, just diet and exercise. I wasn’t lying, but I wasn’t letting them know it was really extreme.
As a woman, I’ve seen how this affects us as a whole. We are shown photos of what women are “supposed” to look like, and all the ways we can work on ourselves to get there. We shouldn’t have any excuses, and if we just got up off the couch and started running, our lives would change for the better. Hell, I told people that. I believed it. But, it all came to a halt when I had to get a pacemaker implanted. I had been feeling extra tired, and would wake up in the middle of the night not being able to breathe. I was also light-headed all the time. I had mentioned the low heart rate many times at doctor visits, but they all said because I was so active it was normal to have that type of heart rate. Clearly, it wasn’t. But, everyone kept saying how “awesome” I was for exercising so much, and losing so much weight. I really looked like a shell of my former self. So, if I was doing everything “right” and I was “healthy”, why was I getting a pacemaker at the age of 34?
After the surgery, I wanted to do something different for myself and my fitness regimen. I ended up going to a powerlifting gym that my dear friend had told me about. She said it was all different kinds of people lifting very heavy weights but not killing themselves to do it. I went thinking I would know how to do everything, and since I was lifting weights on my own at the gym, it’d be no problem. That’s not what this gym was. There were all types of bodies there, and it wasn’t about who was the smallest, rather, it was about who was the strongest. I spent three years at that gym, and my body was in the best shape ever. My trainer really helped me get strong after the surgery, and really allowed me to focus on what was good for my body, instead of what crazy exercise I could do to get a better butt. It was the one sustained amount of time in my life where I was so happy with how I looked.
Unfortunately, I left the power lifting gym a year ago because we had moved to another facility and the new environment was run by aggressive men, which really stressed me out. I joined a gym for women, and thought I’d go all the time, but the vibe was different. I missed my crazy weight-lifters. I always thought I’d text my trainer one day and tell him I wanted to come back, but then he retired. And, our group sort of scattered to the wind. Sadly, my trainer, Rich, passed away in December. I loved him dearly, and since his passing, I’ve gained weight back because I cannot make myself get into a gym. It’s a feeling of anxiousness that I don’t know how to deal with, so I just don’t go. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still active, but I do it at home with yoga, or taking long walks. But, I keep thinking about how big my body feels, and how uncomfortable I feel in it. I hear these voices in my head saying I’ve failed, but have I? Gaining weight doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t diminish all the good things in my life. You see, logically, I know these things, but when I look on the internet, or I see ads for summer, all I see is that I don’t have the desirable body.
I know the answer to help me feel better lies with accepting myself in whatever body I inhabit. I have learned to stay away from the “thinspiration” sites, and to appreciate parts of my body that were once hard but are now softer and less tight. But, sometimes, I think it’s hard to accept myself when everything in the surrounding area is telling me that I either want to lose inches off my waist, or I’m a brave woman for loving the body I’m in. But, even in the age of “body acceptance” it still feels like a struggle. Does society really accept all bodies, or is society still creating a body type which might be heavier, yet still aligns with what is supposed to be seen as “attractive”? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it’s a struggle. And, with every new summertime ad, or a magazine with a “fit” woman on it, I struggle to feel as though I measure up. The good part, but also the bad, is in knowing I’m not alone. But, how do we, as a society, learn to love who we are, and not base it on how we look?
So, I don’t have the answers to the questions. But, I do know that I can start being kind to myself. I can tell my body that I love her, and I can be present in the moment. I can stop shaming myself for the food I decide to eat, and, instead enjoy the wonderful flavors that come with it and the time I have given myself. I can remove the shackles of the societal pressure to look a certain way because I tried that, and it altered my body in a dangerous way. When I feel the wheels in my head start to turn about how easy it would be to stop eating, or get crazy about exercise again, I can take a moment and breathe. If it doesn’t make me happy, I don’t have to do it. I can do that for myself. It won’t be perfect, and it won’t be easy, but I can try. Summer’s here, and as a Portlander who rarely sees the sun, I’m going to enjoy it because I am alive and thriving. I get to choose to be happy.