Disclaimer/Content Note: I talk a lot about obsessive exercise and calories in this post. I’m not diagnosing myself with anything, nor am I prescribing a perspective or attitude to have, nor am I a qualified authority on anything to do with health at all, as you’ll see below. This is just my experience, one that I think a lot of women silently struggle with. I don’t want to be silent.
Feet pounding on the soft, shadowed mud of my local woods, a song called ‘Can’t Get Enough of Myself’ by Santigold starts playing through my headphones, and I smile. I’ve always cracked a smile when this song comes on, amused by the lyrics but simultaneously motivated by them. I used to think they were funny because they were so audaciously confident, and singing along was an act so far from the truth of how I felt. Singing along was an act of manifestation, of trying to speak into existence. Now, I smile because the words fit.
I’ve written a lot about self-love so far on this blog. It’s because I feel like I’m finally coming to the end of the long journey of reaching a place of confidence. I don’t know whether it’s to do with maturing – they say that the older you get, the less you care about what people think of you – or realising what truly matters to me, but I just don’t have any room in my life anymore for the negativity I used to stockpile.
Clearly, to an extent, it’s still of importance to me; I’m still writing about it, after all. I haven’t yet got to the point where self-love is so inherent that I don’t even notice it. That being said, I’ve come to a point where I’m celebrating moments of progress rather than lamenting regression. And, even when it feels like I’m regressing, my thoughts and perception of self are so lucid that I am able to check that, and turn it into something good again. For example, having a low day is not a marker of dark clouds looming, but merely one day out of many that can be wiped away with the clean slate of morning. I could never see this – even a couple of weeks ago I was fretting that a relapse into darkness was on the horizon.
Today I’m writing (and have been writing, for the last few days) about one of those little victories: a moment of lucid thought, a realisation, some clarity on a topic I’ve never really addressed in the way it deserves. And that’s my health. I’ve always gone backwards and forwards with talking about weight, food and fitness – whether that’s writing about it publicly, acknowledging it in my journal, or voicing it to friends.
I’ve also always gone backwards and forwards in properly addressing these three things, and how they affect me. It feels almost like I live my life in peaks and troughs of healthy and unhealthy, and I feel that I’ve never actually achieved a balance of the two.
When I say ‘healthier’, then, it’s both physical and mental. Physically, I want my body to achieve more. At present, I feel weak. I’m borderline underweight and terribly unfit. I want to combat that. Mentally, I want the strength to pick up a new, healthy routine, and maintain it. Mental health isn’t something I shy away from nowadays and (for once) I’m not actually directly talking about depressed thoughts or ennui. I’m not talking about that journey to self-love that has been so rocky, although that does come into it. I’m talking about routine and resilience.
I move in cycles of healthy and unhealthy because I let other things get in the way. In June 2017, I joined a gym, got fit, and kept up my fitness until December 2017, when I decided I was too busy to exercise; I needed to revise for my A Level exams. In June 2018, I rejoined the same gym and kept up my fitness until September 2018 when my friends went off to university and I had no one to go with anymore. When I started university in October 2018, I had planned to keep up my fitness – but, as with A Levels, I never found the time alongside my degree. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely had time to exercise – I just prioritised other leisure activities, like the societies I was part of, watching Netflix, writing and sleeping. In July 2019, I rejoined the same gym (are you noticing a pattern?) and tried to get fit again. That ended in August 2019 when I got bored, and when my mental health wasn’t good enough to go to the gym anymore.
I also move in cycles of healthy and unhealthy because of the ways in which I apprehend my body and my definition of ‘healthy’. In myself, I’ve always equated healthy with smallness: with my waist being small, with my ribs being somewhat visible, with my collar bones and hip bones sticking out, with a thigh gap. It’s messed up, because that’s not the definition of healthy at all – probably closer to the opposite – and it’s not something I prescribe to other people. I hold myself, and only myself, to these twisted standards of ‘health’. Whenever I went to the gym, I was going to lose body mass, not gain it – even though, by the end, I didn’t have anything left to lose.
Jogging, or stair-climbing, or cycling, or rowing in the gym means doing so inside and with a screen in front of you telling you how well you’re doing. You’re not allowed to decide how well you’re doing based on how you feel; everything is numbers. At least, that’s how it felt to me. Each year that I’ve joined the gym, I’ve found myself getting a little bit obsessed with these numbers: writing them down, comparing them, pushing myself to beat them. This sounds good – but I’m not talking about distances and times. I’m talking about calories. I would hop on the cross-trainer, remind myself of the 120 calories I burned two days ago, and push myself to burn 130. I couldn’t get off until I did better, burned more. I would exhaust myself doing this. Maybe I was getting fitter. But I wasn’t getting healthier.
In the summer of 2019, when I was going through somewhat of a mental health crisis, these numbers haunted me. When I say that my mental health wasn’t good enough to go to the gym anymore, I mean just that: expecting that level of commitment – that level of resilience in the face of numbers numbers numbers – was ridiculous. I lost a lot of weight and I cried a lot in front of the mirror, both because I hated myself generally, but also because of my inability to burn more calories: I would set myself a goal, a number to hit, and I couldn’t, because I was literally too weak to do that. It made me feel even worse about myself.
Once I started to pick up on what I was doing, I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t forget about the numbers, but I also couldn’t motivate myself to exercise without them. The last time I was ever in a gym, I spent thirty minutes lying on an exercise ball, scared to get on the treadmill again. My legs felt like jelly, and standing up made me feel woozy. I ended my membership that night.
I was scared of exercise for a while. I let myself get unfit and unhealthy again because I was scared of getting obsessed again. I got sick of dizzy heads and fainting in the shower – something that becomes very common when you’re too thin.
Earlier this year, I noticed I was losing weight without trying. I saw photos of myself at a ball, and all I could see were bones. It made me really sad to see the person I had tried so hard to forget creeping back up on me without warning.
When I saw those photos, I teared up. I had been this weight before (even less, perhaps), but I never really noticed how ugly it was until it was unprecedented. Without the overlay of exercise – without the numbers, and without a reason for me to be so thin – I could finally see how unhealthy I looked. I felt sorry for myself. I felt sorry for my body.
I blame this, amongst other things, on breakfast. There was a time, for a while, when I’d decided that I wasn’t a breakfast person, because I was struggling to keep the food down or it gave me a stomach ache – so there was a time, for a while, where I skipped breakfast completely. I never realised breakfast was such a big part of my weight – which is silly, it’s one of three daily meals – so it took a while before I realised that I needed to make a conscious effort to stop and eat. Eating breakfast again has been good for me both physically and mentally. I’ve gained some weight back.
Returning home, faced with a long summer ahead, my initial urge was to join a gym again, as I’ve done every summer since 2017. Actually, in the face of such uncertainty, I had a lot of ‘initial urges’: I found myself reaching to the toxic coping mechanisms I was so used to when faced with empty time. I found myself writing lists and lists of things to achieve, desperate to be ‘productive’ in the time that stretched out before me. Rejecting this mindset has been another little victory of mine. We’re all experiencing a global pandemic: it’s OK if this isn’t the most productive time of your life.
However, for once, the COVID-19 crisis is somewhat of a blessing: I can’t go to the gym, can’t rekindle my obsession with numbers and calories, because they’re all closed. I’ve started running instead, and doing small exercises at home, when I have the energy. Sometimes, amidst all of this uncertainty, I can’t help but feel lethargic and demotivated. What’s another day wasted on the sofa when I have limitless days to do something with?
But running has helped. It breaks up the week. The beauty of running is that it’s all about time and distance – pushing yourself to get fitter, to go further, to feel stronger, to be able to do more with your body. I have no idea how many calories I’m burning.
At first, I started exercising the only way I knew how: badly. I wouldn’t eat before I went out, and I relished the pain it forced. It’s one of those sadistic voices that you can never quite get rid of, telling you that the pain you feel from hunger is a good pain. It’s a pain that fills you with pride, because it means that you’re winning. Sometimes I can ignore these feelings, but they’re so inherent in me after years of toxic habits.
Running on an empty stomach and feeling that stabbing pain in my left side felt almost like a reward in those first few days: you may not have the numbers, but you have this feeling again. It’s like the beautifully horrible feeling of drinking water on an empty stomach – it’s so cold and you feel so hollow, but equally you feel so accomplished. On one run, the pain from these empty-stomach-cramps was so searing that I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. I had to stop running to recover, something that felt like losing, not winning. I blamed it on being unfit – on not having exercised for a while. A few days later, I realised that no, I was just starving, and a hungry body doesn’t perform well.
It was a turning point. Now, I’m eating more and watching myself gain weight – and it’s OK. I like looking in the mirror and seeing how my body is changing, toning. My legs look stronger. I don’t know how long it will last, but I’m hoping it becomes habitual: both admiring my body and its changes in the mirror, and this healthy form of exercise.
I’m an all or nothing type of person – a run before you can run type. Motivated by a good session, I have visions of myself running miles and miles, and I want to get back out there. It’s a motivation that keeps me going, and one I’m channelling into other things – like reading and writing – so as not to do too much too soon. I think progressing slowly with the NHS’s Couch to 5k program is going to be good for me. It’s a three-day-per-week thing, a bit-by-bit thing that you work through slowly.
For the first time, I feel like I’ve accomplished something when I get home, and it’s nothing to do with numbers: it’s the arbitrary distance further I got this time, or conquering that uphill section, or smiling at another runner as we jogged past each other, or just feeling energised when I finished. For once, it’s unquantified, and it’s so freeing.