This post follows on from yesterday’s post. I have down days, and writing about my feelings is the main way in which I process such mental states. Yesterday’s post was one such post. Today’s post is an archaeology of the self. A glimpse at the person behind the blogging persona… the real person who loves to exercise, who is and has been an endurance athlete and who was born with a naturally lean, hard athletic body.
I love my muscly calves (which look ridiculous in spindly high heels). I love that I can ask my body to walk up mountains, to run 10 km, to hit the floor and pump out 30 push ups on my toes. I adore my small, almost flat breasts. In contrast to other many other women, working with the body that I was blessed with has been the doorway into my soul. Maintaing my bodily vehicle remains the cornerstone of my mental health.
Here is My Story. Straight from the heart.
As a child, I was outgoing, precocious and perhaps a little too confident. I was a slighty nerdy Tomboy, who hated dresses, Barbie dolls, playing mothers and fathers and all the usual things little girls did. Instead of dollies and make up, my life was one of adventure, bike riding, horses (I owned two), playing in the bush, reading books, inventing fantasy worlds and cultures with my friends (this is my best friend from primary school) and getting involved in a few outdoorsy-type sports. I was an explosive ball of energy. In essence, the child I was has shaped the adult that I am.
I was a disappointment to my mother who wanted a girly-girl, not a bookish, half-wild Tomboy. In many ways, my own daughter has fulfilled this role for her. I didn’t fail my father: I was his fishing, bushwalking and handyman mate (so was my brother). Dad understands me in a way that Mum never has.
At age 15 my boundless confidence and exuberance vanished. Overnight, I discovered that I was a young woman, and that I was sorely lacking many of the things that society dictates as being desirable in a woman: for example, being tall and long legged, being slender but not muscular, being able to fuss and primp endlessly over clothes, looks, hair, shoes and handbags. At that stage, I also lived near the beachside suburb of Cronulla (in Sydney’s south), so having a good tan was a must. I failed on that variable, too.
Another other aspect of my retreat from self confidence related to boyfriends and bullying. I am purposely lumping together ‘boyfriends and bullying’. My first boyfriend was a serious, capital L looser whose repulsive actions resulted in me being bullied at high school.
The Loser was the kind of guy that most parents dread: a barely literate high school dropout with no idea about personal hygiene and no concept of responsibility. He was a guy with no work ethic, no job prospects (or interest in getting a job) and zero interest in going back to high school. The Loser was also mentally unbalanced: not only was he a compulsive liar (worse, he actually believed his own bullshit), he refused to leave me alone when I told him it was over after 3 months. Instead, he resorted to threatening self-harm or threatening to set his own house on fire (which he did). Eventually, he held up a petrol station and ended up in juvenile custody. A real quality guy…
However, my self esteem was so low at that time, I thought the Loser was the only kind of boyfriend that a girl like me deserved. After all, I lacked nearly all of the attributes that our society deems valuable in women.
The Loser, thankfully, was out of my life in a relatively short time (about 11 months), but his putridness stained me. He stalked me and my friends for another 18 months after my father told him to piss off at my request (I’d been trying to tell him to fuck off for 6 months but he refused to listen to me). He threatened a guy I started dating a few months later, who was a really nice, decent guy (this is Mark’s website. He is my daughter’s father). Thankfully, Mark –who as far as I know has never been in a fight in his life- called the Loser’s bluff, and the Loser backed down from all confrontations, and apologised.
My point is this: the Loser and the period of time marked by his stain were responsible for creating in me an internalised belief that I was short, fat and ugly. This is a powerful tape in my life, and I revert to it now when I get depressed. Certainly, there was an element of truth in this belief. Whilst I’d been seeing the Loser, I recall living on fast food and doing almost no exercise. I put on weight. Once I’d stopped seeing the Loser, some of this weight disappeared.
As a consequence of the Loser’s stain on my life, I underwent some pretty weird behavioural changes. For example, for years afterward, I could not go out of the house without:
- Wearing full makeup, including (yechhh!) foundation (triple yech!!)
- Wearing a collared shirt (for some reason, I thought this drew attention away from my litany of physical flaws)
- Ensuring my knees weren’t showing (I hated my knees)
- Ensuring that my hair always covered my ears (I thought they were big! Which they are most definitely not)
This kind of self-loathing continued until age 19.
And then I started cycling.
Cycling changed everything. Within in 6 weeks, I was eating a healthy diet, began going to gym classes, began running again. Of course, I lost some weight. (Please note that I was not overweight. I never have been). Yet these were only the outer, physical changes. Inside, the benefits of exercise wrought far deeper beneficial changes.
I regained the self esteem and confidence that the Loser had stolen from me. I was suddenly and unintentionally whole, both psychologically and spiritually in a way that I had not been since I was a child. My interest in spiritual development blossomed, my outlook on the world became positive. Everything I needed flowed effortlessly into my life, like some big 1980s new age cliche. In all, as I worked on my outer shell and my body changed, or should I say reverted to a truer form rooted in childhood, so too did my inner world and all aspects of life.
To be disconnected from this deep truth as I have been over the past 6 months is to be out of balance. Massively out of balance with dire consequences for my mental health.
For me, this precedes a descent into depression, a loss of self confidence and an accompanying social phobia. It has nothing to do with me conforming to society’s cultural norms about women’s bodies: women should be skinny but lacking muscular definition, women should not sweat, women should not be physically strong, women should not lift weights etc. Nor is this about me viewing myself as a ‘body’ and only being worthy as a body.
This is about me being true to my soul… me wanting to return to who I really am.
That was what yesterday’s post -a plaintive cry to the self- was about. Just like a shaman accesses inner worlds where transformation can take place, I access such places via my body. For other people, this journey comes about when they begin to study meditation, yoga, spiritual discipline. For me, it’s exercise and the finely tuned vehicle. When I am in this finely tuned outer state, everything -and I mean everything- in my life comes into balance.
Thus, the connection between my physical state and my mental health lies at the core of who I am. I don’t expect others to understand this connection… after all -it is my connection. Healthy body, healthy mind, healthy soul. It might sound like a cheesy marketing line for Metamucil, but it ain’t. It’s the simple, pure truth about who I really and truly am.
So yes, I am happy to say I am back at the gym and back into running, just as I went back to yoga two months ago, and I’m loving it all. I want to push myself simply because I enjoy pushing myself physically. It relaxes me -seriously!-I work out to relax like other people flop on the lounge in front of the TV. And I find pure, unadulterated joy in using my body and playing with its edges.
Sometimes I will have bumps on the road -like yesterday- where I look back and acknowledge that I’m not how I usually am –I allow myself to feel remorse sadness for what was. I allow it so I can write about it and move on.
Let the journey begin.
Tomorrow: Benny’s post and why it’s relevant to this discussion
Beautiful. I really enjoyed reading this exceptionally personal account. My story is a little different, of course, as everyone’s is. But we share the intimate connection between being in shape and mental health. The only time in my life when I wasn’t an avid athlete was for five years right after my divorce. My return to health meant a return to sports.
Thanks for sharing this with us.
Thank you for your kind comments. I really felt that I had to write this post to reveal a bit more of myself and the deeper motivations for my behaviour. I hope that I’ve conveyed the depth of the connectedness between my physical and mental wellbeing – that was my intent.
You most certainly did! I understand that for many people exercise and conditioning are wrapped up with negative emotions and unhealthy competition with unattainable body-image goals.
But for some, sports and conditioning are always enjoyable and associated with positive emotions. I consider myself lucky in this regard, and I don’t take it for granted.
Your blogs helped clarify this for me. Thanks.
I’ve been following your blog for some time now, and have enjoyed it. I’ve provided a link to my site so you can get a sense of who I am. I went through my share of post-PhD-partum myself. I am an anthropologist by training, a mom of two little kids. After a lifetime of athletics, my body has fallen into post-baby disrepair, and so I am likewise struggling to come back to my strong, confident, healthy body and self.
I appreciated the candor of your post yesterday, and was actually thinking of you this morning as I listened to a podcast by Gil Fronsdal about the importance of listening to our bodies as a way to come back to our own center. It’s still funny to me how we get a sense of people halfway around the world through our blogs … Anyways, it was called Body Awareness, a link to it on iTunes is here if want – http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/body-awareness-gil-fronsdal/id338329527?i=62596542.
I hope you’ll enjoy it as I did. Glad to hear that you’re getting active again. Sometimes it’s hard to break the cycle, glad to see that you’re trying to make changes. I’ve found a little yoga studio that I can get to after my little ones go to bed, so I hope to have positive news to report before too long, too.
Sorry I didn’t reply yesterday. Got carried away writing the next installment! But thank you so much for visiting, commenting and relating your own experience.
Although my children are bigger than me now (not hard!), I remember those postpartum days well. I remember the tiredness – looking after babies is the hardest work I’ve ever done. I suffered from post-natal depression for three or four months. I was a mess!
The body thing wasn’t so bad for me… My main source of income at the time was teaching fitness classes. I went back to teaching as soon as the doctor gave me the ok to exercise again.
I found teaching and exercising really helped ease my anxiety about the lack of control I had over my life (I felt like baby was in control)… and I was earning money and making a contribution to the community at the same time.
Actually, I’ve listened to quite a few of Gil Frontsdale’s podcasts. I subscribe to the RSS feed of ‘Against the Stream’ and I find him pragmatic and humble. I’m going to download the podcast you’ve suggested and give it a whirl.
Thanks for getting in touch. It’s great to make contact with another anthro – especially one who works in corporate/applied anthropology. My PhD was situated at the intersection of organisational and environmental anthropology. I should update my PhD pages with the finished contents page! I work in the field of applied anthropology (although I spend most of my time nowdays managing other anthros).
Thanks once again and expect some reciprocal blog comments :).
I too, am exploring this for myself. At 25, and at some sort of ‘bodily prime’… i feel it anyway (it=disdain). usually everyday. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about it lately and feel ready to dissipate those feelings permanently. If not now… when?
I’m trying to find a balance between discipline as it relates to self-care (with eating particularly) and just being happy to be alive and well … appreciating the body I have with the extra 10 pounds or not.
Thanks for the resources, gals… I will be checking them out to.
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