Loving My Love Handles
"Dig in! Dig, dig, dig!" our boot camp instructor Amy yelled. As the springtime sun rose over Atlanta, 30 women dug their toes into the near-vertical hillside. I was one of the first to reach the crest as Amy hollered for us to drop and pound out 20 push-ups.
But as summer approached I began to have trouble keeping up. Around the same time, my lifelong insomnia suddenly subsided. I was delighted to find myself sleeping a full eight hours — until those eight hours became 10 and a nap in the afternoon. With all that downtime plus some serious carbo comfort eating, I began to gain weight. By Thanksgiving, I couldn't keep up at all, and I quit the class just as the holiday feasting began.
I had been to see my doctor several times, but because of a mix-up with my ultrasound films, I hadn't been properly diagnosed for seven months. A friend took me to the emergency room after I nearly fainted in a drugstore, and exploratory surgery revealed such advanced endometriosis that my rogue uterine cells had grown into tentacles wrapping around my intestines and every organ in my abdomen. I had been slowly bleeding to death internally for close to a year. During a six-hour emergency surgery, two amazing doctors saved my ovaries, my digestive system, and my life, but I was left as weak as a floppy kitten. It was a good six months before I felt like myself again. Still I was 30 pounds heavier than when my symptoms began.
I wanted to get back in shape, but I was so angry! I felt as if my own body had betrayed me. I rejoined boot camp with all the vengeance and none of the joy. When I tried cramming myself into my cute Lycra shorts, I looked like an overstuffed plush toy, seams straining against my newly padded hips, belly fat lapping over the waistband. I couldn't bring myself to show up like that, so I bought some cheap sweatpants and paired them with an oversize T-shirt. My droopy clothes flapping and billowing, I puffed along, way behind women I used to run beside, resenting every minute. Amy tried to encourage me, but I felt so low, I convinced myself that my classmates were looking down on me.
At home, I snapped my teeth into undressed salads and dry slices of baked chicken, eating as if every meal were a punishment for being fat. I could maintain this pleasure-free regimen for a week, maybe 10 days, before I would break and sabotage myself by angrily gorging on cookies. Post-binge, guilt-addled and sorry, I would dive right back into my furious routine. Sweat. Cheat. Repeat.
More than a year later I remained stuck, stomping around in a few size 14 "emergency" clothes. I had developed the habit of leaping sideways anytime a camera was pointed in my direction; I didn't want to see myself.
I went back to my doctor, figuring if boot camp and endless salad couldn't shift the scale, I must have something like a thyroid issue. She took my blood, did a stress test and an electrocardiogram. My thyroid was fine, and my hard work had yielded some nice results that I couldn't see: All my numbers were excellent.
I didn't understand how I could be so healthy and yet be unable to lose weight, but my doctor was unconcerned. "You've had a partial hysterectomy. So you're a size 14 instead of an 8 or a 10. Maybe this is how you look." She shrugged. "Let it go, and live your life. You look fine, Joshilyn. Really. You are fine."
Her message was simple: I was good enough. Right where I was. It was an astounding thing to hear in a world so in love with self-improvement. This is not a message that is generally aimed at women. It certainly wasn't what I had been telling myself! When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was a failure: Not thin enough, not fit enough. I saw only all the ways I wasn't perfect. But this one woman, telling me so offhandedly, as if it were obvious, that I was fine, changed my focus. I stopped trying to meet some imaginary, impossible standard and instead focused on actually taking care of the body I had been abusing.
As I let go of my rage and self-loathing, I decided to trade boot camp for hot power yoga. The classes, taught by two tiny strings of energy named Astrid and Malia, were intense, but instead of keeping up an unkind, internal diatribe, I listened as Malia talked about self-acceptance. I stopped comparing myself and competing with the women around me. When I pushed myself to my edge, it wasn't to win; in fact, Astrid called it play?ing. As I played, I remembered how good it felt to simply let my body move.
I also stopped eating low-calorie foods as a punishment. Instead I tried to give my body optimum fuel as a kindness. I left room for treats, and I made sure the healthy food I ate was beautiful and delicious. Almost immediately, the retaliatory cookie bingeing stopped.
Ironically, once I accepted myself as a size 14 — once I decided to believe that I was fine — the weight started to come off. Six months later I'm down a dress size, my resting heart rate is 55, and I have new stamina to bolster my new attitude. My body feels better, and I feel better in my body every day.
I think the angry lady who took the weight as an affront and a personal failure and tried to beat it off herself would be frustrated with this rate of progress. I also think she wouldn't have made any.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, October 2013.