I started my first diet and exercise routine when I was in 5th grade. At 11-years-old, I informed my mother that I would no longer be eating cereal for breakfast, and asked if she could please prepare me a single egg instead. I power-walked around our neighborhood and turned our living room into a gym. I did sit-ups with my feet tucked under the couch and used the raised platform in front of the fireplace for step-ups.
And it worked. I lost weight, got in shape and have been completely happy with my body ever since.
No, of course that’s not what happened.
I did lose weight, 5 pounds in 5 days, but my regimen was so restrictive that I soon gave up and gained back that weight plus some.
From the time we’re very young, girls are sold the idea that thin equals beautiful. And that being beautiful is important, essential even – that it’s the gateway to happiness. We’ve seen it in magazines and on television, from actresses trying to entertain us and companies trying to sell us stuff. And now this particular outlook has permeated our lives in the form of Instagram fitness inspiration. You know, the posts featuring impossibly toned women in spandex or bikinis. These images are more accessible than previous forms of influence, and for me, they’re more insidious.
I could rationalize not looking like an actress or a model. Looking good is their job. That’s what I would tell myself. I could look like that if I had a personal chef and a celebrity trainer and all the time in the world to workout. But wait a minute, those women on Instagram, they don’t have any of that, but they do have flat stomachs and thigh gaps, and a host of other aesthetic ideals. They are real people who achieved something I’ve been working toward since childhood, and they’re validated by other real people in the form of likes and positive comments.
So why couldn’t I do it?
And then I realized I had been lying to myself. I could do it. I could workout for hours on end and count calories with precision. I could get closer, and closer, and closer, to my best physical self. I could, but I don’t actually want to. I want to eat healthy, whole foods because they make me feel good, but I also want to have brunch with my friends and a couple beers with my boyfriend. I want to work out because exercise is an amazing tool for me. It’s an energy-enhancer, a stress-reliever, an anxiety-reducer, and a confidence-booster. It’s my time to focus on just myself, or to focus on nothing at all. It allows me to challenge myself, to grow physically and mentally. I realized that even if I never planned on wearing a bikini again, I would still run. Even though I haven’t yet, nor will I likely ever be able to spin myself to a size 2, I genuinely enjoy cycling.
And I realized I don’t need the validation of strangers on Instagram to feel okay about any of this.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy. It has taken a long time and a lot of beating myself up to be realize that a flat stomach and a thigh gap aren’t my highest aspirations. I am still constantly struggling to not let those types of images seep in and convince me that because I don’t look like a fitness model, I’m not fit. I still have to remind myself that carbs aren’t the enemy, repeat it to myself like a mantra.
While I don’t doubt that most Instagram models are health-conscious, I’ve finally come to really believe fitness and health and happiness come in many shapes and sizes, and should be measured by metrics apart from weight and waist size.
It’s not a competition. We can all win, and we don’t have to get a certain number of likes to do it.