For most of my life I hewed to the traditional narrative of women’s fitness: cardio yourself thin, lift teeny tiny pink weights, and, above all else, motivate yourself through self-hatred. Cause if there’s one thing that experience (and science!) has shown, it’s that you can hate yourself thin. Oh, wait, no, it’s that fat-shaming is toxic as hell and not only does psychological harm but actually leads to emotional eating episodes that likely contribute to a positive energy balance (which is to say, weight gain).
In those days my goals were all about “less”: weigh less, take up less space, hate my body less (ironic, no?), eat less. The only “more” goals were in pursuit of that “less”: do more cardio, restrict more. Uh, that’s about it, I guess. It’s a pretty depressing state of affairs, no? And I thought about it all. the. time. Constantly thinking about my last scale weight; if I can afford to eat that second mini mandarin orange (seriously); if my 8 pound tricep kickbacks would finally get rid of my floopy arms/”bat wings” (let’s be straight for a minute, bats are awesome. We should all be so lucky to have bat wings. And bio sonar!). And I consumed unethical, bullshitty media to get my dose of self-hatred and woo-filled tips: Self, Women’s Health, Fitness, Glamour, Cosmo, Dr. Oz (I KNOW!).
And then I found feminism. And those shitty magazines were suddenly a lot less appealing. And as I cut them out of my life I started to see just how much self-hatred they had been inculcating. And while my exercise was still rooted in self-hatred I had flashes of embodiment. Moments where it felt right. Where I felt, for the first time in my life, like maybe I too could be some form of athlete.
And then I met the love of my life: a pretty green road bike that introduced me to movement for the sake of movement; to that sense that all is right with the world so long as I’m on my bike; to the knowledge that my body could be instrumental rather than decorative. I was easily riding 60-100k a week for the pure joy of feeling my body do what it was meant to do. And as my body became something I cared for (if not yet loved) the food piece started to come together too. I found intuitive eating and realized that I needed to eat mostly body-nourishing things (which, for my body, tend to be mostly whole foods, with a focus on lean protein and lots of produce) to fuel my rides, and a few times a week soul-nourishing foods (in one word: chocolate). And I no longer really cared about being “less”.
And then my health went to hell (as I’ve mentioned previously) and I gained forty pounds in a short time. And all of my old “less” stuff started coming up again. Weigh less, eat less, take up less space, and please, for the love of god, hate my body less. But this time I knew these messages were bullshit. I knew this was crazybrain responding to change and anxiety and loss of control. And this time I had powerlifting.
And the thing about powerlifting is that you can’t have even an inkling of “less” going on. You can’t be trying to shrink into yourself because your quads are in the process of becoming quadzillas. You can’t be focused on smaller and smaller numbers because lifting is all about more. More weight, more power, more capacity. You can’t be eating less and less because you won’t have the power to deadlift.
And so, slowly, subtly, my crazybrain shut up. Less became more. Exercise became movement–a joyful practice of trying and building and failing and flowing and dancing and lifting. And my goals became process goals rather than outcome goals. I am much more motivated by the prospect of doing a full ROM push-up than wearing an arbitrary clothing size. I seek the empowerment and embodiment of pushing my own weight off the floor rather than hitting some “ideal” weight. And, ironically enough, I’m now able to focus on (slow, sustainable, sane) weight loss without triggering ol’ CrazyBrain McGee because I’m motivated by the fact that push-ups are easier if you’re lifting less mass, that crow is more easily attained without these extra 40 pounds.
Just thinking about how much willpower was required to get me into the gym or to eat the salad I didn’t actually want in the bad old days is exhausting. Considering how much valuable mental time and space was taken up by negotiations and calculations and recriminations is heartbreaking. Thinking of the things I’ve been able to do the last few years, I have no doubt I couldn’t have done them with so much processing power given over to things that just don’t matter. Thinking of how many women (and, increasingly, men) are similarly giving so much of their time and energy to self-hatred and the pursuit of “less” makes me want to cry. We have so much work to do in this world, big stuff like ending systemic racism and small stuff like perfecting roasted potatoes, and none of that can be done if we are spending all of our time on the hamster wheel of self-hatred.