I’ve been thinking a lot over the past two weeks about the thorny balance between self-love and resolutions involving health and fitness. I actually planned to write a big post about this last Wednesday and then I just couldn’t find the right words, hence the very late and rambling post today!
This is such a personal topic to me because I struggled hard to find this balance throughout my twenties. I went back and forth through various phases of following strict diet and exercise plans and getting super-fit; to feeling defeated by punishing programs and vowing to love myself more and not hate my body; and then right back to square one. Things didn’t really crystallize for me until very recently, when I started to understand how self-love, self-care and personal health are all connected.
The truth is, a couple of years ago, when I was dieting and exercising religiously, I was in great shape, but I wasn’t healthy. I had a lot of negative attitudes toward food that led to disordered eating, and I didn’t love myself. I was insecure, unhappy, and anxious.
And that’s why, at the other end of the spectrum, I still wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t stressing over diet plans and I was trying to love myself more, and in many ways, I was much happier in my own skin than I was before. But I also felt the effects of moving to a desk job that meant I was barely physically active, and my convenience-food diet left me feeling low-energy and negatively affected my skin.
“Health” has to include physical and mental & emotional health. One without the other is incomplete.
Lately I’ve been on a journey to find that balance of self-love with health and fitness. It’s been especially pressing on my mind because this is the time of year when we make a bunch of big plans for personal change. (I know New Year’s resolutions are a heated debate topic all on their own! I talked recently about how I’ve revamped my New Year’s resolutions process to be more positive and forward-gazing.) A lot of us make resolutions based around health and fitness, which seems natural: after the chaotic few months surrounding the holidays, many of us are burned out, overstuffed with booze and Christmas cookies, and feeling a deep need to hit the “reset” button on our bodies.
But it raises a big question: how do you say that you’re practicing self-love for your body if you’re also making plans to change it? At first glance it seems like the two things don’t mesh, and you have to pick a side: embrace your body as is, or embrace a fitness journey, but not both. There’s an attitude that you can’t label yourself “body positive” if you also talk about health topics or post gym selfies on Instagram. (Even supermodels aren’t immune from this mentality.)
And I get it: after years of “diet culture” and the pressure to maintain a certain body type, health and fitness has become a touchy topic. We’re trying to resist social pressure to make changes to look a certain way or to follow a trend that makes us kind of miserable just because a guru said it was healthy. (I, too, love my carb-y pizza crust, and do not want to swap it for cauliflower!) And that’s great!
But why is there such a deep divide between loving your body and taking better care of it?
The topics of health and fitness have become a bit taboo, since there is so much judgment associated with them. But let’s start right off the bat with the word “health”. We’ve internalized so many negative messages and skewed meanings of this word! There’s still a big link in many women’s minds between “health” and “weight loss” (along with “fitness”, “diet”, “exercise”, etc.). It’s not really our fault; we spent so many years being told that a woman who was “healthy” looked a certain way, and that’s a hard concept to dismantle. But we need to start breaking it down.
We need to remove the assumption that “getting healthy” is just code for “losing weight”. Let’s go back to good ol’ Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word “health”: “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit“. Nothing about being skinny! Just about feeling A-OK!
We need to erase the idea that making a health-based goal means you hate your body. Rather, it’s a way to say, “I love myself, and I want to make sure I continue to show myself love by doing what makes me feel good.”
There are so many different reasons a woman might decide she needs to make some healthy changes that have nothing to do with a number on the scale. Maybe she wants to change her eating habits due to a health condition like diabetes or Celiac; maybe she turns to exercise to blow off steam after a stressful workday. She could also resolve to drink less or prioritize her sleep because she’s tired of having low energy levels. Those are all very self-loving moves that have nothing to do with how she looks and everything to do with how she feels.
(I also just want to point out, some women decide to start a fitness journey with the purpose of losing weight because they don’t feel good at their current weight. Those are also valid journeys, so don’t let someone else tell you your health and fitness goal is “wrong” just because it isn’t their goal.)
In my case, getting back to a plant-based diet is about the positive effect it has on my energy levels, immunity, and skin health. I’m cutting back on the vino not because I think it’s bad, but because at 29, I don’t bounce back from hangovers like I used to, and frankly I don’t have the time for them! I’ll still indulge, I’ll just be more choosy about it. As for working out, I want to up my energy and endurance levels, along with my overall strength and flexibility, to carry me through more road trips, hiking, beach days, and other wild adventures.
Ladies, it’s 2019; let’s stop perpetuating the toxic idea that a woman only starts a healthy habit out of vanity, and start supporting each other’s goals already!
This attitude ignores the very real impact that factors like nutrition and exercise have on our personal health, from fertility to genetic conditions like diabetes to just plain feeling good on a day to day basis. We tell women to love themselves and practice self-care, so why do we discourage them from assessing their bodies’ physical needs and responding accordingly if it seems like they’re going to change “too much”?
Besides that, this attitude is just rude! Everyone has a different journey and it is a woman’s right to decide what to do with her own body. Telling a woman she “doesn’t need to diet” seems like a nice thing to say, but it’s rather condescending, since it assumes all we women care about is what we look like! You don’t know why a woman decided to skip the cake today: maybe she found out she’s pre-diabetic and is cutting back on sugar, maybe she’s going gluten-free, maybe she just isn’t hungry. Or maybe she had dessert before dinner, my personal favorite. In any scenario, it’s none of your damn business, only hers!
I ran into the nosy “there’s no need for this” attitude over and over in my twenties. When I first went vegetarian, I heard “Why are you trying to lose weight? You look fine!” (Yes I did look fine, but my motive wasn’t weight-based, it was ethical.) I heard the same comments when I started working out regularly. (FYI: I run because it helps manage my anxiety.) You’ve probably gotten comments based on your own personal health changes.
The comments run the gamut from curious concern to teasing to downright snotty, but they share a common end: questioning the validity of a woman’s health goal (and by extension, her right to make her own decisions about her body!), perhaps by making it seem vain or unnecessary.
(As an aside, I really can’t stress enough here that when it comes to food, if a woman says she is not eating something, do not be an asshat and try to cajole or trick her into eating it. You never know what allergies or other personal health concerns might have sparked a healthy makeover of a woman’s diet. Sugar, dairy, meat, gluten—they can all touch off bad reactions, so respect a woman’s choice!)
These attitudes aren’t just distracting, they’re damaging to our health. Seriously? Our health sucks.
Tough love time here, ladies. We still smoke and use tanning beds, despite knowing how carcinogenic they are. We’re drinking too much alcohol and not prioritizing sleep. Heart disease remains the #1 killer of women in the United States and autoimmune diseases are on the rise, overwhelmingly in women. And to top it all off, we’re more likely than men to struggle with anxiety or depression. That’s a pretty bleak picture.
Obviously, we as women need to cut the crap and start having some honest conversations with each other about health and fitness! Looking at some of those statistics, it sure seems that one of the most self-loving things you can do for your body is take stock of your physical health and fine tune as needed. After all, how are we girls supposed to run the world if we’re killing ourselves young with our physical habits?
So, how do you make a health and fitness goal that comes from self-love, not self-hate?
As someone who’s yo-yo dieted, drank too much, greened up her life, and gone back again, I feel qualified to say: finding your balance can be hella hard. Especially when a lot of popular health and fitness guides reinforce images of one particular body type or goal, it can be discouraging (if not downright triggering) to attempt to find support for a health and fitness journey without falling into old negative habits.
Luckily, there’s been a huge media shift lately, with influencers like Cassey Ho, Iskra Lawrence, Erin Motz and Jessamyn Stanley being just a few of my favorites who strike a really good balance between encouraging women to care for their health while also loving and accepting themselves in the here and now. One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give you: cut out toxicity from your health and fitness journey!
Don’t follow people who aren’t giving off that balanced energy; you don’t want to end up falling into old patterns of restrictive eating, obsessive exercising, or feeling massive guilt every time you slip as you try to kick a bad habit. Whatever your goal is—quitting back on alcohol, starting a yoga practice, going veg—find positive people to surround you and encourage you.
Then, I really encourage you to examine the motives behind the health and fitness goals you’re setting for yourself. If your “health goal” involves daily weigh-ins, an extreme focus on counting calories, working out because you feel like you aren’t small enough for the beach, or some other similar concept, then it sounds like it’s coming from an place of poor self-image and body negativity.
What you want to set are goals with positive intentions that don’t focus on appearance, but on how they make you feel: happier, more energetic, calmer, etc.; basically—how they are positive for your body! It could be starting a yoga practice because it relieves your stress; or cutting out processed sugary foods for healthy snacks to keep your energy levels high while you #girlboss it up; or quitting smoking because hello cancer risk and you want to set a good example for your kids.
Goals that are built from positivity let you say “I love myself” and also “thus, I choose to make this positive change”.
As an example, I realized that I needed to change my eating habits because of the negative effect so many convenience foods were having on my body. But, I didn’t want to fall into old mindsets about calories, fat, “good” vs. “bad” foods and constant self-loathing if my meals for the day weren’t “healthy” enough. Instead I came back to intentional eating this winter and it’s amazing what that attitude does for my relationship to food.
Now that I’m not dividing foods into “good” and “bad” categories and focusing instead on how I feel when I eat, I’m surprising myself with much healthier choices. (I plan to write more about this in another post, since it’s a whooooooole other long topic!) It’s why I still drink wine and eat dessert, because I enjoy those things, and it makes me happy to share a delicious meal with friends. But it’s also why I eat largely plant-based, minimally processed foods, because I love how much more energy I have versus eating and drinking tons of sugary, fatty, processed carb-y or boozy items.
I don’t claim to be an expert on how to balance self-love with health and fitness in your life. I can only give you my best advice on what worked for me. But if I know anything for certain, it’s that you owe it to yourself to take a closer look at how self-love + self-care connect.
One of the most important things you’ll need to do to find the balance between self-love and a new healthy habit is to be kind to yourself. There will be days when it’s tough to stick to your goal, whether it’s drinking less soda, quitting smoking, or starting a workout plan. Don’t hold yourself to an impossible standard of perfection. It won’t serve you.
Instead take a little time every day to remind yourself what you love about yourself now and why you’re doing what you’re doing to become a better version of you. It doesn’t have to be corny or elaborate; it can be as simple as saying, “I love myself because I am independent and ambitious, and I’m going to commit to a Dry January so I can be more focused on my goals.” Or, “I love myself because I’m a great mom to my kids, and I’m going to eat healthier so I can have the energy to keep up with them.”
Whatever health and fitness means for you===making a large change or making a small change, or maybe no change at all right now—be honest with yourself about what you need to feel your best and kind enough to allow for occasional off days. Don’t base your decision on the opinion of someone else, because they aren’t in your body and they aren’t trying to reach the goals you’re aiming for. And support your girlfriends! We’re all in this self-love journey together.
What are your best tips for balancing self-love with health and fitness? How do you make sure your healthy New Year’s (or anytime) goals still practice self-love? How do you avoid the trap of basing a fitness journey solely on appearance? And who are your favorite body-positive health and fitness influencers you think I should check out?
(yoga photo by Marion Michele via Unsplash)