Why Exercise and Hating Myself Go Hand-In-Hand
I was 8 the first time I decided I hated myself enough to exercise.
I remember the first time I exercised in an attempt to lose weight.
I was around 8 or 9. I had just realized that my stomach was a little bit rounder, a little more soft than some of the other girl’s. In reality, I was a pretty average-looking kid, but it was as if I could only ever see the girls that were smaller than me.
I wasn’t very physically active as a child, preferring reading alone to most activities that required moving or being outside. But then one month, my issue of American Girl magazine had a section on how to make exercising “fun.” According to American Girl, I wasn’t exercising enough.
Exercising was good for you, it said. Exercising was part of what made you healthy. Which is when I realized two things: One, that I must not be healthy because I didn’t exercise, and that this was bad. And two, that exercising could make me thinner. And I wanted to be thinner.
With American Girl magazine as my fitness gospel, I embarked on a journey of self-transformation.
Or at least I tried to. Briefly. I remember exercising in secret, in my room with the door closed, doing the crab walk and feeling strangely guilty (According to American Girl, the crab walk was a great fun exercise).
I wanted my stomach to be smaller. I wanted to be “fit,” whatever that meant. Exercising was how I would get there, but I didn’t want anyone to know.
Looking back, I think some of that guilt must have come from me knowing, on some level, that I shouldn’t have been trying to lose weight. I didn’t need to. I was young, just about to start puberty, which is an age where it is natural and healthy for girls to gain weight. And it wasn’t even as if I had that much extra weight on me.
But I felt big, and big was bad, and American Girl said I should be exercising more.
I didn’t keep up that particular exercising habit for long, but the battle between myself and fitness had begun.
I would go through many periods over the years where I would decide that I needed to “get in shape” (Which meant get skinny). Then I would spend maybe a week or two taking part in some kind of half-assed exercise routine.
The routines never stuck, though. I hated and still hate exercise in most of its forms. There are just a lot of things that I’d rather be doing than running or pilates or yoga or any other sweat-inducing activity.
Then there was the shame. I never wanted to admit to anyone that I was exercising, especially as a teen. In my mind, if I told someone that I was going to start working out, I assumed they would think I was trying to lose weight. And though my attempts at keeping up an exercise routine were usually spurred by a desire to lose weight, I didn’t want anyone to know that.
For me, it was not only shameful to not be skinny, but it was also shameful to want to be skinny or to try to be skinny.
I would tell myself that I was trying to “feel better,” but this was just code. I would feel better when my stomach was flat and my legs didn’t jiggle. Exercising wasn’t an act of self-love. I wasn’t doing it because I thought my mind and body would feel better if I did. I was doing it because I didn’t like myself and I thought exercise would make me thinner, and therefore better. I thought if I exercised enough, I would start to like myself more. But inevitably, I would give up quickly and my lack of commitment would become another reason to dislike myself.
I tried to tell myself I didn’t care about losing weight. I figured if I approached exercising from a place of wanting to improve my mental health or have more energy or just generally feel better, I would be more motivated to do it. But underlying those reasons was always the constant, secret desire: I want to be skinny.
It didn’t matter that I have been, for most of my life from my late teens to the present, fairly slender. But I’m not ultra-thin, and I’ve almost always had a little extra cushion around my middle. And I’ve always hated it. Sometimes the hate is stronger than others.
I can’t say I still hate my body the way I did when I was a teen. Sometimes I think I like the way I look more often than I don’t.
And yet. And yet. There is still that little voice in my head that is the same one that motivated me to exercise in secret when I was eight. The one that says I need to be slimmer, more toned, have less jiggle. That exercise will make me better, because it will make me thin.
Now I am 26 and in the gym for the first time in months. There is a mirror stretching the length of the wall across from where I am on the treadmill. I watch myself run, my body feeling awkward and tired. There are reasons beyond being thin that I know I should exercise. I know it’s supposed to help with my depression and anxiety. I know it’s supposed to help give me more energy. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t still want to be skinny.
So I have to ask again: Am I doing this because love myself? Or am I doing this because I don’t?
Grace Carlson is a writer from Washington. She writes about travel, mental health, writing, and books. Sometimes she’s funny, or at least that’s what her mom says. Visit her blog, A Passport And A Pencil.