Back in January as I prepared for joint surgery number ten, I scheduled a fitness photoshoot with Jess McDougall Creative to memorialize the results of months spent training in an effort to go into my knee surgery as strong as physically possible. The gym also became my place to cope with the rage I felt going into yet another surgery just four months after having wrist surgery in October of last year.
In the midst of this grueling training, I fell in love with my body in ways I never have before, and even in December, I found myself wanting to wear sleeveless shirts to show off my shoulders and biceps. At 33, I was the strongest and fittest I’d ever been in my life, and getting there helped me learn to let go of some truly damaging behaviors surrounding diet and exercise.
You see, I didn’t grow up in a body positive family. A fact I’m reminded of every time I spend more than a few hours with my father. Bring up Serena Williams’ historic 23 Grand Slam titles in his presence, and, disgusted, he’ll respond, “she looks like a man” with no acknowledgment of her athletic greatness.
Comments like these have a way of transporting me back to when I was in high school. I remember being 16 and feeling insecure about my body which I shared with my father. Without an ounce of empathy he looked at me and said, “Well, you should exercise if you want to look better.” I was crushed. At 16 I’d already had four joint surgeries in three years, and instead of telling me that I was not only beautiful but strong too, my father was telling me I needed to exercise more.
As an adult, I recognize that my father is such a narcissist that I’m not sure he’s capable of seeing beauty in anyone other than himself. As a child, his almost constant, passive aggressive verbal abuse of my mother broke her already fragile self-image. She grew up a competitive ice dancer, and eventually developed an eating disorder under the pressure to maintain an unrealistic performance weight. She carried this baggage into adulthood, and, despite her best intentions, passed it on to me and my sisters.
My parents failed to teach me to love and feel proud of my body or to find beauty in myself. Perhaps even more than my sisters, I needed these lessons as SJIA ravaged my physical appearance during my adolescence. Beyond my surgeries and scars, I experienced the Prednisone “moon face” and bloating as I cycled on and off steroid treatments. At one point, I was on such a high dose of Methotrexate, that I lost almost all of my hair while also developing extreme skin reactions from sun exposure. The combination of the disease itself and side effects from medication halted puberty for me, and I didn’t get my period until I was 15. I wouldn’t develop noticeable breasts until just before college – to the extent that I was stuck in training bras until this time. A fact that once horrified an insensitive salesperson while I shopped for prom dresses.
Without my parents support to teach me any form of self-love or body confidence, I came to loathe my body as a teenager and well into my 20s. I hated my disease for making me feel not only different, but invisible as it repeatedly robbed me of femininity, hair, and breasts.
This self-loathing led me down a path where I used food as a weapon against myself – I’d deprive myself of eating as punishment for all the ways my body failed me. Other times I’d exercise to extremes going to the gym multiple times a day. My only goal was to be “that girl” at the gym – you know the one: she’s so impeccably fit, that her mere presence at the gym vacates any shred of confidence you walked in with. I was so broken during this time that my goals had nothing to do with fitness – instead, I wanted to be someone, or at least look like someone that would make others feel as low as I did.
All these years later, I can’t own a scale and I avoid macros-based diets, carb cycling, and any other regimen that requires logging food. This can be frustrating because I’m part of a Facebook fitness group, and several times a year they host challenges that require tracking via an app as well as before/after weights, measurements, etc. The competitor in me would love to participate, but this type of constant tracking is a slippery slope back to deprivation behavior – I’m still prone to punishing myself for being sick, and I’ll go as far as restricting calories when my RA is flaring and I’m unable to work out. I don’t even own a FitBit for this reason.
Healing myself from these damaging behaviors while learning to love and appreciate my body is an ongoing process and I constantly have to remind myself that it’s hard work to undo 20 years of hurt. Reclaiming my identity as an athlete has been critical in giving me healthy goals to train towards – Spartan races require the kind of strength and endurance that not only requires lifting heavy weights but eating more food more often during the day than I ever could have imagined at certain points in my life. And while my relationship with food is much improved, I’m still working to forgive myself for the days I can’t train as scheduled due to my RA.
My photoshoot with Jess was a celebration of all of that work, and, as I’ve written in several spots outside of this blog, much bigger than just a photo shoot: my pictures are a daily reminder that I’m so much stronger than my disease, and an inspiration to work my ass off in PT to get back into the gym. They’re also an act of defiance. A way of taking back 20 years of feeling broken and less than. A refusal to cover up or to feel shame. A love letter to myself and to my body.