The first time I went to the gym, I was 13. I signed up for a membership after going shopping with my best friend. We decided to buy the same shirt — the only difference being that she was a size 8 and I was a size 14 — in youth sizes. Even then, I was hyper aware of the fact that I was almost twice as big as my friend. And since then, I’ve been struggling with the same body images issues as millions of American girls and women every day. That was, until I found yoga.
We live in a world that is saturated with impossible beauty standards, soaked through with negative body images, and controlled by patriarchal oppression. From a young age, we are told that we need to look a certain way, act a certain way, and fit a certain, selective body type, right down to the size of our waist and color of our skin. Girls and women of every age feel the pressures of being “beautiful” and “perfect,” and even children as young as toddlers are becoming aware of body image, the negative and positive aspects.
While I can’t say I remember being self-conscious while in diapers, I do remember feeling terrible about my own body from that day I went shopping with my friend through my adult years. The older I got, the worse my my body image issues got. Throughout middle school and high school, I was constantly self-conscious about my weight, my breast size, even my height. When I was 17-years-old, my boyfriend got me a membership to the gym for Christmas, and I took it as confirmation that all the negative feelings I had about the way I looked were true. I clearly wasn’t the only one who thought I needed to lose weight, tighten my muscles, and improve my image.
I would make it my life’s goal to attain the perfect body, no matter the cost.
From that point on, I continually struggled with yo-yo diet and exercising. I spent my college years fighting off the Freshman 15 while struggling to meet unreasonable beauty standards that come hand-in-hand with being a young coed at an American university. I worked out at the campus gym obsessively, skipped meals at the cafeteria regularly — and by my senior year, I was even making myself throw up in secret, playing if off as “being hungover” or “partying too much.”
Nothing I did made me feel better about how I looked, though, and things were only seeming to get worse.
My body image issues spun out of control even more quickly after I graduated and moved to New York to start a professional career in publishing. If you think that being an average teenager in America is tough, try being a female working publicity in one of the most competitive cities in the country. Everywhere I looked, I found ways my body didn’t meet the standards set forth by the media, the entertainment industry, and even the other women in my industry.
And my low self-esteem didn’t just affect how I felt about my looks and my body, either. It affected how I felt about my entire being.
I slowly watched myself transform from a confident, self-assured woman sure in her profession to a shy, quiet, sheepish employee happy to just be sitting at the table — and even happier still if I didn’t have to talk, lest some attention be called my way.
All the negativity I was feeling didn’t just stop at work. It seeped into every part of my life. I went from enjoying an active social life to stealing away in my room most nights, hiding my hideous body under the covers. I made excuses as to why I couldn’t go out and avoided anywhere that required dressing up. When it came to my sex life, I was even self-conscious about undressing in front of my long-term partner, who noticed a decline in my desire to be intimate.
“It isn’t you,” I told him over and over again, “it’s all me.”
This pattern would continue for months at a time, until I’d inevitably start going to the gym and counting my calories again, obsessively working on slimming and trimming my body to look more acceptable in public. Whenever I was at a weight I thought was worthy, I would reemerge into the world ready to take life by the horns — that is, until I gained a few pounds. Then I’d retreat into my own shame and self doubt once again. It was a horrible cycle I couldn’t seem to break.
But then, I fell in love. With yoga.
Yoga has always been a part of my life, something I’ve been practicing off and on since I was a teenager. But when yoga came back into my life last year, it changed everything. It had started as another attempt to lose weight and meet the beauty standards I have always been so desperate to meet, but it didn’t take long for my new “fitness routine” to become a huge part of my life — and not because of the calories it let me burn.
In my yoga classes, I found more than just an exercise, more than just a way to get fit or to lose weight. I found a group of people, mostly women, of all shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of fitness exploring the strengths and limits of their bodies in a practice that was different for each and every one of them.
It didn’t take long for my own practice to become not a way to hit my daily fitness goals, but a way to get to know my own body and appreciate all the things it is capable of.
Whenever I found a personal limitation during a class, I didn’t get angry or frustrated, or disappointed in myself for failing to meet expectations. The practice itself wouldn’t allow for it, and neither would my yoga teacher. It forced me instead to explore my limitations, and learn to grow past them rather than push against them. It helped me figure out how to listen to my body and do what my body needs me to do, rather than constantly telling my body how I need it to look, how I need it to behave, or obsessing over the many ways in which it has “failed” me.
Through yoga, I found a way to appreciate my body, love my body, and thank my body for what it does for me every day, instead of trash it and resent it for what it wasn’t, what it couldn’t be.
The wholesomeness of yoga practice has taught me to care for every part of my body, not just the sexy parts. It’s shown me my hands and stomach are just as strong, just as important, just as beautiful as my arms and my legs.
My body still wasn’t the same kind that I saw on TV or heard the media tell me I needed — none of it was “perfect,” but I finally understood something so crucial: There is no such thing as perfect.
It was like an enormous weight had finally been lifted off my chest, and I could breathe deeply again. I had always heard how enlightening yoga can be, but I never thought it could help me in this kind of lasting and profound way.
Now, yoga has become a non-negotiable part of my self care routine. It is something I do for me and only me — a time I dedicate to learning about myself and loving myself. It’s more than a stress reliever, more than a healthy exercise with an accepting community. It’s a daily reminder to be me, whoever that me is in that moment. It’s a reminder to strive for happiness, rather than perfection. To strive for joy, rather than expectation.
It’s not perfect — nothing ever is — but yoga was the life saver that I needed, the thing that finally helped me heal, let go of the expectations, accept myself — and most importantly, love myself.