I set out to write this blog post in the beginning of October. I got two and a half paragraphs in and couldn’t continue. This was in part because I knew what I wanted to say but was struggling to organize my thoughts in a cohesive, concise way. But I think the larger issue was I wanted to talk about a subject I hadn’t yet worked through.
Body Positivity and Health at Every Size (HAES) are cornerstones in my fitness philosophy. When it comes to setting exercise goals, I generally encourage folks away from aesthetic goals and toward practical goals (e.g. increasing strength or stamina, improving balance and coordination, etc.). I strive to meet people where they’re at and help them feel comfortable in their own skin. Because truly, your outward appearance does not always reflect your health and everyone deserves to feel strong and confident.
When I coach, I embody different roles for my clients depending on what they’re feeling that day. Sometimes that means I am nit-picky and specific about form, sometimes it means I am a calming influence, and sometimes it means I am a cheerleader - making someone feel encouraged, safe, and supported. I am so conscientious about my language and actions with clients because I understand the impact they can have. But when talking to myself, I recently discovered I am not as kind.
As long as I can remember, I’ve led a busy and active life. In grade school, I had activities most days after school, while weekends were filled with dance classes and performances. Up until very recently, I taught dozens of dance and fitness classes each week and, when I wasn’t teaching, I was in rehearsal. So, when all non-essential businesses shut down in mid-March as a result of Covid-19, my busy, active life came to a halt. It wasn’t until a couple weeks into quarantine I discovered how much I relied on my work schedule to keep myself active. Suddenly, I found myself in a position I’ve never been in before - I had to self-motivate to exercise. Turns out, self-motivating is not one of my strengths. The experience has been truly humbling.
At first, I enjoyed having the chance to take a break. My body was more burnt out than I realized and I needed time to recover from years of pushing through exhaustion and injury. But after a few weeks, I started feeling down. Without a busy schedule forcing me to exercise, I was not feeling like myself at all. I tried to take a few virtual dance classes, but dancing in a one-bedroom apartment with hard floors sucked. Dance is a powerful catharsis for me, not just because of the movement, but also because of the social aspect - the connection, friendship. Without the connection, dance classes made me feel sad.
I was stressed, bummed out, and leading a relatively sedentary lifestyle for the first time. All those factors manifested in weight gain. I’m not sure exactly how much. Long ago I resolved to never weigh myself. Some people find weight is a helpful metric. Personally, I know it would become a number I’d obsess over, so I don’t even own a scale or look when I get weighed at doctor’s appointments. I just don’t need to know. I believe that if I am feeling good in my body, if I can perform the activities I need to perform and have the energy to do so, that’s all that matters.
But truth be told, my weight stayed fairly consistent through much of my adult life. I mean, naturally I grew into my body as any adult does. But my genetics and lifestyle meant that I really hadn’t ever been considered overweight* by most standards.
*Note: this is a loaded term that I am using with caution. Overweight implies that there is an ideal weight which is not true. Weight is relative to the person, their genetics, their resources, their lifestyle etc. It is unfair and untrue to use this term. I used it here mostly out of simplicity - it is a term everyone is familiar with.
This year was different from any other year. I gained enough weight to notice changes in how clothing fitted, the way my skin and fat folded while moving, and how I appeared in photos. And with this weight gain came an increase in negative self-talk.
Logically, I know my self-worth isn’t tied to my size. Logically, I know I can still be powerful and my body can do incredible things at any size. But how we feel about our bodies isn’t always rooted in logic. We live in a society that rewards people for being thin, that views a “healthy, beautiful body” as looking a singular way. So even though my logical brain was telling me one thing, I had unconsciously internalized a lot of the wellness industry’s lies.
I started to experience imposter syndrome in a new way. Who am I to train people if I fail to motivate myself to exercise? Who am I to tell people their size doesn’t dictate their self-worth if I feel my own sense of self-worth plummet with a relatively minor shift in appearance? I was spiraling, y’all.
One thing that has helped immensely is the idea that the first thought you have reveals your conditioning, the second thought you have reveals your character. I can’t remember where I first learned this, but I absolutely love the concept. If the first thought I have about my changing body is negative, that’s not necessarily a reflection on my character. It doesn’t mean I’m shallow, it means it’s what I’ve been conditioned to think (through societal norms and expectations, through the media, through things I’ve heard from friends/family, etc.). It is the thought I have immediately after that reveals who I am. My power lies in my ability to interrupt my thoughts and dismantle my conditioning.
With that in mind, I have made a practice of regularly reminding myself that my size has not erased my credentials. It has not made me less qualified to coach clients. If anything it has made me more empathetic.
I remind myself that my size does not dictate my health. By several other measures, I am healthier than I’ve ever been. I’m not burnt out. I am cooking more of my meals. I am re-evaluating my relationship with my body and my relationship with the concept of wellness.
I remind myself that even if my health changes, that doesn’t make me any less worthy of love, respect, joy, and care.
I also remind myself that this negative self-talk was simply amplified by my recent weight gain - not created by it. Even when I was the smallest version of my adult self, I had bouts of insecurity and negative self-talk. The simple fact is, as women, it is always going to be impossible to meet society’s standards for beauty. Being confident in my body has to be a conscious, ongoing effort. I will have good days and not-so-good days. And my strategies around addressing my insecurities may have to shift from one day to the next. If I do end up losing weight when my schedule picks back up, I acknowledge it’s not going to resolve these issues. The solution is to actively unlearn my biases around beauty and health. I need to practice self-compassion** daily and it’s not particularly easy or fun.
**Self-compassion happened to be the word I set as my intention at the beginning of 2020 - who could have guessed how relevant it would end up being! HA!
So if you’ve caught yourself having negative thoughts about your body, know you’re not alone. And if you’ve caught yourself having negative thoughts about your body, know those thoughts do not define you. I’m finally ready to get to work tackling my biases - you with me?