It was early morning on a Saturday and a group of us were gathering in the parking lot at the lake. There was a slight chill in the air and a layer of light fog was hanging over the water. Some of us wore gloves and hats. A few people were jumping up and down, doing short jogs and stretching out their muscles. Others were less energetic, standing still and allowing the odd shiver to ripple through their limbs knowing that soon they would be running and warm.
Each one of us that morning held a coloured duo tang in our hands. This was a sign that we were all in the “weight loss program”. On the first page of our duo tangs were written our starting measurements. Body weight, bust size, waist size, hip size and calf size. A list of numbers that added all together supposedly made us a person (And in this particular situation, a person who needed to become smaller). From there, the duo tang turned into page after page of food diaries. Daily records of every morsel of nourishment that had entered our mouths each day for the past week.
I remember my perfectionist side having a great deal of trouble actually writing down any “bad” foods I had eaten because once I did, it would be there permanently, in ink, reminding me that there was a reason my ass was big. A reason that I wasn’t acceptable. A crystal clear reminder of my dreadful lack of willpower and control.
Our instructor, Suzanne, arrived, scale and red marker in hand. She laid the scale down on the pavement and one by one we jumped on to see how successful our efforts had been. The scale would let us know our worth and we all looked to it to do just that. Once the weights had been recorded it was time for Suzanne to go through our food diaries. Now if you thought weighing yourself in a parking lot in front of a group of near strangers was humiliating, it was nothing compared to having the intimacy of your food choices judged and assaulted with a red pen.
I was up.
I thought I had had a pretty good food week and was secretly hoping to receive the “good girl” praise that I had missed out on in my youth.
Chai tea latte- Red X
Bagel- Red X
Cream Cheese- Red X
Chocolate- Well duh, of course that was a Red X….
On and on it went. My smallest food transgressions highlighted to the group and labeled as weak and wrong. Those fucking red X’s. They haunt me to this day. They make me angry. How dare someone play judge and jury on something so personal. How dare someone sum up my worth as a human being in a goddamned cup of chai tea!
And yet that was not at all how I felt at the time.
I was there voluntarily. I had signed up knowing this would be the drill, thinking this kind of structure and shaming would lead me to the promised land. A land where I felt good about my body and about taking up less space in the world. I was paying for those red X’s!! God, if I was looking for shame and criticism, there was plenty of that available for free in my own head.
Looking back on those years I can now see that I was desperately seeking solutions to the wrong problem. In my late teens and all through my twenties and early thirties I had always believed that my biggest issue was the size and shape of my body and that if I could just put enough structure in place and summon a sufficient amount of will power, my problem would be solved and I would be free from my misery, my anxiety, my despair.
But, just like the industry experts who continue to peddle these same ideas, I had it all backwards. The misery, anxiety and despair was what was crying out for the attention, not my body. Those emotions (and many others) needed to be investigated with a tender and compassionate lens and also felt in the presence of a open heart. The roots of them dug up from the deeper soil of my childhood and brought into the rays of sunlight in order to allow for true healing.
Pitting me against my body was simply a convenient and culturally supported distraction from the deeper work. The red marker, the food diaries and yet ANOTHER RUN AROUND THE LAKE were not the solution to my soul’s pain nor my broken body image. In fact, those things and the many many other fitness and food configurations I tried only served to disconnect me further from my buried self, the one that actually knew the truth.
That it had nothing to do with my body.
It is my greatest hope that the red marker has been retired from not only Suzanne’s practice but from all fitness programs around the world.
I want the tired old reactions to food, fitness and body size to be replaced with words of compassion and curiosity and also with the realization that shame is never ever a solution to food or exercise struggles.
Will power and structure do not equal a cure for the pain of being human and the sooner that the fitness industry as whole truly understands this, the more we can all begin to seek and experience the freedom that comes with and honest love of self and liberation from any ideal physical form .
Lori Race is a healer, health clinic owner and writer with a passionate message to share from her past as a fitness instructor suffering from compulsive exercise disorder.