From age 8 through to around 20, I competed at high-level athletics events. During this time, I developed an injury which meant I was unable to compete for around 18 months. This, obviously, meant when I returned to the sport, I wasn’t as fast as I had been. I’d stand on the start line with a sense of dread rather than the quiet confidence I used to enjoy. I looked around at all of the other girls waiting to race and noticed one thing—they were all thinner than me. As a 17-year-old girl, with the mounting pressures of society telling me to look a certain way, seeing that everyone who was better than me at the thing I loved most were thinner led me to think that being thin meant I would be both successful and attractive. Win-win right?! Wrong.
This was the beginning of my difficult relationship surrounding food, exercise, and body image. I won’t go into the details but you can imagine. It’s been a long and difficult road to get to the place I am at now, and still, I struggle on-and-off with negative thoughts. One of the biggest issues for me was including exercise and movement into my life without it becoming something I latched onto to feed the disordered mindset I had.
It is a strange situation when exercise and movement (even in normal amounts) isn’t healthy for you. I had stopped working out excessively and instead did around 3-4 days of intense exercise and did gentle or no exercise on the other days. This seems productive, healthy, and manageable. There were no warning signs to anyone else that this wasn’t healthy for me.
The problem is, I was latching onto exercise as a way to manage the negative thoughts I had about myself. I would feel confident and happy as long as I was sticking to this exercise regime. If I missed a day, or I didn’t feel I’d worked hard enough I’d become irritable, depressed, and anxious.
At the time, I thought I was the only person in the world who felt this way. But since talking to other people, I know that so many people have both struggled with this and are still currently struggling with this. Some of them don’t even know that it is an issue because society is conditioning us to think “I have to do squats so my butt gets bigger and people think I’m more attractive.” While that is wrong on so many levels anyway, having disordered body image and hearing that can be very dangerous.
Movement without attachment to physical outcome
For many years the struggle of how to exercise without it feeding my disordered thinking continued. I’d think I’d sussed it out but it was still there just disguised as something else. Then one day, something seemed to click. If I exercised without any attachment to how it was going to make me look, I could create a healthy exercise regime that didn’t feed my need to look a certain way.
It’s very simple, but not very easy to do. It’s about re-writing the narrative that our mind is telling us. It’s about going to the gym to get stronger rather than grow a big butt, or it’s running to increase cardiovascular fitness not to lose weight, it’s about swimming to feel strong and happy not to be toned.
The way I unlocked this in myself was picking an exercise that I loved to do because it made me feel good but I didn’t associate it in any way to changing the way my body looked. For me, that was dancing. When I dance I can express myself, I can get my heart rate going, I can be in the moment and not worry about anything else.
So, whenever I would get those negative thoughts about exercise and my body, I would ditch the gym for a week and dance instead. This was telling my brain that movement was about feeling good not about looking a certain way.
It’s important to note that everyone’s “healthiest” body is going to look different. Some will be more muscular, some will be smaller, some larger but it doesn’t matter. They’re all beautiful.
I started to love my body through this movement
The most surprising thing about starting to move without attachment was that not only did it help reduce my disordered thinking patterns but it actually made me start to love my body. Dancing was a way to lose track of time and express myself fully (Note: I only dance in private in my room). As I was dancing I started to admire my body, I started to find myself attractive regardless of whether anyone else did and I started to notice all of the amazing things about what it could do.
Through shifting my mindset to exercise with no attachment to my physical appearance, not only had I reduced the number of negative thoughts I had surrounding food, exercise, and my body, but I’d also found a way to lovingly incorporate movement into my life. I had found a way out.
I want to mention that this isn’t a fix to disordered eating. I spent a lot of time doing other inner work but changing my mindset to move in this way was a huge catalyst in that process.
What’s an exercise you could do that would help foster self-love?
Photo: Atlas Green on Unsplash; Luis Quintero on Unsplash