I have never been what you might call a graceful person.
I love running, cycling, dancing, and yoga, but it takes some amount of effort for me to not fall on my ass when doing these things. (Also, there seems to be a direct correlation between how much I run and how often I’m injured. Anyone want to help me with that? SURE YOU DO.)
Despite spending years exercising until there wasn’t a single ounce of joy left in my workouts, I chronically hated my body. Some days, I donned my 24 Hour Fitness steed and thought “Am I going to have to do this every day for the rest of my life?” and the thought made me bawl. My body wasn’t “improving” the way I wanted it to, and I wasn’t getting that excited mental rush either. It seemed to me that I was the one person immune to the effects of exercise.
Luckily, my friend Ramsey started talking about CrossFit and I started Googling strength training. Before I ever lifted a barbell, I had something I hadn’t had in a long time: hope.
Strength training was the key to unlocking a lot for me. It unlocked a tangible way to measure my improvement as an athlete. (No matter how much I ran, I never really got any faster, so the mile PR was more of a mockery than a goal in my case.) It unlocked a new way to think about food and how it fueled me. It unlocked my body’s potential, both physically and aesthetically, and it unlocked something I had never had with other forms of exercise: natural talent. My big booty is built to lift.
A year into my weight training journey my body had drastically changed, and not in a way that I enjoyed. It grew and grew and grew and grew until I barely recognized myself anymore and it both startled and embarrassed me. I wanted to quit because I hated what seemed to be happening to my body as a result of weight training, but for whatever reason I decided I would wait another year. “If two years into doing this I still hate my CrossFit body, I’ll quit” I told myself, and then I kept lifting.
I am just now approaching that two-year mark and God, am I glad I waited. I love my body these days, like 96% of the time, and for a person that literally wanted to die at the thought of weight gain five years ago, I would say that is a tremendous and miraculous change. I know that this is from the result of a perspective shift (this work to reclaim a positive body image and raise my self esteem has been relentless and it has paid off) but also there’s science there. Let me explain.
I came to weight training from a background of exercise, but I actually had very little muscle (except in my calves, which have always been tremendously ripped for no apparent reason) and a fair amount of body fat. Once I started putting on muscle mass, I kind of just grew, without seeing any more definition for quite some time.
When I started lifting I was also in a process of repairing a deeply damaged relationship with food. I had consistently under eaten for many years, and when I started lifting that didn’t feel like an option any more. Once I was eating a reasonable amount for a person of my height and activity level, my body clung to calories like my life depended on it- probably because it did.
After about sixteen months of eating the food and lifting the weights things began to shift for me physically. My body seemed to trust that I would give it enough food and stopped holding onto weight in the same clingy way. (For a freaked-out former anorexic, let’s just say it was a really difficult 16 months). My metabolism started to run more efficiently, and the constant digestive troubles that I had experienced began to fade.
They say that the more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns on a regular basis. My experience is that this is true, but that it doesn’t happen instantaneously. Initially, I was building muscle without necessarily diminishing body fat. As I ate consistently and continued to lift heavy my metabolic engine revved and I started to burn more body fat throughout the day. Now, when I look in the mirror, I can see that. It feels great.
Weight training has taught me a lot about patience and a lot about trust.
I no longer feel like exercise doesn’t work for my body, and I no longer believe that my body is trying to betray me in some way. I have learned that I cannot lift heavier until I get my form correct. I have learned that I need to work hard, but that I don’t need to feel like I am going to die after every workout.
I learned that exercise should be about using my body for joy. I don’t do anything because I “have” to anymore. I do it because I want to, and that’s a gift to my body. The natural motivation that springs from that is my body’s gift to me.
When I started writing this article I wanted it to be a guide to strength training for beginners. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that my journey was very specific, with trainers that I trust 100% and who I go to for advice time and time and time again, even after two years. I think it’s a great idea to have a coach, or at least someone to check your form now and again (a trainer, a friend who also lifts, etc.) BUT! I understand that is not everyone’s style or within the realm of everyone’s financial scope. In the absence of trainers I highly recommend that beginners check out Nia Shanks’ website. She has workout plans, instructional videos, and LOTS of advice for people who want to start weight training. She is body positive, and super thorough. Beyond that, my trainers suggest Starting Strength by Mark Rippletoe, Stronglifts, and for Olympic lifting help (my favorite!) Catalyst Athletics has some good resources online. Get to it and good luck!
When I was a little kid my favorite activity was to be pushed on the swings by my grandmother. I swung as high as possible, pumping my little legs, and as my grandmother pushed me she would always ask me the same question:
“Are you a bird brain, or a big brain?” she would say.
“BIG BRAIN!” I would shout, because duh. Obviously I was a big brain. It was barely a question worth asking. The truth was apparent.
My grandmother ate chips. Potato chips, greasy ones with onion dip. She ate them and between bites she would bemoan herself.
“Diet starts tomorrow,” she’d say.
“I am turning into a fat pig,” she’d say.
“When I was young I used to think I was so big. I look in the mirror now and I’m huge. Now I’m REALLY fat”.
After chips she ate cabbage soup for a week straight until the smell of her farts made her eyes water.
“I give up,” she’d say between bites of chip. “I give up.”
My grandmother smoked, then didn’t smoke for twenty years, then smoked again. She got lung cancer almost immediately once she re-started and then she had tests.
“THE CANCER HASN’T METASTICIZED!” she said, full of joy when the tests came back.
The chemo and radiation ravaged my grandmother. Her hair fell out, large clumps, and she was hooked up to a breathing machine and bald. She was gasping, she couldn’t breathe. My once soft grandmother became hard, spindly and small. She threw up from the chemicals. She had a stroke and couldn’t use her left side. She fought, she fought, and then she could no longer talk.
My mom tells me that the night my grandmother died she couldn’t move, speak, eat, breathe. She was tiny, frail. Half of her body was slack and limp. My mom pulled her face over my grandmother’s hospital bed and said:
“It’s okay if you go. We will be okay. I promise.”
My grandmother passed just as soon as she got permission.
After my grandmother was dead I found out she had a boob job, before boob jobs were really even a thing. She had been flat chested and self conscious, saw her breasts as an error needing to be fixed. She had liposuction too, and forever thereafter had been worried when fat came back and grew in different awkward places.
I wonder if my grandmother ever thought about how sad it was that she spent her life getting hacked up, dieting.
I wonder if she explicitly emphasized my brain on purpose so that I wouldn’t do what she had done. I wonder why she couldn’t do that for herself.
I wonder if anyone ever told my grandmother she was of value, that her body was wonderful as is. That she deserved to exist without augmentation. Of course she must have noticed that the chemo dwindled her body as she’d wished she could have done with diet. I wonder how she felt about that. I wonder if she saw the irony.
In light of this, I wake up every day and I have to let myself exist honorably.
I honor my brain, as I was taught to do, by learning as much as humanly possible.
I honor my body.
I honor my body by respecting it, by listening to it, by thanking it. I honor my body with good sleep and water and food and physical activity and connections.
I honor my butt and my thighs because that shit is big and strong, and they don’t need to be smaller. They deserve recognition, not from a yelling man on the street but from ME. This butt, these thighs, all this is mine and yeah, hollering man, obviously they look hot. Like I don’t know. Please.
I honor the part of me that has been hurt in the past, confused and unable to eat because I thought my body was not good enough, whatever good means.
I honor my body because I am a role model for teenage girls and teenage girls are pretty much the most important thing in the entire world.
I honor my body because growing up I had no role models to show me how to do this. (How is it possible that I grew up surrounded by strong-as-fuck women who hated their bodies with every fiber of their beings?)
I honor my body because my grandmother never learned to honor hers.
If I can do it, you can do it too.
It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness week.
Every year this week rolls around the week before my birthday. I am always prone to reflection when February turns to March, because holy SHIT I survived another year and that’s AMAZING considering everything. This year it feels particularly poignant because I am just about to turn 30.
All the time people ask me how I recovered from my eating disorder, which is funny because what is recovery really? It can be dangerous to talk about eating disorders like they are things of the past, because let’s be real—once your brain goes there it can certainly always go there again. That being said, I feel really, really good about my choices around food, body image, and exercise right now, and that feels like nothing short of a miracle.
I’m thinking a lot about how to recover this week and this is what I have to say.
- A lot of people around you have eating disorders. A lot of diets are eating disorders. A lot of people will validate weight loss because they live in a culture of eating disorders. If you know that, and really disagree with that on principal, you are a step closer to recovering. Congratulations.
- If you can find a way to fill your time with things you love and that inspire you, you can eventually be okay. Maybe you’re obsessive compulsive like I was, maybe you spend your time counting calories or watching the number on the scale. That is fucking boring and a waste of your brain. Funnel that shit! Knit or sew or write or become obsessed with some form of creativity instead. You will have more for your efforts, and your obsession with creativity will not kill you. Use that voice of evil for good.
- Go outside. The world is fucking vast, my dudes. The sky is beautiful and will envelope you, the ocean will freak your shit with its enormity. Let yourself be small in comparison to how big the world is and know that that’s all the small you need to be. It doesn’t matter how big you feel, the sky is bigger.
- Find someone you love and have them tell you what they love about you, all the time. My partner now tells me the things he likes about me and my body as soon as I get sad, because I have spent years asking him to tell me that I am pretty as soon as tears started to well. People will tell you to concentrate on features besides your physical beauty, but I think that’s bullshit. You can be smart, funny, motivated, giving, whatever. But you still have the right to know you’re hot. If you can’t think that for yourself, find others who can. I know it’s not all about the body, but be real. Everyone wants to hear they look good.
- Be sad. Like, really fucking sad. Just cry a bunch and then get mad at how societal pressure is making you cry. Get so, so mad. Listen to Bikini Kill. Maybe start a band to funnel all your sad and mad into. Sad and mad can be great. They have power.
- Tell everyone about your eating disorder and your recovery. Because shame keeps people sick and because the world needs good examples. Recovering from an eating disorder is the hardest thing I have ever done, and I want to tell everyone all about it. It’s more important than my Master’s degree, more important than my job. Recovering from an eating disorder is my personal Mt. Everest. I will shout it from the roof top. I DON’T PUKE ANYMORE, PEOPLE. Go me.
- Make food and exercise choices that you would want little girls to make. I lift heavy weights and run fast and bike up hills and eat vegan. I would tell any little girl to do the same. I would never tell a little girl to eat in ways that leave her hungry or spend hours on an elliptical machine if she didn’t like to do that. I wouldn’t tell a girl that she needs to do anything to make up for foods she ate. I wouldn’t tell a little girl to throw up or say terrible mean things to herself or skip her next meal because she ate a cupcake. I would hug that little girl, because little girls are fucking golden.
And guess what. You’re golden too. Even if you have eating disorder behaviors forever, you’re probably still great. Just try one or two of those things I suggested. They might help you be greater.