The story I am about to share is not new. You’ve heard it countless times.
The story I am about to share stems from many things. The media. Entertainment. Cultural norms. Historical lineage. Education. Our upbringing.
The story I am about to share is one that for many people has created chronic physical and mental illnesses, lifelong shame, self-sabotage, and isolation.
I am a 30 year old woman and for at least 18 years of my life I have struggled with my body image.
My body has always been something that needed to be fixed, changed, or transformed. From around 12 years old, I remember being self-conscious when I looked in the mirror. I always thought that my body was soft and short, and I most certainly wasn’t thin enough.
High school and college were riddled with patterns of disordered, emotional eating and excessive exercise. I was either meticulously watching everything I ate, overeating on sweet, sugary foods to numb any feelings of discomfort or sadness I was feeling, or working out like a maniac at the gym for hours on end to make up for my previous behaviors. My tendencies were vicious and my cycles on repeat.
I know that you’ve heard this story an infinite number of times.
What’s different with what I am about to share with you is that I have somehow, miraculously made it to the other side. And I have been having such profound experiences lately in appreciating my body, exactly as it is, that for the first time in my life I feel comfortable enough to publicly share the journey I have been on to get to this place.
When I was young, I always looked healthy, even though for many years of my life I was dealing with some form of chronic, autoimmune-related condition. This is often true for individuals suffering from illnesses like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Lyme disease.
You look fine but you feel like shit.
Being sick happened in tandem with me first defining my beliefs on attractiveness of the female body. Not only was I beginning to crystalize an unrealistic external image of perfection, I was also making note of what the ideal inner functioning of a body should be. The ways that illness affected these inner workings made living in my body incredibly uncomfortable. I had constant digestive discomfort, breakouts of psoriasis, ongoing bouts of fatigue, a long term loss of voice, and brain fog.
As all of this was going on, I was regularly comparing my internal experience and external appearance to other young women my age. Not only did so many of them seem to have ease with their health, but they were also my ideal image of the perfect body: long, strong legs, a flat, tight tummy, a small waist, and thin, lean arms.
This dynamic created between me and my body was deeply influenced by the interweaving of illness and image at such a crucial, formative time in any young woman’s life. The result was years of me talking to and treating my body like it was less than, broken, and disgusting; like something to be ashamed of.
During my early teens, I had already started on a spiritual path. To me, spirituality is an experience or road that one does not get to choose, but one that chooses us. Spirituality is often a journey brought on by such significant suffering that there is no way out but through. And when choosing to go through, we are actively committing ourselves to facing our fears, flaws, and shadows, because continuing to live the way that we had been living is an absolute impossibility. Once the door to spirituality becomes opened, there is no looking back to the room that was left behind.
So I dug in.
I practiced yoga. I saw a therapist all throughout high school. I practiced yoga. I taught yoga. I saw a new therapist my freshman year of college. I took a 10-week course in mindful eating during the summer after my freshman year. I practiced yoga. I taught yoga. I attended weeklong workshops in self-discovery and self-reflection. I practiced yoga. I taught yoga. I journaled. I meditated. I went to alternative doctors and healers and energy workers. I participated in shamanic journeys. I practiced yoga. I went back to therapy. I went back to school to receive my master’s degree in integrative health. I taught yoga. I read every self-help book I could get my hands on. I saw a Reiki healer. I found yet another therapist. I took an Enneagram class. I sat silently for 10 days of a vipassana meditation. I prayed. I screamed. I cried. I spent countless hours in nature.
Suddenly, probably somewhere in my mid-twenties, things started to shift, to move, to undo. I couldn’t hold it all in anymore and so I started to speak freely about my experiences. I spoke about my imperfections, my vulnerabilities, my illnesses, and the ways I had shamed and disapproved of myself for so many years.
I began to pay attention to my thoughts. I would catch them when I was subconsciously saying something about my body that was ridden with disgust, fear, or anguish and change them to be in alignment with the truth of who I was (strong and beautiful and so much more) and what I wanted in my life. I became compassionate and accepting of my body in ways that I would often express to others, but had never done so for myself. I began to look at myself in the mirror through the eyes of love and wisdom, paying attention to all of the things that I appreciated instead of what I wanted to change.
Today, I am still not a master at all of these actions, but I am consciously working at it moment-by-moment. I notice that I struggle when I look at pictures of myself, finding ease in my old patterns of picking myself apart instead of loving myself exactly as I am. In these moments when I can’t easily access grace, I go back to therapy. I return to yoga. I increase my meditation practice. I call in my troop of healers. I re-evaluate my tribe.
About six months ago, I woke up feeling metaphorically lighter than I had in a long time. Getting dressed, I remember buttoning my shirt and sliding on my jeans with just the right amount of wiggle to get the waist of my pants up and over the soft sides of my hips and belly. I looked at myself in the mirror and the only feelings I remember experiencing were those rooted in the reality and approval of exactly how my body looked.
I have curves. My stomach has many inches that can be pinched and the skin shakes when I laugh, run, or simply jiggle it for fun. My face is round and pictures often capture a slight double chin. I’m only 5’1. There isn’t much space for weight when I gain it. I take good care of myself and no matter what, at the end of the day, my body is what it is. The only choice I have in the matter is whether I accept it or not.
These days my self-talk is much easier to hang out with. This isn’t to say that I wake up and feel like a sexy rock star every day. I have, however, started to really appreciate my body and all of the flaws, cellulite, and squishy belly rolls that come with it.
My exercise routine has become much more organic, based on how I feel and what activity feels enjoyable versus the masochistic movement chores I used to put myself through. When there aren’t healthy options of food available (you know, travel, parties, etc.), I simply do the best I can do, knowing that the next time I have more control of my circumstances or location, I will make choices that are as life affirming as can be in that moment.
One of my all-time favorite articles on the science of our physiology, Your Body Is Younger Than You Think, vividly describes the constant regeneration of every system, organ, bone, and muscle in the human body. The actual age of our physical structure is really only seven- to ten-years-old at any given time because of the never-ending process of reconstruction, reproduction, and restoration of our cellular makeup.
In knowing these facts to be true, I can’t help but laugh. If my body is actually that of an eight-year-old, a small child that is most likely still innocent and unknowing of her own appearance and genetic imperfections, why have I been wasting so much time and energy over the past two decades fixating on something that isn’t real or true?
The truth is I will never have washboard abs or long lean legs. My arms will always be soft and undefined when pressed against the sides of my ribs. I will never fit into an XS at a clothing store because I have breasts that stretch the fabric.
And right now, in this moment, I am totally okay with that.
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