This guest post was written by Abbie Elsner and was originally posted on her blog, Absolutely Strong.
“You’ve got the most beautiful thighs!” she said, as she reached out to gently touch my bare quad.
A couple years ago, I probably would’ve tried to squirm away and hide my legs in any way possible; I would have brushed off the compliment trying to change the subject, afraid that if she kept looking she would notice the imperfections—the cellulite, the stretch marks… the scars.
I would have done anything to hide the scars.
Instead of hiding, now I’m able to smile, flex my quadzilla thunder thighs and say, “Thank you!” You see, today I am all about “loving your body and rockin’ whatchya got” but I didn’t use to be this way. In fact, I was the opposite—I hated myself and my body.
I hated my body so much that I would exercise no less than 4 times per day in hopes that I could sweat away the disgust I felt. I hated my body so much that I would count every calorie I consumed and restrict them until I would pass-out or binge on anything I could get my hands on. (In college, I once restricted to the point of binging on spoonfuls of Minute Maid powdered lemonade mix… Just ew.) I not only spoke nasty words to and about my body, but I wrote those words on my skin and carved them there so I would see them forever.
These hateful behaviors didn’t sprout up out of thin air; they likely grew from a tiny seed of insecurity. I felt awful, so I told myself that I was awful and I treated myself—no surprise here—like I was awful. These hateful behaviors were learned, developed and practiced.
Self-harmful behaviors aren't limited to just physically harming your flesh (i.e. cutting). Self-harm can be manifested through dysfunctional eating habits, unhealthy exercise habits, negative self-talk and so much more.
But good news is: that what can be learned can also be un-learned and replaced by new habits. Behaviors, thoughts, feelings and even physical sensations are all connected; each of our states of being (physical, emotion, spiritual) impacts the others. Therefore, by changing what happens in one area, you also change what occurs in the others. The ultimate goal is to alter each of these areas enough so you not only survive (aka not harm yourself) but you also can thrive (and no longer feel the need or desire to be harmful to yourself).
Learning to love and accept your body as is, unconditionally, no exceptions doesn't mean you can't want it to change in some way. Loving your body and yourself isn't complacency; it is compassion and grace.
I recently asked women via social media why the pursuit of loving their bodies is a worthwhile one; their responses brought joy to my heart:
I get it though... You might be saying, “Ya know, all this ‘love yourself, love your body’-junk is nice and all, but I wouldn’t even know how if I tried.” I’ve been there too, and, unfortunately, there is no “AH HA!” moment of revelation when the Heavens rain down and a choir of angels sing to you as you step out the shower, look into the mirror and decide to love every inch of you body.
Unfortunately, it’s a whole helluva lot less sexy and miraculous than that. It takes time and practice.
Ugh, boring, right? Except, that it’s actually worth it.
So how do we do this? Just as all those hateful behaviors and thoughts took practice to become habits, our loving behaviors need practice too.
1. Dwell in the positive
Shift from focusing on your imperfections to focusing on your most beautiful or most badass traits. Discover the things you love about yourself and your body, declare them and emphasize those positive points consistently. Maybe you can deadlift a brick house, perhaps you have the most vibrantly colored eyes or you're really great at making people laugh.
This is about learning to recognize your positive traits, rather than dwelling on those traits you label as “flaws”. Remind yourself of how amazing you are, and do it often. Give yourself credit for the things you’re good at and cut yourself some slack rather than focusing on failures/flaws.
2. Take action
Once you can recognize all your fabulousness, practice it with actions. Do the things that make you feel strong. Wear the things that make you feel beautiful. Surround yourself with people who speak positively about their bodies and about yours. Do something nice just to take care of yourself--like taking a bubble bath or a leisurely stroll. Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish and wanting to feel beautiful isn’t vain.
If exercising and eating healthy are already a part of your life [and possibly a self-harmful or hate-filled habit] your mindset may need to shift. Try to focus on exercise and nutrition as tools to care for your body, rather than weapons or punishments for not looking or performing in a certain way.
3. Talk the talk
If you walk the walk, then you gotta talk the talk. Have a mantra and speak it often. I have notes written to myself in my car, on my bathroom mirror and around the house. I talk to myself in the car, while I'm working and lifting and I read these mantras aloud. I stand in front of the mirror posing, slouching, making funny faces and twirling around; I admire my body and tell myself that I look beautiful, strong and completely badass.
You might feel silly at first repeating your mantra or staring at yourself in the mirror, but replacing negative self-talk with the positive can be so empowering! You wouldn't bully someone you love, so don't bully your body.
If you don’t know what mantras to choose or if you are at a loss for words to say, Molly Galbraith’s Love Your Body Challenge is a great place to start.
4. Accept the “flaws”
What even are “flaws” anyway? Cellulite? Scars? Dimples, acne, stretch marks, moles, strange hairs, belly rolls or love handles?
Guess what? WE’VE ALL GOT ‘EM! You’re not alone. Just accept that you're not the only women in the world with a jiggly belly or a weird [and kinda witch-y] stiff, black hair that grows out of her chin. These “flaws” are part of every one of us and they help us tell our stories.
Am I proud that I use to purposefully harm my body? No. Does it sometimes elicit weird looks or awkward remarks when people see my scars displayed by a pair of neon shorty-shorts? Sure, but it also opens up a door to share my story with someone who may be struggling. There’s no reason to hide my scars anymore; worrying about hiding our flaws can do more harm to ourselves than any good you may perceive.
5. Get support
Whether you seek support from a trainer, coach or gym community who actually “gets it” [not one who will shame you for your body fat percentage and take away all your treats], a formal counselor/psychologist or even an online community [like Barbell Babes], don’t do it alone.
Small/privately owned gyms or gyms with specialized classes [like CrossFit, bootcamps or yoga] can be easier to find community, if you’re starting a fitness journey by yourself. Your support system doesn’t have to be in the gym, but it’s sure a whole heckuva lot more fun!
This list isn't all encompassing or a magic potion you can sip to fall head-over-heels in love with your bod, but rather I want it to be like a first date. Take your body out for coffee, have a conversation, check each other out, flirt a little bit and give love an opportunity to grow. It's a relationship, just like any other, and it needs time to heal from all the nasty things we say before it can become intimate. Take the time, stay committed and you can learn to love your body and yourself if you give it a chance.