Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Real Secret is...

Top Row - Spring & Summer 2009, Middle Row - Spring 2010, Bottom Row Summer 2012
Recently, I decided to see how my mission to take care of my body had changed my physical appearance.  I posted the picture on facebook and got more responses than I have ever gotten to anything else I've posted in the four years that I've been on facebook - and they're still pouring in.  I've gotten comments or likes from many of my friends, and even from friends of friends whom I don't know.  In person, I've received random hugs, pats on the back and giant smiles.  And both in person and on facebook, I've heard again and again, "How did you do it?"  "You must have worked so hard!" and the big one - "What's your secret?" 

I am always at a bit of a loss as to how to respond to the "What's your secret?" question.  And frankly, it often surprises me.  Too often it comes from women who I see as fit and trim  - women who already do more than I ever would to take care of their bodies.  What advice could I give them about getting in shape and losing weight?  And why, oh why, do women feel this constant need, no matter what their shape, to get just a little thinner? Other than the very skinniest women (who want to gain weight), every other woman I know wants to lose at least a few pounds. No woman I know is content with her body, just the way it is.  And that is part of the problem.  That is really the secret that everyone wants to know - yet no one wants to hear.

The thing is that weight loss and body toning, well that's pretty much individual.  Some people have faster metabolisms, some have slower ones.  Some are curvy and will always retain some body fat - making muscle hard to see; some have leaner builds and will show muscle the minute they gain it.  Some people respond better to exercise, some respond to diet.  Different people are different combinations of all those things.  Personally, I have a slow metabolism, I respond well to exercise and I retain a layer of body fat that makes muscle hard to see.  That's me.  

I often find myself telling people about how exercise works for me.  Exercising everyday, for an extended period of time speeds up my metabolism.  It takes about two months of constant cardio exercise for my metabolism to kick in - and then suddenly I start to drop weight and my body begins changing.  

If I keep up the daily cardio, I will keep dropping weight and will keep developing muscle at an ever quickening pace.  If I pull back to exercising one to three times a week I will lose at a slower pace and maintain.  If I stop exercising completely, I can maintain the weight loss for about six months before I start sliding back in the other direction.

I also point out to people that when I start exercising daily, my body begins to crave different foods.  I am not as prone to want sweet, salty foods. I don't crave carbs as much. My love for comfort foods decreases as I gain peace and comfort from exercise.  I am more likely to want a big bowl of string beans and shrimp for dinner (as I had the other night) than a big bowl of macaroni and cheese.

All of this is true - and, I suppose, on some level it is helpful.  You could probably spend all day analyzing the mental, physical and emotional implications of replacing comfort food with exercise.  And that comes the closest to my true secret for losing weight and getting in shape.  At first you exercise because you know you have to do it - but somewhere along the way, a mental shift happens, and there's a conscious recognition for what really feels good, both inside and out.  But, there's a another shift that I think is the real secret.  One that is gradual, and has to be learned and relearned and nurtured.  One that, at least for me, requires constant vigilance to avoid shifting back in the other direction.  

It's a secret, not because it's closely guarded, not because no one wants to share it, not because it is so complex that it is difficult to explain.  No, it's a secret because no one really wants to hear it.  It seems too simple, too ineffective, too inconsequential.  It's a secret because in a world that constantly sends us the opposite message, it's often feels like a lie that is impossible to embrace.  The secret, very simply is:

Love your body.  It is perfect just the way it is right now.

I hear the arguments already!  From the self-pitying, "What's to love?"  to the indignant, "But I do love body!"  But I mean, REALLY love your body.  Love your body the way you fall in love with that person who you think is THE ONE.  

You know how you look at him (or her) through rose colored glasses - loving every little bit of them, flaws and all?  How you would do anything for them?  How you could gaze all day at the little scar on his face from when he fell playing ball as a kid, or how even though you wonder what possessed her to get that ugly-ass tattoo, somehow it makes her beauty shine more?  Yeah - that kind of love.  Love your body like that.

Whether you think you need to lose 100lbs or 10lbs, when you can look at the part of your body that you have always struggled with the most and see the beauty and power and majesty of it, when you are happy with it just the way it is - things will start to change.  And you won't be happy because your body is becoming different.  You will be happy because you know that no matter what shape your body is in, it is beautiful and wonderful.  And the new shape it takes is just more proof of it's perfectness.

One more story about my experience in the wonders of accepting my body as perfect and I will end this sermon which is already too long.

As part this go round in learning to love my body, I decided to do something I'd always wanted to do.  I took a burlesque class.  I have always loved burlesque, but always thought I couldn't do it.  I was too short, too fat, too young, then too old.  Finally, after seeing some burlesque shows where women of all shapes and sizes were celebrating their beauty and sensuality, I decided that it was time to accept that I could do that too.

About three or four classes in, we had a day where we were working with stockings.  I have short legs and large, fleshy thighs.  Even though I'd been doing lots of good work at loving my body, I have to admit that I kept my focus above my waist.  I didn't spend a lot of time looking at or thinking about my legs.  And suddenly, here I was in a room with giant mirrors everywhere, wearing shorts and thigh-high stockings that kept rolling off of my over-large thighs.

I panicked.  I kept trying to do the dance moves the instructor was showing us, but I couldn't stop seeing every dimple of cellulite, couldn't stop focusing on the sag just below my butt, couldn't stop looking at how every other woman in the room - from big to small - had smooth skin and thighs that stretched up into her hips.  My thighs were beach balls, making an extra, bumpy, lumpy bulge below my hips.  

Then I started focusing on the moves, wondering if there was a way that I could turn my leg, point my toe, bend or twist that would make my legs look like anything other than what they were.  I asked the instructor, "What can I do to make my legs look better?  They're so short and fat.  How can I work with them."  And she said something that made me angry at her.  She gave me, not the technical, mechanical answer I was asking for; she gave me the answer I wrote just above here as the secret.  She said, simply, "Love them.  When you love them, everyone else will too."

That answer literally floored me.  The next move we went to make, sitting on a chair, I did awkwardly - the chair flew out behind me and I landed on my ass.  "Love my thighs!  She's crazy!" I thought as I hit the floor.  The instructor walked over, helped me up, and hugged me and something happened inside me.  I knew she was right.  I knew I had to find a way to love the part of my body I'd always hated the most.

Over the next few weeks, I focused on loving my thighs.  I looked at them, I saw their flaws, and I tried to tell myself those flaws were beautiful.  I have always loved the flaws in other people, so I tried to transfer those feelings to my own body.  Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I didn't, I'm still working on it - a lot.  But the very act of just trying to love my legs had an effect.  Within a couple of weeks, I began to notice that my jeans were fitting looser in my thighs and ass.  I started seeing muscle and tone in my thighs.  And as I began to see what I wanted in my legs in contrast to the things I had always hated - I began to love my legs more.  

I'm still working on it.  I've spent more than 40 years hating my legs, so truly falling in love with them is going to take sometime.  And when I say that loving your body is the goal - I know that it won't happen all it once and it's an uphill battle.  At least it is for me.  But I challenge myself all the time and every time I challenge myself I am rewarded with a little more love from me to my body.  It's a cycle that keeps on making things better.

So, I'll leave you with this picture.  When I posted the other image on facebook, I cropped out my legs because I was still struggling with being ashamed of them, even as I work on loving them.  Well, it's time to drop the shame.  I am who I am.  I love who I am.  And I know that flaws, cellulite, little veins, strange lumpy parts and all - my legs are powerful and wonderful.  They take me everywhere I want to go.  They managed to learn how to run more than 3 miles when they used to only be able to run for 30 seconds.  They are wonderful and perfect.  And so am I.


Amanda said...

You are such a bad ass! For real. I love reading your thoughts.

Pam Spaulding said...

Such an excellent, revealing and brave post, cuz. All I can say is keep up the good work, and do what it takes to love yourself as-is, even as you strive toward your health goals. The human body is an incredible machine -- and it breaks down just like any other. Give yours the TLC it deserves!

Gwen said...

What an inspiring blog! Damn it Julie ...there you go making me LOOK at myself again! I have to say thanks to you (again) for starting ME on a journey of BEGINNING TO accept this flawed body of mine. By "shadowing" you during your quest to achieve the 5K run, I began to challenge myself and was able to run 3 miles, although very slowly, by the time the weather changed. I did not lose much (weight or inches) in the process but I did gain a sense of self-confidence and determination that I did not have before. So, as you so eloquently stated in your blog, your love of self is not just a physical thing but a mental and emotional one as well. Once we stop measuring ourselves acording to the "standards" and realize that we are beautiful in our own right, everything else seems to fall into place.
I mentioned before, in a previous response to one of your blogs, that I struggled with my legs, calves (or the lack thereof) specifically. Well, nature has a funny way of making you do some things that thrust you out of your comfort zone. Living in Dallas these past months has proved to be a test to how much I love hot weather. It has been HELL HOT here for the last month or so! Once temperature reaches 105 degrees,one tends to rethink their wardrobe! I say that to say that I have been FORCED to wear skirts and dresses lately, lest I spontaneously combust! LOL I am learning to embrace my "little legs" and keep it moving.

So THANK YOU Julie Atwell for being bold enough to share your experience, thereby allowing others to do the same! Love you girl!