On learning body kindness

For the first time in a long time, I have been consistently working out for an extended period of time. I am gaining strength, flexibility, and energy. My clothes fit better, my muscles are more defined, and I was actually looking forward to trying on swimsuits this spring.

Then I walked into the dressing room. You know, the one with the fluorescent lights and the side mirrors. The dressing room that highlights every. single. flaw.

When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see the muscle I've built over the past few months. I didn’t see the flexible hamstrings. I didn’t see the light in my energetic eyes. Instead, under those fluorescent lights, I saw the parts of me that weren’t perfect yet,  the flaws that would never change. The stretch marks and the scars. The sag and the cellulite. Thirty-six years of Earth-living.

I didn’t buy the swimsuit.

The next day, I asked a diverse group of women to give me their honest reasons for exercising. Not one of the twenty-five women said, “To look perfect in a bikini.” Here are the top five reasons they gave for working out: To stay healthy, to feel better, for the endorphins, to prevent injury, and to challenge themselves.

The women also talked about the trickle effects of working out, like more self-confidence, better sleep, improved eating habits, and mental clarity. At the very bottom of the list were things like clothes fitting better, losing weight, and looking good.

We know the right reasons for working out, so why does it all fly out the window the moment we step into the dressing room? Aside from boycotting stores with fluorescent lighting, what can we do to improve our self-image?

Here’s the thing: body kindness is not a natural instinct. Looking at yourself in the mirror and liking what you see takes effort. We are our own worst critics, after all.

So let’s make the effort.

Let’s remember why we exercise. Let’s remember what we’re after. We are not the fitspiration generation. We are moms who set a good example for our children. We are women who chase endorphins and challenge our aging bodies. We are women seeking a release from the stresses of this world, not perfect washboard abs.

Let’s make the effort to be a self-champion, not a self-critic.

Take time to find your answers to these questions, so that the next time you feel tempted to critique yourself in the mirror, you'll have some tools to be kind to yourself:

  • What are all the incredible things your body has done for you? Make a list.
  • If looks had nothing to do with anything, why would you exercise?
  • How do you want your kids to feel about exercise?
  • How do you hope your daughter looks at herself in the mirror?

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38 Comments

  1. Trish Finley

    Thanks for posting this. I started the process of accepting and being kind to my body years ago, and it’s frustrating when the critical thoughts still pop up.

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      It’s a process, isn’t it? And I think we all need reminders from time to time.

  2. Christina

    I think that for me, 40 was the age when I was finally more interested in what my body could do than in how it looked.
    Living in a house with no mirrors at all has been an interesting experience! In a good way, I have to say…

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      You live in a house with no mirrors?? Tell me more.

  3. Ari

    Yep. I wear a rash guard (shirt) and bike shorts (spandex) to swim. More coverage, less sunburns, and MUCH less worrying about every single piece of my skin looking model-perfect. I actually enjoy swimming in public now, rather than feeling fat, even though I workout religiously. Just my way of reducing the self-hate.

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      I love that! Feeling comfortable makes everything more fun.

  4. Jennifer

    Great insight Alysa! This 46 year old mind needed to hear that. 🙂

  5. Mindy

    This is such an important lesson that I’ve been learning over the past couple of years. I love that you brought up that body kindness is not a natural instinct. I think it’s particularly difficult in our society and yet such a needed way to look at ourselves.

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      Realizing that it’s not natural was such an a-ha moment for me.

  6. Caroline Starr Rose

    Preach it! As good as exercise is for my body, I know it’s even better for my mind. Working hard at — and conquering — something in the morning reminds me I can face whatever the day brings.

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      Yes! Exercise makes you feel like you can take on anything. I love it!

  7. Guest

    Tears are welling. Today I feel frumpy and middle aged and flabby. Searching for videos on braiding hair for my daughter somehow reminded me how pretty and young and pert I’m not any longer. I needed this, thank you.

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      I’m glad these words spoke to you today. Lots of love to you.

  8. Ashley Hales

    Yes, yes, yes! Great questions, Alysa. Being kind to ourselves is such a journey and such a daily practice. Thank you for your post.

  9. priest's wife (@byzcathwife)

    I’ll be turning 45 this summer (ouch)- just a week ago, my eyes told me that I need to change my prescription for reading glasses…. time to appreciate my body for what it is

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      I hear you on that. My eyes are not what they used to be either. Hi-five for reading glasses!

  10. Alia Joy

    Yes, I know I didn’t answer that question. I don’t think I did? But yes, I work out to keep my moods more stable and to feel strong. My body is complicated being overweight and having health issue but it still serves me. I remember someone saying how proud they were of me to put on a swimsuit and get in the lake with my kids. And she was sitting on the shore all day because she was paralyzed by her perfectly fine “mom” body that she had yet to make peace with. I love your views on this. I’m learning to say I’m beautiful and let that be a motivator to take care of myself instead of waiting for someone to say I’m ok and worthy of a swimsuit.

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      Yes! You are worth taking care of.

  11. Venus

    When I first started to exercise, I needed to lose weight for potential diabetes issue. But quite honestly, also for looking better too – there was a high school reunion 🙂
    As I started running, I was surprised by what my body could do and my goal has slowly shifted to running faster and longer. We have run several 5k races and we have our first half marathon coming up. That piece of jiggly fat under my skin has become a reminder of my lack of discipline: how I didn’t run the miles or do the strength training, and how I regularly have the extra scoop of ice-cream or the extra bite of whatever. While I still hope for an eventual washboard ab, my reason has become being the inspiration and showing others that “if I could do it, you can too”. I don’t know, perhaps the fat will still be there after I do what I set out to do. But I can’t know until I do 🙂

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      I have come to accept the fact that no matter what I do, there will still be jiggly parts to me, and that’s ok. I have also come to accept that sometimes those jiggly parts might bother me, and that’s ok too.

      • Venus

        Very well put. Same goes for the gray hair on my head and the wrinkles on my face. Or, the jiggly skin if I lose the jiggly fat 😀

  12. Lynn - Encore Voyage

    That is just what I needed to read today. As I approach 60, I find myself thinking, “aw what the hell…just give it up. All older women just have sort of saggy, flabby bodies.” And then I remember that I want to be the 60 year old who is able to run for a couple of miles. The one who can balance on one foot in a yoga pose. The one who FEELS 35! It has nothing to do with fashion, or clothing, or what anyone else thinks.

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      Yes! I want to be strong no matter what my age. Love it!

  13. Donna Strom

    I’ll be 56 in October and have worked out – running, weights, fitness classes – consistently for 25 plus years. I do this for a variety of reasons – weight management, stronger body and to ward off the effects of family genetics such as high blood pressure and heart disease. And while that has been successful; I have not met a medical deductible in 10 years, time, middle-aged hormones and gravity are having effect and I have had to work at being ok with the thicker middle and slower runs. Some days it’s really hard, even at my age, so your words are a wonderful encouragement.

    BTW: I’m currently training for my third half marathon with a wonderful group of encouraging, supportiv, loving women. That’s also a huge help in keeping it all in perspective.

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      Your words are encouraging to me too! And I love that you mention having friends to support you in your activities. That is so important. I have never run a half-marathon, you are amazing!

  14. Kristi

    Spot on! I am 36 and have been building muscle but the dressing room doesn’t care, it’s like fun house mirrors!!!! Worse place ever.

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      It is TOTALLY like fun house mirrors. Ha!

  15. Pam

    What are all you forty something Spring chickens on about? I am 70 this year , produced 4 children decades ago , started running 3 years ago and I think I have never looked better! Stop self doubting. Enjoy the confidence that running gives you and wear dark glasses if you must use brightly lit changing rooms..

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      Dang, Pam. You are an inspiration! I want to be like you when I grow up! And amen to the dark glasses.

  16. Jacquelyn Stern

    Thank you! I shared your article. It is a process!

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      It is a process, that’s right. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Nina

    Thanks for writing this! One thing that helped me was shopping online at stores with free return shipping. I order a couple different styles and sizes. I can try things on in good lighting, take my time to decide, and not feel pressure from other “helpful” employees.

    • Alysa Bajenaru

      That is a great idea! I forget about online shopping sometimes. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Mary Grace

    Thanks for the reminder to be kind to ourselves. I still need to be reminded that we exercise not because it is something to check off a list or something to make us thinner, but because it is fun and feels good to be active and strong. It is so interesting how this issue (of looking good) became less important for me when I lived in a culture that was generally more modest than the United States. Living in India taught me to wear beautiful colors and fabrics and patterns that I loved, without thinking about whether they made me “look fat” (something I worried about for years as a teen and young adult). I didn’t worry about how I looked in a bathing suit–because I never wore a bathing suit there! In our culture, wearing next to nothing has become so normal that we don’t even think about it being odd. As much as I love the freedom of being able to dress casually and wear tank tops and shorts and practical bathing suits in the US, I also felt it was in a way”freeing” not to.

  19. Brynn

    This is beautiful and so true!

    I’ve been working on being more aware around my daughter (she’s 3) about body issues I’ve been working out at home while my son naps and my daughter thinks it’s fun to join in, which I love. It’s really opened my eyes to learning that I’m more working out to be healthy for her and present a good example of just being acting and doing things we love, rather than being skinny or toned.

    Those damn fitting room lights though!

    Brynn
    http://www.thedomesticdietitian.com

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