You are born inside of a body that, depending on your genetic makeup and environment, has a particular shape, color and size. This body works around the clock to provide oxygen to each and every cell, while performing many other specialized functions simultaneously in order to keep you alive. Your organs (including your skin) maintain and repair themselves without any voluntary effort on your part. Your body is extremely intelligent and is constantly working towards balance and optimal health. Its natural state, which it always wants to return to, is health.
Why then do we spend so much time trying to change the perfect body that we already have? Why do we intentionally and knowingly consume products and take on behaviors that work against our body’s normal functions? Why do we belittle ourselves by equating beauty with weight-loss, toned muscles and tight skin? Why do we spend so much of our precious time focusing on and criticizing the areas that we have been made to believe are imperfections in need of change? Why do so many of us hide our bodies out of fear of being judged?
This is a topic that hits close to home for me, especially at this time of the year when I see so many advertisements for weight loss programs and supplements to help you achieve your “perfect bikini body”. A while ago I shared my weight loss story. In it, I discuss my struggles with weight gain and poor self-esteem that lasted throughout my childhood and into my early 20’s. Over the past five years I have experimented with my diet, exercise routine and mental focus in attempt to discover for myself what truly mattered to me and made me feel truly happy and fulfilled. As a result, I’ve been to and have experienced both sides of the spectrum, from being considered overweight to borderline underweight, and through it I’ve found the weight and composition that my body naturally gravitates towards when it is nourished and healthy. I feel balanced here, although I am by no means sculpted or “toned”. I definitely do not have a six-pack. However, I feel feminine and strong and HAPPY in my body for the first time in my life. Most importantly, I feel healthier than ever, and I am able to maintain this state without much effort at all! My stress levels dropped significantly when I was able to let go of the idea that I had to control my diet and exercise to look a specific way. I finally arrived at a place where everything I was doing was coming from a place of self-love rather than self-criticism.
By sharing my journey and the measures I took to achieve my “ideal” body I hope to bring to light what it actually takes to get there and the physical and mental efforts that it requires in order to maintain. I found that there was a point at which my so-called “healthy lifestyle” was actually becoming the opposite.
I am writing this in an attempt to hopefully inspire others to change the way they see their bodies, their weight and their daily habits and to challenge whoever reads this to re-evaluate their current goals and definitions of what a “perfect” body and “perfect” health mean to them. I am speaking purely from personal experience as a woman who has struggled with weight gain, but truly believe that my experiences are relatable and therefore useful to many women who have struggled or are currently struggling with body image and self-acceptance.
Before I begin, let me ask you this: If you could choose to spend your time exactly the way you wanted doing only things that brought you joy, would counting calories and picking yourself apart in the mirror be included? What activities WOULD you include?
I clearly remember the day in elementary school when a classmate bumped into me and then yelled out loud, “I just ran into your FAT ELBOW!” The humiliation that immediately followed was enough to send me straight to the nurse’s office begging to go home. Middle school was the most difficult for me. I had no self-esteem, and my wardrobe consisted of baggy sweatshirts because I was ashamed of the fat I carried around my abdomen. Having long legs, a short torso and a genetic disposition towards weight gain, I have always battled with my belly fat. I always achieved the highest grades possible in an attempt to feel “worthy” and compensate for own lack of self-worth. High school was easier for me because I had a close group of friends who I knew accepted and liked me for who I was and didn’t care about my size. Still, I was always shy and quiet because I felt bigger than everyone else and didn’t want to stand out. I was beyond self-conscious. During my sophomore year I joined the cross country team in hopes the accountability and daily exercise would help me lose weight. It worked! However, I didn’t enjoy running AT ALL, and after a year and a half on the team I just couldn’t force myself to do it anymore. College came and went, and I only got heavier. My eating habits were poor, living off of mainly processed and fast foods. I was drinking more coffee than ever, and I had discovered alcohol. The only exercise I was getting were my daily walks around campus and my weekly triathlon swim workouts at the pool I was working for.
After graduating college and securing my first full-time, salary paying job I began doing some soul searching. I had been really good at distracting myself from how unhappy I was in college by studying intensely and working two jobs while being a full-time student. I kept myself so busy and used it as an excuse as to why I didn’t exercise or take care of myself. Once life slowed down and my schedule took on a consistent Monday through Friday work week, the unhappiness I had hidden for so long started showing itself more and more. Only this time, there was no hiding from it. This coincided with other difficulties I was suddenly being faced with in life, and the combination of these pushed me at full force out of my comfort zone. Suddenly, I found myself feeling lost, doubtful and more vulnerable than ever. It was at this time that my life starting transforming for the better. I changed my diet by replacing my usual processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. I hired a personal trainer and was working out 4-5 times a week. I discovered that I loved the combination of weight training a couple days a week and doing swim workouts the other days. I also had found yoga, which helped me connect with and develop a better relationship with myself. Watching my body transform was incredible, and I was so proud of myself! As my physical strength increased, so did my mental strength. I was more confident, independent and was flooded with bursts of inspiration. I even made the decision to quit my job and change careers. Within a couple years I went from a working chemist, to a nanny, to a student (again) and finally to a certified Health Coach and Yoga Instructor.
For a while it seemed that life was just getting better and better, but eventually I felt like I had hit a plateau. I had lost 30 pounds but was slowly gaining a little bit of it back. The fact that my 30 pound weight loss had now become only 20 was worrying me. At that time, I was eating a clean diet made up of fresh, whole foods. I was not counting calories and ate when I was hungry. I was eating foods that I enjoyed and that made me feel my best. However, even after all of the positive changes I had made I STILL wasn’t happy with the way body looked. I wanted to lose more weight and see more muscle definition. I (incorrectly) assumed that if I dedicated myself to a more structured fitness and diet plan I would achieve my dream body and FINALLY love myself. This is where my healthy lifestyle took an unhealthy turn, although it wasn’t until I encountered health issues that I realized this.
I hired another personal trainer with the goal of decreasing my body fat and building more muscle. I dedicated myself to 5-6 days of working out with a structured weight training program. At one point I was consistently deadlifting 175lb! I was following a specific diet plan that required me to plan out my meals and count my daily intake of carbohydrates, fat and protein. When I was hungry but didn’t have extra calories to spare I would chug water and distract myself. There were times when all I wanted was another banana, but I had already hit my carb count for the day and so I wouldn’t allow myself to have it. I spent up to an hour every single day planning out the next day’s meals. Cooking from scratch became tedious and time-consuming because it involved me having to measure and weigh out ingredients. I was turning down invitations to go out to eat with friends, and my only focus was the number on the scale. Finally, I hit my lowest weight ever, but as I continued to decrease my body fat, my strength started to decline. Every time we reduced my carb intake we also had to lower the amount of weight I was lifting. In my eyes I looked better than ever, but physically and mentally I was drained and felt weak.
After about eight months of this diet and exercise regimen my menstrual cycle suddenly stopped, and my face started breaking out with acne that I never even had as a teenager. Everything I had learned as a health coach was telling me that I had reached a point where my obsession with my appearance and weight was doing me more harm than good. The worst part was I was still not happy with my body. I could see my abs for the first time in my life, and I still all I wanted was more. I thought I could look even better, even though I definitely wasn't feeling better. The stress that came with my restrictive eating habits was beginning to take its toll, and there were times that I only exercised for the sake of burning off the calories I had eaten earlier. I was no longer eating to nourish my body, but rather only allowing myself to eat what I thought I should be eating. Exercise was becoming a form of punishment rather than an activity that helped me connect with and invigorate my body. In fact, I was no longer listening to my body’s cues at all, and I was always hungry. This all happened because of I was unhappy with the way I looked in the first place.
Around that same time I had decided to travel to Thailand to attend a yoga teacher training and become a yoga instructor. It took me some time to accept that fact that my routine was going to completely change. I was about trade my heavy weight training for yoga and yoga only. My meals were going to be freshly prepared for me each day, and there would be no way for me to accurately track my calorie intake, nor would I even have the time to do so. I started easing off of my calorie counting and weight training a few weeks before I left. It is hard to admit sometimes, but doing so gave me considerable anxiety. I was worried that all of my hard work would be erased and that all of the weight I had lost would come rushing back.
However, going to Thailand ended up becoming my saving grace. Spending two hours every day for thirty days practicing breathing techniques and meditation connected me to my body in a completely different way. I began to realize and accept that my weight and the shape of my body were not the issues. My biggest challenge was learning how to love myself completely and unconditionally. At my core, I didn’t accept myself, and watching the number on the scale go down was never going to change that. It didn’t matter what I looked like because I only ever saw what was “wrong”.
Upon returning home and in the months following my menstrual cycle was still irregular. Intuitively I knew something wasn’t right. I saw my doctor and requested a full blood panel, including tests to check my thyroid and hormones. To my surprise, everything came back completely normal! Frustrated, I scheduled an appointment with an Ayurvedic practitioner in hope of getting some answers. After describing my symptoms and without her knowing anything about my diet and exercise routine, the practitioner hit me with the truth that I had needed to hear for so long but was so reluctant to accept. She told me that I needed to step away from all vigorous exercise and focus only on walking, swimming and yoga. She also told me that I needed to eat MORE carbohydrates, specifically fresh fruits and oatmeal. In her opinion, my body was out of balance and needed time to recover and heal. I cried the whole way home. It was a combination of relief and dread. On one hand, I was SO relieved and comforted to hear that intense workouts were not always the best thing for me and that it was PERFECTLY OKAY (and actually necessary) for me to slow down. On the other hand though, I knew that taking a break and increasing my carb intake meant certain weight gain.
I did the only thing I could do at that point. I surrendered. I dived into my yoga and meditation practice. I walked in the forest preserves near my house. Instead of putting effort into intense gym sessions I directed my energy and focus on understanding and working through the mental beliefs that seemed to be influencing the way I perceived my body and image. In many ways, this inner work was much more difficult than the physical workouts ever were. I faced my insecurities and judgments about myself head on. I re-visited my past in order to forgive, let go and move forward. I remained physically active, just in a completely different way.
Slowly but surely, I gained about ten pounds back. However, this time it didn’t bother me. My cycle and my body felt normal again. My diet remained as healthy as ever, but I was no longer focusing on calories. In that time I had learned and had come to accept few very important things about myself:
My happiness is not dependent on the way my body looks.
Improving my health is not synonymous with losing weight.
More isn’t always better when it comes to exercise.
I am a woman whose body naturally stores fat on my belly and legs.
I do not need to be “toned” or have a six pack to feel confident in a bikini.
I deserve to take care of myself mentally, spiritually and physically
This is where I am today. I feel balanced, strong, healthy and happy. My stress levels are low. I eat foods that I enjoy and that nourish my body and mind. I don’t have cheat meals because there is no such thing unless I am restricting myself in the first place. My schedule no longer revolves on getting to the gym every day or planning out exactly what I am going to eat. I trust that my intuition and my body know exactly what is best for me. Some days I crave lots of movement and a sweaty yoga practice, and some days I sleep in and go for a walk with the dogs. I let my body take the lead. After all, it is more intelligent than my mind will ever be. My body is a miracle, and it isn’t mine to keep. The best I can do is to enjoy every second of this human experience in the time I have been given.
The mind likes to feel like it is in control. Our egos are very persuasive. On a daily basis we are exposed to unrealistic images of what we think beauty is supposed to be. We see fitness models that inspire us to be work harder, but it isn’t often enough that we stop to think what it really takes to achieve a specific body composition. In the photos it looks effortless, but I know from experience that it is anything but. It requires daily dedication, focus and discipline. It also requires TIME. Any weight loss program or product that promises you will lose X amount of pounds in X amount of days is ultimately a gimmick. For certain body types (like mine) achieving a low body fat percentage and having a six pack takes a LOT of work and isn’t easy to maintain. We have to start by accepting and loving ourselves for who we are, not who we think we want to be.
If you are unhappy with how you look, please ask yourself the following:
What exactly are you unhappy about and WHY? Is it because of societal beliefs of what is considered beautiful? If these beliefs and images didn’t exist, would you still be unhappy with your body?
Are you trying to live up to someone else’s expectations?
Do you feel healthy and strong? If not, do you think weight loss will aid in improving your overall health?
What types of exercise do you truly ENJOY doing?
Would committing to a structured exercise routine increase or decrease your current stress level?
What are your specific goals? Is weight loss or building muscle mass required for you to reach those goals? For example, are you training for a marathon or body building competition? Are you trying to improve your stamina so that you can hike that trail you always wanted to hike? Are you trying to strengthen your body to support your health so that you can do the activities you love to do for as many years as you possibly can? Simply put, are your goals coming from a place of self-love or self-judgment?
Are there other areas of your life, unrelated to your weight that are negatively affecting your health and happiness?