When I first started lifting weights I was like…
FUCK YES, I’M STICKING IT TO THE MAN!
It felt so powerful to reject the social norms of trying to get smaller, and instead focus on getting stronger– and even sometimes focus on getting bigger!! *gasp*
Gaining muscle and getting strong AF felt rebellious, feminist, and empowering.
I was so excited and grateful to finally “stop caring” what other people thought of my body.
Oh, do you think I’m too big? LOLOLOL I don’t care, I’mma go deadlift. Do you think I look “manly?” IDGAF, look how many pullups I can do! I felt so free, so confident, so totally unaffected by the patriarchy and it’s oppressive female beauty ideals!
Then I got injured, and was like… shit.
I herniated disks in my neck, and for months and months, I couldn’t turn my head without a lightening bolt of excruciating pain shooting from the base of my skull down to my tailbone and fingertips. Eventually I had to stop lifting weights and go through the most tedious, frustrating, and humbling process that I’ve ever experienced: physical rehab.
Somewhere during this process, I got horribly depressed.
For years, I had been relying on tough workouts 4-6 days/week for energy regulation, to boost my ego and confidence, and most of all to solidify my self-identity as a “fit chick,” a “legit personal trainer,” and (most importantly) an “athlete.”
I had been identifying myself through my strength and dedication to fitness for years.
But not only was I no longer impressively strong and muscular, I was literally immobile. I felt useless, worthless, and ugly. I worried about gaining weight, losing credibility, and worst of all about losing the thing that made ME: my so-called “strength.”
Where once I had flawlessly squatted 160lbs, I was now unable to bent at the hip without feeling like I was being split in half. Where once I had banged out 11 pullups, I was now unable to lift my arms over my head.
As I healed from this terrible injury, I started to recognize just how embarrassingly important being “strong and fit” had become to my identity. In many ways, that identity had simply taken the place of what I cared about before lifting: how I looked.
My strength acted almost like a superficial positive body image, a buffer, before I had done the deep inner work of truly loving and accepting my whole self. I thought I was free from body image issues because I was focusing on performance instead of aesthetics, but deep down these two things occupied the same space.
The space they occupied was a dark room in my heart marked “What Makes Me Worthy and Valuable.”
And that’s the problem.
Many of my clients go through a similar thing. In order to love yourself you must reject the idea that “my value is based on how I look.” But most people aren’t ready to jump right from that to “my value is inherent and unshakeable.” So in the meantime, many of them use a buffer idea, like I did.
A female friend of mine with a gloriously big body once said that getting super strong made her body image seem to not matter, because everyone in that world accepted and praised her for her bigness. But then when she stopped competing, everything changed. She felt unbearably vulnerable and self-conscious of her body again, and said that being a competitive athlete had seemed to momentarily “justify” her bigness.
In her case, the belief that she needs to explain or apologize for her body was still lurking under the surface, even while she had found a community that supported her body positivity. Once she stepped out of that community, the belief still needed to be dealt with.
I found the same to be true. While tiptoeing through rehab, I found myself facing my innermost demons again, and re-examining the belief that I had to “earn” my worth in some way.
Now, this isn’t to say that loving your strength is a bad thing. I actually think adopting the idea that “my value is based on how strong I am” can be incredibly valuable. It can help you break away from the powerful chains of the idea that “my value is based on how I look,” and prepare to do the deep work later on.
But it’s important to recognize that rejecting one belief hasn’t necessarily solved the core problem.
The truth is, your worthiness and value have nothing to do with anything you can control. You couldn’t earn it if you wanted to, because you were born with an infinite amount already.
So… what would happen if you let go of the things you’re most proud of about yourself? Who would you be if you released the qualities and traits you hold yourself to most tightly? What would offer the world, if you didn’t have to offer anything at all?
For me, the shocking discovery that I was still in chains was my first step toward actual freedom.