I don’t remember exactly when I started hating my body. The true shame began sometime around 6th grade when I failed to do a pull-up in front of my entire gym class and tripped and sprained my wrist while running during our “fitness tests” – tests that were pretty much exactly how they sound, measuring how “fit” you are based on how well you can perform various tasks.
But I can tell you exactly when I truly realized how powerful my body is: hiking on the Great Wall of China, afraid, uncertain, and covered in scratches and bruises.
My body shame didn’t come from my size or shape so much as it came from my clumsiness and inability to do anything that required strength or coordination.
In elementary school, I could never climb the rope in gym class. In middle school, I was always the kid that was picked last for team sports. In high school, I had to swim in the shallowest area of the pool. Every single time, I not only felt incapable – my lack of strength and coordination was also evident to everyone else at my school. I felt humiliated and therefore embarrassed to even try, spending years doing all that I could to get out of gym class.
I was resigned to the fact that I wasn’t athletic, and that I never could be.
I never would’ve guessed that the very thing that made me hate my body – and a more extreme version, actually – could help me defeat my shame and feel empowered instead.
I would call the Great Wall hike I went on pretty extreme, even for someone who’s more athletic than I am. It was an unrestored section of the wall, covered by mud, bushes, rocks and loose gravel. I had never hiked before, and I never would’ve willingly climbed a mountain if my friends didn’t convince me to and if I didn’t feel obligated to visit the Great Wall.
As I climbed, I thought, “why am I doing this to myself?” It was like gym class all over again, except this time, I had made a choice to do something athletic. What had I been thinking????
The climb was tough – one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I scratched up my legs on branches. I felt so afraid at times as I looked out to see the distance between me and the ground. I was out of breath as I carefully climbed up steep hills. I slipped and fell a few times, getting covered in dirt and bruises.
But ultimately, I reached the wall. Sure, I had a few scratches and bruises and my body felt a little sore, but my body was what allowed me to climb. I climbed more often than I fell. My body was strong more often than it was weak. I felt powerful and proud.
Perhaps my favorite photos of me ever taken are the ones my friend took of me while I was hiking. I’m not wearing makeup and in some of them, I look downright foolish. But I look at those photos and think, “wow, that girl is a badass (with a rockin’ bod that gave her the strength and endurance to hike).”
Obviously, I’m still not what most people would call “athletic.” I’m not about to suddenly join a sports team or climb mountains every weekend. But I learned that in the same way that I don’t have to wear a size 2 to be fit or healthy or beautiful, I don’t have to be traditionally athletic to be strong or proud of my body.
People always talk about how beauty comes in so many different forms and “everyone is beautiful.” But what about strength? For me, my body issues didn’t stem from comparing myself to models in the media – they came from all of the things my body couldn’t do “right.”
Either way, we’re letting others tell us what the ideal body is, and the standards are narrow and ridiculous. Because of these expectations, I spent years hating my body for all the times it failed me, all the times it couldn’t do what I wanted it to do, instead of loving it for all of the things it allowed me to do. If you feel ashamed of your body, I encourage you to find something that makes you feel strong.
It’s not too late to try again and realize just how powerful (not shameful) your body can be.
Image via Anna Schultz