“Do you need a break?” a man called over to me. I was hauling sandbags off a trailer and sending them down a line of volunteers, one by one, so they could form a dike around the back of someone’s waterfront home. We were all doing heavy work, but my particular job involved a little extra time with the roughly one thousand sandbags.
“I’m good, thanks!” I called down the line, as I had the three other times he had asked. He shrugged and went back to work. I was good. It was day two of helping flood victims in rural Ottawa, and my body – my fit, fat body—was doing a fine job.
Does that word make you wince?
Would you rather I use a gentler word like “fluffy”? Or one of the more acceptable terms like “plus-size” or “above average”?
Do you want to reach out and assure me that I’m probably not fat, just sturdy? Big-boned, perhaps?
I get it. For most of my life, I bought into the idea that my body was somehow “less than” or “damaged” by the weight it carries. Whenever I referred to myself as “fat,” it was usually in tears—or close to it—and the shame the word brought with it squeezed me painfully like a too-tight pair of jeans.
I lugged that shame everywhere I went. I let it constrict my entire life; I avoided the beach and cringed at the idea of taking photos with my children or being in loved ones’ wedding parties. Whenever I walked by full-length mirrors, I looked straight ahead, avoiding my silhouette.
I punished my body: I starved it, chastised it, wore it down, sectioned it into pieces in my mind—my stomach, my chin, my butt—and criticized them harshly.
I despised my body and I resented myself for allowing it to be what it was. It was my fault, you see. I had done this. If I was just more disciplined, I could be thin. If I cared enough, I wouldn’t look like this. The feeling of failure consumed me.
But one day, a few years ago, I realized the weight of shame was heavier than all the fat my body could ever carry. Was this how I wanted to spend the rest of my life? Was this physical hate-on the legacy I wanted to leave my children—especially my middle child, who had recently come out as trans and needed to see me model self-love more than ever?
And so, rather than continue the figuratively (and sometimes literally) fruitless yo-yo diets, it was time to break up with shame.
The failure wasn’t that I was fat; it was that I had let such a benign fact dictate my entire life. Why was “fat” synonymous with “bad”? Why did I have to assume I couldn’t be healthy without also being skinny? And, perhaps most importantly, why did I have to let my body shape and size steal my joy? With the blinders finally off, I got angry, and vowed I wouldn’t let this narrative control me for a moment longer.
I recently overheard a fitness instructor tell a gym-goer “everyone can look like this if they put the work in,” as she moved her hands down her thin, sculpted body. I rolled my eyes as I walked by.
Sorry, lady. That’s simply untrue. We all have different body shapes, metabolisms, health hurdles and other legitimate, real-world issues that can stand between us and looking like a swimsuit model—no matter how much work we might put in.
And even if we do achieve the body we hoped for with all that effort, at what cost, and for how long? I have dieted and exercised the weight away, time and time again. Whatever I lost through massive restrictions and impossible fitness regimens would creep back on, along with that familiar feeling of failure.
This time, I vowed to become healthy in a way that worked for me, without sacrificing my own happiness in the process—I would make changes I could maintain long-term.
I focussed on fuelling my body with good food, limiting foods that make me feel bloated or tired, and paid close attention to my hunger and fullness cues. I kept a food journal, so I could see what I was eating over weeks and months. And I said “yes” to holiday feasts and birthday cakes, because what’s life without celebration?
But the biggest change was finding exercise I loved. I found that in strength training. I was never a happy runner, despite it being my workout of choice every time I jumped on the fitness bandwagon. But a weights-focused exercise regimen has brought my body to its happy place by building a lot of muscle. It’s made me strong and sturdy, improving my posture and endurance.
The success of reaching new lifting goals has filled the hole where shame used to be with an abundance of confidence. This big girl lifts as much, if not more, than most of the men in her fitness classes. And through these changes, I have taken pounds off—about 50 of them, in fact—and have kept them off for a few years, falling into the exceeding rare group of people who have managed to maintain their loss. But I’m nowhere near what the (highly problematic) BMI chart would deem “average.” I still fall squarely into the “obese” category. Much of it is now muscle, yes, but much of it is still body fat.
Who cares? I don’t. My fat body is fit and healthy. It has low-normal blood pressure, happy joints and an athletic heart rate. It has sexy curves and biceps. It walks into a room with its head held high. And it can lift one thousand sandbags when needed.
I still have my bad moments. Like a toxic lover, shame will sometimes still reach out to see if I might want to get together. I tell it no, and sometimes joyfully eat a doughnut while I do so.
Changing how I see myself and not only accepting, but celebrating who I am, is a lifelong process. It takes work. But if it means I can go to the beach on a hot day without feeling embarrassed and create memories with my kids, it’s worth it. I try to take a moment every day to appreciate the body I have and what it’s capable of. I’m lucky to have it, and I wish I could have realized that years ago.
So no, concerned volunteer guy, I don’t need a break. I’m good. In fact, I’m better than good.
I might look like someone’s ‘before’ picture at the gym, but I’m here to break some stereotypes.