Pure Barre of Athens has launched a Feel Good campaign during the month of April. They invited me to share my testimony about my fitness journey and how I’ve ended up as a Pure Barre devotee. They’ve also invited me to have copies of my book Weightless: Making Peace With Your Body at an event on April 30, which culminates this body positive month. I’m very humbled to be a part of the campaign and am so very thankful for their support.
I was always an active child who loved to be outside, horseback riding, or playing various sports with my brothers and their friends. When I was in high school, I discovered a love for running. I’ll never forget the first time I ran six miles consecutively. It was a drizzly day the summer before my sophomore year. I was the only one out at the park where I often ran, and the combination of the misty rain, the solitude, and my feet falling into an easy rhythm led me to loop four times around the park’s 1.5 mile route without even thinking much about it. I felt so good, my sweat blending in with the rain and the sense of accomplishment of running six miles.
Unfortunately, what started as something fun and rewarding for a young girl on the cusp of becoming a woman soon transformed into a form of self-flagellation. I joined the track team and despite having a natural talent for running, I never felt fast enough, good enough, or thin enough. For myriad reasons – a past that involved me getting teased for being chubby, a desire to be in control and tirelessly push myself to be better – I eventually succumbed to a clinical eating disorder. I weighed myself several times a day. I skipped meals.
One day I was sitting with a big group of my girlfriends at a restaurant. They were all eating typical teenage fare—greasy burgers, French fries, and milkshakes. I was picking at a salad without any dressing on it.
“Aren’t you hungry?” a friend asked.
Yes, I’m starving for control and love and acceptance. That’s what my sickness was saying. But I lied and told her I’d already eaten.
At first I felt jealous of my friends for the way they could sip milkshakes without considering their calorie count, but then I started to feel powerful, superior. “I can resist eating. I can get thinner. I’m stronger than they are.”
It didn’t take long for the curves I’d formed to vanish. Zero became my holy grail of clothing sizes. Ironic that the number means an absence of anything, because that is exactly what I was trying to fill—the nothingness in my heart.
I ran now – not as an ode of gratitude for my body but as a way to punish it. I ran obsessively. It didn’t matter that I suffered from a stress fracture, that I stopped menstruating, and could no longer run as well as I once did. Even when I passed out one day just walking outside because I was overworked and malnourished, I ignored the red flags that I was abusing my body, and it was hurting.
The only time I felt happy – fleetingly so – was when the number on the scale decreased. I could not make myself the “best” (translation: PERFECT) runner, student, daughter, or the most popular, but I could make myself thinner.
I battled an eating disorder on and off for most of teenage and young adult years. I seesawed between anorexia and bulimia. On the outside, I was a bubbly girl who made great grades and had a tight circle of friends. On the inside, I was hollow, lonely, and desperately trying to rid myself of everything I didn’t like about myself – which sadly amounted to absolutely everything.
Before my senior year of college, my parents begged me to get help and so I did, and I briefly stopped most of the self-destructive habits, especially after I came down with a severe case of mono that left my spleen swollen and my liver compromised. But I didn’t work on healing the hurting inside, so the bad habits would return once I was away from home at college.
At the start of my final year of college I hit rock bottom. A difficult breakup left me wheeling for control, and I began once again eating only shards of lettuce. My weight started to drop pound by pound like it had in high school, but I didn’t feel happy or even powerful as I once had. Instead I felt sick and like I was wasting a beautiful life. I am so grateful for the grace and courage – as frayed as they were – that were left within me because one day I decided I was tired of living a rote life whittled down to how many calories I’d consumed and how much I weighed. So I summoned up a lot of courage and made an appointment with my university’s eating disorder recovery clinic. And slowly, day by day, I rebuilt my life and began my journey toward wholeness.
Today as a grown woman and a mom of four children, I’m at a mostly healthy place. Although if I’m completely honest, like too many women I still occasionally suffer from twinges of body image angst. But when a disparaging thought enters my mind, I work hard to counter it with something affirming. My Catholic faith has also played a pivotal role in helping to love and accept my natural design.
Moreover, nothing has taught me how to appreciate the power of the female body like motherhood has. Not only did my body knit together my children, bring them into the world, nurse them each for two years or longer, but my arms have ached carrying a tired toddler. My pace has quickened chasing after a wayward child or playing soccer with my active children. I exercise now – not as punishment for being “bad” because I might have sipped on a glass (or two!) of wine or enjoyed a brownie – but because I deserve to gift myself with gentle self-care. I could not possibly meet the exhausting, physical demands of keeping up with four active children, ages 11, 8, 7, and 4 if I didn’t make exercise a priority and fuel my body with healthy food. Today I see my body as an instrument to live this blessed life of mine rather than object that needs to be tweaked or fixed.
Running, too, has reclaimed a healthy, balanced place in my life, but I’ve had to not only make peace with my aging body and the changes in my physical self the passing years bring (gravity happens), but I’ve had to accept my limitations as well. A little more than two years ago I was back to running regularly and was planning on training for another marathon after having completed two half-marathons. I ran my first marathon as a celebration of overcoming my eating disorder years earlier. I paid no attention to my pace and ran for the pure joy of it and ended up having a very spiritual journey during those 26. 2 miles. I had not trained using speed work, so I amazed myself when I crossed the finish line in well under four hours. I’d planned on running a lot more races, qualifying for the Boston Marathon, and using running as my outlet and sanity-saver, but my plans were thwarted when lots of babies – who weren’t fans of sleeping – came into my life.
But once my fourth was a little over a year old, I met a dear group of girlfriends and we decided to start running together in the wee hours of the morning. During our runs we talked about everything from our faith (or lack thereof) to the joys and challenges of motherhood. These women became my closest friends, and running was the best and cheapest form of therapy out there. Unfortunately, before long some old habits surfaced, and I started to become obsessed with achieving a faster pace. I ran every day, neglected my core work, and skimped on sleep in order to have time to train and to manage my house well. I started having a lot of pain in my high hamstring area, but I kept running. I ignored all the signs my body was giving me. But after a half marathon, I confessed to my husband that I could barely walk or sit without pain.
Shortly thereafter an MRI revealed a partial tear of my left high hamstring as well as a tear in my right glute. I dove into physical therapy and took a break from running but as soon I returned to the pavement, the pain returned and then sharp hip pain emerged. My body was failing me, and no medical experts could explain why. I was devastated. And for awhile, I hated my jalopy of a body. One day a physical therapist recommended I give Pure Barre a try. She said she felt it would be a good fit for me – vigorous yet low-impact and focused on areas I needed to keep strong if I ever wanted to run regularly again.
So this old mom – who can’t even do a cartwheel – signed herself up for a class. I didn’t realize it was 80s day and when I showed up, everyone except me looked like Madonna in her golden era. I felt silly, trying to figure out how to tuck, and hid in the back of the room. A perfectionist at heart, I don’t do well with new experiences, and I typically avoid things unless I know I’ll be really good at something. And I was not all that good at barre during that first class. I’m about as flexible as a lead pipe and am far more athletic than graceful. But I’m so glad I stuck with it – not only because I now love PB now but also because I swallowed my perfectionist pride and tucked on.
Pure Barre has now become a regular part of my fitness routine and something I love just as much the running I mourned over for so long, but I don’t have to worry about overuse injuries or competing. It’s not about racing someone else or chasing faster rabbits. Pure Barre is about focusing on how well I can do and working to keep good form so I get the most out of the exercises. Although I’ve noticed some changes in my physique – my bum has started to defy gravity – the best perks are how good taking a few classes a week make me feel. As a busy mom, I need to carve out time for myself and to keep my body in shape. Pure Barre is a wonderful outlet, and moving to the upbeat music makes me feel young and hip. The movements also have a meditative quality to them, and I find it’s a great stress release. I really doubted I’d ever find something as liberating and empowering as running after my injury, but Pure Barre has filled the gap and it is something I foresee myself doing for the rest of my life. My PT also said its exercises are great not only for fitness but for rehabbing certain injuries as well.
Best of all, as someone who struggled with an eating disorder as a teen and young woman and later berated her body for not being able to run and cover the miles she wanted to, Pure Barre has helped me to once again reclaim love for my body as well as learn to accept its limitations and appreciate its strengths. I’ll never be an Olympic athlete, but my body does great things for me every single day and it deserves respect and gentle care, not a constant diatribe against its limitations or flaws.
I’m back to weekly runs although I have learned to listen to my body, and I don’t run on consecutive days or manage 40-plus mile weeks any longer. But that’s okay. I am thankful for every single run I get to take. I’m also committed to being a positive body image role model for my daughters as well as my son.
One day I discovered one of my daughters before a mirror examining her body. My heart sank, and I feared the worst. Was she, like her own mother, already starting to wage a war against her flesh? With trepidation, I asked, “What are you doing, Love?”
Her answer not only surprised me (and made me chuckle), it helped to bring me even closer to full and lasting body acceptance. “Flexing my butt muscles,” she said matter-of-factly. “I have really strong butt muscles, but unfortunately that doesn’t get you too far in life.”
Anytime I’m tempted to berate my body or myself for any reason, I remind myself of my daughter’s confidence and self-acceptance.
My daughter knows her body is physically strong; yet, she’s equally aware that she has so much more to offer the world than skin. She is strong on the inside, too. She’s passionate. She funny. She’s caring. She’s smart. She has a future ahead of her that won’t ever be limited by a number on the scale or the size of her thighs.
During my eating disorder treatment, a counselor once asked me, “How are you going to ensure a healthy future?” At the time, I thought the best answer was merely physical: by eating, not purging, by consuming food rather than allowing it to consume me. The counselor reminded me that these were only small actions behind a much bigger one. “By loving yourself every day and in every way.”
That’s what I work to do every single day. So often as women, our harshest critics are ourselves. How can we expect to love others when we can’t even fully love ourselves? Just because you may want to change your body or eat a more healthful diet doesn’t mean you have to hate yourself until you meet your goals. On the contrary, if you love yourself, you’ll want to take care of all of you, including your body.
Love the exact life and body you’re in right now. Seek joy and affirmation in your faith, the goodness of others, the beauty of the all-inclusive springtime sunshine.
Please don’t seek affirmation in the wrong places – how your bum looks in your Lululemons compared to woman next to you at the barre, cellulite, the scale, your curves (or lack of curves), the mirror. My mission is to encourage women of all ages – from young girls to women fighting against the sands of time thinking that a facelift will make them have more worth – to free themselves from being a prisoner to the scale, yo-yo dieting, chasing youth, looking, or being perfect. We’re human. We’re not perfect. Life is messy, heartbreaking, and beautiful whether we can fit into our skinny jeans or not. Step away from the mirror, and jump into life!
I’ll see you at the barre – and maybe even the bar – because life’s too short to never enjoy simple pleasures like a glass of wine with your husband or girlfriends!
In other news:
I have two radio interviews scheduled for this week. You can tune in online if you wish. Thanks for your support.
On Call with Wendy Wiese on Tuesday, April 12 from 2-2:30 EST; I’ll be speaking about body image and eating disorders.
The Morning Air Show with John Harper on Wednesday, April 13th at 9 am EST; I’ll be discussing how to encourage your children to be appreciate the natural world and to be good stewards of the environment in honor of Earth Day.