I’ve written about body image a few times in the past, but always more in social commentary than on a personal level. Lately, body image has been something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and I’m just now beginning to realise how massively it shapes my life and my mental state.
Over the last year I’ve been working hard to lose weight. Ever since I can remember I have been unhappy with my body. I’ve always thought of myself as huge; too tall and too fat. I’ve rarely looked at my body and had a positive thing to say. The professional photos I had taken at my 21st birthday were what pushed me to make the decision to actually try and make my body what I have always wanted it to be. The photos themselves were lovely and very well done, but looking at them all I could see were my flaws. I’d sit there looking at the photos for hours, obsessing over how big I looked and how disappointed I was in myself. So, I started to change my diet and work some exercise into my schedule. The weight-loss was quick at first, I was the biggest I’d ever been and changing my diet helped me drop weight pretty quickly. After about 2 months the weight-loss slowed, and my motivation to continue slowed with it. I discovered that I am very results driven, standing on the scales to see nothing had changed threw me into a pit of despair, and instead of wanting to work harder or eat better to move past the plateau all I’d want to do would be to go home and lie on the couch stuffing my face with every piece of chocolate in sight.
In my last semester of University, I started to get myself into a routine. Slowly I began to see progress again and finally understood what people were talking about when they said exercise made them happy. After a workout I would feel strong, powerful and more connected to my body. In the last weeks of the semester, my motivation crumbled once more. Working hard to meet uni deadlines and finish my degree with a respectable average, I stopped exercising and started study snacking. When the semester finished I still didn’t return to the gym, convincing myself I needed a break and that this was well deserved.
By the beginning of 2016 my routine and motivation had gone out the window, and I could feel myself piling back on the weight I had worked to lose the year before. I would stand in front of the mirror looking at my body hurling insults at myself. I’d sit on the couch and cry about all the things I hated about myself, while devouring packets of crispy m&m’s and making no move to exercise or change my bad habits.
My negative relationship with my body only got worse as I experienced a massive flare-up of a chronic eczema condition I’ve had since I was born. The eczema appears as an ugly red rash across my arms, chest, neck and face. Other places too, sometimes. I’m pretty sure this rash doesn’t look anywhere near as bad as I think it does, but when I looked in the mirror all I saw was a fat, red mess.
When I started to fall back into my exercise and diet this year, I was motivating myself with that negativity. Push harder you lazy shit, if you don’t work hard now you’ll be ugly forever, you are disgusting. I got to the point where by the end of a workout I’d be on the verge of tears. I’d drive home and feel disgusting, my thighs and my belly felt like these huge balloons rubbing together and pushing through my clothes. I imagined people sniggering at me on the street as I walked passed; I felt like I was so heavy that my steps would crack the cement beneath me.
I would lapse in and out of motivation. One week I would be an exercise queen, at the gym five days a week and eating really well. The next week I’d go to the gym once, make excuses for my lack of exercise and give myself reasons to binge eat as much as I wanted. At this point I decided to start seeing a personal trainer.
My first session with my trainer was almost like a therapy session. We sat in his consultation room for an hour and discussed my goals, my reasons for wanting to change my body and exercise routine, and the work I’d been doing so far. It only took about 20 minutes for my PT to pick up on the negativity surrounding my weight-loss goals, and at the end of the consultation he told me that in order for this to work I needed to start seeing my body, exercise and diet more positively, reminding me that my goals should be focused on health and fitness, not on looks.
My personal training sessions started a big break for me. Instead of thinking ‘I want to be thin’ I started to think about how I wanted to be strong and healthy, how I wanted to be able to unleash the full potential of my body and start doing the things I’d been holding back from because of the way I looked (or the way I saw myself). I started to be more focused on non-scale related goals, on being able to lift more, row further and go for longer. I started to see results again and was feeling pretty good about the whole process.
And then I plateaued again. Still exercising 4-5 times a week, I let myself lapse back into bad eating habits. At first it wasn’t such a big deal, two weeks without any weight change didn’t bother me. But then it became three weeks and I felt disheartened, and on week four I stepped on the scales to see I’d gained weight. That’s when it all came tumbling back down. For four days everything I thought was about my body and was heinously negative. It was a like all the progress I’d made meant nothing and my ‘fit not thin’ mentality went straight out the window. Going to the gym became torturous, as did eating healthily. I still can’t understand why these incidents make me want to eat so badly, all I know is that with the negative thoughts comes bad eating habits.
I have very unrealistic expectations of my body. For a long time I wanted to be stick thin with a thigh gap. It’s taken me a shockingly long time to accept the fact that my body, even if I was to lose all my body fat, is not capable to looking the way Kiera Knightley or Miranda Kerr do. I think part of the issue was that I was thinking of my body and mind separately, as if they were two different entities. I’d think that my body was working against me, as if it was my body’s fault I wasn’t losing weight. Again, it has been a shockingly long process to get to the point where I can feel connected to my body and realise that exercising and eating well are things that I can do to nourish myself, that the power to change things and improve myself is something that I have control over.
Sometimes it’s easy to feel sanguine and zen about my body, to accept the reality that I am who I am and all I can do is live healthy and happily and accept the things that come. Other days I feel like my body is a prison that I’m trapped inside and all I can do is hate everything about myself and wallow in self-pity. Thankfully, the latter days are becoming less frequent, and I am working to find methods to talk myself down when I become worked-up and obsessive.
My body image has always been terrible, but it’s obvious to me that these ups and downs have gotten more intense since I began working to change myself. I wonder if starting this ‘journey’ has just uncovered some nasty, negative things that have been living inside me for who knows how long. It feels very odd to write this all down, these feelings and my actions around them are not something that I like to talk about with others, or even think about myself. I wonder if all this dieting and exercise is exorcising (heh, get it?) my body image demons, but I know that just losing weight and changing my body is not the only factor here. I know that it will take more than just physical work to move passed this unrelenting negativity and that this is only the first step.
There are still days when I look in the mirror and hate so much of myself, but now there are also days where I can see how I’ve changed and how much progress I’ve made and feel happy and confident in myself. Regardless of my size or my skin, my body is my home and it has done a phenomenal job bringing me this far. The physical side is only one component of this change and I know in order to truly feel content with myself I need to address the problems inside as well as out. For now, all I can do is try to greet everyday with as much positivity as I can muster, and keep working towards the goals I have set myself, no matter how far away they may seem.