I am slowly this year coming to terms with a new and improved attitude to my body. And I haven’t got used to it.
Understanding where body shame came from is harder, and this is the first time I’ve admitted to it as shame.
I do not remember feeling bad about my body, as a child, teenager or even young adult. I put on weight with pregnancies and took it off afterwards. I lost two stone when I got divorced. I accepted the ups and downs of weight as part and parcel of being pregnant. I had done Weight Watchers before my fourth pregnancy and achieved gold. I made it to a size 10 and found clothes to buy in the sale.
After I became single, and in a sense my whole life didn’t start until that point I started putting on weight and this time WW didn’t work. I was following their rules and doing 20km a day on a cross trainer and still putting on weight. That was when I gave up on WW, deciding there must be more to weight than this and started exploring intuitive eating and a slow journey to self care which carries on to this day.
I have spent a few years looking for exercise, for a fitness regime that suits me and makes sense to me. I have tried going to exercise classes which I enjoyed but they took up too much time and such a palaver of getting there and back and changing. The same applies to swimming: I love swimming but hate changing rooms. So I looked to home fitness and tried Wii fit, dance mats etc. all of which were fun but not quite right.
Then this year I came across (no idea from where) The Balanced Life, an online Pilates instructor who records her classes on the beach and has a hugely positive bedside manner which encourages me to try rather than criticise me for not doing it perfectly. I started in March doing a free challenge of 10 minutes a day for a month. It took me three months to complete it, after which I went back and did it in a month. Then I signed up and other than a lack of routine over the summer am currently quite faithful, even enjoying those routines that are 30-40 minutes.
What has made the difference and enabled me to commit?
Pilates gets results very quickly. Even with ten minutes I noticed a stronger body and a greater ability to maintain control. Because it’s not about pushing myself to go further or to do more reps it’s encouraged me to listen to my body more and be more aware of what my body is doing and how it is handling the movement. Plus I can feel a physical difference if I run my hands over my self. My waist is tighter as are my hips and bum. So I get positive feedback which encourages me to do it even when I’m not in the mood as I know once I’ve started I will feel better and energised it. I finish it off with my daily calm meditation.
That, in a sense, is all a preamble, explaining where I am now to go back to where I came from.
My first memories of my mother physically is her being young and joyful in sundresses that she spent one year adding length to in order to be more respectable, saying they were no longer decent now she was older. She used to wear backless sundresses on holiday and other similar minimal clothing and these slowly disappeared as she got older and fatter. So did the joy and exuberance. She hated being fat and whilst my father would encourage her to lose weight he also said she was always perfect and he wouldn’t accommodate any change in diet to support her. So she tried and failed every single diet going and I tried to support her, seeing her really struggle with wanting to lose weight and loving cheese and other good food.
My father was always thin and occasionally very thin. If he was busy he would go the whole day without food and it not affect him. I used to think that was useful and eventually I realised that he just shut out sensations of hunger when they were inconvenient. He never put on weight himself so never had to address it as an issue personally.
However, body is more than weight and size. My father had a commitment to long distance walking and rock climbing from his youth and the walking was the physical activity we all had to participate in. Rock climbing was too dangerous and un-ladylike. Walking was never optional. My mother took me to the swimming pool until I was old enough to go on my own but there was never any encouragement or support for other activities, like playing team sports outside of school or any other physical exercise. I do remember a brief dalliance with ballet when I was 12. But I was mostly never allowed to try stuff out or exercise free will.
This extended to being ill. It wasn’t allowed and I often got sent home from school, especially when older, for being too ill with staff asking why on earth my parents sent me in when I wasn’t capable. Illness was something to be ignored, pushed through and dismissed. In a sense I think my father saw it as a sign of mental weakness that shouldn’t be tolerated. When he had an operation on his lungs for cancer in his 70s he refused to listen to surgeon’s expected recovery times and proved himself better by being more active earlier, to the point that he burst his internal stitches and had to have another operation. This is how much illness and disease feature in his head.
At a recent family gathering my sister asked my father whether he was wearing his hearing aid, recently acquired after his gradual deafness in one ear. He told her to mind her own bloody business, which constitute strong words for him. He is in his 80s and his body is slowly failing. He cannot accept the help that a hearing aid would provide because it attests to his fragility and he is ashamed.
This short exchange made me realise that he was (and is) ashamed that he cannot fully control his body, that it does things without his permission and that shouldn’t be allowed. He should somehow be able to dictate strength by force of will.
I once as a child fainted at the dentist. He’d done whatever he was doing and I stood up out of dental chair. As he and my mother were talking I remember thinking that I felt weird and was going to faint but I couldn’t do that as it would be inappropriate. I was trying to work out how to explain that I needed to sit down, even though it would be rude to make a grown up stand up for me, when I just collapsed on them and I remember their looks of horror and surprise as I did. I was trying to dictate strength because weakness was for wusses.
This piece would also not be complete without mentioning my bike crash on the way to school which resulted in seven stitches and almost losing an eye. I lost consciousness and woke up in the back of my parents’ car as they drove me to hospital hearing my mother saying “oh no, she’s being sick again” in a manner that made me feel a failure for making a mess of the inside of the car and the cleaning that she would have to do.
I have suffered multiple years of ortho-dentistry and being strong and unflinching when faced with pain. I used to consider retaining my teeth as long as possible to be my main aim with dentistry and it was not until my 40s that I said I wanted the pain to stop.
I have developed huge resilience, both physical and mental over the decades. After four pregnancies and an unsurprisingly weakened lower back it still took me many years and pain for me to start physio for my lower back which was probably the first act of physical self-care for me. Pilates under this particular instructor allow me for the first time to really explore my body, listen to its abilities and feel it working; to treat it with respect for what it can do and acknowledge what it can’t whilst gently working to minimise the difference between the two. Pilates is becoming an act of self-love and self-care.