Growing up in my family, it was all about appearances, presentation and the opinions others formed about you. Therefore, my first idea of what constituted “healthy” revolved around looks. If you were skinny, you were healthy.
If you were fat, you had problems. Being healthy certainly had nothing to do with the food we put in our mouths or any kind of physical movement. I am the much youngest of five children (four girls, one boy). I had a unique vantage point when my four older siblings were teens and I was a child. I paid lots of attention when no one was looking.
Two of my sisters were “fat”. I watched one of them drink copious amounts of Tab and heard her praised for “getting skinny”. The other one tried to distract everyone with her smarts and musical ability. I had one sister who was skinny. She attempted a modeling career. I vividly recall the time I overheard a photographer praise her collarbones for being so prominent. He spread her shirt collar open wide to “show them off”. Yes, protruding bones were a measure of health in my family. So, you can imagine how devastated I was that day when I turned and looked into the mirror and could not find my own 8 year-old collar bones.
The message I got was that if you couldn’t be rail thin like Kate, you best flaunt a nice rack like Anna Nicole.
The whole idea of looks equaling health continued into my teen years. I came of age in the era of Kate Moss’ Calvin Klein ads and Anna Nicole Smith’s voluptuous Guess ads. The message I got was that if you couldn’t be rail thin like Kate, you best flaunt a nice rack like Anna Nicole. Where was healthy in all of this? I couldn’t find it. It was around this time that I began to play around with what I ate and did lots of exercise videos, trying to sweat and starve myself into what I thought was an acceptable state of health. I starting picking up on the role numbers played. Numbers like: calories in, calories out, BMI, and weight. These became the new measures of health for me.
I chased numbers on the scale and even in fleeting moments of success, when I finally hit that target number, I was still so hungry on every level. Never did I really consider or celebrate a sense of health. Somewhere along the way, I deduced that my body was fundamentally flawed and being truly healthy was not in the cards for me. I continued in this way throughout much of my 20s and 30s.
A few weeks ago, I was in a fitness class that was really tough. In the middle of the cool down, the instructor told us to close our eyes and thank ourselves, because we loved ourselves enough to make this time in our schedules to honor our bodies. My eyes flew open. What? I just did this insanely hard, barf-inducing workout because I LOVED myself? This triggered a swirl of thoughts in my head as I went about the rest of my day. Did I actually love myself? What could that even look like?
I thought about what it meant to like someone versus love someone. When we like someone or something, there is a sense of impermanence lingering quietly in the background. I used to like the New Kids on the Block. I used to like Zima, and there a bunch of people I once liked very much, but with whom I have lost touch over the years. Liking someone or something is fleeting; it can change easily and without us giving it much thought. However, loving has deeper roots. To love someone is to enjoy, celebrate, forgive, and encourage them. It is a nurturing experience. Love is the bottom line when everything else is up for debate; it is a commitment to see things through because the person you love is worth it.
I finally understand now where my identity as a healthy person begins. It starts with the love I give to myself.
Since that particular fitness class, I have been sitting with this idea of actually loving myself. I think about all the people I love – my husband, my children, my soul sisters and my family. I think of what my love looks like for them and now I am trying to direct some of that love towards myself. It is a messy and imperfect practice because I am new at it, yet I feel like there is a dawning of peace within me, waking up a really content place in my heart.
Over the years, I held myself to a standard of health that was not really about health at all. It was all about physical appearance and the standard was neither realistic nor age-appropriate. I starved, stuffed and sweat my way to achieve certain numbers in order to be “healthy”.
I finally understand now where my identity as a healthy person begins. It starts with the love I give to myself. Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for tests and numbers as guideposts on my path. However, I have discovered that the feedback I get from those numbers, and the action I take regarding my health, yields nothing lasting and meaningful if I don’t truly and deeply love myself. In these last few weeks of loving me, I am less condemning and gentler with myself. I move now because I enjoy how my body feels when it is in motion, not because I have to in order to achieve a number. I put food in my mouth that nourishes my body and tastes good. Most importantly, I try to let myself feel more and stuff with food less.
I am a work in progress, as we all are. I find some moments are easier than others for practicing this new found love for myself. The same song plays a lot in my head these days. It has become a sort of mantra for me:
Nothing you can make that can’t be made
No one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love, love is all you need….