I grew up not trusting my mirror. I remember worrying, “I think I look ok, but how do other people see me?” Even as a ten-year-old, I had somehow internalized the idea that image is a currency, and how other people see you matters.
My brother was the athletic one. The tennis-playing, water-skiing, six-packed kid that I wasn’t. I was a healthy and active kid, taking dance, karate and other lessons, but I wasn’t known for being athletic. Although I was confident in many areas, I noticed the compliments my brother received based on his athletic appearance; it was praise I wanted as well, but it somehow seemed out of reach.
When I went to university, I desperately wanted to avoid the ‘freshman 15’ so I started hitting the treadmill. I viewed myself as disciplined, while the fear behind my behavior went unexamined. In my early 20’s, I moved to Toronto and was working out 3-4 days a week (despite it requiring a 40-minute commute each way to get to the gym) and I was making 95% of my meals at home. I viewed myself as hard-working and ‘healthy,’ while again, the fear behind my behaviors went unchecked.
In Toronto, I was surrounded by life-affirming 20-something’s who oozed self-confidence and placed a premium on inner beauty and flowy clothes. I was happy and comfortable in this social circle and I loosened my grip on some of my ‘rules’ for exercise and meal prep. I started socializing more and between patio beers, a job that involved significant travel, and simply coming into my adult body, I gained 5-10 pounds. I wasn’t concerned about (or really aware of) the weight gain, until someone made a passing comment about it, and it caused me to snap back into that 10-year-old kid looking in the mirror, except this time, the mirror was saying, “You don’t look as good as you think you do, and the way you look is actually a problem.”
I became determined to lose the weight, and in doing so, I was probably the most mentally unhealthy I’ve ever been. I bought a scale and started counting calories and keeping a food log. My dinner of choice was a plain chicken breast and broccoli. I quit the gym that offered the dance, weight-training and yoga classes that I truly enjoyed, and instead started long-distance running. I bought smaller clothes, and yet never felt small enough. Despite the compliments I was receiving (or maybe because of them), a voice inside me constantly wondered, “Am I small enough now?” I thought I was at my best because I was measuring my ‘health’ by the frequency and intensity of my workouts, how ‘clean’ I was eating, and being rewarded by a smaller dress size.
My next move was to grad school where I studied counselling and I learned that my thoughts and behaviours often fell to the disordered and dysmorphic side of the spectrum. I started going to personal counselling and worked to heal some of these patterns. We then moved to Los Angeles, California and despite being in an extremely image-conscious place, I learned to exercise from a place of enjoyment and self-love, and to eat with a mindset of moderation, where nothing is considered bad or off limits. I grew so much during this time but I still had several blind spots and was lacking in self-acceptance. I saw my body as parts to be edited, and I took selfies thinking, “I’d be happy with my stomach if I lost 5 more pounds.”
Despite the fact that I didn’t feel judgmental towards other people’s bodies, I feared my body would be criticized, and because of that I desperately wanted affirmation. I hated that I could prioritize my fitness with such consistent discipline – high-intensity workouts 5-6 days/week, hours spent meal prepping, plus 2 hours of walking most days – and still feel like my body didn’t reflect my efforts. I had made fitness such an intentional part of my life that it became part of my identity, and not being recognized for it made me feel unseen – or perhaps, more accurately, made it feel unsafe to be seen as I was. I was craving the compliments I had heard my brother receive, as if hearing this specific praise would be proof that I was enough.
And then we decided to have a baby. Once my bump popped, it was freedom in my body like I’d never experienced. I worked out because I wanted to and with gentle loving care for my baby and myself. I ate what felt right and I was truly comfortable in my skin. Even after giving birth, likely because of the appearance-related self-pressure I’d lived with for the past decade, I was on a euphoric body high for about 3 months. I felt like I was in a “judgment-free zone.” But when the 3-month postpartum mark hit, I felt the pressure seep back in – the idea that I should have ‘bounced back by now’ was constantly in my mind.
But then I stumbled across an old picture from when I had been at the peak of my personal fitness and it was a wake-up call because I remembered how self-critical I had been of that picture when it was taken. I could see I had ‘achieved’ my body goals from that time, and yet I knew I still hadn’t felt satisfied with myself. I realized it was time for me to bring more self-love and self-acceptance into my life to help myself and to protect my daughter from my unhealthy beliefs, so I went back to counselling.
I had been so concerned about how having a baby would ‘damage’ my body, but had never considered how it might heal me instead. I had a lightbulb moment when my counsellor asked me, “But what actually is the goal of eating well and exercising?” And I realized, “… to feel good on a daily basis and to promote long-term health – whoa, I’m already succeeding at that!” For so long, I had felt like I was failing because I was measuring myself against a target that I kept moving. I was giving all of my power away in thinking I had to believe judgement and criticism about my body if it came my way. This made me realize that I must recognize my own power if I want my daughter to do the same.
I hope my daughter will find joy in movement and not view exercise as a means to an end. I want her to relish her meals, with no caveat that they need to be ‘worked off.’ I want her to practice self-kindness and self-compassion and allow herself a wider range of acceptability than the rigid 5-pound limit I’ve held myself to for the past decade. I want her to know her body is not a problem to be fixed, and that she is always enough, just as she is. I want her to speak kindly to herself and about others, and recognize that no body type in the world is a ticket to inner peace – it is, and has always been, an inside job.