Body Image: The Good, The Bad, and The Recovery
Written by Cyndi Springford
It all started when I was 11. That was the age when two big things happened: I got my period and The “weigh in”.
I remember getting weighed in at the nurse’s office in elementary school. I don’t know if that’s commonplace these days, but it was back in 1983. What stands out about that experience was hearing that I weighed a little more than the suggested height/weight percentile chart. I don’t recall the nurse making a huge deal of it at the time, but it certainly became one.
My mother was (is? still?) a militant weight watcher. She lived and died by that number on the scale. If she went up a few pounds above her “normal weight” off 120, she would diet or exercise it away, trying every fad that came down the pike: the cabbage soup diet, fibre trim tablets, toning tables, tread-milling, etc. I learned how to be in relationship with my body and food from her.
In short, I learned how to hate myself. From that point on, my mother and I would diet together. She was concerned about my weight and passed on her legacy of restriction to me. It was very confusing, particularly because I lived with an older brother who was lean, active, and ate whatever he wanted without regard for portion size or calorie counts. Because of that, we had “forbidden foods” in the house, which were clearly off limits for me. One day, I went out to the kitchen and snuck a sleeve of cupcakes out of the refrigerator, hid them in my sweatshirt, and tiptoed back into my bedroom, where I could eat my treats behind closed doors. It was so confusing and sad. I just didn’t understand WHY I couldn’t enjoy food out in the open like he did…why I had to do it in secret.
In my mid to late teens, my weight fluctuated. It never went unnoticed by my mother. If I was “getting too heavy”, she would have no qualms about letting me know. Of course she “meant well” and only told me because she didn’t want me to ”be made fun of”, but it still hurt, and got me really mad. In fact, it made me so angry that I would want to “eat all the things” just to piss her off, yet I felt like I was letting her down by being a few pounds overweight at the same time. What a mess! Once the dust settled and I got over my rebellious angst, I would go back to looking for “the perfect plan” that would help me to FINALLY lose weight and keep it off.
Enter my 20’s. I had been a cigarette smoker all through high school and college. I was dating a non smoker at the time who, remarkably, put no pressure on me whatsoever to quit. As a result, I felt ready, willing, and able to let the habit go. I had a few stumbles, but became smoke free after a couple of months. Instantly, I was seized by fear: what if I turn to food as a substitution for cigarettes? What if I blow up like a balloon? My self worth was completely contingent on my appearance, so this terrified me. It was then that I discovered EXERCISE.
I discovered step aerobics in 1992 and fell in love with it. That led to becoming a certified instructor and an eventual career change. I went from working in an office environment to a health club. My uniform of choice was now workout clothes and sneakers. I then became a certified personal trainer and worked with clients one on one in addition to a group setting. I was getting paid to work out. It was like living the dream! Except that dream soon became a nightmare.
The more time I spent in the gym, the more dissatisfied I became with my body and eating habits. I was surrounded by fit bodies all day long. They became the measuring stick against which I judged myself. I just thought if I worked out longer, harder…if I ate cleaner, or less, I would FINALLY get there. I mean, that’s what happiness was all about, right? The perfect body? Wouldn’t that give me the perfect life?
Well, I am here to tell you, that is a lie. A boldfaced lie. I spent over 25 years chasing perfection. 25 long, dysfunctional, emotionally charged years.
On December 21, 2011, I turned 40. Shortly after that, I had my epiphany. I realized that there had to be more to life than six pack abs and a pristine diet. I was tired of fearing food. I was burned out from my 2-3 hours of daily exercise, which I thought I needed in order to “earn the right to feed myself”. Something had to change and that something was ME.
I spent the next 12 months unlearning and relearning. I broke up with dieting once and for all. I took a much needed break from structured exercise (which was really challenging since I worked in the fitness industry full time). I read books that talked about “intuitive eating” “overcoming overeating” and “how to love the body I was born with”. I stood in front of a mirror and studied myself, doing my best to be objective about what I saw. I knew that I didn’t love my reflection, but I decided that I could at least stop HATING it. I could do that much.
In January of 2013, I started the Love Your Body Project: Peace, Love and Food Facebook Page to share my journey and tell my story. I figured that if I had these struggles, other people did too and they needed to know that they weren’t alone. Since that day, we have grown to a community of almost 5,000 people. Every like, comment, and private message I receive from people following the page warm my heart and reinforce my opinion that I had to go through what I did in order to get to where I am now, which is a place of acceptance, love, and peace with myself.
The moral of the story here is – there is hope. Even if you grew up with a dieting mother, that doesn’t have to be the legacy that you leave. I’m not saying it was easy, but it was certainly worth it. I had my dark days, but they were necessary in order for me to learn the lesson. There is so much cultural and societal pressure to look a certain way. Being a woman, in particular is hard in the world we live in. Damn hard! But, we can tune out the noise and become comfortable in our own skin if we take the time to think critically and dispel the notion that there is only one right way to look.
You’re going to be in your body until the day you leave this physical life. Do you want to spend the rest of your days at war with it? I know that I didn’t.
There is a better way. Maybe your story started at 11, like mine did. Maybe it happened later. All I can tell you is it’s never too late to be who you want to be and live the life that you want to live.
For more information on the Love Your Body Project – check out Cindi’s website: http://www.loveyourbodyproject.org/