But what then?
How do you motivate yourself to care for yourself, to exercise and all that stuff, when you’re over pandering to their demands? If you really are worthy now, as you are, then what’s the point of all that hard work?
That’s a good point.
It’s not worthwhile because some day it might make you beautiful. If that’s all you’re focussed on, you’ll miss the forest for the trees. If you’re constantly seeking this other thing, you’ll neglect – you won’t even be able to see – the real benefits that you’re getting right now. You’ll take them for granted, always looking for this other thing.
How do you motivate yourself to exercise, to eat well, to take care of yourself? Well, firstly, if you do care, you’ll naturally take care. People don’t care for that which they don’t value. A low sense of self worth tends to result in people not taking care of themselves – it tends not to lead people to healthy and sane choices for their own betterment.
You deserve better.
That’s worth working towards – but it’s not an image.
You deserve to feel good about yourself. That’s a simple truth. You deserve to be free of criticism and judgement – internal or otherwise – because of the way you look. To be made to feel ugly – you don’t deserve that. If you allow yourself to have fun, you’ll be drawn to that which is fun. If you allow exercise to be satisfying, not painful, not masochistic, not a purification – if you can make it a truly good and positive experience, you might find it’s rewarding. You might also find it’s a reminder of all the things you used to hate. Exercise can be like a bad ex. Don’t go back to what hurt you in the past. Move forward to something better, something physically and psychologically healthier. Know there could be serious triggers along the way, when you are ready to date again. And don’t rush into anything you’re not ready for.
When you’re focused on beauty outside of yourself – someone else’s standards, someone else’s expectations – you’ll always feel ugly. The closer you get, you’ll never feel like you qualify, because what you’re chasing – it’s not you, and it’s not genuine. Searching out what you think you should be doing – it’s never satisfying, and it never brings to you the feeling that you’ve arrived, that you’ve come home.
But something that reminds you that you are you, and you’re okay – that’s useful. Something that reminds you that you have a body, and you’re in it – but doesn’t also tell you to be ashamed, that’s worthwhile. That’s body-positive exercise.
It’s helpful if you can, to take the focus off your body and how it looks, or your health status, and onto a task. You can use training to develop skills. Ironically, if you move the focus away from your body, you start to hate your body less. You aren’t always judging it for not being right. Instead, you start to notice – sometimes super slowly – that you’re getting better at this other thing, this skill, and as you get stronger, and fitter, and as your joints improve in their function, as your tissue health improves, you start to feel better in your body.
We are sold this lie. This lie that the path to feeling better about yourself lies in becoming something else, something more, something different. But that will only take you away from yourself. It’s not personal development if it’s someone else’s path. The path to feeling better about yourself is all about learning to feel better about yourself. If you’re becoming anything, you’re becoming you, not somebody else. Which is, of course, what you already are.
It all should be easier than that.
And so it becomes this really small, fragile thing: your development, your growth and experience of exercise and your body. It’s not big, or dramatic, or glamorous. Know that it’s fragile, and keep it safe. Keep your training space sacred. Don’t allow exploitation in, if you can help it. Remind yourself that it’s not true, when people talk about the purpose of exercise, and they talk about the way you look. When they talk about efficient or effective training, and they’re talking about fat loss. There is no movement to train for weight loss, for diminishment. What is it? To get better at lifting things, you practice lifting things. To get better at throwing, you practice throwing. Exercise is movement. When you train, you practice movements – that’s what you do, and it’s why it’s called training. What’s the movement for fat loss?
The key is – feeling better about yourself starts with trying to feel better about yourself. It’s not about some other glamorous state, some way of being that lies just outside your reach. It doesn’t mean you never have to clean the dishes again. You’ll always need to eat and crap. You make friends with sweat. Feeling better doesn’t happen when something else changes, it happens when you start to reject the pressure to qualify, not when you decide to try really hard to qualify, when you ace their test. Trying to qualify achieves nothing. Not a thing.
When you reach that point where you just can’t handle being fat anymore, that isn’t the reality. You have been, and you can. The fat is not causing you the problem. It’s fat-stigma that’s causing you the problem. It’s the body-hating status quo that would exploit your shame for profit. It’s not the fat that you can’t handle. And losing weight won’t make the problem go away, because weight isn’t the problem. You can handle the fat just fine. Don’t buy their lie and reject your body. Reject their lie instead.
Rejecting that pressure, rejecting the self-loathing that dresses itself up as ambition, rejecting the self-criticism that would have us try and diminish ourselves in the name of desirability and personal development – rejecting all that bullshit that is only designed to keep you feeling lousy and compliant, and choosing to live your own damn life – that’s what leads to feeling better about yourself.
Of course, an unpleasant side effect I’ve noticed, is that it can make you feel pretty shitty about the world sometimes.
But I’m working on that.
Beauty, strength, superiority. When you’re dedicated to your own development, it can’t really be about being better than other people. When you are secure in your own sense of worth, you aren’t threatened by the fact that other people are also beautiful, and skilled, and talented. You don’t need to compensate. You don’t need to work to feel superior, when you don’t feel inferior to begin with. And there’s the lie again: that you will feel superior when you become superior. Nobody speak the truth, that maybe, y’know, your superiority that’s built like a house of cards –maybe it’s a bit unstable? When your sense of worth is based on the idea that other people have climbed less high on the beauty ladder? The industry plays us off against each other, as well as against ourselves. “Be better than you were, better than the weak people. Even though you secretly are one. Train hard, because it will all come crashing down if you slip up for an instant!” Who wants to live with that stress?
At schools people are taught to be competitive. Extrinsic motivation. Not intrinsic. It only caters to a certain type of person – if you aren’t naturally competitive, if you don’t enjoy beating other people at sports, how do you train? You’re left with no real options. You’re made to climb that rope, that the teacher knows damn well you can’t climb, in front of everyone. Motivation via humiliation, and the avoidance of future embarrassment. Way to set people up with positive exercise habits for life! No wonder introverts don’t like Physical Education. Gym class. And it’s no wonder extroverts don’t value rehab or conditioning, when what’s rewarded is not developing one’s awareness, skills or intuition, or even athletic capacity – what’s applauded is simply winning.
When I used to compete in martial arts tournaments – little back story: in kung fu, they often don’t follow the standardised Japanese system of coloured belts. We wore a red sash which was seen as comparable to a karate black belt, in terms of skills and experience, but we competed in tournaments that were karate-dominant. And so, I entered the black-belt division. When I competed in my second fight of the tournament, I always lost, because it wasn’t important for me to win it – whether I could have won or lost, I didn’t really try.
They were non-contact bouts, so it wasn’t like we were hurting each other, but what was valuable to me was knowing I had the skills, knowing I belonged in that category, even though we didn’t use the same system of progression and evaluation. If I could hold my own, or if I managed to win a fight against a black-belt martial artist, I knew I belonged.
The sense of belonging and validation were what was important to a kid who was full of self-doubts. It wasn’t really about overcoming others, even though it was martial arts.
So I didn’t need to win more than one fight to know that, to feel like I belonged. With one win, I achieved my desire, I got what I wanted out of the tournament. At the time, we used to wonder why I got stuck at that second match. I kinda knew, but didn’t know how to communicate the simple fact that it wasn’t important for me to continue. And who knows? That notion might not have been embraced by my teacher or training buddies, anyway.
I loved the demonstration events though. You weren’t directly competing against an individual – like gymnastics, everyone would demonstrate their individual routine, their choreographed kata or form, and then the performances would be judged against each other. Introverted as I was, I loved that type of solo training, of developing my skills, quietly. I won a bunch of trophies, ultimately because I valued that sort of competition, and enjoyed the training that prepared me for it.
But competitions weren’t why I got into martial arts in the first place. I basically used them as a means of giving my training extra focus, as a way of motivating myself, and of giving myself regular dates by which time I needed to have got my shit together.
And because I really am more introverted than extroverted, I’m into martial arts, yoga and weightlifting. These are not team sports. I don’t always play well with the other children. And as much as you can learn valuable lessons from team sports and athletic competition, especially when combined, I was not catered for, when it came to physical education and sports at school.
Many of us aren’t, for the same, or any number of different reasons.
So how do we overcome the horrors of gym class, moving forward, with our healthy, active lives?
That’s the question, isn’t it – how do we do the right things – knowing there are no guarantees – and knowing that we are right to rebel against that which exploits us? Exercise – that which would look like the behaviour of obedience – we become resistant to training, because we are resistant to being compliant and exploited. How do we reclaim that and start to feel good about exercise again, about movement, about our bodies when we are taught to feel bad about these things, negative in the name of positivity? It is not laziness to stay away from the gym and reject our exploitation, but the industry would have us believe otherwise. Then again, one could argue it would be lazy to participate without question. How do we live the life we want, how do we feel good about ourselves, in the midst of all this judgement? And how can we trust what we’re told to want – what’s the gap between that, and our own true paths?
Thanks for reading.