Many spiritual and religious teachings focus on -- for a lack of a better term -- going with the flow. Work hard, eat, drink, and be merry. Whatever will be, will be. As many humans can probably relate to, letting go of control is, and always has been, difficult for me. It took a years-long hot and cold relationship with my body to finally embrace this concept.
I realize now that my body is not my masterpiece -- my life is. It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, for most of my life, my body wasn’t even a central focus. Growing up, I never thought too much about what my body looked like. I noticed that I felt warm and out of breath after running, nauseous after eating too much candy, and cranky when I went too long without food or sleep. I noticed that my clothes got tighter as I grew and that jean sizes were weirdly different between brands. I noticed that some of my peers had different bodies than mine – taller, shorter, leaner, thicker, darker, lighter. None of this was weird or concerning to me. It just was.
As I’m sure many young women can attest to, things changed when I went to college. Those observations became less of an afterthought and more of the main show. I was surrounded by girls my age who were concerned about their bodies -- who felt the need to exercise away every “bad” food or thought they were “good” for eating a salad.
Then, by some act of God or luck or magic, I defied what social conditioning caused me to expect, and I lost the freshman 15. I’ll never really know for sure what caused it, as I wasn’t actively trying to lose weight; I credit it to the stress of the transition and the amount of walking I did around campus. Whatever the reason, this weight loss wasn’t good for me. Yep, you heard that right: this weight loss wasn’t good for me. I stopped menstruating. I was tired and cold all of the time. My emotions were running wild, I was having panic attacks, and I struggled to sleep through the night.
Despite all of these consequences, my weight loss was constantly reinforced by compliments from strangers and acquaintances alike:
“Wow, you look so great! What’s your secret?”
“You’re tinier than me/my mom/that celebrity!”
“You look great! You must be so happy!”
None of these compliments were in ill will, and I am in no way resentful towards the people who said these things. They were the result of a society that places high regards on people who can lose weight and be lean. Unfortunately, despite good intentions, all of this reinforcement caused me to see my weight loss as more than an accomplishment or a way to gain approval; I began to see it as my worth and identity. It seemed to be the center of all conversations – how great I looked, what a “good eater” I was, my eating and exercise behaviors. I had never received so many compliments about my appearance in my life.
Soon enough, these things that had never been much of a focus in my life became my obsession, an obsession that was about more than just food, exercise, and weight – it was an obsession with control.
The more I tried to control, the more out of control I felt. Nothing was ever enough – there was always some way I could be better, some way I could control more. I woke up at 5:30 am to exercise, even if I couldn’t fall asleep until 2 am. Missing a work out was out of the question, even if I was sick or exhausted. I skipped meals, claiming that I wasn’t hungry. I based my success off of how I ate – whether foods were “good” or “bad.” I dreaded and often avoided social situations that involved food.
Slowly, the exhaustion and muscle soreness and emotional swings wore on my soul. Slowly, I began to see that I could not find ultimate happiness in how I looked. My appearance could not protect me from people who didn’t like me, from failure, from scary emotions. I began to wonder if there was more to health than cardio, kale, and protein powder.
As I gradually began to let go of control, food and exercise took up less and less of my mental space. I began to fill my life with more of the things that I love. I spent more time going out with friends and partaking in hobbies. I realized I hated waking up early to work out, so I let myself sleep. I started lifting weights because it felt good. I stopped running because I actually don’t like it very much at all. In addition to loving every vegetable known to man, I also rediscovered my love for pancakes, roast beef sandwiches, ice cream, French fries, and pasta.
As I let go of control and pursued the things that make me happy, my body just did its thing. It took care of me. Yes, I started to gain weight. Yes, this was scary and emotional. This was also a relief. More than body mass, I was gaining fun, peace, a stable mood, sleep, and happiness.
My body became a manifestation of a life I love.
These changes still feel weird to me. A life based around the illusion of control had become so normal that loosening my grip on that illusion has required quite a bit of adjusting. Nonetheless, I’m thankful for this journey. Exploring and healing my relationship with food and exercise has spilled over into other areas of my life. I know now that control is a sneaky trickster filled with false hope.
Work hard, eat, drink, and be merry. Whatever will be, will be. Let your body be a manifestation of a life that you love.