We spend a lot of time talking about what we don’t like about our bodies. So it’s no surprise that when women talk about working out, it usually follows the same pattern: I hate my arms, I need to lose weight, I’m trying to fit into this dress. . . I hear it from my friends, women’s “health” magazines, even the trainer at the gym. We talk about working out to escape what we don’t like about our bodies.
What if instead, we talked about working out because we love our bodies? Why not work out to celebrate all that our bodies already do for us, instead of to check off one more item on an unattainable list of qualities for the “perfect” body?
I think it’s time we start working out to become powerful. It’s that empowerment that will make us truly beautiful.
I don’t say this from some pedestal where I’m impervious to any self-esteem issues. I started working out regularly five years ago, fully entrenched in the high school dream of a summertime transformation for my junior year. I wanted to lose weight, and I chose running because it torched calories the fastest.
I succeeded in losing weight, but I didn’t gain confidence. Instead, I lost my period, I lost my appetite for adventure, and I lost my breath when I forced myself to run without the necessary fuel. Running for me wasn’t about being strong, it was about being skinny.
Then, when school started, I joined the cross-country team. At first, no one believed I could keep up. Even my family discouraged me from trying. I couldn’t blame them—for years my experience with running had been limited to being the last one to finish the mile in P.E. But I joined anyways. After all, I wanted to keep the weight off.
In the end, cross-country didn’t help me keep the weight off, but it did make me feel beautiful. I couldn’t keep up with the others on an unhealthy diet, so I started eating more, and appreciating food as fuel as I never had before. I was far from fast, but I was powerful, and for the first time, I was confident.
This isn’t some happily-ever-after story. Even five years later, I still have moments of insecurity, some that last longer than a moment. It’s hard, in a world where we’re constantly faced with images of perfect bodies, to be satisfied with the real body we live our life in.
But without fail, I can shake these moments off by going out and kicking ass on a seven mile run. I’m still not fast, but my body can do things I never dreamed of. I feel every muscle struggling up a hill, every heartbeat pounding through my body, and even though I’m drenched in sweat and smell like an old dog, that’s when I feel most beautiful.
Still, not a day goes by that I don’t hear a friend talk about how she should really start lifting weights because she hates her arms, or how she needs to run before she can eat that cookie. What if working out wasn’t the prerequisite for the reward—whether it’s food, weight, or “beauty”—but was the reward in itself?
I believe it can be. My story isn’t particularly unique, but it’s taught me to take pleasure in my body, not because of the way I look but because of how I feel. Focusing on strength instead of beauty has shown me a new perspective on the world, and has taught me to live a happier and healthier life.
We have the power to change the conversation. I’m the first to admit that I still have critical thoughts, but I’ve stopped voicing them out loud, and this takes away their power. I’ve learned that if my friend talks about her workout to get bikini-body abs, I will feel insecure for a few days afterwards. So I ask the friend to stop. And I’ve found that silencing the “fat” talk takes away its power. It helps me, and it helps my friends.
Changing the conversation around working out won’t just help us overcome our insecurities, it will help the next generation grow up empowered instead of insecure. I want that for myself; I want that for all women.
For a great example of an empowering discussion of women working out, take Under Armour’s new “I Will What I Want” campaign, featuring Misty Copeland. It reflects on a rejection letter she got when she was thirteen, telling her she didn’t have the body for a ballerina, and then flips to her stunning dancing now, as the one of the first female African-American ballerinas in the American Ballet Theater. I can’t think of a better example of believing in the power of your body, and flipping off traditional beauty standards in the process.
I will what I want, and what I want is for women to work out because we love our bodies—not because of what we hate about them.
(Featured image via Shutterstock)