As I get dressed for work, I often fidget with the waistline of my unforgiving cropped tights in front of my bathroom mirror. I engage my lower abs repeatedly for more than just good posture, and my thoughts become a pattern of all the things I need to do to make my love handles disappear. After all, personal trainers are toned, with six pack abs, and yoga teachers are thin and flexible, all while being too enlightened to care about the size of their thighs, right?
I happen to be both, and I have neither six pack abs, nor have I reached a state of enlightenment where I don’t find myself questioning if my ass looks too wide in a new pair of pants.
I have managed to cultivate enough awareness to know that I take better care of myself when I approach my body from a standpoint of love, but still, negative mantras show up chanting incessantly in my thoughts. Deep-seated beliefs about our bodies can follow us for a lifetime. How do I know this? I have students ranging from three year old girls to women in their eighties. I’ve heard everything I dislike about my own body come out of the mouths of women of all ages describing their own bodies.
Wanting to live a long life thriving and not cycling back into patterns of negative thoughts about my body, I have turned to journaling as a tool of self-inquiry. Join me as I share my journey from a girl who thought she was too fat for ballet to the woman I am today -- choosing to accept my weight and shape while leading not only a healthy life, but also one I enjoy living.
Yoga teacher and activist, Seane Corn, often asks in her classes when referring to our inner dialogue, “Where did you learn that?” Asking myself this question, my memories first take me back to a dark amphitheater in Middle Georgia in the early 1990’s. I remember sitting by my paternal grandmother in the audience during a dress rehearsal as she criticized the girl chosen for the lead in our small town’s annual ballet recital. My grandmother complained to me that the girl’s thighs were too thick for her to have the lead role, and that instead the lead should have gone to my cousin who’s thighs were slim like those of a dancer’s should be. She may have just been mad that one of her babies didn’t get the lead, but she didn’t mention either of the girl’s talent to win her argument. It was not uncommon for me to hear criticism of women based on the size of their bodies at this young age.
I invite you to my childhood living room, my father was the best at jokes made at the expense of someone’s looks. I laughed at all of them, until one day he made a joke about Delta Burke, famous for her role as Suzanne Sugarbaker on Designing Women, and I didn’t get it. I don’t remember the exact joke, but I remember my mom having to explain to me that Delta Burke used to be thin and compete in beauty pageants. A woman publicly struggling with her weight and, as I now know, also battling depression and eating disorders was the subject of not only my father’s jokes, but also of paper tabloids and the late night comedy sketch show, Saturday Night Live.
I didn’t start applying these judgements to my own body until years later as I watched my curves develop in front of the mirrored walls of the ballet studio. Now age 11, this is the first time I remember not liking my body, and I soon quit ballet. I was not overweight as a teen, but I spent many teen years unhappy with my body wishing I had a longer torso, slimmer tummy, or thinking there was too much fat on my thighs. Gwen Stefani was my idol (and I still adore her. Listen to No Doubt’s Staring Problem. It makes a great addition to my imaginary soundtrack for this article), and I wanted to be able to rock that 90’s mid-riff style she embodied.
Looking back at the women I spent the most time with in my family, I don’t remember any of them being happy with their bodies. From my mom struggling to lose weight after her second pregnancy, my maternal grandmother wearing thick nylons under her shorts during hot Georgia summers to camouflage imperfections, to my aunt being upset that the only diet pill that worked for her was taken off of the market (people were literally dying to lose weight on this product).
After my dancing days were over, I wasn’t physically active until my pants split mid-shift waiting tables in my early twenties. I was in a codependent relationship, in college, working full-time at a local restaurant, and stress eating my way through all of it. Heart health and the impact of being overweight on my joints weren’t on my radar. Vanity and self-hatred were driving forces for change at this time. A fellow waitress began sneaking me into her 24-hour gym after work, and we would walk on the treadmill while she told me about how she needed to lose weight to keep her boyfriend.
My humble fitness journey began with counting out portions of Cheez-Its versus eating the half of the box and a daily thirty minute routine of walking on the treadmill. As time progressed along with my fitness level, I discovered the many mental and physical health benefits of exercise, and became an advocate, campaigning that everyone workout at the insurance company I worked at in the years after waiting tables. Discovering this new passion, I left Middle Georgia and my corporate job to pursue a career in Personal Training.
As a Personal Trainer and now at my fittest, I still felt inadequate physically. My expectations of my body changed from simply wanting to be thinner to wanting to look like the fitness models that were displayed on the advertisements for personal training at the gym where I worked. At workshops with my peers in the industry, I was constantly comparing my body to those of the other female trainers. I kept my own body compressed and covered in black spandex to hide the fact that I couldn’t get rid of every dimple of cellulite. Many of my clients from that time were successful in changing their lifestyle with my guidance and support, but I found myself losing confidence solely based on my failure to obtain the body I thought I should have working in the fitness industry.
Up until this time, I practiced yoga at home off and on with DVD instructional videos, but since my body didn’t seem to bend the way the instructors did, I shied away from going to any classes. I yearned for the serenity and happiness advertised in popular yoga magazines. I was also still fixated on obtaining the perfect body and hoped learning the mysteries of yoga might be just what I was looking for. After all, how many female celebrities credit yoga and Pilates for their toned, lean physique?
I signed up for a 200 hour yoga teacher training that would take place on weekends throughout the following year. On day two of my teacher training, I received a jolt to my heart and the life support I needed to turn my life and career in the fitness industry around.
While most of the teacher training was spent breaking down basic poses and practicing instructing others, each day began and ended with a traditional yoga practice. My teacher read the following words of Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love at the end of our yoga practice the second day (the word “God” was replaced with “higher power” when she read it aloud to the class. I appreciated her word choice allowing each of us to assign a definition to that higher power that served each of us on the mat that day):
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Those words reminded me of what I originally set out to do as a trainer, and to stop sharing my insecurity and instead be a light, an example. Later during that teacher training as we sat in a circle to share what we had learned, I broke down in tears and told everyone that I had found love on my mat, that the hatred I felt about my body had felt so normal until now.
I had cracked through the surface of my body image issues. When summer rolled around, I showed up at the gym in shorts no longer wanting to contribute to any idea of perfection. Since I had always worn long tights, I got several comments from co-workers and clients about the change. I told both my co-workers and clients honestly (and with a laugh at myself), that up until now I was afraid my cellulite would hurt my credibility as a trainer. My clients seemed relieved, and it became a healing experience for both of us. My legs are the strongest part of my body. They can lunge in every direction hundreds of times throughout the day as I teach classes and work with clients. I need to be celebrating this, and not shrinking based on what I saw as unforgivable flaws.
It has been 4 years since I first heard the words that cracked me open and began the process of healing my body image issues. Yet, I still have those mornings of fidgeting with my waistline. At age thirty-three when maintaining my weight has been more challenging, I’ve had several of those mornings. I can choose to water the deep seeds of insecurity about my body planted throughout my lifetime, or I can let them wither with time as I continue to water seeds of self-love. I choose self-love for my New Year. Can I stop the nit-picking of my body before I’m in my eighties? I’d like to hope so. I hope I’m blessed to thrive in this amazing creation that is my body for several more decades.
May we all begin to speak and act with love towards our bodies. Our body, after all, is simply the vessel that contains our true essence.