One afternoon last week, as I was sitting on my bedroom floor doing a series of pelvic floor strengthening exercises my movement coach Vanessa had taught me, a thought drifted, inexplicably, into my mind: What does it mean to me to love my body?
I can’t say exactly where this thought came from, or why it made itself known. It seemed, in fact, entirely unrelated to what was happening in the moment. But if I’ve learned anything during my years-long journey through self-awareness and personal growth, it is that those seemingly random thoughts almost always connect somewhere, provided we give them enough space to land. My experience has also taught me that these thoughts - the ones that slip in, unbidden and out of nowhere - are often the first step on the path to a great epiphany…as long as we are willing to follow their breadcrumbs.
Knowing all this, I was intrigued by the thought - what does it mean to me to love my body? - and I let it simmer for a couple of days, gently prodding it every so often to see if it felt like opening itself up to me yet. Ruminating on this concept, I became aware that loving my body has meant different things to me in different eras of my life.
In my teens and twenties, loving my body meant changing my body into something I perceived to be more worthy of love. My misinformed understanding was, then, that loving one’s body meant loving the way one’s body looked, specifically when viewed through the lens of mainstream beauty. This notion of self-love was aesthetic only, and it came with a very specific set of conditions. I didn’t question this; I knew no other way.
As time pulled me into my thirties and I slowly developed more agency over my own life and more awareness about diet culture as a whole, loving my body meant accepting it the way it was. It meant making the decision, once and for all, to stop actively trying to make it smaller, choosing instead to reframe my personal definition of beauty. Where before, I may have used “slender” or “flawless” or “thin” to describe a beautiful person, in this new era I began using words like “radiant” and “joyous” and “voluptuous.” This was when I began to understand two important things: first, that beauty doesn’t have mean one specific thing, and second, that there is so much more to life than being beautiful, especially in adherence to the mainstream ideals.
During that time, loving my body meant a few different things. Sometimes - albeit not quite as often - it meant standing naked in front of the mirror and appreciating the beauty in my abundant rolls and curves. More often than not, though, what I really meant when I said "I love my body" was "I don't think about my body all that much anymore." In the years prior, I couldn’t take a trip to the mailbox without wondering who had seen me and whether I had disgusted them. After such a long time spent obsessing over how my body looked, all day every day, I’d gotten to the point where the intrusive negative thoughts about my body were few and far between - and there was so much freedom in that! And while I am absolutely a proponent of extricating ourselves from the all-too-common self-deprecating narratives that play in our heads, it suddenly became clear to me that perhaps part of the way I was able to shut off that narrative and stop obsessing about my appearance was…to further dissociate from my physical self.
I spoke a lot about dissociating from my body in the last installment of the Joy In Motion project. It’s something I’ve known that I do for quite a while. I’ve been aware that I dissociate as a result of sexual trauma, as well as decades of disordered eating and body shame. But it had never occurred to me, until a few days ago, that dissociation had been a key ingredient in my ability to staunch the flow of negative self-talk. Much like bending a hose to make the water stop, I was cutting it off at the source. It’s pretty difficult, after all, to have obsessive negative thoughts about something you’re not even aware of. If I couldn't even feel or sense my physical body at all, it would be a lot harder to berate it all the time…right?
Let’s get one thing clear: I’m not sorry about any of it. At the time, my journey into body positivity was only just beginning. I didn’t have the self-awareness or the tools, then, to fully realize what was happening. Dissociation had served me at many points in my life thus far; I was doing what I knew. And I really believe it helped me then, too.
I also believe that now, it is time to move forward in integration with my physical body, instead of being divorced from it.
So yesterday, as I sat on the floor going through the exercises, I kept the original question in the forefront of my mind: what does it mean to me to love my body?
The short answer is…I don’t know.
The long answer is: I think it would look something like simultaneously being completely grounded in my body and not worrying about the size of my ass. I think it would look like being able to notice sensation or warmth in my legs without the accompanying panic about their circumference. I think it would look like being able to rub my hands across the surface of my belly, minus the shame.
I am saying I think, of course, because I don’t know what any of these things are like. Not yet.
Still, every exercise Vanessa demonstrates for me has one thing in common: it brings my awareness to an isolated area of my body. That’s not to say other forms of movement do not do this; in fact, there are many that do. The difference, for me, is that with all those other forms of movement, there is the promise, unspoken or otherwise, that doing it will cause me to lose weight. To make myself smaller and, therefore, more worthy of love, respect, happiness, and success.
I’m no expert, but I can say with a fair bit of certainty that I stand zero chance of losing weight performing the exercises Vanessa has taught me. That was the point of this whole thing, after all: movement without the pressure of looking a certain way. And in all honesty, it is revolutionizing the concept of movement for me.
If, for example, I am performing some kind of weight-lifting motion - let’s say a bicep curl - I am automatically in my head about how my arm will look different (read: better) after repeating the motion seventy thousand times, which means it’s only a matter of time before I start wondering if I should skip lunch, because it’s not like I need the calories…and then before I know it, the door is wide open and my disordered eating patterns are lingering at the threshold, ready to step in.
Movement with Vanessa is completely different. I can’t focus on isolating muscles in my pelvic floor, or stretching out the tops of my feet, and think about how much weight I could lose from doing so. I can’t - so I don’t. Instead, I just focus on the movement. The way it feels in my body. And for someone who so often feels like nothing but a head and torso, floating through the world…that is a revolutionary thing, indeed.
I am entering a new era of my life; I can feel it, in more areas than one. It is time for some serious forward momentum. It is also time to let go of things that no longer serve me.
I want dissociating from my body to be one of those things I let go of. I want to explore, to stay open, and to be curious about what it means to me - now, in this era - to love my body, without using dissociation as a crutch.
I want to know in my bones that feeling my body and loving my body are not mutually exclusive, instead of being able to love my body only if I’m not actually experiencing it.
I want to be fully present in my body, and feel it, and move it…and love it.
All at the same time.
Joy In Motion is a collaboration between myself and movement coach Vanessa Leigh Aschmann. The sole purpose of this coaching is to help me re-learn how to experience joy in my body. That’s it. It’s not exercise. It’s not a workout. It’s movement for movement’s sake.
I know I cannot be the only one who struggles to find joy through movement. I know I am not alone in the lifetime experience of exercise as little else than punishment. And my hope is that, as I navigate through my fear and learn more empowering ways to connect to my body and give it the movement it craves, I can help others who may be struggling in similar ways by sharing my experience.
Want to follow along? I’ll be posting regularly here on the blog, and you can also connect with me and Vanessa in the following ways:
My Instagram: @aliowensempowerment
Vanessa’s Instagram: @vanessaleighmovement
Vanessa’s Facebook page: Vanessa Leigh Movement
Vanessa's website: www.vanessaleighmovement.com