The me I see
When I imagine myself, this is the me I see — young and happy and fit on the side of a mountain with sun in my hair and a genuine smile on my face. But this is not always the me I see in the mirror or in photographs. Sometimes I’m in complete denial, like naahhh that is not actually what I look like, it can’t be. There is no way that I’ve let myself become this. And are those wrinkles? *shudder*
I think that disconnect between how I imagine myself and the me in the mirror is what led to my struggling with a negative body image for a long time. So many people put pressure on themselves to be a certain weight or have a tiny waist with an enormous butt and go about getting there in ways that are unsustainable and sometimes even dangerous. I believe it’s important to be loved and be accepted (by yourself as well as the people around you) for who you are, no matter what you look like, but I also believe that being healthy and fit can do incredible things for your overall quality and enjoyment of life. And I think that most people can do it who truly want to
*Disclaimer* I am faarrrrr from being an expert in health, nutrition or exercise, so please take everything I say with a grain of salt. I only know my own experience.
Aside from one brief period in high school where I was a bit soft in the middle, for most of my life I never had to worry about how I looked. I was just naturally tiny — five feet tall and thin. I didn’t check the scale often because I just didn’t worry about it. In basic military training I only lost three pounds despite the vigorous daily exercise (which I thought was hilarious because ever since I saw Mean Girls for the first time I’d always enjoyed walking around saying “I really wanna lose three pounds”).
On the day the next photo was taken (at the WWII memorial in D.C.) I almost didn’t wear that shirt because I felt like my “gut” was hanging over my jeans a little. HA! Ha ha ha. (Side note, can we talk about how impossible it was to keep a gut from hanging over those terrible, ultra low-cut jeans? Not to mention the perpetual crack issues.)
Another phrase I’ve enjoyed saying since the first time I heard it is, “I wish I was as fat as I was the first time I thought I was fat.” And ever since I came across this photo of myself years later I’ve looked at it as an inspiration for how I eventually want to look and feel again.
(Another side note: I am such a nerd. This is me trying to be cool. I am not cool. Never have been, never will be. And I don’t actually know what I thought I was doing with my hand there, but I feel like at least I was a somewhat fit nerd.)
But then I moved to Biloxi, Mississippi and let me tell you, the “Biloxi bulge” is real. I feel like the reason I gained weight was a three part problem. The first issue was that for the first time in my life I spent most of my working hours at a desk instead of on my feet. The second issue was that we went out to lunch almost every single day and I had zero self control at those delicious, delicious restaurants (Oh, Half Shell Oyster house, how I miss thee). The third issue was that as much as I like the area, it is just not conducive to being active. It is hot AF there for at least six months of the year — I’m talking you sweat just standing outside and breathing. And they just don’t have a ton of outdoor activity infrastructure set up. Most of the streets don’t have sidewalks, there are very few walking/biking trails and the ones that do exist are a decent 40 minute drive away, and there aren’t a ton of well maintained public parks with things like tennis courts.
Also, I’m lazy.
That’s probably the real main problem if I’m honest. So we spent most of our time on the couch where it was air conditioned and I gained a solid 20 pounds. Medically I was overweight and I started to feel uncomfortable (partially because most of my clothes were too tight) but I was still scoring excellents on my PT tests and could run the fastest I ever had in my life, and I figured I looked…Halfway Decent…so I didn’t really worry too much about it.
Aaaand then in late 2012 I got pregnant and ate all the things…every day…for nine months straight. Remember that part about zero self control? When I was pregnant, my hunger was absolutely insatiable and I just ate and ate and ate and I didn’t even try one tiny bit to stop myself. I am five feet tall and toward the end of my pregnancy I had to stop weighing myself when I read the numbers 198 on the scale. According to the National Institutes of Health, for someone who is five feet tall the ideal weight is 97-123 pounds and the recommended weight gain during pregnancy is 25-35 pounds. I was so far beyond that. And just look how absolutely miserable I was. I couldn’t even hide it to try and take these photos. My legs were swollen every single day and for the last month I was covered from my neck to between my toes in a pregnancy rash called PUPPs (but that’s an entirely separate nightmare of a story).
When I finally gave birth (five days late, in Mississippi, in June) I was appalled at my reflection. I was so completely oblivious about what a postpartum body looks like and absolutely delusional because I thought I would be able to wear any kind of pre-pregnancy clothes out of the hospital. I was so sore and still swollen that I couldn’t even bear to put on my maternity pants and ended up wearing the same dirty cotton dress that I wore to the hospital when I went into labor. I was disgusted with myself because I’d heard so many stories about women who slipped right back into their old clothes and even women who ended up skinnier than before they’d given birth and I thought that would be my story too.
I’m so glad that the realities of childbirth, postpartum bodies, and the intensely difficult side of motherhood are becoming more common, but I’d heard none of that. Or if I had heard it, I completely ignored it and immediately removed it from my mind. I only remembered the good stories, so I was crushed with the reality of my experience.
It took months for my body to get rid of all the water I was retaining and to not have a giant bulge and flap in my belly area. When the swelling in my feet and ankles finally went away, I walked around the house staring and my feet and asking my husband, “Are you sure this is what feet are supposed to look like? They look so weird. I can see my bones. Are ankles supposed to stick out that much? I forgot what an ankle looks like. Are you surrrre?”
This next photo was taken ten days after our son was born and normally I would have deleted a photo such as this immediately after I saw it, but I wanted to keep it because I knew eventually my body would return and I wanted to be able to see how far I’d come (And knowing me, I probably already had dreams of doing just such a blog post as this one day). I’m pretty sure there are at least four chins there and that shirt must have had some reaaaal stretch to it because it’s the exact same shirt I was wearing in the photo of me being a nerd at the WWII memorial. Too bad I don’t still have it for comparisons sake, but I’m pretty sure it was worn to threads and I eventually had to throw it away because these photos are three years apart and even three years is a long time in tank top years.
Over the next five years my weight and confidence in my appearance fluctuated. Some days I felt like I looked good and some days I felt like a rollie pollie who would never be in shape because she was lazy and just loved food too much.
The photo below is one of my absolute favorites of myself. I don’t know if it’s that the shirt was cut just the right way and the angle was flattering, or if I was actually getting in shape from my (inconsistent but I was trying) daily morning workouts. Or maybe it was just the fact that the moment captured here is one of my favorite memories because it was intensely magical to watch the sun rise over the beach with my husband and my baby while the sky lit up with pink and orange and dolphins swam by.
I had basically returned to my pre-pregnancy state of loathing myself some days and other days thinking I’m not in love with the way I look, but I’m not going to really try very hard to do anything about it.
Before we finally moved back to Colorado a year ago, I was still in that same cyclical state of mind. But because I’m a huge fan of fresh starts and seizing opportunities to change my habits and create new, better ones (I quit smoking after ten years when we moved from Florida to Texas) I was determined to build a healthier lifestyle for myself. It totally helps that it’s about 100 times easier to be active in Colorado. You could go hiking every single day and not finish all the trails here and there are indoor and outdoor activities to fulfill any of your hearts desires all year round. Plus, there is a culture of maintaining a healthy lifestyle that extends to the restaurants and grocery stores. Whereas the food culture in the South, while freaking delicious, is more deep fried and covered in cheese.
Almost immediately after getting here we started eating better and getting outside more. Without any additional effort like “going on a diet” or “going to the gym” (I hate going to the gym and I don’t think I will ever be the kind of person who does cross fit or lifts weights on a regular basis) I started to lose a little weight and more importantly, feel better.
Then, after living in Colorado for about six months, I looked at this photo from one of our hikes, and for the first time in years I thought, “Dang, I look goood…except my face, what kind of a face is that? Oh who cares, I look gooood.”
After my son started kindergarten I had another huge breakthrough. After school every day he would come home starving. They only give kids like 20 minutes to eat lunch these days and he doesn’t eat breakfast (don’t look at me, I tried for weeks to feed him, he ain’t hungry in the morning). So if I don’t feed him immediately after school, he becomes a hangry terror and the rest of the afternoon and evening are pretty much a battle until he finally goes the eff to sleep. So, I started eating right after school with him.
The more I did that, the more I realized that I’m rarely actually very hungry in the evenings. I had just been cooking and eating heavy dinners my whole life because that was you were supposed to do. I started listening to my body’s cues instead of the clock and ate when I was hungry. Even more importantly, I didn’t eat when I wasn’t hungry. I love food so I still eat some things that aren’t very healthy, but I take smaller portions. For example, there is no situation in which there is a pizza that I’m going to not eat the pizza. But now I eat two slices instead of half the pizza.
Another thing I do is make myself wait a few minutes to see if I’m actually still hungry or if I just want more because it’s delicious. If I just want more because it’s delicious, I put the food away and remind myself that no one is going to take it away from me and I can eat it again later when I’m actually hungry. Having those realization is what led to real progress.
The me in the mirror is starting to look a lot more like the me I imagine.
This is me wearing a shirt that shows my belly a little bit when I lift up my arms for the first time in I couldn’t even tell you how many years. It’s probably been since high school and we won’t discuss how long ago that was.
Now that it’s spring again I’m also adding more physical activity into my daily life because it feels so good to be outside in the warm air and to move and to actually like the way I look instead of blowing the hair out of my face and thinking, “this is as good as it’s gonna get.” It can get better. I know I can continue to make progress toward being healthier and more fit if I move more often, am mindful of what I eat, and listen to my body’s cues for how much and when to eat.
The point is not to diet and exercise yourself to exhaustion to fit an image that you, another person or society as a whole expects of you. In reality, most diets fail and the only people who continue to exercise are those who end up finding intrinsic joy in the act of exercising itself and not in the changing numbers on the scale. So find that joy. Eat the foods that make you happy, but also listen to what your body is telling you about them. Also, I hear fruits and vegetables and drinking enough water are, like, a thing so it might be good to look into that. Changing your lifestyle is difficult, but you can take baby steps.
It’s worth it.