I’ve been in recovery from my eating and exercise disorder for 7 years now. Living in recovery means several important things for me; First and foremost is that I no longer conflate the size and shape of my body with my worth as a person. (Woo hoo! That is a big fucking win, let me tell you) Second is that I no longer restrict food in order to make my body smaller (another reaalllyy great reason to celebrate!) and Third is that I no longer participate in exercise as a form of weight control or punishment (ahh pleasurable and desired movement only… delightful!)
While all of this healing continues to feel like absolute freedom for me in my life, getting to this place was neither quick nor easy. Healing childhood wounds and breaking free from the non-stop, stifling culture of thinness and fitness has taken time, much introspection and heaping doses of courage. AND the effects on my mental and physical wellbeing and most especially on my ability to be present and loving in my relationships has made the effort more than worth it. There is no question that the constant focus on my body and the war I was waging against it was stealing my life.
So given all that I have to celebrate on my body liberation journey thus far, the following admission may come as a surprise to you;
Sometimes I think about signing up for fitness challenges and clean eating programs.
It’s true, I get roped in. Tugged on. Poked at. Pushed off balance. Confused. Most of the time, the thought is brief and fleeting and I end up back on the solid ground of my own body’s truth in a very short period of time, but I feel it only fair to let you know that it happens, that I still get stung on occasion by the poisonous tentacles of diet and fitness culture. Despite my mission to use my writing as but one voice in the chorus that is currently leading the charge to support fellow humans in finding liberation from restrictive eating and punishing exercise, I fully admit that I sometimes find myself questioning my own narrative. Shit, I think it would be almost impossible not to in our “health” obsessed, fat phobic culture.
There are days where every single message related to health or the human body I come across seems to be one of shame and fear mongering, messages very often rooted in all kinds of oppression. Most weeks the conversations I overhear at the coffee shop, experience in my clinic space or see on social media are ones that reinforce the damaging message that being thin and fit is the answer to every single one of life’s problems. Spoiler alert; I tried it and it’s not.
I will tell you that when my pants get tight, (and they sure as hell do because my body is not and never will be a damn machine!) it can feel pretty darn tempting to simply throw up my hands and toss back a shot of the koolaid that most everyone around me is drinking. After all, I’ve been conditioned to do just that for 40 plus years.
Sally’s doing Whole 30. Barry’s counting macros. Jane signed up for a bootcamp challenge….and on and on. And then come the kudos. Way to go girl! You’re getting healthy! Such will power and control!
It’s Every. Fucking. Where.
And so with all this bombardment, it’s truly not surprising that despite all the work I’ve done, I occasionally hear a small voice in my head that whispers,
“Maybe I should be doing that too?”….
The truth is, the diet and fitness neural connections in my brain are still present. It makes sense given that I spent over 40 years forging and then grooming those connections into a streamlined electrical super highway. These pathways of restriction don’t just crumble overnight. What does happen to that super highway over time however is that it gets much much quieter the less traffic there is on it and as a result it becomes much easier to manage when one lone vehicle does decide to take the old, out of date road.
(This is the part where I say, "Hang in there! It's a practice and it does get easier, I promise you. Set backs are normal and expected when attempting to extract yourself from a belief system as insidious as the thin ideal but you can break free.")
The cultural story we have about food and exercise has not yet changed. There is no doubt that it is chang-ING but there are still relatively few diet and fitness outliers out there compared to the legions of “thin and fit is it!” preachers we see in our media feeds. We cannot ignore the fact that we live in a world that idolizes the lean body and demonizes any body that’s not that. It’s hella difficult to shield oneself from that! Especially when the “your body is wrong” message is consistently communicated under the guise of concern for one’s “health”. (And there’s a whole other blog post brewing on that topic as well!) The good news is that this does not mean that it’s not possible to choose a more peaceful and loving existence individually within our bodies and in our relationships with food and exercise. Cultural shields can be erected and triggers can be managed and I’ve learned that it all drastically lessens in intensity the longer peace has been a viable option.
So how have I learned to combat the voices around me that sometimes trigger those old out of date ones still lurking within?
Step one: I notice my thoughts and the reactivity that’s present. I become the watcher of my reaction and simply register that I am contemplating diet and overexercise ideas AND I do this with compassionate curiosity. “Isn’t that interesting that I think I need to sign up for a 30 day bootcamp challenge. Why am I thinking that would be beneficial? What am I hoping that would do for me in this moment? If I pretend that this isn’t actually about my weight, what might it be truly about?”
Step two: I pause and find my centre. Not the centre of someone else or of the culture that is broken, but my own. Very very often when I find myself contemplating some form of self harm through dietary restriction or exercise, I find that I have actually left my own energetic self and jumped into someone else’s beliefs, energy, or fear. My centre knows my truth. And when I’m solidly in myself it’s so much easier to see through the lies of what I think a small body will get me. Often times for me, this re-centering process will involve spending some alone time out in nature, doing some journaling, listening to music or simply giving myself a day off from my to do list.
Step three: I ask myself what I know to be true on my journey so far. The longer I’ve been in recovery the easier and quicker it gets for me to move out of diet and fitness triggers. After 7 years on this path, I now know very deeply that the answer to whatever is happening for me when I’m ruminating about my body rarely ever has to do with the need to change it . The desire to lose weight or be fitter is usually a symptom that something else may need my attention. It’s typically a call to move inward for a bit and have a look at my self care process or the balance of my life. Obsessing about food and exercise never once made my life better.
Step four: I call upon community. I pull up an article or listen to a podcast that helps re-affirm my truth. Even the most stalwart of body liberation warriors need help and support sometimes because…well because the culture. I have several people, websites and podcasts bookmarked for just such occasions and they save me repeatedly. I’ll share some of my favorite bad ass body liberation warriors with you in the links below.
Christy Harrison MPH, RD, CDN- Food Psych Podcast
The Militant Baker
Made on a Generous Plan
Be Nourished with Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC and Dana Sturtevant, MS, RD
It’s strange that we live in a culture where trusting the vessel we live in is more difficult than trusting the advice of a stranger on the internet.
Such is the effect of a few hundred years of patriarchy and capitalism where the unrelenting vigor of the messages telling women their bodies are unacceptable has all but severed the connection to our own instincts and intuition. This is especially true with regard to food and movement where media and marketing for the industry is a mine field of shame and disparagement designed to lead us further away from ourselves and our power.
All is not lost, however. Blessedly, the river of knowing and wisdom remains full and flowing within all of us and reclaiming that wisdom is as simple as being willing to crouch at the edge of the embankment, cup the water in our hands and take a drink.
I remember very clearly the time period when I first started playing with the idea of exercising intuitively. Although I didn’t exactly know that was what I was doing at the time, I had come to a significant turning point in my relationship with food, exercise and my body. After over 20 years of compulsive behaviors, I had finally hit a wall of exhaustion. The misery that had been my constant companion whether I was fit or unfit, lean or fat had suffocated the vitality of my life for too long and I was desperate to try something, anything different. Boldly, I realize now, I took a giant step away from food restriction of any kind (diets, cleanses, detoxes, lifestyle changes, etc) and let go of all manner of workout programs and scheduling. No more gym or fitness class memberships, no need to do some form of exercise every day and no calendar tracking of workouts or sign ups to fitness challenges. I threw every bit of structure and all my carefully curated workout and food rules out the window pretty much in one fell swoop. I was ready instead to attempt listening to my body.
It was terrifying. I was thrust right up against my 20 plus years of body-hatred conditioning what felt like hundreds of times a day and the urge to slide back into my comfort zone of restriction and exercise obsession pulled at me constantly. The desire to try just one more program (because maybe it would be different this time…) felt like a powerful ocean wave whispering promises to take me to a new shore. Yet I resisted. Somewhere deep inside, my soul seemed to understand that this was just another rip curl of lies looking to rough me up and pull me under once again. Each time I struggled, I would remind myself of the painful relationship I had been in with my body for so long. I would come back to the fact that what I had been doing since I was 17 to try and change my body had never ever “worked” in the long term. On the toughest days, I assured myself that this was just an experiment to get a glimpse of what it looked like on the other side and that I could always go back if things here ended up being worse.
Thankfully, this was not the case. As my experiment continued, I began to have the tiniest glimpses of a life and mind not dominated by thoughts about my body or when and where my next workout fix would be. The brief moments of peace eventually started to string together as though brick by brick there was a new path unfolding for me to walk along and after a year or so, I finally began experiencing more days of relief in the form of body neutrality than ones of anguish and body hatred. I was still moving my body during this time but far far less than I ever had in the past and strangely, people didn’t respond to me any differently. It was as if they didn’t really care whether I was fit or not.
I won't pretend that this wasn't a long and emotionally difficult journey. If the decision to heal childhood traumas and free oneself from oppressive and damaging culturally supported behaviors were as easy as signing up for a spin class challenge, we would all be doing it. And just because you make it to the other side, doesn’t mean the siren song calls to return simply stop. As insulated as you try and make yourself, the barrage of images telling you that you are not doing enough to make yourself "healthy", "well", "fit" or "lean" will continue, and chances are the majority of people around you at the office, in your family and in your circle of friends will go on participating in the distortion of diet and exercise culture. Unfortunately it will likely continue to be the norm for a while. Trusting your body is a radical act. Choosing to no longer use exercise as a tool of punishment or control is a radical act. Understanding that your body doesn't need changing is a radical act.
This path requires you to be a radical.
I can’t tell you exactly how exercising intuitively may look for you for our body stories are all unique. What I do want to offer here however are some concepts that continue to work for me in my own practice; ideas you can play around with if you feel pulled in this direction. I also want to simply let you know you that exercising this way is possible. That this is exactly where I’ve been for the last 6 years, moving regularly and pleasurably according to the intelligence of my body. And feeling a deep sense of peace with and appreciation for movement itself.
Intuitive exercise practices are born through body trust, something we are taught early on as consumers and especially as women, to dismiss. Because of this, one of the first steps in finding more ease with exercise is connecting to your body and re-aquainting yourself with that lost treasure.
Repeat after me:
My body knows what it needs.
My body’s desires can be trusted.
My body finds joy in movement as well as in rest.
My body finds nourishment in rest as well as in movement.
Use these mantras or find others that invite you into your own wisdom. Repeat them regularly, journal about them or put them in spaces where you’ll see them daily. Remind yourself that your body signals you when it needs things like water, food or sleep and begin to understand that movement is no different. Start believing that your body actually wants to move, that it doesn’t need to be pushed and prodded with weapons of self hatred to do so.
Below are some practices I’ve found to be helpful on my own path. This list is by no means exhaustive and not all of these will necessarily feel right for you. Play with the ideas that feel good and leave the rest.
1. Shelter yourself from fitness culture as much as you are able: Yes, it’s impossible to escape the toxic messaging altogether but being intentional about your engagement with it is integral, especially in the beginning stages of recovery. For me this meant taking time away from the gym and group fitness classes as I found it difficult to foster this new connection and trust in my body while remaining in the belly of the beast, so to speak. I was able to go back to these spaces later, once my foundation of body liberation was stronger but at first it felt like the right call for me to be moving my body exclusively either at home or outside. I realize this may feel like too large a step for some of you and it may not even be the most appropriate step for everyone, especially if these have been and continue to be spaces that feel comfortable and familiar. If this is the case, then another great starting point can be simply to notice conversations you have with others about exercise and bodies. How often does body shape and exercise come up in conversation with friends, family and colleagues? How much of that talk is typically negative, focused on “getting back on the exercise wagon” or someone sharing that they just started a new fitness and/or weight loss program? What happens when you choose not to feed into those conversations? Or try having them in a different way? How does it feel to start telling a new story about your body, to yourself and to others?
2. Find mentors, teachers and community that support this new way of interacting with movement and your body: Happily, there are so many wonderful resources available within the Body acceptance/liberation, Intuitive Eating and Intuitive Exercise communities. Connecting with these people and others who are also on this journey is something I continue to find immeasurably helpful especially when the pressures of diet and fitness culture are doing their best to wear me down. Here are a few of my favorite online people and spaces, ones that help remind me of my truth and let me know I’m not alone: Rachel Cole, The Food Psych Podcast (and FB group), Jes Baker, Melissa Toler, Curvy Yoga.
3. Try not to buy into the belief that exercise is complicated: One of the things I realized in stepping away from traditional exercise constructs was that working out, for many people, has become an unnecessarily complicated endeavor. From digital gadgets to be purchased and constantly monitored to specific clothing and footwear, to fancy equipment and elite, expensive and often cult-like workout spaces, there seems to be this underlying message that exercise has rules or at the very least a set of ideal parameters. This happens to be one of the main reasons why I love the concept of movement so much more than “exercise” or “working out”. Movement is really really simple. It’s anything where your body is in motion. Walking, gardening, having sex, dancing, stretching, swimming, skipping. This re-simplification feels important. Because every time we believe we need to wear, purchase or belong to something in order to properly “exercise” we just end up erecting yet another false barrier to finding our own true and unique version of health and happiness.
4. Lean into the discomfort when you can. Ask for support when needed: If you are moving away from heavily structured exercise and/or over-exercise or shifting toward a practice of more movement in your life, chances are you are going to feel uncomfortable at times. I know I certainly did. See if you can stay with that feeling and uncover what it’s about. Is there fear? If so, what are you afraid of? Name it. Bring it into the light. I’m afraid I’m going to fail again. I’m afraid I’m going to be lazy. I’m afraid I’m going to gain weight. I’m afraid I’m going to lose weight. I’m afraid of being in my body. I’m afraid of not being loved and accepted. Honor whatever discomfort shows up, let yourself feel it, say how you’re feeling out loud to yourself or a friend or a therapist. Chances are it will begin to shift once it’s given some space to exist. This is probably the hardest work you will do in this process.
*Note: The process of moving into inhabiting our bodies more fully can often be blocked or made difficult due to past abuse or trauma. It’s a good idea to work with a trauma informed therapist or practitioner along the way if this work feels like it may be compromising your feeling of safety in your body or triggering emotional pain that requires professional support.
5. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself: You’re trying on a new way of being and attempting to distance yourself from some pretty heavily ingrained patterns. You’ve also likely experienced some form of body related shaming or trauma in your life as most of us have. Because of these things, this healing journey requires heaping doses of self compassion. I held compassion for myself as a child attempting to navigate difficult circumstances first with food and later on with exercise and for myself as a woman who had been imprisoned for years by an ideal body image that was ridiculous and unattainable. I also continue to have compassion for myself as a human being trying to exist on a planet ripe with the contrasts of deep beauty and equally deep suffering. Compassion was the thing that helped me stay the course and create a new relationship with myself and also subsequently with those around me.
6. Don’t be afraid to try new things: It’s easy to get limited by the narrow scope of exercise that is marketed to us. Use this time to expand your view and experiment with any and all kinds of movement that pop into your head. Notice when your body feels most alive and if and when the mind no longer find’s itself counting calories burned or noting steps taken. During what kinds of movement do you actually find yourself more fully IN YOUR BODY? What kinds of movement could you do for hours and feel lost in it? Explore fully the sensation of pleasure as it relates to movement for yourself. And do your best to release ideas that limit exercise to activities that feel like “shoulds”.
7. Understand that it’s ok if you’re moving less (and also if you’re moving more!): It took me a bit of time to get to the point where I was able fully access my body’s rhythms with regard to movement. For the first several months I kept running into what seemed liked constant fatigue and/or disinterest with regard to exercise. Here was one of my greatest fears; that this process would lead me to a life a laziness, apathy and ill health. This is not what happened. It turned out that after so many years of over-exercising, my body needed some time to re-set and recover. Though it created panic at times, holding myself through that period of time where it seemed like I would rarely ever exercise again allowed me to move into a natural balance of rest and movement that I’ve now easily maintained for years. Continue trusting your body and movement will find you again, I promise.
8. Before deciding whether or not you’re going to move your body take 5 minutes to be still and ask some of the following questions: How do I feel today? Am I fatigued, energized or somewhere in between? Does anything in my body feel tense or painful? What are the emotions I am feeling in this moment? Am I aware of any thoughts coming up about what I “should” be doing with regard to movement and my body? If so, what are those thoughts? Are they true? What type of movement, if any, might feel really good? If I’m not craving movement itself so much, is there something else I would really love to do?
I often use something I call the imagination tool when I’m having trouble figuring out whether or not I want to move my body and/or what kind of movement my body might be desiring. It’s a simple exercise in which I allow my mind to imagine doing different activities and then I gauge my body’s response to each activity. Typically when I do this, one activity will come out as a clear winner with my body. It shows up as a feeling of lightness, an opening through my chest and shoulders or a small spark throughout my body. When one or more of these sensations show up, I know I’ve found what my body is asking for.
Unless I am booked in for a session at my Pilates studio, I typically hold my exercise plans each day VERY VERY loosely. This means that I tend to have a general idea upon waking as to whether or not I plan to enjoy some form of exercise or relax into a rest day but for the most part I let my body’s intuition be the guide and I'm always open to changing direction based on that. The ultimate question I hold in my mind when it comes to exercise is, “What would feel good today?”
This is a dramatic shift from the days of my exercise disorder when I was chained to a very specific and cumbersome workout schedule, one that had little to do with health and nothing at all to do with what gave me pleasure. The focus back then was three fold; to tame and alter my body, to punish myself for overeating and to exercise enough to numb emotional pain.
My current approach to exercise is a version of what many in the eating and exercise disorder recovery arena are calling Intuitive Exercise. As an ally and partner to the growing community of Intuitive Eating (which I heartily endorse), Intuitive Exercise offers a way of moving my body that releases strict rules about if, when, where, how and for how long I exercise, in favour of a system that puts my own individual body’s needs and desires at the centre of the process. Basically it’s a way of bringing my body back into connection with movement as opposed to handing it over to people and programs that don't have access to my own internal wisdom. This does not necessarily require that you toss aside gym memberships, personal trainers or workout schedules (although it may be beneficial to separate from them for a time depending on your current relationship to exercise), it simply means that you begin to seek out joy inducing movement practices and strive to remain in true connection with your body throughout the process.
For any of you who have been in the body shaping and/or weight loss game for a while, you likely have figured out that most fitness programs typically do not create an “endless love” type relationship with movement. At least they never did for me. What they did end up creating however was a proverbial exercise band wagon that I would jump on all fired up on the structure and the workout tracking only to find out several weeks or months down the road that my body and soul simply could not sustain the enthusiasm my mind had experienced upon signing up. I’m going to guess that this scenario may sound familiar to some of you. I believe much of this so-called “loss of motivation” comes from the fact that most exercise programs actually ignore the body altogether. Sounds strange, dosesn't it? But here’s the thing; instead of listening to the body’s needs and desires and seeking out positive feeling states with regard to movement, exercise plans, programs and challenges tend to be created and committed to almost exclusively with the mind. So although we're led to believe that exercise is prescribed according to body-centric principles (exercise science and current concepts of health, as skewed as they may be), the all important voice of the body itself is actually no where to be found. The practice of Intuitive Exercise is all about learning to listen for and trust that voice.
So here's what we're told; A certain amount of cardiovascular exercise is good for our hearts and lungs. Some form of resistance training helps increase lean muscle mass and bone density. We also know that regular sessions of movement have the ability to benefit mental health. This information is not wrong, BUT it’s also not helpful in and of itself. If it was, far fewer of us would be at war with our bodies around movement. The data and science alone just ignore so much. They ignore the importance of ancestral and sacred ritual that was often the purpose of movement. They ignore the mind, body, spirit connection. They ignore the very complicated relationship most humans have with their bodies due in large part to a lifetime of toxic cultural messaging and media. And they also ignore the fact that a very large segment of the population do not have the financial ability and/or privilege that allows them access to the "fitness" and "wellness" that's being marketed to us. That is a really big problem. In fact the data and science are most often used as both a tool of shame and a tool of exclusion, one that many industry and health professionals mistakenly believe to be motivational. All of this makes me angry and I believe we can do better.
Humans tend to do repeatedly what feels good on some level. So why don't we aim to invoke feelings of pleasure during movement instead of plying people with statistics and bullshit body shaming. Let's help people uncover rewards that stretch beyond the physical appearance of their bodies! Let's up level our consciousness around movement! Trust me, tearing down tired old, oppressive constructs can be a super fun side hustle!
What we need more of now are motivational movement “WHYs” that we can truly get excited about. Here are a few of mine;
My practice no longer has anything to do with why or how I “should” be exercising (shoulds are so 2000's anyway). Intuitive Exercise, for me, paints a picture that is so much richer and more colorful than anything I could have experienced when I was using movement solely to try and control and punish my body. It's given me freedom I didn't know I had been seeking.
“EARN YOUR BODY”
“EXERCISE UNTIL YOUR BODY BEHAVES”
“NO SHORTCUTS, WORK FOR IT”
This is fitness culture in a nutshell.
It stinks and I'm over it.
Maybe, just maybe, you might be over it too.
And if you are you can follow me to Part Two of Intuitive Exercise: The Art of Listening Before Moving where I'll be discussing specific tools to help you start creating and nourishing your own Intuitive Exercise practice.
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 over their limbs knowing that soon they would be running and warm enough.
Each one of us that morning held a coloured duo tang in our hands. This was a sign that we were all on 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 so 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 was petite and muscular. No matter how she was dressed or what situation you saw her in, there was no mistaking her fitness level. 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, acceptance of self and above all CARE of self.
What is my story on embodied movement?
It’s about presence and beauty. The grace of a dancer in motion completely unaware of anything beyond that very next step. What is it about dance in particular that makes it so compelling to behold? Is it the stimulation of our visual and auditory senses together? The musical accompaniment coordinating the dancer’s lines and flow? What is the difference between a performance that evokes emotion from within the observer versus one that does not. Is it the presence? the spirit if you will?
What happens when I’m fully inhabiting my body while I move. While I exercise. What happens in my soul and in the way my neurotransmitters spark and sizzle when I really believe I am punching a heavy bag in a gritty, sweaty Rocky-esque gym in the bronx somewhere rather than simply punching air in my living room? What happens when all thought drops away and I lose myself in the natural landscape that surrounds me until there is only me and my foot fall on the trail? Do I hear the rocks whisper my name? Do the trees share with me a message of peace and enlightenment?
Letting all the nonsense drop away, fully and divinely inhabiting my body. It doesn't happen all the time but it happens just enough. Enough to light up every cell of my being, so each one glows as if warmed by a sunbeam. Enough that I know I will return again to these movements and this space because it feels just that delicious. Pleasure in motion. A vibrational match between movement and the divine. Is this not what we truly crave? More so than numbers on a scale or calories burned, it’s about SO MUCH MORE than that. It’s bigger, more expansive and deeply meaningful when we allow it to be that way.
Movement can heal the most profound level of wounding, connecting us to ourselves and also to that which is greater than than us, moving us beyond the minutiae of our lives. As an elixir of sorts, a magical incantation that allows us to be visible to ourselves in a different way than before. Seen as both animal and spirit. Awakening the animal spirit within.
We’ve removed the sacred from our movement practices. We worship seated and still. We exercise without intention or connection. Just another task on our overcrowded to do list, void of any presence or meaning beyond the check mark. Many of us are running scared, running away from rather than into deep connection and understanding of what drives us. Of what this existence is really about.
How do you begin to create more presence in your movement? Maybe surprisingly, it begins with a pause. A moment to connect and check in with how your body is feeling as a whole, to ask it once you’re truly listening what it’s needs and desires might be in this moment. Then breaking it down and feeling your way forward as you go. This is an expression of trust in your body. I know I want to listen to music. I know I want to be outside. Once outside where am I being called to? The stairs? The ocean? The playground? Allowing my body to lead me and trusting. Sometimes I’m not sure and it starts with putting some workout clothes on. Maybe I put something in the dvd player or look at a class schedule. I begin. Maybe it feels good and I continue. Maybe it doesn’t and I stop, change direction or simply allow for my body’s needs to surface through the contrast of what it isn’t aligning with today.
So what’s different?
I mean now that you’ve healed. Now that you’re no longer addicted to exercise, obsessed with your body, feeling a deep sense of repulsion and despair every time you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror.
What’s different is everything. And also nothing. For on the surface the only behaviour change really noticeable to the outside world is the fact that I no longer exercise several hours every day.
The everything remains mostly invisible to those around me. Things like;
I no longer panic when I gain weight.
My brain is not on a constant loop of calculating the amount of exercise I’ve done and the amount I still need to do each and every day.
When I look at myself in the mirror, I see beauty. I see a whole person with a soul rather than fragments of too big, too small, too soft and too fat.
When I exercise, it is about the pleasure of movement. There is no longer any level of punishment involved.
My weight has stopped swinging erratically 25-30 lbs at a time because there simply is no “diet and exercise wagon” to be on or off. Things are level. More balanced.
I no longer vilify rest. I embrace it. And I do it a lot.
I inhabit myself and my body more fully than I ever have.
I am at ease when I walk into a room. Free from the anxiety of the constant comparison of my body to others and the judgements I once placed in their heads.
So while its true I no longer exercise obsessively and in many ways it may not seem as though not all that much has changed, in reality nothing is the same. Much like an iceberg, of which you see only 10 percent of it’s overall mass emerging out above the water, the majority of my substantial transformation remains hidden.
What’s palpable to you when you read the statements above?
Does resistance show up? Do you scoff? Or can you feel a sense of peace? Maybe even a small drop of freedom? Is there somewhere deep inside you where it also might feel like the truth?
These feelings, this expansion of consciousness, this dropping of the emotional and mental weight of using exercise to correct something you believe to be wrong…it’s available to all.
And with this note, I just want you to know that it’s possible. That there is a different way to invite movement into your life. A different way to inhabit your body and a different purpose for exercise that's far more expansive than simply attempting to change the shape of your body. And it’s where the real juice is.
It’s where both nothing but mostly everything can change.
“How do you start a revolution, Lori?”
This was the question that appeared softly and somewhat unexpectedly in my mind several weeks ago as I navigated the experience I am about to share with you.
The following “call to action” email showed up in my inbox after I had been investigating a local martial arts facility’s introductory kickboxing program. After landing on the program’s sales page, I was immediately disenchanted. What I had believed to be an exercise program teaching various martial arts techniques was instead being marketed to me as a “Rapid Fat Loss Program” with body shaming manipulation tactics sitting front and center. Normally in a situation such as this, I would have simply taken my disappointment, grabbed my boxing gloves and purchased a heavy bag to set up in my basement.
Then this email showed up.
And after reading it came strong emotions and the question,
“How do you start a revolution, Lori?”
Subject: Really? I mean…really!!
Call me crazy, but I’m a little surprised you still haven’t taken me up on this incredible offer for my rapid weight loss program:
21 Day Fat Furnace
If you really want to get lean, tight & toned fast (and I’m guessing you do or you wouldn’t have even visited my site), then this is the ideal first step.
Remember, not only will it help you sculpt a flat sexy belly incredibly fast but it will also give you the momentum you desperately need to easily slide back into your skinny jeans in no time
So DO IT NOW before it gets lost in the shuffle of life. :)
This kind of fitness industry mentality and marketing is one of the fundamental reasons why I have mostly worked out in my home and on my own for the past few years rather than in a gym or class setting. After escaping a decade and a half long eating and exercise disorder, I now know what a truly healthy relationship with exercise feels like and I also know what it is to love and accept my body whether it’s fit or not. I am no longer willing to participate in programs that do not support and encourage, women in particular, to treat themselves and their bodies with the utmost compassion.
So the answer to my question comes.
You start a revolution by using your voice. You start a revolution by setting up the boxing ring not in your basement, Lori, but in the front yards of those leading the charge in a fractured system. It is time, with all I have learned and the awakening I have had to the insidious nature of gender based shame within the fitness community to say,
“This does not work for me and here’s why”
Dear Gym owner,
Several weeks ago I saw an advertisement on Facebook announcing your martial arts facility opening up in my area. I was excited! I’ve done a bit of kickboxing in the past and I LOVE the way it makes me feel. From wrapping my hands like a pro and sliding them into my gloves to hitting the bags with jabs, hooks and roundhouse kicks, this has always been a form of exercise that brings my body great joy. In short, I was stoked to give your classes a try.
That was, until I went to your sign-up page. Sadly, rather than finding information there about the benefits of kickboxing as an amazing and empowering workout or testimonials about the inspirational nature of your instruction, I was instead assaulted with a “21 day Rapid Fat Loss Program” complete with body shaming copy such as continues in the follow up email you sent above.
I understand that this kind of marketing is commonplace across so many industries and I also know that you have likely been taught that in order to create higher volumes of sales conversions for your business you are right on point in speaking to your customer’s supposed “pain” in this way.
I want to tell you that it sucks.
It sucks that as a woman, I am continually being told the story that changing the size and shape of my body is the primary reason I should be motivated to exercise. It sucks that the fitness industry and the media in general are constantly telling me through both direct and indirect language and images that my body is somehow wrong. It sucks that you, as a supposed fitness ambassador, are purposefully attempting to invoke within me the absolute worst feeling emotion there is, that of shame, in order to sell me your services. And worst of all, it sucks that there are still SO many women who will respond to these despicable marketing tactics by believing the lie that they must have that “flat sexy belly” you so aptly highlight in order to be considered an acceptable and worthy human being.
You make a lot of assumptions about me in this email. None of which are true and none of which compel me whatsoever to give you my business. Allow me to take a moment to shed some light on just how these marketing strategies contribute to the oppressive and sexist narrative that lies at the intersection of fitness culture and women’s bodies.
I dislike and am looking to change my body. As crazy as it may sound, I actually believe my body is truly beautiful exactly as it is. This includes the times when it’s running fast and doing push ups on the regular as well as the times it’s content being more sedentary and several “skinny jean” sizes larger. Let me ask you, would it not be incredibly satisfying to contribute to a movement that allows more women in the world to feel this way? As a fitness leader, you have the power to do that.
I exercise to lose weight. Through the journey of healing a distorted body image and exercise addiction, I happened upon the secret to creating effortless and consistent exercise. SURPRISE! It has absolutely nothing to do with weight, body shape or size or even health. The secret is actually PLEASURE (with a side of presence). Finding the pleasure in movement has, for me, superseded the need to invoke weight loss as the deity of motivation. In fact, the aesthetics of my body and my constant displeasure with it actually proved to be the biggest road block in creating a functional and non-disordered exercise practice. In other words, trying to lose weight through exercise actually impeded my body’s desire to get to it’s natural weight and shape.
Shaming my body will motivate me to exercise (and also to sign up for your classes).
I wonder, would you send this same email to an interested male participant? Is he also “desperate to slide back into his skinny jeans”? I am so much more than my physical form and I ask that you treat me that way. Becoming cognizant of and choosing to rise above the use of language that degrades my body as a female is one of the biggest keys the fitness industry has to unlocking true acceptance and healing for generations of women.
There is a better way to do this; to spread the joy of exercise and to invite more people to experience the pleasure of movement. And it’s a way that not only can build your business into a success but also exudes integrity and raises up the industry and the human species as a whole. It’s time for the fitness industry to evolve and I am asking you to be a part of the evolution.
Stop shaming my body.
Instead, tell me the story of what inspired you to create this martial arts community. Describe to me the feeling you had when you first stepped into the ring to spar with an opponent. Talk to me about passion and purpose and how this sport has contributed to the fabric of your life. This is what moves me to want to work with you. And this is the ace marketing plan that will inspire love affairs with movement in lasting and truly connected ways.
The Meaningful Movement Project
Several times last year my less than 2 year old car refused to start. I would be out and about running errands, jamming the tunes and knocking things off my to do list and boom, I come out of the grocery store ready to move on to my next destination, out the key in the ignition and nothing.
The first time this happened I called roadside assistance. A very lovely man in a very large shiny tow truck navigated his way through the mall parking lot to locate me and proceeded to jump the battery. “Wow that’s a pretty new car to not be starting”, he commented. Yep! hashtag truth, tow guy. I cancelled my afternoon appointments and made my way to the dealership.
I was thrilled when they were able to take a look at my car immediately and an hour later, the service manager handed the keys back to me, “We’ve run the computer diagnostics and everything checks out as A-OK”.
Wonderful. Must have been a one time thing. Off I go, errand-ready once more.
Then it happened a second time. Dead car. The flow of my day again coming to a screeching halt and admittedly I am somewhat annoyed this time as I go through the motions of earlier in the week. Roadside assistance for jump: Check. Cancel plans: Check. Head to dealership: Check. In what continues to feel like a scene from the movie Groundhog Day, I am told that the car’s computer diagnostics show that all systems, including the battery, are FINE. I am *highly* skeptical as I drive away this time but figure, who am I to argue with this obviously advanced technology?
You can probably imagine that by the THIRD time this happens (all in the span of a week, I might add), I am pretty damn done. Many expletives make their way out of my mouth and I march into the service area with my Xena Warrior Princess energy ‘ablazin.
I do not even pretend to understand the inner workings of any kind of machinery or technology (a fact that both my internet service provider and the Apple tech people can attest to) but I find myself saying to the service manager, “THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE BATTERY! Can we PLEASE just change out the battery?”
Despite my take no prisoners attitude and what might have been mistaken for a Xena battle cry, the manager remains resistant to my pleas. “The computer is telling us it’s fine”, he keeps repeating. Finally we come to an agreement; one of the mechanics will take my car home with him for the weekend and see if by driving the vehicle, he can uncover what obviously must be a complex and mysterious problem.
Monday morning arrives and I am back at the dealership, Hurrah! The couch and coffee machine there have now started to feel far too much like home so I wait with eager anticipation for the service manager to fill me in on what they’ve found.
“We’ve replaced your battery with a brand new one”.
And? The flux capacitor was way off line? The holo-deck transmitter was jammed? (Oh wait that might be from Star Trek..)
Nope. None of the above. It seems as though after driving it all weekend, the brilliant mechanic decided that despite the digital feedback from the computer, my car was indeed behaving like a vehicle with a battery that was unable to hold a charge. Halle-effin-lujah. Someone has started to use their brain.
I remember when my parents would take their car to our family mechanic when I was young. I would listen to them describe to the best of their ability what seemed to be going wrong with our vehicle and then the first thing that mechanic would do would be to hop in the car and take it for a spin. Remember that?
Currently, we are a culture that is obsessed with external objective measurements. Especially technological ones and especially when it comes to our bodies and our health. Weight measurements. Heart rate measurements. Waist and hip measurements. Blood pressure measurements. Calorie measurements. Body fat measurements. Cholesterol measurements. And now the latest and greatest in the measurement technology world; daily step measurements. AKA, the “fit bit”.
What if, as in “The Case of the Undiagnosed Car Battery” above, we don’t actually NEED all these measurements to find a solution to our health and fitness problems? What if all these crazy numbers do is distract us from our real work which is to find the sense of celebration through movement that was once THE best intrinsic motivator of all?
Having moved through my own very difficult and troubled history with food and fitness, one which included a full blown addiction to exercise, I strongly believe we are missing the obvious here. The big picture? The simple and easy fix for our fitness angst? It won’t be found in the measurements or the numbers.
Because the numbers take us out of our bodies, my friends!
The numbers feed the metrics of our minds more than our muscles. (say that five times fast!) That little electric band on your arm actually links most directly to the ego and relying solely on it as motivation, inspiration and the “expert” on moving your body actually serves to dampen the inherent electric charge within that sparks and hums when you’re moving for the sake of movement itself.
You know who knows how many steps you need to take in a day? Your body.
It also knows when to rest. And what kind of exercise feels most like play. And when it feels good to work really hard or push yourself out of your comfort zone. Your body knows it all.
In my Fantasy Fitness utopia, I imagine teaching people how to connect with their spirit and their bodies instead of selling them more gadgets and false promises. In my dream world the measurements don’t matter anywhere near as much as the feelings and learning to allow our own natural rhythms to be our guide.
“So I should toss my fit bit?”, you’re asking. Gosh, no (unless that feels like freedom to you, then I’m all for it!) I am aware that there are many people out there that have found fitness trackers to be a helpful tool in inspiring more daily movement for themselves. My message is simply to remind you that they are just that; a tool. You won’t create a lasting, effortless and peaceful movement practice by handing it all over to a machine. Check in with your body! Start learning to decode it’s messages. In other words;
Get in the car and drive it.
Ask yourself the following questions: How does my body feel today?What kind of movement might feel joyful? What can I add to my exercise session today that makes it feel more like a celebration of my body and of life itself? Could it be music, nature, social connection, family? What do the measurements and numbers actually do for me? Are they enabling me to access the sensations of pleasure and joy or do they feel more like your fitness “parole officer” needing to be checked in with every day? What tools help me create movement sessions that are in service to my current overall vision for your life?
These are the questions I continue to explore as I forge my own path as somewhat of a fitness radical. It’s a path on which I question everything we think is right regarding fitness and health and I welcome any and all fellow travelers who are looking to do fitness a different way.
Like the Gwenyth and Chris Martin of not so long ago, exercise and weight loss typically go hand in hand. Their love story tends to go something like this:
• Exercise burns calories, and when you burn more calories than you take in, you lose weight.
• Exercise also leads to an increase in overall lean muscle mass, which speeds up your metabolism and guess what? helps you to lose weight.
Given the above, it’s no major leap to marry these two concepts together as the perfect Hollywood power couple and have them live happily ever after. If you are a living, breathing human being, you've seen images of these two together plastered everywhere in the fitness community and related media. If you want to lose weight, putting together and committing to an exercise plan is a an EPIC no brainer. Except that it’s not. And I believe another “conscious uncoupling” is in order. So today I am prepared to be THAT friend. Yes really, the friend who says out loud what all the other friends are whispering about behind this couple’s back.
These two do not belong together.
ACK! The horror! Did I just actually say that? (Two hundred thousand personal trainers may have just fallen over mid squat)
I did. Because in fact, when you get down into the nitty gritty of their current relationship, Exercise and Weight loss really do make for a dysfunctional pair. I know! I know! It seemed so darn promising! A perfect match. How can it be? yada yada. (I'll allow you to have your tinsel town break up melt down here)
So what went wrong? Let's take a moment to stroll down memory lane and reflect on the love affair that was...
*insert E! Hollywood story movie trailer guy voice here*
"It seemed to be love at first sight for Exercise and Weight Loss on the 1980's movie set "Work IT!" as this pair found a seemingly instant sympatico in the typically egoic world of personal image. Weight Loss instantly experienced a meteoric career boost only a few short weeks after hooking up with Exercise, and from that point on the couple became inseparable. They lived a golden life these two,what with the unlimited Nike Airs and the gold flecked leg warmers and things seemed to be going well for this pair for several decades until rumors of unrest began to fly. Stories of abuse soon surfaced, and Weight Loss was accused of alternately doting upon and then completely abandoning Exercise for months at a time. By most insider accounts, Weight Loss tended to be a moody son of a bitch and would blame it's amiable partner for much of it's failure and discontent. Exercise's BFF responded to the rumors saying, "Exercise was always just looking to be accepted for who it was and ultimately for the joy and pleasure it brings to life” It seems that in the end, Exercise felt like it was never going to be enough...never quite able to fill the void between what it could offer and the heavily “weighted” expectations of it’s partner.
The two parted ways. Exercise ended up with the bungalow in Malibu, and is said to be living a happily single life filled with joy, pleasure and connection."
So, metaphor of the stereotypical Hollywood power couple aside, I assure you this does not have to be an acrimonious split. Instead, I suggest an amicable separation of these two that in the end finds them in the same orbit yet interacting more peacefully than they have in years. Here is what I’ve figured out about the importance of separating these ideologies from my very own Exercise/Weight Loss divorce proceedings:
Marc David says, “Eating without pleasure is like trying to stop smoking without breathing." It's no different with exercise. Exclude the joy and pleasure and you just get EFFORT.
Trust me when I say there is no marriage counseling needed here. Finding activities and a mindset where exercise can stand alone as a pleasurable experience that creates both connection to and reverence for our bodies is the best outcome we could hope for. From that place, weight loss and health improvements get to become purely happy side effects of the practice instead of being entangled in an unhappy union of co-dependence. I know it’s scary. We’ve been brain-washed into believing that the sole purpose of exercise is to shape our bodies, but I also know firsthand being a child of this divorce, that both Exercise and Weight Loss have the ability to thrive. Just not so tightly knit together.
A small brown suitcase sits open and empty on my bed as I prepare to pack several days worth of clothing for a retreat in Southern California. It will be warmer than my current climate much further north so I reach into the back of the closet for shorts, tank tops and light dresses, none of which have seen the light of day since the previous Summer. “Hmm, maybe I should try them on…”, I think to myself, noting that since making a commitment six months ago to halt all dieting, food restriction and excessive exercise it was quite possible, in fact likely, I had gained a bit of weight.
Not one thing.
And not the “well things are a little snug but I can squeeze myself into them” kind of not fitting. No, it was the “I cannot even come close to doing up these buttons or zippers” kind of not fitting. The kind that completely deflated me despite the increased bloat in my belly.
I knew that I was on a path of healing my exercise addiction and compulsive eating. I knew that what I was doing in refusing to buy into the diet and fitness industry’s harmful messaging was absolutely the right thing for me and that I was playing the long game this time around instead of just attempting to band-aid the situation. I also KNEW without a shadow of a doubt that I was going to be ok, but that feeling… the constriction of those clothes on my flesh in that moment, the heavy disappointment and shame of standing there in my bedroom with a pair of shorts half way on, zipper pulled agape by my hips and belly; I’m not going to lie, it stung. A familiar panic swelled inside my chest, a feeling that demanded immediate relief. Relief that had typically come in the form of a weight loss or fitness program sign up, a plan to starve myself and to exercise for several hours that day and in the days to come. But I had promised myself it was time to try something different and somewhere deep in my core, none of those actions felt truly desirable. Instead it was time to use all that I had learned in recent months about the roots of my compulsions and about loving my body as it was in this moment and put it into practice.
At that particular juncture on my road to healing, all of the theory made perfect sense to me. The fact that I had been binge eating for much of my life in order to dampen emotions, anxiety mostly; sometimes pain and sadness. The tendency for type A overachievers to strive for perfection in all areas of life including physical form and often fell victim to various compulsive behaviors including exercise addiction. The understanding that the tidal wave of emotion from which I was attempting to run from into a tub of ice cream or with my 3rd gym visit of the day would not actually wash me away into the abyss as, on a primal level, it felt like it might. Intellectually, this all made sense. The little cloud of essence deep in my solar plexus that resonates as my soul shouted YES! YES! YES! to all the information I had soaked up so far and yet here I stood in my bedroom, attempting to stuff myself into a pair of now too small denim shorts and all the self assurance I had about stopping the cleanses and the diets and the endless working out began to slip away.
This was THE moment. THE chance to not only think differently but DO things differently.
I let the panic wash over me. I let my mind fondle all the various solutions to the “problem” of this most recent weight gain and when it had had its fill, I took a deep breath and exhaling the last few minutes worth of angst, self-flagellation and disappointment, I looked in the mirror. Pulling the shorts off of my body, I continued to strip down until I was naked. There in that moment, I made the decision to look at my body through new eyes, to start my healing and to start living what I knew was my truth; My weight did not determine my worth.
My curves popped out at me at once, the fullness of my hips and bosom accentuating my diminutive waist. It really was a true hourglass shape. Had I noticed that before? My shoulders looked strong, like those of an athlete who had spiked many a volleyball to the floor over the years. And my rounded lower belly? Certainly not taut as it was before childbirth, but was it as truly unacceptable as I had been brainwashed to believe? No, it was not. In fact, it was actual quite feminine and sensual.
I took in my whole self one last time and made the following commitment:
I am telling myself the truth in this moment and this body is not the body I feel most at home in. That is ok. As I move through this next phase of healing, I am committing myself to loving my body no matter what the numbers on the scale or the tags on my clothes say. I am committed to trusting the path I am currently on. This path includes no food restriction or dieting of any kind, no fitness weight loss programs or cleanses and no excessive exercise. It does include practicing the concept of mindfulness in order to create more self awareness as well as self-compassion. I am choosing to believe that truly loving and caring for my body will eventually take me home and I am no longer in a rush.
From that moment, a new and wholly different “solution” came to me as began to put the clothes I had pulled out back into my closet. I would go and buy new clothes for this trip, clothes that fit my body as it was right now, clothes in which I would feel comfortable fully participating in this retreat. I would not be draping myself in the energy of resignation with this weight gain, as I may have once thought this behavior signified, but instead in a giant and loving cloak of acceptance.
I couldn't know this at the time but things were about to change drastically for me for this was the first of many moments that I would end up choosing compassionate curiosity, acceptance and self-love over panic, disgust and my next new diet and exercise plan. To my delight it would also become easier and easier to make that choice as I continued on my journey.
The retreat was a big success. I ended up laughing, crying, dancing, learning, connecting and witnessing magic; all of the things I had so desperately hoped would occur in my smaller sized clothes.
Lori Race is a Registered Acupuncturist, Wellness Clinic Owner and Master Certified Life Coach who loves to have conversations about and self-compassion and how to actually translate that concept into real human lives. In her work with patients and clients, Lori uses a combination of life coaching tools, Acupuncture and heart centred human connection to help people begin seeing themselves and others through the lens of compassion. Lori is currently writing a book about the impact of meaningful movement practices (aka exercise with intention and connection) on our society’s current consciousness around and fitness and the body.