Labels matter. Organizing ideas helps us sort through the overwhelming amount of information that our brains absorb on a daily basis. I don’t aspire to live in a world without labels, because that would be unrealistic — but what if we were to rethink the way that we label ourselves?
During my early years in a tiny southern town, I was labeled a “skinny girl” – all gangly limbs, slouching posture and flat chest. As I settled into post-collegiate comfort years later, I gained around 30 lbs. It was a shock to the system and, for a while, I didn’t fight back. Instead, I adopted a new label – “frumpy girl” – and allowed the cloud of disconsolate anger that was washing over me to take root. It lasted for years. I was happy sometimes, but I wasn’t relaxed, ever. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. It wasn’t just because I was worried about what others thought (though I was) or because I thought that someone who weighed what I weighed was unattractive. It was because I felt unattractive. I had decided that I didn’t look good anymore and pigeonholed myself accordingly.
On a family trip in January 2014, I was so miserable about my figure that it took grim determination to enter the hot tub at my aunt’s condo in my Spanx-brand one-piece bathing suit. I was irritated with my thighs, my stomach, and my complete and utter lack of self-control in doing something about it.
Something had snapped inside of me. I decided that the idea of worrying about how I looked in front of people I loved and trusted was ridiculous. The fact is, though, that it wasn’t about how I looked to anyone else. It was about how I looked to me. My change had to come from within.
The day after returning home from that trip, I went out and invested a little money in workout clothes. Freshly clad in my neon pink sneakers, stretchy yoga leggings, and purple racer-back tank top, I felt different, somehow. Just the act of getting myself out of everyday garb and into fitness attire was extremely motivating. For a brief moment, I was able to look beyond my self-imposed label and see a new vision of myself in the future – “fit girl.” I had friends who were fit girls. Fit is the new thin, they wrote over Instagram shots of their firm butts or trim arms. Strong is the new skinny, say thousands of “fitspiration” photos on the social sharing service.
“Why can’t I be strong and fit?” I thought.
The truth is, I can. I just didn’t know it yet.
I started slowly, with yoga and strength resistance exercises, stretches, some Denise Austin fitness DVDs I’d scored from a thrift store. I didn’t want to leave the house, because my self-imposed label was still hanging over my head. Marginalizing myself again, I thought, “I’m not a runner. I can’t go out there.” Even in my new gear, I didn’t take myself seriously as a fitness enthusiast. For two months, I worked out indoors, running in place, working on core strength, and getting a little stronger, if not leaner. I was encouraged and I had more energy, but soon I wanted more significant results.
I needed a goal, so I signed up for a 5k run. 3.1 miles. I would have two months to build up enough stamina to complete the race without walking. First up: running a mile with ease. I ran at dusk, through neighborhoods where the streets were deserted and the smell of dinner cooking wafted through open windows. The long white stretch of sidewalk that runs along the Bay waters was where more acclaimed runners congregated and, in my mind, was out of reach of a fake runner like me. But as I hit a comfortable stride the other night, salty air and sea breezes swirling around me, I realized something simple, yet profound: the only labels that matter are the ones that we choose for ourselves.
I may never compete in a marathon, but the sentiment remains the same. I can call myself healthy – and that is one label I am proud to claim.
Justine Benstead is a writer in sunny South Tampa, Florida who spends her days walking her dog, drinking far too much coffee, typing, and taking photos with her trusty Nikon. Follow her on Twitter @JustineinTampa.