27 Jul 2012

On Feeling Fat: Body Image and the Power of Yoga

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The first time I remember feeling fat, I was ten years old. It was the summer after my fourth grade year, and I’d put on a little extra baby fat in preparation for a major upcoming growth spurt. The new director of the ballet school I attended stage-whispered to another teacher in my earshot, “She’ll never be a dancer with a waist like that!”

(Author’s note: Who the eff says that about a freaking ten-year old?!)

Over the next nine months, I grew four and half inches. In less than a year, I went from a rolly polly kid to a thin, lanky pre-pubescent. It was a confusing jolt of a transition. I wasn’t sure what to make of my new body. The next summer, the same ballet teacher approached me and said, “You’ve gotten so long and skinny in the last year! You’re finally starting to look like a dancer! Good for you!”

(Again, who says that to a kid?!)

The message was pretty clear to my eleven-year old brain. Being fat made me bad at the thing I loved most. Being skinny was good and would win me approval from people in power. As I struggled to make sense of my evolving physical form, this message gave me a context to put it in. It was pretty simple.

I needed to be skinny.

Scale with feet

I so often felt tied to the number on my scale.

Internalizing this message set off a chain reaction that would keep me miserable with my body for the next fifteen years. During my teens, I came to see food as the enemy and often ate as little as possible to keep my body running. In college, I became obsessed with exercise, frequently spending two to three hours at the gym after a two hour ballet class, leaving my body exhausted and my mind in a frenzied guessing-game about whether or not I’d done enough to burn up all the calories I’d eaten that day. I stayed depressed and anxious about how I looked. I sometimes avoided social situations if I was feeling fat that day, because I didn’t want anyone to see or judge my body. My weight yo-yo’ed in and out of a healthy range, wreaking havoc on my blood sugar levels and digestive system. I felt the negative consequences of all that body abuse, but none of it seemed more important than the pursuit of thinness.

The thing is, objectively speaking, I’ve never actually been overweight. At my largest, I was a size 8, and I’ve never come close to being above of a healthy weight range. My logical brain sees how irrational it is for me to obsess about a problem that isn’t there, and my body feels the aches and pains of injuries from over-exercising. But that’s the most insidious part of body image issues: They’re not rational. And they don’t respond to rational arguments. I can be told all day long that I’m not overweight, that in fact I meet a lot of people’s definition of “skinny,” but that doesn’t keep me from obsessing over a few extra ounces of fat on my lower belly, and thinking everyone else is obsessing about it, too.

I wish this posted ended with, “And then I found yoga and it made me feel all better about my body!” But that’s not entirely true. Yes, I did start doing yoga when I was 20, during the height of some of my eating disorder behaviors. And yes, that first Savasana was the first time in nearly a decade that my mind felt peaceful and, for a few moments, I wasn’t obsessed with how I looked to other people. But the truth is, some of my worst years were still ahead of me. And at times, I even used yoga to fuel my exercise addiction. But slowly, over time, something took root. I started to accept and welcome my imperfections, and with the help of some really great therapists, my relationship with my body started to change.

Now, at almost 30 and nearly a decade into my practice, I’ve finally started to befriend my body. It’s become less an enemy to be fought. On some days, it’s even an ally toward my goals. I still struggle. A few weeks ago, someone made a comment about my body during a yoga class, and it set off a chain reaction that had me not eating much at all for a few days and obsessing over whether or not the whole world was judging me for being too fat. It was terrifying to be back in a place I haven’t been in a long time. But I came back to my mat, and after a few days, I was able to feed myself again and remember that I am not my physical body. The biggest difference now is that those episodes only last a few days, rather than a few months, and they are fewer and farther between now than ever before.

And some days, I’m even able to be proud of the body I have. Sometimes I glance in the mirror during class and see arm muscles I

Melissa in an Arm Balance

Strong > Skinny

never could have or would have had when I was starving myself. I rejoice in the fact that, at almost 30, I can still do the splits as easily as I could at 14. I feel exhilarated when I fly up into a Forearm Balance and connect with the deep strength my body holds for me. Sometimes I rock a Crow or Flying Splits in public, just because I can.

We yogis always talk about how we are our own best teachers. I think our physical bodies are our teachers, too. Part of my work has been learning to get out of my own way and quit fighting myself. If I’m busy obsessing over a little belly fat, I’ll never fully feel the joy of getting stronger, the thrill of accomplishing a new pose, and the power of taking an incredibly deep breath. My body and I may not be the best of friends yet, but we’re learning to get along. And I may never be a dancer with a waist like this, but—finally, after all these years—I’m pretty sure I’d rather be exactly what I am.

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2 Responses to “On Feeling Fat: Body Image and the Power of Yoga”

  1. Mallary says:

    I cried my eyes out reading this. Thank you for sharing. It really has come at such an specific time for me this week. I haven’t been to yoga in over a week because I have had such anxiety about my body. This really helps.

  2. Katrina says:

    I’m still trying to come to terms with my body, as I’ve had the exact opposite issue where I obsess about being too big, then get depressed and then eat out of depression, never losing weight and the cycle just continues. I have at least finally moved on from “I’m so fat and ugly” (for the most part) to “I really want to be healthy” mindframes.

    Thanks for sharing this. 🙂 It’s always good to hear how other people deal with body image demons – I hope to keep on a path of healthy eating and exercise and clear my mind of these negative thoughts. Strong > skinny indeed!