Wednesday, March 2, 2011

sweaty wednesday: an exercise in honesty

Blue Collar Catwalk
This week's Sweaty Wednesday comes courtesy of Rachel.  She sent me this email last week, and I was so moved by her words.  I couldn't wait to share it with everyone.  While health and exercise are crucial pieces of a healthy lifestyle, they are nothing but futile motions without self-confidence.  And balance.  Rachel's email came to me at the most perfect moment in my own journey, so I've included my own response to her.   It's raw.  It's human.  It's honesty.

"I am a perfectionist-in-recovery. But recovery is a slow, ongoing process and I relapse. Often.

The problem with perfectionism is that it leaks into every single area of life and habits that are positive can become negative.  It can also cause procrastination because I am too scared to tackle a project as I am afraid of failing at it.

One of my biggest perfectionist battles - emphasis on BIGgest - has been my lifelong battle with weight and body image.

Not a shocking battle considering I'm a girl. There are very few girls and women who can resist the constant bombardment of messaging from the media, friends and family regarding how we should look. For most of my life I wanted to be skinny. Not just thin, but skinny, hip-bone jutting out skinny.  I am not meant to be skinny. I have curves. I am meant to have them.  But I hated them for a long, long time.

It didn't help that I had what I called I 'penne noodle' body when I hit puberty. Suddenly I went from being this absolutely adorable curly-haired munchkin into a chubby, zitty, early-blooming adolescent with a perfectly tubular body. I had no waist. It was so frustrating putting on pants or skirts because I didn't know where they should end. I ended up hiking them up to right underneath my boobs because that's where they would slide up anyway.I hated that  penne noodle body. But deep down inside I knew that the ideal I had built for myself in my head was going to be impossible to reach. So I didn't bother trying to reach any ideal. Rather than being the best possible version of me, I just gave up before I started. I ate and I ate and I shied away from any form of exercise, and I created a comfortable, insulating laying of fat. It comforted me and it protected me. My tubular coating of fat and I  had a love/hate relationship.

When I was walking home from University one day in my early twenties (I was forced to walk that day as my ride couldn't make it, and I was panting during the 20 minute walk home, mostly downhill) I had an epiphany.You see, at this time I was also lamenting the fact I was perpetually singly, and blamed my layer of baby fat on my singledom. But my epiphany was so mind-blowing I had to sit down...or perhaps I was so exhausted from the little bit of exercise that I was forced to do that it made me feel faint...regardless I sat down.

My epiphany was this: Perfection for me is not scrawny-skinny. In fact, scrawny-skinny on me would look just as bad as penne-noodle. A I was good enough just as I was, but I also had the potential to be better. Related to that, there were men out there that wanted their women to be shaped like Marilyn Monroe, or the other archetypes of women that were popular until the advent of Twiggy.

To accept my body for what it was, and begin to like it as it was, jolted me to my core.  I don't particularly like the word 'empowered' but that's how I felt. From that moment on, I made a conscious decision to refute any negative thought about my body that infiltrated my mind, and challenge any picture in the media that made me feel like shit about myself. I began to actively search for women who were  healthy and fit and beautiful and inspiring to me at the point where I was. And a funny thing happened. The more I simply accepted myself, the more I began to change for the better. I began to want to exercise, because it made me feel good, it gave me energy, and it made me feel stronger. I began to care about the food that I was putting into my body and seeing it as fuel, not just a tool for comfort and reward.

And I began to attract boys. I began to emanate more confidence and showcase my curves rather than hide the bits and pieces that I hated. And they appreciated both the curves and the confidence.

I've had ups and downs - literally. It took me a while to figure out how to exercise, having never done it until my early-twenties. I remember my first foray into the gym. I somehow figured out that lifting heavy weights and not doing much cardio was the way to go. And I also figured out that eating a BLT submarine sandwich with extra bacon was the perfect snack after a work-out, because I had read somewhere that you should eat protein after exercising.  I quickly developed the shoulders of a linebacker and it took me an unfortunate glimpse of myself in a changing room mirror to figure out that I was getting thicker rather than thinner.

My weight has increased and decreased in the past decade rather dramatically, usually reflecting the stress level in my life. The higher the stress, the higher the weight. But for the past 2 years I have been very stable emotionally, and that has been reflected in my food and exercise choices. I am 50 pounds lighter than I was 4 years ago.  My weight continually decreases and my strength and tone continually increases.  I am not skinny. I am never going to be skinny. And my partner would hate it if I was skinny. In fact he gets very unhappy if my soft bits get too firm. And that really helps.

But the angry dragon of perfectionism still breathes fire into my life. I don't struggle with motivation anymore. I struggle with balance.  Every food choice is considered thoughtfully and I have to remind myself that denying myself all treats is just as mean to my spirit as giving in to every craving. I also struggle with an urge - not a desire, but a compulsive urge - to work out really hard every day. While this works for some people, it doesn't work for me. The health quirks that my body has are exacerbated if I over-do it. Over and over my partner reminds me that exercising moderately 3 to 4 times a week is more than enough to keep my weight down and continue building strength. And I trust him, because his own fitness level is ridiculously awesome. But at the same time, this compulsive inner perfectionistic voice whispers to me every morning 'work out or you are going to get fat'....'work out or you are going to be depressed all day'...'work out or you are going to begin your descent into ugly". And some mornings it is incredibly hard to ignore that voice.

This morning was a day off from exercising. But I woke up consumed by guilt. I thought about the chocolate I had yesterday. I thought about the fact I'm going to a hockey game tonight and might have some rink food. I thought about the fact that it is nearly Spring and I want to have killer legs for short skirts soon.  I thought about my revised ideal of perfect, which still includes a tighter tummy and toned arms. And my brain started chanting 'exercise', 'exercise', 'exercise'

But I resisted. This morning I resisted. Sometimes it takes greater strength for me to NOT work out than it does to give in to my urges and exercise. So today I'm proud of myself for being lazy.

But tomorrow I'm going hard!

So my fitness goal for this year is to achieve balance. To continue to balance the tightrope of exercise and eating as well as in life. I have included a picture of me on a trip to Hawaii over Christmas where I went zip lining. This was a momentous occasion for me. A few years ago I would have never allowed myself the chance to zip line. I would have been too scared of breaking the rope or, even worse, looking like a chubby fool in front of strangers. But I have relatively new-found acceptance of myself, and I want to achieve more moments of emotional and physical freedom this year. The feeling of flying through tree tops feeling weightless was one I won't soon forget. And I never want my own fears or insecurities hold me back from experiencing life-changing adventure!

Cheers! Rachel"

Dear, Rachel,

Wow.  This is incredible, and I am so, so thankful that you sent this to me.  Personally, it couldn't have come at a better time as I sit here with a nagging soreness in me back and leg that's telling my ego that I may have overdone it.  For the first time in weeks, I chose to skip spinning class this morning and let my body rest.  After previous injuries, I've vowed to listen to my body more, but as you have so elquently written, you and I both know it's not that easy.

In the beginning of the year, someone mentioned the idea of finding one word to focus on for the year, instead of a traditional New Year's resolution.  Mine is balance.  Balance in everything - food and exercise.  It's definitely a struggle.  The more I work out, the more I crave it and love the results.  The more I indulge in treats, the more I want them.  And then, the more I have to work out.  It can be a nasty cycle.

Thank you so, so much for sharing this with me.  I will be posting it this coming Wednesday, along with my response.  I think together, we will reach a lot of women, struggling with the same imbalance.
   Have a fantastic weekend, Rachel!  And thank you again.


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