I don’t remember a time when I didn’t worry about what went into my body or how my body looked.
When I was 9, a relative commented cheekily on summer photos that, “It might be time to get a new bathing suit” as they gestured toward my belly sticking out.
When I was 10 a good friend and I were standing in front of a mirror and she stated how big my boobs were already.
When I was 11, the boy I had a crush on purposely sat in front of me with a friend and whispered, loud enough for me to hear, “You know Kayla, right? She needs to go on Jenny Craig.”
When I was 12 or 13, the extremely thin mom of an extremely thin friend told me I could afford to lose some weight as we all sat in a sauna at their gym together.
These incidences and more were enough to spur a lifelong battle with my body and food. In middle school, MIDDLE SCHOOL people, I spent the summer eating only fat free things. I started running off any fat calories I did consume on my grandparents’ treadmill. My child’s mind believed that if I was fat according to everyone, fat must be the problem.
From there, a constant roller coaster of restricted eating, strict exercise regimens, and fluctuating weight continued until very recently. I never knew anything except working toward that body. The one I just knew was inside of my own. Even when I was 122 lbs and only eating veggies. You can read more about my disordered eating here.
But this story isn’t really about me. It’s about the power of one special little girl who came out of this bruised and broken body to save my life in so many ways.
When I had a daughter, I loved every bit of her. Still do. Her sea blue eyes, her little rosebud lips, the color of her hair, freckles on her forehead and ankle and scalp, the little hairs on her back, her long feathery eyelashes, her squishes and squashes. I can literally think of nothing that I would call an imperfection.
But I bet there will come a day when she will. I dread it, really.
I’m also hopeful I can help prevent it, or at least dull the sting and support my daughter’s resiliency. When L was old enough to start understanding language more and have self-awareness, I read up on how to best support her positive body image. I read to stop talking about my own body in front of her (still working on that), to model a positive relationship with food (getting there), to never EVER comment on her body except for how strong and capable it is. I’m hoping I can boost her self-esteem enough so that when the media or her peers inevitably try to dampen it, her own inner voice drowns theirs out.
But for all of my efforts to help my daughter have a positive body image, I also buckled down and prepared to maintain my own negative body image for the rest of my life. It sounds terrible, but I had always felt bad about my body, so I believed I always would. Unless, by some miracle, I managed to someday achieve that mythical perfect level of fitness and weight. I didn’t believe that after a baby this could really ever happen to me, and I think we all know the perfect body doesn’t exist anyway when you have a distorted body image.
In short, I still hated my body. Even as a mama. Even after all it had done for me.
I think I continued to subscribe to this view of my body until the birth of my second child, Lu’s brother. My body changed much more during this pregnancy, a 9 lb baby boy stretching me out in ways L didn’t. Things changed, also, when I had two mouths to feed, two little minds to keep busy, two cries to answer concurrently so often. Time became even more scarce, and precious. As did the mental space I had available for caring about any one thing.
And let me tell you, friends, two kids does not leave a lot of mental space for caring about how much space your body takes up! Or, in reality, time to work out, as we traditionally think of it.
Now, I didn’t immediately stop worrying so much about how my body looked after the baby. I spent a good time crying about it’s new stretch marks and little saggy tummy. I worried and cried about the extra weight, a full 40 lbs more than when I got pregnant with Lu. I tried to jump into an intense exercise program soon after giving birth, determined to not always look like this.
But, around the 5 month postpartum mark, a switch flipped.
Three things happened close together at this time. One, my husband insisted on buying me new clothes that fit. He was, I’m sure, weary of hearing me cry about my clothes not fitting, but also genuinely wanted me to feel better in my skin. I have always been grateful for his appreciation of how I look, throughout all of the changes of pregnancy, postpartum, and aging. I had been so reluctant to buy new, bigger clothes, because I was sure that meant I had failed. I mean, aren’t we made to feel that way? Like, if we don’t return to our pre-baby shape, we didn’t do it right.
But, let me tell you friends, I felt SO much better in new clothes. Not only did they fit me better, making me actually feel smaller (I know that’s not the point but it was important to me at the time), but I also found my style to have changed significantly after my son’s birth. Expressing myself through fashion made me feel much more like myself again! Feeling more comfortable in my clothes stopped that inner voice that was always criticizing how I looked in those clothes based on how they felt.
Two, I was given permission by someone else, a therapist, to stop working so hard to change my body. Yes, it seems silly to need permission from someone to stop feeling like you have to workout in a certain way every day, but 33 years of diet culture “recommendations” on daily exercise can infiltrate your own subconscious belief system in such a way that you’re unable to give yourself permission to break the rules. I thought I knew, from past experience or magazines or fitness expert recommendations, what my body needed as far as exercise every day. But I wasn’t ever, NEVER, focused on how exercise made me feel. There was one goal and one goal only: lose body matter.
That day I walked into my therapists office, I told her I felt sad that my body looked the way it did, and she validated that it’s ok if I didn’t feel good in it at this moment. I also told her I felt stressed trying to get a daily 20-30 minute workout into each day to try and “get my body back”. I often centered my whole day around squeezing this one workout in.
My therapist suggested reframing my thinking…and it worked! She reassured me that it won’t always be this way and that this season of young motherhood is difficult enough without pressuring myself to workout on a schedule. She suggested considering the ways I move my body during the day, rather than a strict workout. Did I go for a walk? Chase my kid around the playground? Dance with the kids? Baby wear? All ways to move ones body. All a workout, in a less traditional sense.
Maybe ten years ago I would have shrugged off this reframing, but for some reason that day it was all I needed to hear to change the way I looked at exercise. I started looking for ways I could move my body each with my kids in tow, instead of making them hang out nearby while I did burpees and lifted weights. I’m not saying this approach isn’t right for everyone, if it brings you joy, more power to you! For me, at this time in my life, that way of exercising never felt good to me. I’ve found more joy discovering challenging hikes with my kids, or doing a yoga session with L. In addition, I hope I am opening the door for L to find ways to move her body that bring her joy, too.
The final, perhaps most significant event that occurred in conjunction with those above is the one I could have blinked and missed. One day, after a morning of lamenting the purplish stretch marks that now paint my belly, I was changing my shirt in front of L. She was on our bed, directly in front of my abdomen. She stopped what she was doing to stare at my belly, and I was immediately self-conscious. Surely, she was about to say something about how I had changed. I braced myself for an explanation.
L drew her finger up and pointed it at my belly. Oh no, here it comes!
“Mama, there’s your belly button!”
And just like that, I was reminded how incredibly insignificant our bodies really are. I was flabbergasted at how unremarkable my body was to my daughter, but it made so much sense considering how conditioned we are growing up to believe they matter so much. To my little, perfect 3 year old, I am just her “best mama”. Beautiful at any shape or size. Familiar and safe and warm. It’s time, I thought, to see myself just like she does.
So, though I will of course continue to model healthy practices to my daughter and I’m sure I won’t be perfect, I feel mostly done worrying about how much space my skin and muscles and fat take up. I mean, in doing so aren’t we modeling healthy practices anyway?
It’s refreshing, to shed this figurative skin. I’m focusing on a healthy relationship with food and enjoying the time I have with my babies while they are babies. The bonus is, I’ve actually been moving more and eating better than when I deprived and more officially “worked out”. We’re having so much fun exploring outdoor spaces near out home, and we’ve made a beloved routine of hiking the beautiful Mission Trails Regional Park nearby. There will be time someday for intense workouts and there is so much joy in this journey!
How do you find movement that you love throughout your day?
With love and light until next time,