If there’s one thing I’ve learned about shame, it’s that it thrives in isolation.
Our nature is to not disclose the things that bring us shame. We keep them inside, locked away in the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves, never bringing them into the light. And in this airtight environment, conditions are perfect for shame to fester and flourish, like bacteria multiplying in a petri dish.
If we want to break free of our shame, there is nothing else to do but bring it up from the dark, dusty basement of our psyche and into the light of day. Because the thing - the only thing - that causes shame to diminish is sharing it.
Most of us shrink away from the idea of sharing our shame. The very nature of shame is such that we believe it must be kept hidden. But as someone who has put a lot of my own shame on display, like so many pairs of underwear on the backyard laundry line, I can attest to the transformative power of sharing it and subsequently watching it dissipate on the wind of honesty.
One of the deepest shame hurdles I ever overcame was that of acknowledging my fatness - specifically, acknowledging it as an identity, rather than as a problem or a failure. I did this back in 2015, having grown so tired of the same old patterns of bingeing, starving, and stewing in my own self-loathing. I’d already decided I needed to drop out of diet culture, as it was doing me far more harm than good. That wasn’t as difficult. No, the hardest part was claiming my body as my own and refusing to apologize any more for taking up my space.
It felt like “coming out” as a fat person, which I realize sounds silly. After all, you didn’t have to do much else but look at me to see that I was fat. It wasn’t exactly a secret. I hadn’t been locked away in some closet, pretending to be something I wasn't.
Except that I kind of had. One of diet culture’s most pervasive messages is that fat people are works in progress - that we’re somehow incomplete as-is. For far too long, I’d been hiding my true self, convinced that the only thing that mattered about me was my fat body - 250 pounds of evidence that I wasn’t enough. Once I lost weight, once I looked thin and beautiful again…then, I could truly let myself shine.
But once I decided to break up with dieting and disordered eating, I realized I had to stop hiding. I had to embrace myself for who I was, fat and all - and that meant I had to talk about it.
The first time I used the word “fat” to describe myself in a social media post, I hit the send button and then immediately felt dizzy and sick. I thought about deleting it. Everyone will know I’m fat, I thought, irrationally, because as I already mentioned, it wasn’t exactly a national secret. It’s just that it felt so appallingly vulnerable to identify as a fat person who wasn’t trying not to be fat. The unapologetic nature of it left me reeling at my own audacity.
And then…do you know what happened?
I guess I was waiting for the angry mobs to form outside my door, or to be chased down and stoned in the middle of a busy avenue, onlookers shouting abuse at me. Or at the very least, to be chastised for daring to think I could exist as a fat person without penance.
None of that happened.
I’d like to tell you that this one social media post transformed my life and led people to see me as a fat-positive activist and a thought leader and an inspiration.
But it didn’t.
What it did do, however, was shock me with how much didn’t happen after I shared my shame. I’d taken what I believed to be the most cringe-worthy, shameful part of myself and claimed it as my identity…and, nothing.
As I continued to do this work and share openly about the realities of living as a fat person in diet culture, I did eventually garner lots of reactions - positive and negative.
But none of them have been so impactful as that very first share, which was met with little more than crickets…because as soon as I shared my shame, it began to dissipate.
As soon as I publicly said “I’m fat,” the shame of fatness ceased to have power over me. It couldn’t hurt me anymore. It couldn’t even scare me anymore. And that revelation changed my life.
Until the day I burst into tears during Vanessa’s movement workshop, I hadn’t realized how much shame I was still carrying around in the basement of my psyche: shame around moving my body as a fat person. Feeling like I should do it, but not knowing how to do it in ways that supported me. Feeling like I should want to do it, and not wanting to at all. Feeling like my movement options were limited and not even knowing where to begin. All of this shame was festering inside me, and I hadn’t even been aware of it.
Now that Vanessa and I have been working together for several weeks, and now that I’ve been documenting the process and putting it on the internet for the whole world to see, that hard knot of shame in my gut has begun to unravel.
The movement exercises Vanessa has been leading me through have been transformative on their own - I’ll discuss that in a moment. What I didn’t expect was what an impact this would have on my ability to advocate for the well-being of my fat body. That advocacy - that ownership - is a direct result of the dismantling of my shame.
Since beginning the Joy In Motion Project, I have advocated for myself and my body in the following ways:
I went to the doctor to discuss the chronic pain I experience in my feet and actually got a referral to a podiatrist! (Doctors generally write off my foot pain as a weight-related issue, so I’ve never, ever seen a specialist before, even though the pain began when I was a straight-size child.)
I went to a yoga studio and met with the teacher - a badass, unapologetic plus-size woman who made me feel so comfortable and welcome that I agreed to start taking yoga classes with her!
I began seeing a physical therapist for my chronic hand pain! While this didn’t exactly carry as much shame, there was still a definite element of feeling undeserving of a pain-free life in my fat body.
I started taking walks, outside, on my own - without anyone there to make me do it!
I said yes to a future invitation to go snowshoeing! I know I won’t be able to last much longer than an hour - and now, I also know that’s okay. (The shame around not currently being able to engage in hour after hour of outdoor activity would have previously kept me from accepting the invitation at all.)
I started taking vitamins again! This sounds really simple, and it is, but I haven’t been doing it for the better part of a year. I know, based on past lab work, that I am deficient in vitamins B12 and D. I also know that taking supplements has really helped me in the past, with all manner of ailments ranging from joint stiffness to depression to fatigue. Several weeks ago, I began a daily regimen of vitamin B12, vitamin D, fish oil, and St. John’s wort - and I’m noticing a difference in the way I feel, physically and emotionally!
I know, in my gut, that all these milestones are related to Joy In Motion. Without this incredible project, I wouldn’t have brought that cold stone of shame into the light so that it could be dismantled. And if the shame was still thriving, I’d still believe, on some level, that I was undeserving of this kind of self-advocacy.
Working with Vanessa has brought on tangible, day-to-day results, as well. Thanks to her teaching, I’m experiencing:
Less frequent lower back pain (and more tools to help relieve it when it pays me a visit)
More flexibility and range of motion in my lower body, especially the pelvic region
A near-disappearance of calf cramps (this used to happen every time I ascended the stairs from my office and would sometimes be so bad I’d jolt awake in the middle of the night with a softball-sized knot in my leg, screaming in pain)
Better ways to manage my foot pain, which makes being on my feet a little more bearable
More groundedness and awareness of my body overall
More bladder control - which is something I haven’t even talked about (why hello, shame, we meet again), but the reality is that I, like so many other women, have struggled silently with this since my mid-twenties
Looking at these lists and seeing all the shifts that have happened since embarking on this journey, I feel so immensely grateful.
This project began as a means of finding joy in motion. I can’t say I’ve found it yet - not in the way I pictured. I still don’t love moving my body. But I am growing more comfortable doing so - physically and emotionally - and I am giving myself the grace to understand that true joy cannot be found until these barriers are dismantled. Knowing all this…I’m closer to joy in motion than I have ever been. And I am so, so excited to see what comes next.
As I suspected at the beginning of this collaboration...I'm not the only one who has struggled to find joy in something so often co-opted by diet culture and mainstream beauty ideals. This work has been resonating with so many people - so many, in fact, that we can't ignore the impact it's having.
I'm excited to share two exciting new developments with the Joy In Motion Project!
We're kicking off a series of video interviews: real stories from real people about finding joy in motion, or not, and how that relates to body image, diet culture, and the world we live in today. If you'd like to tell your story, click here to fill out the application, and we'll be in touch!
We have a brand spankin' new Facebook community! Join here for conversation around movement, self-love, and connecting to the natural world - and if you know anyone who might be interested, be sure to invite them, too!
Joy In Motion is a collaboration between me, movement coach Vanessa Leigh Aschmann, and functional nutritionist and ReWilding coach Angela Juhl. 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
Angela's Instagram: @wildatheartconsulting
Angela's website: www.wildatheartconsulting.com