Three years ago on a hot afternoon, I went for a walk through our hilly neighborhood. Sweaty and red-faced, breathing hard and pumping my arms and legs, I was nearing my endurance pain-point, pressing forward despite wanting to stop.
I turned a corner, the final stretch of road in front of me, the sun at my back. My shadow was cast in front of me on the pavement, clearly showing the outline of my shape. Without thinking, when I saw my shadow in front of me, my first thought was, “Look how strong you are. Good job. Keep going.”
I have exercised off and on for most of my life. I’ve been on lots of walks, done lots of pilates, tried running, and participated in group classes. But exercise has never been something I enjoy.
After school as a child, we spent afternoons at the track running mandatory laps. I hated every minute. As an adult I know the benefits of exercise, but as a child, my formative thoughts regarding exercise were not positive.
Exercise felt like the penance I had to pay for not being born with a naturally lean frame. If you were skinnier, you wouldn’t have to be out here running.
Exercise felt like the currency for earning the right to eat certain foods. Did you exercise? Ok, you can have potatoes.
Exercise felt like the habit I had to establish to make some people feel better about my shape or size. See? I’m exercising. I’m working on the problem. That makes you more comfortable with how I look, right?
Exercise has always felt like punishment and my body the crime. It is not an exaggeration to say I spent most of my life loathing my frame. I wanted it to look different, take up less space, feel less challenging. My body was a problem to fix, and if I could only exercise (or diet) enough to fix my body, then I believed I would be enough.
For the entirety of my life up until that sweaty, uphill walk three years ago, my inner monologue had sounded horrible. Mean. Judgmental. Hateful. Desperate. The way I spoke to myself on that hot afternoon walk signaled a major turning point for me. Not because I walked farther or faster, but because I witnessed true transformation.
On that sunny walk, when I heard the involuntary shift in my inner voice, I stopped, stunned. I could feel in my heart the significance of the moment, so I pulled out my phone, sat down on the curb, and attempted to capture the thoughts that were flooding my mind. I wanted to chronicle the raw, stream-of-consciousness way I was feeling in that moment. I wanted to be able to look back and remember the potency of the moment.
I wrote a note to myself in my phone, as though I was speaking to myself. And this is what the note said….
Today I saw a shift in your inner voice. It used to say things like, “You’re disgusting. You’re fat. Look at how ugly your shadow is. You know this walk isn’t going to work, right? It’s not enough to make your body beautiful. You should be able to do more than this. You’re never going to look good.”
Today is said, “Look at you. You’re so strong! You’re brave! You’re doing great! I see the shadow of a woman who has learned how to love and accept herself. What a gift she can be to others now. Keep going! One step at a time!”
Is exercise hard? Yes it’s hard. Is it hot out here? Yes it’s super hot, and you hate sweating. But you don’t hate yourself anymore.
Can other people run or walk farther? Sure. But don’t compare your performance out here to someone else. What can you do? Let’s start there. And then keep going. Little by little. You can do hard things. Take a step. Then another. That’s growth and strength. That’s beauty. I’m so proud of you.
By the end of it, I was weeping on the curb, hot tears stinging my sun-baked cheeks. Change is usually experienced the same way a child’s growth is…small, inperceptable daily changes that accumulate into something new. But on that day, the full weight of the shift hit me.
For years I saw my body as a boulder, and exercise as the hill I had to climb to take care of the load I had been given. I pushed that boulder up and up, hating every minute, working hard, but never reaching the place where I thought I would feel better about myself.
Tired and frustrated, wanting something different, convinced there had to be another way to love and accept myself, I began a slow change. Instead of trying to get better at pushing the boulder up the hill, I decided to put it down. I decided to look inside my own heart and learn to love and accept the girl I knew was buried underneath years of hiding and waiting.
It turns out the answer wasn’t on top of some imagined hill, only available if I could manage to get the boulder to the summit. It was waiting inside of me all along. I walked away from the boulder, and once I did, I realized I was already standing on the top of the mountain, with an incredible view before me, and not a single boulder in sight.
What caused the shift?
Hard emotional work. Recognizing layers of lies for the tangled mess that they are and slowly, strand by painful strand, untangling them until the last thread was laid bare and put to rest. A lot of healing in the form of genuine self-acceptance, shifting from comparison to kindness, leading with gratitude, and learning to love the frame I have been given, imperfections and all. A fair amount of therapy to help replace harm with care, rejection with acceptance, and fear with love.
Has my body changed? Not much. My frame is the same one I’ve had my entire life.
But has my approach changed? Drastically. My mind is different. The tone of my inner voice is different. My why is different. My desired outcome is different. I am different.
The difference has infused every area of my life, including how I think about exercise. I no longer see exercise as punishment. I no longer see my body as a thing I need to fix. I no longer see exercise as penance or currency or the path to fix something that was never broken.
I see exercise as a kindness, a privilege, a dose of sanity, a tool, and an opportunity to keep growing.
And I see my body as a gift, a privilege, the place that houses all of who I am, and allows me to express and create and connect.
I know all too well that I am not the only one with deep, dark, secret, body-related thoughts. It seems to be the common thread among women, and I still struggle hard against my propensity to lapse back into unhealthy thought patterns and comparative assessments. But I know it is possible to do battle with the lies and come out on the other side changed, better able to love others because you can love yourself.
What would it look like for your inner voice to cheer you on instead of break you down?
What might take place if you could champion your body instead of shame it?
What would happen if you put down your boulder, whatever form it takes?