“Your soul is who you are. Your body and mind are what you use to experience who you are.”
–Neale Donald Walsch
Standing in front of my bedroom mirror in our bras and panties, my middle-school classmate and I scrutinized our bodies. Cocking her head to one side, she said, “Does it look like both of us have one hip that is higher than the other?” Looking closely, I agreed that she might be right. Some months later, we were all screened for scoliosis in the school library, and she and I were both diagnosed with the spinal curvature. She said, “That’s why our hips are uneven!” I haven’t had contact with her since high school graduation, so I am not sure what her journey with scoliosis has been. What strikes me most about that afternoon in my room, though, is not that there was a structural cause for our unevenness, but that we were looking at our bodies with such scrutiny in the first place.
That is not the first time I remember looking critically at my body. Like many tweens, I had a brief pudgy phase. I remember going on some short-lived diets with my mom, probably as early as age 10. Normal growth and development pretty much took care of the youthful pudginess, but I definitely retained self-consciousness about my body. I recall trying on clothes in a dressing room in my early teens and feeling shame that I couldn’t wear a size 0. Zero!!! In the shopping mall heyday of the 1980s, I always walked with my arms across my stomach, as though I felt like I needed to hide.
I’m not sure where this feeling that I should be a zero—take up no space—or that I needed to hide arose, but I think the message was just part of the culture. Maybe it still is, although I think there is somewhat more acceptance of a range of body shapes and sizes. I see the adolescent body angst from another angle now—watching my son’s response to the unhelpful and unwelcome input of some of his friends around his body size. The message boys often get is that they are not big enough. Being a distance runner in a football community carries a stigma, and this induces torment in both teens and their parents.
I am grateful to have avoided the tragic eating disorders with which some suffer, but I have experienced plenty of body angst over the years. I haven’t talked about that much to anybody. It feels very private and vulnerable. I decided to write about it in this blog post because I know the issue is real for so many people, and being trapped in self-loathing keeps us from enjoying life and having the impact we are otherwise capable of making.
My body angst waxes and wanes, even in adulthood. Pursuing my Master of Education degree in Exercise Science, in my early 30s, I was mortified by the body fat percentage on my Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) test when we learned how to operate the equipment in the Human Performance Lab. The DEXA images are not particularly flattering for most people, but the numbers were startling to me. As a cyclist and marathon runner, I was devastated. I still remember the words that one of my classmates wrote to me in an email the next day: “You’re fit, not fat.”
In the 19 years or so since that DEXA, I have had ups and downs around body image. Privately battling terrible anxiety during pregnancy, I ate in a very regimented, yet excessive manner, and I gained too much weight. I lost it all within seven months of giving birth by C-section, but I absolutely hated the way my body looked and felt pregnant and immediately after. I felt ashamed. I don’t know if pregnancy photo shoots were much of a thing in 2004, but when I see the beautiful, confident pictures that young women post on Facebook of their baby bumps and very pregnant bodies these days, I admire their ability to celebrate the moment. I didn’t do a good job of that.
I do have a funny story from pregnancy that illustrates the sensitive nature of “body” in our culture. While I was Biking Across Kansas at 5 ½ months pregnant, we arrived at the overnight stop in Hill City, Kansas on a very hot day. Walking into the school, I was approached by a medic. Looking extremely uncomfortable, he said, “May I ask you a question?” I nodded. “Are you pregnant?” Learning that I was, he breathed a loud sigh of relief and said, “Oh, thank God!” Then, he offered to be of service any way he could throughout the week. I appreciated his solicitude and was entertained by his nervousness in posing the question. However, the fact that he was so worried about insulting me points to his recognition of the loaded nature of the body as a topic of conversation.
It has long been a core belief of mine that we have a responsibility to give back in proportion to the gifts we have been given. To do so, we must first recognize our gifts. Too often, we take our bodies for granted. When we realize and acknowledge that they are gifts, we are more fully able to live into our true selves and make meaningful contributions in the world.
I haven’t fully resolved my body angst, but I have made headway, which is why I decided to write this post. Our stories can help each other.
Despite my progress, I still spend mental and emotional energy on my body, weight and food every single day. I just don’t talk about it because I am still working to fully release shame around my body.
How do we shift from anxiety and shame to recognizing our bodies as the gifts that they truly are? Here are some practices that I find helpful.
- Focus on what our bodies can do and what is wonderful about them, not what they can’t do or their perceived faults. This begins with remembering the JustWind Mindset: When we recognize that we can choose our perspective, we can liberate ourselves from the victim mindset, optimize our lives and make the difference we are meant to make. When we operate from that empowered position, we are much freer to see the good in our bodies—no matter what their current state. We can love our bodies even in their imperfection.
This brings us back to the scoliosis. After getting my diagnosis in 8th grade, my mom took me to an orthopedic surgeon for a few years, until I was cleared—not cured, but deemed able to avoid surgery. Although I have remained active throughout adulthood, in the last several years, I have developed significant piriformis and sciatic pain, which I believe is related to the scoliosis and to a bad fall that I took in the early 1990s. Sitting is the worst! My full-time job involves months of sitting through appointments all day, every day. It hurts. This time of semester, I am on the computer and phone (or in in-person appointments, when we are not in a pandemic) for 13 hours some days. My piriformis and sciatic nerve scream at me. I have come to the conclusion that they are pleading with me to pay attention and to figure out what I need to do take care of my body. It is our responsibility to listen to the messages our bodies send us and to notice when they are asking for change. It may not be a quick fix, but I am taking notice and working toward a healthier future.
It is easy to feel discouraged about this pain, which is the primary reason I stopped running a few years ago.
But look what I can do! I ride my bike for thousands of miles each year. What a tremendous gift! I can walk. I can hike. I can strength train and practice yoga. I am healthy. I am so grateful for all these gifts. So, while I work to find ways to mitigate the piriformis/sciatic pain, and as I continue to have days when I find fault with the way my body looks, I have trained myself to quickly shift my focus to the positive.
I encourage you to try this reframe. Regardless of how you feel about your body and its imperfections, work to develop a habit of shifting to the positive and claiming your body as a gift.
- Express gratitude for our bodies. When we recognize that being alive in our bodies is a gift, the next step is to express gratitude for that gift. Thank your body for waking up today and for propelling you through your day, in whatever form that takes. Even if there are things we can’t do or can’t do as well as we previously did, we have the power and freedom to focus on the gift and be grateful. That is far more productive and helpful than bemoaning our current state. Even if our bodies don’t look like we think they should, we can choose to be grateful for them and to express our gratitude to our bodies and to whatever form your Higher Power takes.
- Use the gift of our bodies. Embedded in my belief that we have a responsibility to give back in proportion to what we have been given is my conviction that we have an obligation to optimize our gifts. There are so many ways to do this. I always park at the far end of a parking lot, not because my 2008 Chrysler Town & Country is in pristine condition, but because the steps I add are an expression of gratitude for being able to walk. Given a choice, I always take the stairs—whether for one flight or 20. Because I can. I walk everywhere I can in Andale—to my mom’s house, the school, the Post Office. Doing so is a celebration of the fact that I can. I offer my formal daily exercise as an expression of gratitude for my health and fitness.
- Eat and exercise with intention. Another major way to move from body angst to body love is to be conscious about what we put into our bodies and how and why we move them. I have a practice of pausing before I eat and before I engage in a bike ride, yoga practice or other physical activity. I do a breathing exercise and set an intention for my meal or my workout. This powerful practice makes putting junk into our bodies far less appealing. When we consciously state, “My intention for this meal is that it nourish my body, mind, heart, spirit and legacy in exactly the way I need to be nourished and that it is an expression of gratitude for my strong, fit, healthy body,” we can make choices that support that intention. Doing so is an act of love for ourselves. Your intention can be anything the feels true for your body.
- Remember Neale Donald Walsch’s message from the top of this post. Our bodies and minds are how we experience the truth of who we are in our souls. It is worth spending time considering these questions: Who am I at my deepest soul level? What choices are in alignment with that identity? How do I need to live in order to express that truth? Before we eat, before we exercise, before we treat our bodies in a certain way or take any action presenting ourselves to the world, we can pause and ask, “Does this choice align with who I truly am, at my deepest level and with how I choose to express that in the world?” It may help to have a picture in mind (even if it is not an actual photograph) of you as your truest, highest self. Right now, an idea that I find motivating is to envision my future author photo on the jacket of my hardcover book or on the back of my paperback or in the “About the author” section of my Kindle version. I set an intention that my choices bring me closer to the person I am in my author photo because I want to be at my best there, in order to be an excellent representative of my message.
- Adopt a body-love mantra, like: “I fully and deeply love and accept myself, and I do better each day because I am worth it.” Releasing body angst and shame, this idea allows us to acknowledge that we are works in progress, that we are worth the effort it takes to make progress AND that we can love and appreciate ourselves in the process.
- Consider adding Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as Tapping, to your practices. EFT is a physical form of freeing our energy to serve us in a healthier, more productive way. It allows us to interact with our bodies and our spirits in a tactile way that can be beneficial. The Tapping Solution Foundation has many good resources on EFT. This can be a powerful practice. I encourage you to learn about it and give it a try. Let me know if I can help.
Our bodies and minds are the vehicles through which we experience our lives and express who we are. How we treat them—regardless of their current size, shape or condition—says a great deal. Society and people around us are not always supportive and helpful. We can’t control that, but we can choose to reject the victim mindset and embrace our bodies exactly as they are, while striving every day to eat, move and think in the ways that are most conducive to living at our highest level and making the difference we are meant to make in the world.
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