I have been on more diets in my lifetime than I can count. I’ve tried keto and cabbage soup, Lean Cuisine and low-carb. I’ve been in the Zone and checked in for a while at South Beach. While all of the diets I’ve tried have had different rules and vastly different philosophies, one thing has always remained constant – I started each one wanting to look different so I could finally feel comfortable in my own skin.
I never liked my body. I was too short, my chest was too small, I had a poochy belly, my thighs were too wide, and the underside of my arms jiggled. I never felt pretty. I never felt accepted. I was always the nerdy friend, the one that would only be approached by the hot guy’s geeky sidekick. By watching TV and reading magazines, I got the message that having a perfect body would unlock a secret world for me – a world where I could wear what I wanted, get attention I thought I deserved, and I would finally feel good about myself. I clipped photos from magazines and catalogues to inspire myself – skinny girls in turquoise bikinis, happy girls in sundresses, and energetic girls kartwheeling on the beach in their cut-offs. I taped the pictures to my refrigerator to keep myself from reaching for the cheese in my refrigerator.
Those pictures, chosen so carefully to keep myself motivated, had quite the opposite effect. Instead of inspiring me to make better meal choices, they were instead a constant reminder of how very far from the mark I was. That beautiful Victoria’s Secret model in the skimpy turquoise bikini just mocked me from the front of my refrigerator. “You’ll never be as beautiful as me,” she said. And I believed her. Oh, how I wanted to wear a bikini. All I wanted was to be able to wear a bikini!
Every diet I went on was about deprivation. I didn’t care what kind of vitamins or minerals were in any of the foods I ate. I simply wanted to feel full and keep myself from consuming anything that would add pounds to my frame. I didn’t care about chemicals or fake ingredients. If the label told me it had zero calories, then it was allowed in my body. If it had protein, or vitamin C, or potassium, then I thought twice. What was the point of those things, if they made my thighs bigger?
When I was nearing 40 and struggling with my post-partum body, I adopted a diet and exercise regimen that finally seemed to work. I cut out alcohol, worked out daily and ate as little as I possibly could. I had a goal to wear a bikini on my 10th anniversary trip to Kauai. I saw the pounds whittle away, and I finally thought I could purchase and wear that skimpy, strappy thing on the sandy beach.
And wear it, I did. As we prepped for our drive out to Polihale State Park on the first day of our vacation, I put on my brand spanking new gray bikini and a coverup and I nervously stepped into our convertible. The entire drive out, as we drove past mountains covered in exotic foliage and waterfalls around corners of the road, I focused on my body and the bikini covering it. “I can’t believe I’m really wearing this,” I thought. “What if people notice the saggy skin on my belly? Will I be able to cover up the stretch marks on my thighs if I lie on my back? Who do I think I am, wearing a bikini?”
We got to the beach, and I ceremoniously took off my cover up. Well, the people around me probably didn’t think it was very ceremonious. But I did. I thought it was a momentous occasion. The moment had been built up so much in my head that I half imagined I heard the Halleluiah chorus.
And then a funny thing happened.
No one noticed that I was sitting there in a bikini. No one commented. No one cared at all.
What was even more strange is that I found myself thinking about my body more than I ever had. This was the moment I was supposed to feel comfortable in my skin. I was wearing the bikini I had worked so hard to fit into! In public! Yet, I found myself sucking in my stomach and lying back on my elbows as much as possible to flatten that saggy skin that still plagued my mind.
I also found myself judging all of the other women on the beach that day. I noticed people that were bigger than me, and people that were smaller than me. I saw ladies with wrinkled bellies and thick thighs. I saw women with stick-thin arms and muscular abs. I found myself wondering why some of the women were wearing bikinis, when they clearly didn’t have perfect bodies. I also did quite a bit of wondering about how I appeared to them, and who among them might be critiquing the flaws I had so brazenly put on display in my skimpy suit.
I found, to my dismay, that losing “enough” weight had not made me comfortable with my body. It had made me more self-conscious and paranoid than ever, not to mention hyper-aware and judgmental of the bodies surrounding me.
A year full of body judgment and self-hate later, I slowly found myself taking up an unexpected hobby – running. Though I had run a bit in the past (mostly as self-punishment), I discovered that I was starting to actually enjoy losing myself in a podcast or in playlist of adrenaline-pumping music while I jogged on a trail close to my home. I enjoyed letting my mind wander while my body was focused on one step after another. I felt peaceful and alive at the same time. It was a welcome escape from my stressful day-to-day life, and I welcomed the activity more and more each time I did it.
Then one day, returning from a 6-mile run, my husband commented, “Wow! You ran almost half a half marathon!” – and a little seed was planted in my brain. If I could run six miles, maybe I could run 10. Maybe I could even run 13.1 miles and complete a half marathon. I never would have thought I’d ever have that desire, but suddenly, I was curious. Could my body actually do that? Could my lungs and my feet and my thighs stand the training required for an endurance event like that?
Yes – my body could stand it. My body thrived on it, actually. I discovered muscles I never knew I had and experienced a clarity I had never experienced. The training regimen I picked had very specific running and cross training goals I had to follow, and in order to have the stamina I needed, I had to fuel my body appropriately and give myself enough time between runs to properly recover. I stopped counting the calories I put into my body and started looking at food differently. Food no longer became an enemy I had to battle. I no longer wanted to deprive my body, because deprivation wouldn’t sustain me through a ten mile training run on a muddy trail through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Similarly, I didn’t want to “treat” myself to a donut after those training runs, because I knew that my body needed minerals, electrolytes and protein – not empty carbohydrates.
Crossing the finish line of my first half marathon was a physical, mental and emotional achievement that I couldn’t have anticipated. I was so proud of the pain my body had gone through and the newfound strength in my legs and core. Mostly, though, I was in awe of the mental clarity and spiritual freedom I had found with relation to my body.
No longer did I look at my body as an ugly, saggy, disgusting obstacle to my joy in life. Instead, I appreciated my body for what it helped me do. I was grateful for my thighs because they contained muscles strong enough to carry me through a 13.1 mile trail run. It no longer bothered me that they were covered in stretch marks. Somewhere along the way, my thoughts switched from hating my body for not looking the way I wanted it to, to appreciating my body for what it allowed me to do.
The thinnest my body has ever been was in 2016, but at that time, I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin. When I had more meat on my bones and saw a larger number on the scale in 2017, I was finally at peace with my body. I didn’t have to change my size. I had to change the thoughts I had about my body.
I always used to think that losing weight would make me finally accept my body. It turns out that the exact opposite is true. Once I accepted my body, it finally “fit” me. It became the size and shape it needed to be to support me. As I became at peace with my body, I realized what it could do for me rather than just what it looks like.
I used to operate under the mistaken assumption that I had to have a “perfect” body to wear a bikini. But now I know that as long as I have a bikini, and I have a body, I already have a “bikini body.”
I am not perfect, nor is my physical frame, and there are times that I still critique my less-than-ideal abs or worry about my jeans fitting me. At those times I try to remember that the size of my body is not what I should be focusing on. My body is my vehicle through life. It allows me to run, walk, sit and stand. It contains the heart that keeps on pumping and allows me to love the people and the world around me. My body is beautiful, not because of what it looks like but because of what it allows me to do. For that, I am grateful.
I’m not only grateful for my body and what it does for me. I’m also grateful for all the other human bodies that surround me. Every person has a unique shape composed of tissues, muscles and ligaments that serve as their own vehicle through life. Some are taller than me, and can better reach for the items on the top of the grocery store shelves. Some are softer and better able to give warm embraces. It saddens me when people I dearly love complain about their bodies being less than aesthetically perfect. It is not the size or shape of a human’s body that makes me love them, but the size and shape of their human spirit. Humans can touch me in ways in which I underestimated for too long, but it is with their words, thoughts and actions, not their physical appearance. I value the connection I feel with people in my lives, not the circumference of their waists.
We can and should embrace physical vitality and vibrancy without focusing on BMI. Maybe if we can each start to feel comfortable in our own skin, we can start to see what our bodies do for us rather than what we look like in a mirror, or in a bathing suit. Maybe we can truly accept ourselves and each other, we can experience true connection with ourselves and the people we are lucky enough to have in our lives.