An honest account of how running helped me take pride in my body for what it can do instead of agonising over what it looks like.
How do you get a runner's body? 1) Have a body. 2) Start running. It's that simple!
Last week being mental health awareness week, I felt compelled to share my own battle with body image and positivity and how running has improved both my physical and mental wellbeing.
Growing up dreaming of being a ballet dancer I really struggled to accept my body. In that world, being exceptionally slim is the ultimate ideal and in a class of fellow aspiring performers I was anything but the skinniest. For a long time I felt like the role that I was destined to play in life was the ‘chubby but funny’ friend and for a few years I threw myself into accepting that fate. I outwardly manifested that ‘bubbly’ personality and spent most of my teenage years laughing, but it was hard to laugh off the moment that my slimmer, fitter and more graceful friends were all given main parts in a show whilst I was overlooked. Looking back, I’m sure they were chosen for their talent and flair rather than their physical appearance, but that didn’t occur to my younger self. In reality I wasn’t really that much ‘bigger’ than they were, but through my distorted view of the world I thought I needed to shrink myself to be in with a chance of being taken more seriously in all aspects of my life.
I’m grateful that I’ve never been fully drawn into the dark depths of an eating disorder, but I can really relate to the idea of disordered eating, often mentioned on Dr Laura Thomas’ podcast Don’t Salt My Game. There have been times when I’ve drastically restricted my intake to little more than two Special K bars a day, due to the pressure I put on myself and – often unintentionally – from those around me to resemble an unattainable stereotype. But there have also been times when I’ve binged in secret, eating packet after packet of chocolate and biscuits until I felt so sick I could barely breathe. Looking back I recognise that this vicious cycle was triggered by negative emotions including loneliness and failure. I wasn’t bingeing or restricting because I was hungry or full but because I was dissatisfied with the body I was occupying. I felt unable to open up about that dissatisfaction because on the surface everything was fine. I had fantastic friends and a supportive family, great school results and a social life filled with hobbies and parties. But my mind was still convinced that I would never be truly happy if I didn’t lose a few inches from my waist or thighs.
As the cycle continued, I was swayed by new trends such as clean eating, and had phases of attempting to completely avoid carbohydrates or sugar; often these unsustainable habits led me right back to periods of weight gain and unhappiness. When I went to the gym I was obsessing over the calories I was burning; working out became a punishment for eating a ‘forbidden’ food and a boring habit rather than something to look forward to and enjoy.
I recently listened to an insightful Deliciously Ella podcast episode about intuitive eating and body acceptance, where the host pointed out that for anything to be sustainable it has to be enjoyable, and that strongly resonated with me. Over the last few months I have reached a turning point, and although I know that positive and long lasting change takes time to develop I think that fundamental change occurred when I started running.
Since I've turned my attention to running, it's no longer as important what my body looks like, what matters is what it can achieve! I still love to dance and attend a weekly ballet class, but now I try and focus on the strength it takes to leap around the studio rather than whether I fit into the stereotypical ballerina-shaped box. On the same Deliciously Ella podcast I mentioned earlier, the guest Pandora Paloma emphasised that we have to reject the notion that certain bodies have more value than others; we are all beautiful and we are all worthy. This is what I strive to acknowledge each time I worry that my stomach looks too wobbly or my thighs look too wide when I inevitably glance in studio mirror or at the other dancers around me. When I’m out running I’m now thinking less about comparing myself with others and more about pushing my body to new limits and achieving my own personal goals. Those goals are based on smashing previous race times or mileage instead of numbers on the scale.
I also remind myself that food is fuel. It helps me achieve things I never thought I would, like running for two hours without stopping or completing a tough round of burpees or press-ups. There’s no need for me to avoid any food groups (as I’m not affected by any intolerances or allergies) and my mum was right all along when she repeated “everything in moderation” as her own mantra to live by. I am intrigued by the concept of intuitive eating and am starting to listen to my body more closely than ever before – if I fancy some chocolate or a glass of prosecco I don’t feel as guilty as I would have done even a year ago. It’s not an overnight fix and I’m taking small steps but that’s kind of the point – this is a marathon and not a sprint.
When I reach the finish line of the Paris Marathon next April I’m sure it will be one of my most memorable moments and I will be so proud of my body for giving me the ability to run those 26.2 miles. I won’t be worrying about the circumference of my stomach or avoiding carbohydrates in the lead up to the race for fear of gaining weight. Running has become a way for me to celebrate what my body can achieve no matter what it looks like – and that’s just one way that it has changed my life for the better.
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