“I hate my arms.”
“I hate my stomach.”
“I hate my thighs.”
“I hate my post-baby body.”
I’ve spent nearly 30 years in a love/hate relationship with my body. The first ten were a breeze – I never thought twice about the way I looked. I used my body to run and jump and play and didn’t spend any time taking in all of the angles to see what needed to be “fixed.” But as I got older, my body changed. First, puberty, and with puberty came a new focus on my body for a different reason and I became incredibly self-conscious about it. So much so that I put my body through some pretty awful things to be a size I felt was adequate in high school and college. I starved myself and took laxatives and diet pills that only ended up throwing my body into further confusion and desperation for proper nutrients. I yo-yoed back and forth with my weight so much that I started to hide it more and more, be ashamed of it more and more, and feel like there was no way out of this dark tunnel of body-shame I’d found myself in.
Thankfully, in my late twenties, while I still hadn’t figured out nutrition that was right for me, I’d found exercise. I found a group of friends to run with and, for the first time in more than a decade, was using my body to run, jump, and play again. Eventually, into my thirties, I started combining the exercise with some actual nutrition. Learning what gave me energy and what didn’t; what made me not only feel great, but look great, too. My hair, skin, and overall body started to belong to me for the first time in a long time and it felt great.
And then I got pregnant. Twice. And so, I began clawing my way back from two pregnancies spanning three consecutive years. I gained 40 pounds with my second pregnancy and decided that I wasn’t going to live in this body that had belonged to my babies for the last few years – I needed to take it back…again. And so, the journey continues - I’ve hit bumps, indulged, picked myself back up, and kept on going.
The good news is that something has changed over these last few years and it’s how I think about that journey, and more importantly, how I think and talk to myself about it. Unsurprisingly, the more I work on my interior life, the better my exterior appears – and maybe just to me. But honestly? Turns out that's all that really matters anyway.
It’s embarrassing to think back on what I used to say to myself out loud in the mirror or inside my own mind when I’d catch a glimpse of a double-chin or love handles. It’s shameful, actually. And if I ever heard someone I loved speaking that way to themselves or someone else, I’d be appalled. I’d be heartbroken. And if the person saying those things to themselves was either of my daughters? It’d be like a repeated punch in the gut.
Which was my “Aha!” moment. They're me. I'm them. I was that little girl once, untouched by the critical eye. And while it sounds crazy to say out loud, I sometimes actually visualize myself at their age and how ridiculous it would be to be critical or hateful towards this body that's been through so much. I look at my girls and they’re strong and confident and untouched, still, by the world at large. They look in the mirror and seem to marvel at and love what reflects back. As they should. But I know it’s coming. It’s inevitable and it’s part of life. It’s reality on reality’s terms, if you will, to know that our bodies will get judged; they will be ridiculed; they will seem to belong to others. But if we do our job, we can help lessen not only the effect that critical eye has on them, but what it even ultimately means to them at all.
If we’re teaching our kids to be kind to others, without teaching them how to do that for themselves, too, we’re not doing our job to its fullest. And the easiest way to teach is by example, I’ve learned – so start with yourself, mama.
In other words, put your air mask on before assisting others. Step one.
Truth? I fail at this all the time. But I’ve made progress and, like I’ve said before, I’m more interested in the practice of the thing, not the perfection of the thing, since that doesn’t exist anyway. Have you ever noticed that we speak about others in the same way that we speak to ourselves? Projecting our biggest insecurities onto others may temporarily make us feel better, superior, confident, even. But in the end? We just fall harder and judge harder and keep the cycle going internally.
So, how do we break that cycle? Work on your language. Sure, it’s also important to try to eat better and exercise when possible (even if it’s just a walk around the block with your kids). But my experience has been that those things follow closely behind the words. And as your words and mind and body change, so does your outlook. It's muscle memory, really, and it's a practice you have to do every day. Because the number one thing that has helped me is changing the words that I use when I talk and think about myself. My mission is for my girls to never hear me talk about what I don’t like about my body or someone else’s. Not because I’m perfect or have miraculously found the cure for stretch marks. But my mission is to be honest with them about why I get up and go to the gym before dawn, why I try to eat more vegetables than chocolate (man I hate that one), and why I’m so grateful that I can use my body to toss them in the air, play tag with them in the park, and snuggle with them on the couch. I do this to be alive, to be strong, to be capable, and to feel and look good for myself.
This isn’t a fool-proof system, to be sure. Um, just a few days ago, as it turns out, I texted a near-stranger about feeling chubby.
What? Yes. Welcome. If this doesn’t give you the uncurated flavor, nothing will. Because this is literally what I texted to the administrator at my girls’ daycare.
Me: “I’m feeling chubby today so thank goodness I’m working out or I’d be a mess!”
Then…silence. Why? Because she was probably very uncomfortable with this unsolicited conversation. And about two minutes after sending it, I finally realized what I’d done and felt very uncomfortable with the conversation myself!
Me: “Sorry! I thought you were my husband!”
Her: “Hahahaha! I thought you were my workout partner and then I realized it was you.”
And then we then had a five-minute text conversation about how great it is to have a workout partner, how she was just getting started and is looking into gyms, etc. We ended up connecting over what seems to be a pretty common struggle – working, momming, wife’ing, and taking care of yourself. Who’s got the time or energy? "Self-care" has been a popular buzzword these last few years, but what the hell does it even look like? How is it even possible?
The struggle is real, mama, but what I found out by randomly texting a stranger about feeling chubby, is that I’m not alone. And the more we let a little light in on that, the more we can be a little kinder to ourselves (and others) when needed. The more accountable we can be to ourselves and others and the more we can get up and move when it’s called for, the better off we and our kids will be.
That's self-care. Start with your words, mama.