When Exercising is not supporting Well-Being

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is this that makes me fall?

‘Ugh, there comes the fat one of the family!’ an elder in my family would say. Quite often after rolling her eyes with irritation and disappointment expecting me to greet her with respect, even though, she never wanted me to be near her. ‘You know, if you don’t lose weight, you will never find a boyfriend’ an aunt of a school friend whispered in my ear whilst tapping me on the back like it was genuinely good life advice and a sweet favour she was doing me. I heard that more often; ‘you want to take care of your shape because guys don’t like this’. ‘Chubby black girls like you get harassed on the street by men because of all the extra meat’ the same elder said while pinching my thighs and laughing. ‘You should really start going to the gym again’ a guy said to me while I had for the first time built up the nerve to walk up from bed naked. ‘Look at yourself. I don’t think I should give you food’ another family member said when I asked for lunch. Obviously, there were tons of ‘you are fat’ or indirect ‘you are ugly’ on familial grounds, on the street, at parties and at school. Needless to say, being fat or chubby was something unwanted and even, to some, it seemed, unacceptable.

I was born in the Netherlands but grew up in Lima, Peru. A larger environment that emphasized, like many other places, that women should focus on having a “beautiful” body; where beautiful meant thin but with some breast and round shaped glutes (but, of course, not too big). Flat stomach and thin arms. This “perfect physique” was pretty much everywhere. Magazines, commercials, soap operas and, because of it, people’s referential prototype. Its surprising how many people had the nerve to walk up to you and call you out, so to speak, on how you look. It was even weird to me that the saying went ‘Dutch people are so direct’ because in terms of comments on my body shape I got quite the directness living in Lima to be honest. Worse, though, I thought, was that people close to you were also somehow entitled to say hurtful things about your physique and overall it felt culturally quite accepted. Three times I even had teachers stop me in the corridor to ask if I was doing something about my weight. Say, what?

You know, I guess that is part of the extent of the issue. It is not just that I internalized events in a way that I began to want a slim body but, I came to realize years later in my mid-twenties that I would live in a state fearing the consequences of not having one. ‘Until I lose weight I will not, I am not, I cannot …’ I became unconsciously focused on preventing further loss and  trying to prevent further pain because my body’s appearance was going to dictate the proper identity I thought I had to reach: acceptance and social belonging.

It was about six years ago that I began with fitness. It was the typical rock bottom in which I knew either I begin to take full responsibility and work on myself or this is the end. Now, this deep struggle I was in did not come from mainly ‘body image issues’. But soon I was going to stumble upon these other past wounds still fiddling with my present. Thing is, I figured that to build psychological skills and resilience it only made sense to get a healthy and strong body to support the process. So, I began. I drank more water, adjusted my diet with more vegetables and fruits. More lean proteins. I trained everyday in the gym from one day to the next. Boom.

In the years that followed I lost fat, gained muscle, gained strength, gained endurance, lost muscle, gained fat, lost strength, lost endurance. All in an up-and-down spiral with, at first, quite some extremes. Not the healthy fluctuation that may be necessary or inevitable in life anyway. I counted calories to the T and would not even accept chewing gum. It was black and white thinking. Either I became strong and lost as much body fat as I could or I was not good enough and I was a weak person. Full stop. The ‘I am not enough’ at the core attached to the low-body fat and strong muscular figure I had seen and if I didn’t match it,: Game Over.

The greater part stimulating and fueling this thinking came from other active survival patterns and traumas that had to be dealt with. I had the belief, deep certainty really, that I was weak, a bad person and that most things that had happened were all my fault. That’s exactly why I trained so hard and was so unforgiving. Whether it was the 17 kg I lost, the two hour run I managed to accomplish, 270+ kg leg presses or the lower body fat percentage showing more definition in my arms; it was never enough. I kept at it like tunnel vision. There was almost nothing else because it was solely my holding-on-to to survive. In my mind there appeared to be nothing else that I was good at doing to deserve loving relationships so I focused on this. As far as I was concerned, I was a big failure and disappointment.

In the end, I did not build a healthy routine because I was coming from a mind that wanted to beat ‘good enoughness’ and ‘worthiness’ into myself if that makes sense. Just adjusting habits and changing actions was not the answer.

It obviously did not work. As I began slowly healing different parts of myself the unfortunate but necessary reality comes to hit you again: you think you just handled a layer and you are presented with the next unhealed part that also needs attention. It kept on coming and my body image issue was definitely one of them. It was steering part of the unrealistic expectations (thus, behaviours) and it impaired my range of motion in life: social life, dating life, fashion choices and how I expressed myself socially, cognitive resources to study or work and quite literally, my visual spectrum. Even weighing 60 kg at some point ( 5 kg less than in the above pictures) and having those thin legs and flat stomach, I only saw more remaining fat. But then suddenly, after a few months I would only see weakness because of the lack of muscle and strength, and still fat.

I tried adjusting my mindset many times as well but that did not do it either. Not yet. My body at some point remained fatigued, stopped recovering properly from trainings and my sense of failure was only confirmed on repeat. It wasn’t until a few years in that I began to remember the childhood and teenage events surrounding my physique during one of the multiple therapies I tried. Suddenly I figured ‘oh, yes, all that. That was very stressful and painful back then, actually’. Its just that I couldn’t remember before and I did not see how the lens through which I saw was a construct rather than objective reality. What I saw and thought itself was the problem. Not my body or my efforts. Until then it only made sense to me that I was weak and not good. Clearly, it became an issue of, what caused this insecurity and inner self fighting itself to not be itself? The typical, at this point, you are rejecting yourself exhaustively; not the outside world anymore.

There was this intense need to be muscular and strong to prove myself that I was not weak but at the same time I could not handle having fat and needed to feel slim somehow and small as well. There was excess potential on either side of the pendulum. This is probably why I did not maintain any shape.

I gently began to understand the identity and narrative in my self-concept guiding my way. I slowly began understanding how I had learned to see my body shape as an unsafe temple I could not live in if I ever wanted to feel good and deserving. It was finally clear that without unifying (healing) the destructive and distorted self-image, I would not reach anything; never feeling good in the present, not reaching a goal because my methods would always be too extreme or because I would never recognize it was achieved. I was going to continuously engage in avoidant behaviour such as with intimacy because I was afraid to relive inner shame and scared to disappoint someone with my ‘real’ self. I was going to always deplete cognitive, emotional and visual resources trying to contain the inner negative feeling throughout the day which could instead go to creativity, problem-solving and interaction with the world. What a waste, right?

Finally after a few years it was time to actively take care of these core negative identity beliefs from their root. Tired of being dictated by something so superficial I had to acknowledge that the  root cause was not superficial. In fact, when we are repeatedly told as children that we are not good enough and that the environment does not like us the way we are, our self-concept and sense of self-worth is deeply affected. That’s what I needed to hit.

Deep sense of shame and powerlessness was directing the orchestra, I figured. Implementing positive affirmations to change this state had proven impossible. If I don’t believe them, I will resist them inevitably because we are more about confirmation, right? Pattern recognition, seeing what aligns with our narrative and understanding rather than comfortably embracing the unfamiliar even if it is positive. Especially, when our memory bank stores a sense of feeling threatened still. Just behaving differently did not do it either because, once again, it did not match my sense of self. Weak meant not good enough and a failure. Having fat meant not competent enough to take care of business and ugly. No amount of external change in reality will change that personal sense. We need to go under.

It was clear, then, that simply thinking positively and forcing new habits without looking at my blueprint was not going to cut it for real sustainable change. I had to bring the interpretation into awareness and tackle core emotions that were stuck in a loop. ‘I am strong’ ‘I am good enough’ ‘I did my best’ ‘I am competent’ ‘I am beautiful in my own way’ were beliefs that had to be reconditioned into my system by first feeling through negative emotions from back then. After feeling, one can slowly let go and there is space to choose something new. I tried being very positive about my body and the “I love myself fully” but to be honest what began working more was radical self-acceptance in a sense.

Reconnecting to my ‘self’ and feeling whole will remain a fundamental norm to live by in my life and is a continuous effort as more layers of past pain and restlessness resurfaces.

May this be the case for you as well. You do not need to prove anything to anyone and consider that what we see and believe are merely constructs.; and our own mental constructs are intertwined with the social ones of people around us. Our minds definitely hold the power to change how we feel about ourselves, what we see and how we automatically behave but we also have to acknowledge the part our environment plays in it. To be able to create a better self-perception we may also need new environments and people not only to get there but to maintain it.

If you recognize negative tendencies, may this be another push for you to prioritize the well-being of your sense of self. You are allowed to heal and feel connected.

As always, all the best and stay strong,


Coach Tess

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