This may come as a surprise to some people, but one of the times in my life when I felt the best about myself was when I was at my heaviest. I was in graduate school in NYC. My life consisted of very little sleep, dining out with friends, and studying in bars and restaurants. I fed my mind and my body constantly, and while the brain fuel was extremely nutritious, the food I was putting into my body was often thoughtless, quick, and unhealthy.
At the time I just didn’t care.
I had so many interesting things to learn, and say, and do! It was the first time in my life that I let go of the constant obsession over my body, and it felt so freeing! I just stopped worrying about the scale and the size of my thighs. If someone wasn’t attracted to me just as I was, that was their problem!
For a brief moment, at my heaviest physically, I felt the lightest emotionally.
After a while, however I couldn’t continue to ignore the reality. I was just a little uncomfortable all the time. My clothes bit into my body. I would get winded running to catch the subway. My joints ached. And sex, well that was a little underwhelming.
With a full-time job and full-time graduate school, I only managed about three hours of sleep each night, and it was taking a toll. I was falling asleep in class. My body was just done with this!
It was around this time that I rekindled my relationship with fitness, somewhat serendipitously. One day, instead of heading into a local bistro for a pre-class snack, my eyes lit upon the gym on the floor right above it. I decided to go in. Maybe a workout before school would help me stay awake better than a pastrami sandwich. Before grad school fitness had been a mainstay in my life. I remembered how much energy and gratification I got from it.
Over the next year I got hooked! I sweated myself alert. My thoughts were clearer. My posture improved. I felt great, and I started to get a little leaner.
The compliments started pouring in…yet, instead of celebrating my success, these compliments made me feel incredibly guilty. For some reason I just didn’t feel like I could look good and also feel good about myself.
The Beauty Chase
In our culture, women start getting the message at a very young age that they will never be good enough. Everywhere we turn we’re told our bodies need fixing. Someone is always is hawking a product or program. Magazine covers tease us with headlines about quick and easy (or super-secret) diets and workouts, and images that show us what we should be striving to look like. The underlying message is always the same: you need to change. You’re not ____ enough as you are.
Tone your tummy. Slim your thighs. Lose 20 pounds in 10 days with this detox. Wear make-up. Get plastic surgery. Be curvy…but not too curvy. Be skinny…but not too skinny. Muscles are sexy… but be careful you don’t start looking manly.
We can never really arrive. We never seem to get “there” because the “there” is constantly changing, leaving us forever chasing this elusive ideal.
When I got into graduate school and gained weight, I chose to stop chasing. It felt amazing at first, but shrugging off societal pressure was only one side of the coin. I needed to really love myself, and that meant accepting that I have a body that needs to thrive with the right food, exercise, and rest.
Could I achieve a fit, slimmer body and still celebrate myself? When I was heavier I took a firm stance that it was what was on the inside that really counts. Could the inside still matter while the outside changes? Why the heck not?
I hear this dichotomy all the time when talking with my clients. When I start to bring up self love they start to look confused. They get worried and ask:
“Are we still going to work towards the weight-loss goals?”
“Am I still going to get back in my skinny jeans?”
I can tell you that in my 15 years as a trainer I have never seen someone sustain long-term weight loss when it came as a result of punishment or shame. True, lasting change seems to only happen when people make the journey out of love and appreciation for themselves. In my book, self love is a necessity for weight loss.
Elusive Health in a Sick Society
There is no denying that our modern society has a problem. We suffer from “diseases of captivity” because we just don’t move and eat and live in ways that allow our bodies to thrive. For many people, weight loss is an important part of achieving optimal health.
Somewhere along the way, our perception of food and exercise has morphed into something negative. We feel guilty about the food we eat and use exercise as a way to work it off. Even in the fitness industry we use this model. Everything is often measured in calories. We talk about “in vs. out” scenarios. If we spend an hour on the treadmill we can burn off enough calories to justify that slice of cake we ate last night. If we want to lose a pound each week we we need to work off 3500 excess calories (which we now know doesn’t perfectly translate from theory to practice in every instance). In this way, exercise becomes an atonement for food, a punishment for our “bad” behavior.
Doesn’t this seem kind of backward?
The body is not programmed for this double negative. Our ancestors usually moved in order to find and prepare food. Movement was hunting and gathering. It was chasing, digging, butchering, peeling, smashing, climbing. Food was a means to an end and that end was survival. And while this scenario was not necessarily easy, both movement and food are positives. Movement was inextricably married to nourishment and life.
With today’s abundance of food and atonement through exercise, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that our bodies were made for the privilege of movement. We have forgotten that nourishment comes from the ground and from the wild, and not grocery stores and vending machines. Our relationship with food and movement is unnatural. We have developed a disconnect. We’ve lost knowledge of our very own bodies. Our health becomes someone else’s problem to solve. We look to scientists, doctors, trainers, and nutritionists to solve our health problems.
In a culture rich with research and technology that has been able to pinpoint the genetic markers for many of our ailments, when we find a problem, we use that technology to develop a solution—pills, surgeries, braces, orthotics. While modern medicine has saved many people, it often fails to take into the consideration the ability of the human body (at the cellular level) for change.
When we make changes—nutritionally, through movement, and even through emotional healing—we have the ability to make changes to our bodies, change our cells, and take a strong grip on our own health.
I am a realist, and I live in today’s world. I am in no way suggesting that we chuck science and technology out the window. There is no way to “go back” and live as our ancestors did, but there can be some way to reap the benefits of this modern world while honoring the natural ways in which our bodies thrive.
Self Love, Meet Radical Responsibility
We can begin the journey at the corner of Self Love and Radical Responsibility. We can choose to feel sorry for ourselves because we have been sold a bill of goods that makes us feel unhealthy mentally, physically, and emotionally. Or we can stop buying what they’re selling and change the conversation! True health and beauty flourish through exploration of our deepest self and an understanding of what the body really needs, and then giving the body these things because we love ourselves so very much!
When I was in graduate school I got my first taste of this, but I wasn’t quite there. I was feeding my mind and soul with goodness, but I was starving my body of movement and overfeeding it with bad foods. I wasn’t loving my whole self, and I was starting to feel the consequences of that.
Through working out, I got a tenuous grasp on “beauty.” It really scared me because I took that to mean I was participating in a constant losing battle. I started to feel the benefits of a healthier life, and it led me to recognize that my body really needed good food and exercise. I had to take more responsibility for my health and my body. I had to look at myself in the mirror and see the reality… I was unhealthy and needed to change. Instead of hating myself for “letting myself go,” I loved myself enough to make healthy changes.
I learned that I could shrug off the beauty chase while taking responsibility for my health. My self love became less about defying the mainstream beauty messages, and more about truly appreciating my inner self. Feeling guilty or shamed to lose weight will never be as effective as loving yourself back to health.
There is no such thing as the perfect body. Setting out to attain a specific size or body fat percentage may not be the best strategy for long-term healthy living, as it is often attained at the expense of good health. A person’s “ideal” body weight is one that allows them to live life fully and do all the things that they want to do.
People who carry excess body fat are not bad or unworthy, and they deserve to treat themselves with kindness and grace as they allow their bodies to heal and flourish.
Long-term weight loss cannot be sustained without a healthy dose of self-love. Accepting responsibility for the weight is part of that self-love.
What Does Radical Responsibility Powered by Self Love Look Like?
- Observing our relationships with food, exercise, and our sense of self worth is the first step.
In graduate school I knew that I felt tired, sluggish, and out of sorts in a way I couldn’t describe. I started to take note: I was sitting too much, sleeping too little, eating highly processed foods. My stress vibrations ran about as high as the sirens that I heard throughout the night in my apartment in Brooklyn. I knew that some small changes could start to improve my situation, and I started to make them because I loved myself.
- If some of those relationships need changing, taking action is the necessary next step.
For me this started with moving my body more. It was clear to me how much my body needed to move. The more I moved, the more I started to listen to my body. The more I listened to my body, the more I learned about what foods I wanted. (Admittedly, sometimes I still hear “Nutella!”)
I started to eat healthier, and over the years settled on a mostly whole foods diet consisting of meat, vegetables, fruits, and some seeds and nuts. The only reason any of these changes worked for me is because my journey started with self-love. I made these changes because I knew I deserved better. Better nourishment, better care, better rest.
- True change starts with us and spreads outward if we model new relationships with food, exercise and self worth.
Nothing will change if we don’t decide to be the change. As a trainer and a mother I strive to set a good example and to leave this world better than I found it for my sons. The people in my life see that I feel good about myself. They know that I value movement and proper nutrition as important components of health. They know that they are responsible for the most part for how they feel. For example, when my son ate too much candy at Halloween this year and felt sick, he wasn’t ashamed, and he did not feel guilty. But he did know that feeling sick was a consequence of his actions and took responsibility for it.
Self-love, without radical responsibility can be a precursor for complacency. Loving the body you have means taking responsibility for its current condition and loving it enough to give it the time and attention it needs and deserves. It all starts there. Weight loss can’t be sustained without self-love. It can’t be sustained without taking responsibility. It may feel scary to grant yourself permission to feel love for yourself while simultaneously taking steps to make changes to your body, but it is one of the most liberating and badass things a woman could ever do for herself.
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