For most of my life I’ve thought I was bigger and heavier than I actually am. I can look at pictures from each of the last five decades and see now that I was never the size I thought I was. In fact, I was considerably smaller. Now that I am heavier than I have ever been in my life, I’ve finally had a breakthrough in understanding.
I know I cannot depend on how I see myself in the mirror or the plate glass store windows. I finally recognize the fickle unreliability of my own perceptions. I know I cannot use my physical self-image as a motivation for change because it will always tell me I have missed the mark.
Like many others, I have tried a variety of diet and fitness programs over the years to whip myself into shape after I crossed a certain line known only by me, an arbitrarily-shifting standard. There’s no question I can control my weight. I’ve lost the same pounds over and over again through calorie counting, portion control, exercise, herbs, even amphetamines. I have starved, denied, punished and shamed myself. When I finally paused to wonder why the weight always returns, I realized my body was asking me for something. Like maybe—at the very least—a willingness to listen and a little kindness and appreciation.
My body started changing more dramatically than usual about four years ago. Many persons in the second half of life will understand, especially women who, like me, quit smoking in their 40s and are now post-menopausal. Anyone who has suddenly gone from active to sedentary or experienced a season of loss and grief will know what I’m talking about. Persons who are trauma survivors and utilized food or other substances to self-soothe will also relate. For me, all of these factors combined and conspired simultaneously to translate themselves into a 30-pound love note from my soul.
For the first time in my life, I responded with compassion. I stopped punitively weighing myself. I ceased self-denial and revisited my beliefs about food. I didn’t swing into action to take control. I started observing how my perception of my body could change quite markedly from day to day or even between morning and evening. I asked why I was never satisfied with myself and what impact that might have on my physical container.
From the outside I’m guessing it may have looked like I had indulged in that folly we whisper about behind our hands: oh, my! She’s really let herself go. Or so I imagine in my insecure, judging, body-shaming mode. But in a newly-emerging aspect of my psyche, I was literally embodying something quite different: I was challenging myself to accept my form exactly as it was, precisely as it had expressed itself.
As I sat with that idea—and sat and sat and sat, seemingly immobilized in some way I can’t explain, a formerly super-active person suddenly shockingly sedentary, sitting still, and uncomfortably, at that—I began to wonder. I watched my feelings arise with as much mindfulness as possible. I appreciate Dr. Daniel Siegel’s acronym for the kind of mindfulness I was led to practice about my body—COAL—curiosity, openness, acceptance and love.
This process of raising awareness and aiming toward self-acceptance has lasted close to two years, 700+ days of unpredictable emotional rollercoasters and perceptual funhouse mirrors—days of love and days of loathing—until finally I realized what I’d been missing. Those pounds kept coming back over the years to ask for acceptance. They wanted me to stop throwing myself under the bus of external opinion and impossible ideals. They invited me to love my softness and roundedness. They offered repeated chances to embrace myself unconditionally. They asked me to surrender into a full trust of my whole self.
Instead of obsessing with external standards of physical beauty and acceptability, I began offering my body gratitude for its amazing resilience and service over the last 56 years. I began looking at myself in the mirror and saying I love you.
The eventual reward for my willingness to listen to my body and offer it unconditional acceptance came suddenly as a clearer awareness of how I was feeling physically. I could notice that my several years of sitting still had affected my fitness. I suddenly wanted to feel better, more lively and energetic. I felt the urge to move. A high school friend inspired me to get a fitness tracker. I’ve always loved biofeedback and friendly competition with myself. Suddenly I was running up the stairs to my apartment multiple times a day to get my heart rate into the cardio zone, walking instead of driving to the grocery store, and finding reasons to run errands on foot. I am doing this with great joy and playfulness.
Here is the radical difference from past self-improvement efforts. There will be no before and after pictures; this is not about how I look. I am not weighing or measuring myself, counting calories or measuring portions. I am listening to my body’s intuitive guidance. I am trusting its wisdom. Finally. I am not hating, rejecting, or punitively trying to control any part of myself, I am filled with a deep and radiant desire to be my best self.
I am motivated by love instead of fear, and I believe that will make all the difference.