The other day I went to coffee with my personal trainer, and we were chatting about fitness, the urge women have to do endless, hideous (in my opinion, of course) hours of cardio exercise instead of strength training, and our cultural viewpoint around women with muscles and strength. She mentioned she was giving a workshop entitled “Strong is the New Skinny.” I loved that phrase so much I could practically feel a blog post writing itself as we spoke.
As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve had body image struggles for most of my life. I have often argued with my body about its natural shape—muscular, not a lot in the, er … chest department, and did I say muscular? For a long time, I ACHED to be a tall, willowy, delicate body type. There were periods in my life where I pretended I could achieve this by either a) starving myself, b) doing “lengthening workouts” like Pilates or c) running thousands of miles until I transformed my body into a “runner’s body.”
After much practice, I’ve finally learned to love my body as-is, and to embrace my natural muscular strength. I’ve stopped doing hours of mindless cardio exercise, because my body doesn’t really like it, it drains me energetically, and I find it is just another way for me to ignore my body or push it past its limits. Also, it doesn’t make the slightest difference in my weight or size.
Now, I do primarily heavy weight lifting, short interval cardio workouts, walking, and yoga. It only took me twenty years to finally listen to my body and respect the type of workout it actually likes to do. Lo and behold, I am now actually fitter than I’ve ever been, and I look pretty nice in a pair of jeans. I’m not willowy. You would never mistake me for a swimsuit model. But I feel good about how I care for my body. I feel good in my body. I feel strong. (I’m not saying my workout style is perfect for everyone. I am saying that your body is a much better fitness guide than any fitness guru out there. It helps you design the perfect workout for you.)
Yes, I still have “fat” days here and there, but I’ve come to a new place with my body. I now stand naked in front of the mirror every morning and compliment myself. This is quite a change from the past, in which I once gained fifty pounds without even noticing. I am not kidding. I hated my body so much that I simply couldn’t even tell what it really looked like. I always assumed I needed to lose some huge number of pounds and that I looked terrible, so I didn’t even see the reality in the mirror.
This disconnect played a huge role in my weight gain. When I finally realized what had happened, I looked back at old pictures of myself and discovered I’d spent years thinking I was overweight when I was really just me. I was at my body’s happy weight. Being overweight taught me about my relationship with my body, so I am grateful I went through that experience. I learned how to actually see myself. I learned how to actually be myself, no apologies needed.
The truth is, I am a strong person. I am strong physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. One of my biggest strengths is my strength. I was given the gift of muscles. Even if I don’t work out for weeks, I am strong. In high school, my peers on the swim team called me “Muscles.” I have shoulders and biceps that can power through the pool for hours on end. I have stamina. I have serious thighs. I could probably leap tall buildings at a single bound. I wear totally different dress and pants sizes because of those beauties.
When I was a kid, my dad called me many different nicknames, one of which was “Elephant Touch.” This was because I had trouble dealing with my own strength and often accidentally broke things, gave my brother concussions while playing catch, and otherwise wreaked havoc. The other day we got out the Wiffle ball during a family gathering, and I took the first turn at bat. I took a nice, powerful swing and promptly crushed the ball. Literally. My brother picked it up, held its sad mangled remains in his hand, and shook his head. “I forgot what it’s like to play sports with you,” he said.
I used to feel ashamed of this strength. I used to hate it when people called me strong, muscular, or anything like it. Now, I am proud to be strong. I’m not ripped, I’m not ready to hop on stage at a body builder show, but I do have muscle on me. This is the body I was given, and I finally love it just the way it is. I can see how my strength helps me every single day.
So here’s my question for you today: What about your body has always bothered you, and how can you see it in a new light? How is it a gift?
I think how we treat our bodies, see our bodies, and feel in our bodies is so interconnected. It’s time to make some serious changes in how we talk about our bodies. Nearly everyone I coach struggles with body image dissatisfaction, and I’ve begun to realize just how hard many of us are on ourselves. I used to think I was alone in my struggle, but now I see just how prevalent this issue is for both women and men.
Probably one of the most important things we can do for ourselves in this lifetime is learn to like and love our own bodies, even as they change, age, gain/lose weight, hurt, heal, and otherwise have the physical human experience. Loving our own bodies brings us home. They don’t have to look good, perfect, or even remotely like the “ideal” for us to love them.
Why in the world would willowy be any better than strong? Why is “fat” something we abhor? Why have we picked one normal, natural part of being physical and turned it into something awful? (In fact, I think it’s the classic “what you resist, persists.” The more we “fight fat” the harder it is to be in harmony with our bodies and find a healthy balance as individuals.) Why would I strive for skinny when my body loves strong? Why should any single part of me be any different than it is? There is beauty everywhere in every human body, just waiting to be seen. I’m looking. Are you?