Feeling preoccupied about "getting it right" is something that I have experienced since about as far back as I can remember. I never felt sure about how to answer the question about what I wanted to be when I grew up and always felt really uncomfortable in my body. One of my first memories of processing these feelings was talking about being chubby in elementary school and being told by a well-meaning family member that I would grow taller and everything would even itself out. I never grew to be very tall and certainly never experienced this feeling of growing into the right body or being "evened out."
In High School I began volunteering with and realized, for the first time, that some people actually did have jobs working with others and trying to impact the world in a positive way. After watching Hotel Rwanda as a class assignment, and confirming that this was, in fact, a real historical event, I began to learn about the genocide in Darfur and made my boyfriend at the time spend a night marching through the streets of Boston and sleeping outside in order to raise funds for and awareness of the plight of child soldiers in Uganda. I also finally got up the nerve to talk with my mom about joining weight watchers after being told by my doctor that my weight was something I should worry about. I had to bring my mom into the conversation because while I was old enough to tell my boyfriend that I was spending the night outside, with or without him, and to be given this information about the ways in which my body was of concern, I was not yet old enough to drive or to buy weight loss supplies or memberships to diet groups for myself. My mom, who had always been both short and thin, expressed concern about me dieting and told me she did not think I should be worried about losing weight. When I told her that I had given this a lot of thought after talking with my doctor, though, she agreed to support me.
I attended meetings that were mostly full of middle aged women celebrating with one another when they found the right way to turn down the baked goods someone had made to mark a special event or when they had managed to “be good” all week in a way that was reflected in the numbers on the scale. I learned to count points and began to intertwine my feelings of self-worth with my ability to stay within these numbers-- to have enough self-control to force myself into a smaller body. I also began to learn more about the nuances of social justice and just how far past the few documentaries I had seen systemic oppression and violence was actually reaching. At one point, I remember my aunt telling me that she had been on a diet “her whole life” and wondering if this would be my future, too. As High School went on I began to involve myself in more friendships that prioritized these interests: community work or what I saw as health and wellness.
Through dieting with my best friend, I learned that fruit was something to be consumed in moderation while diet soda had no limits. I perfected cycles of justifying a weekend treat by "resetting" the next day--creating patterns that kept me trapped in the first stages of these "lifestyle" diets. I became even more committed to my belief that my personal value was largely informed by my ability to manage my cravings and to fit myself within these frameworks that gave me control over my size. As a student at a competitive all-girls high-school this understanding of self-worth as the ability to control every aspect of one’s behavior and performance made so much sense to me. I worked to apply this same framework of discipline and self-control to feel more agency in my role as a blossoming social justice advocate, not realizing the ways in which many of my beliefs about health and wellness were rooted in the same systems of oppression I was only beginning to understand.
I entered College as a Public and Community Service Studies major and began to learn about what community work really means and how complicated it truly is. I brought many of the beliefs of my blue-collar conservative family with me, hoping to find a way to "help people who wanted to help themselves. I also followed what I now realize was the cultural narrative of health and wellness, which was always quietly serving as the background to my life and my thinking. I abandoned counting points and drinking diet soda by the liter for juice cleanses, vitamin shakes, and some kind of green liquid designed to balance PH levels. During my first semester as a college student, I spent a week drinking only lemon water with cayenne pepper and organic maple syrup and chugging liters of saltwater in order to “naturally cleanse” my body of toxins; to get rid of any excess I may have irresponsibly allowed inside. I am still thankful that the friends with whom I had just begun to form relationships stuck with me as acquaintances asked them if I was ok and as they found kind ways to point out that my skin had started to look a little grey.
I later returned to weight watchers as a busy college student whose weight fluctuations were not adequately maintained by different variations of green liquids. I was fortunate enough to have the people whose loyalty to me had not been deterred by temporary grey pigmentation by my side, gently inviting me not to worry so much while they waited for me to scramble to figure out how many flex points I would need for the night before we could go out. I was also fortunate enough to stumble upon a class about globalization and social systems that asked me to think, perhaps for the first time, about the fact that people are acting, not as individual agents, but as members of systems of power and control. I realized, very slowly, that perhaps justice meant more than simply pointing out the value of hard work or assisting with development of the kind of self-control I was trying to hard to manifest in my own life.
After graduation I spent a year working in South America. I was confronted with the complexities and the complicated moral questions that came with doing community work in a community of which I was not naturally a part. I also found, for the first time, that I did not have much control over my food choices. I was struck by the way that many of the friends I was making in Bolivia were unafraid to comment on body size; to note, with no intention of hurting me, that I was a lot chubbier than the other American volunteer. I wrestled with complicated questions about the cycle of domestic violence and white saviorism while learning Spanish and learning to cross streets without crosswalks.
As I struggled with complicated questions about what my piece of the larger social justice puzzle was and should be and began to consider my own white-centering and my role in maintaining systems of oppression, my body refused to make the transition that I was working so hard to force my brain and heart into. I was sick all of the time and was struggling to make sense of language, culture, and my value and competence. I found, for the first time, that I did not have to restrict or monitor my food because that energy had been redirected toward finding whatever I could consume that would not make me sick. I ate as much fried chicken and french fries as I could find while I learned from the kind and patient women around me about their culture and their place in complex cycles of violence.
When I came home I began working as an Americorps member in an under resourced high school. I was struck by the way that the community welcomed and cared for me, particularly given the narrative about the school being one that was "failing" and the neighborhood being one of violence and unrest.
I struggled to wrap my head around how patient Spanish-speaking teenagers were with me as I worked to use my limited Spanish skills to communicate with them around the fact that they were working full time jobs or had been promoted through the system without ever learning how to read. I was also greeted with well-meaning comments about how good I looked by loved ones, many of whom were well aware that I had spent most of the previous year with a low-level case of typhoid fever as my constant companion. As I readjusted to life where I was able to keep down most of the foods I ate, I used my renewed access to any food I wanted as a measure of self-soothing during a challenging transition year. Instead of using food as a way to care for myself, I justified not setting boundaries at my new job and not sleeping enough with permission to binge on foods I had always felt needed to be restricted.
I gained all the weight that typhoid had taken back plus quite a few pounds extra and became stuck in a cycle of feeling badly about myself and feeling unable to prioritize self-care. As a means of trying to take back my health, I re-committed to weight watchers and learned about the new “more flexible” rules for shrinking and controlling my body. Thankfully, this was also the same time that I became close with one of the behavioral specialists at the school who wanted to use his CrossFit coaching to support some of the youth who were struggling to engage in ways that were positive. He encouraged me to give the class a try--not saying anything about my body or my health but simply stating that he thought I might enjoy the experience; that he knew it was something I could do. He extended the unconditional positive regard he gave to each of the students at the school to me, telling me, as he told them, that he believed in me no matter what else I had going on.
I began I began struggling through these morning classes in the gym and benefiting from the encouragement of the students who had found strength not just in continued exercise but also in the unrelenting optimism and faith of the person leading them through. Six months later, he suddenly died. I was absolutely devastated and knew that I had to continue the work we had started together. My CrossFit journey lead me to once again ditch diet coke and fake candy for whole foods, protein shakes, and grain-free alternatives. During multiple Whole 30 challenges, I eliminated everything processed and refined only to slowly but surely add it back in. During these 30 day stretches I made my own mayo, agonized over ingredients labels, and took up more than my fair share of restaurant staff’s time, making sure that my chicken wouldn’t be cooked in anything but olive oil. I frequently reminded myself of the words of the author of the book that the challenge was based on: “dieting isn’t hard, cancer is."
A few years later, I found myself interfacing with actual cancer, and it was hard. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer as I was preparing to leave my long-time job to go back to school. Suddenly food and exercise felt like two of the only areas of my life where I had any sort of control. I became certified to coach CrossFit and started counting macros in the midst of taking my mom to chemo. I later switched to the Keto diet because it took less time and counting while I wrote papers for the first time in six years in the waiting room of radiation appointments. I wrestled endlessly with balancing how privileged I knew we were to be a part of these systems of care with how draining they all felt and how inept I felt at leveraging the gratitude I felt into effective management of these resources--much less remaining committed to the work of redistributing resources so that access to this care was not limited to families like mine.
My mom fought hard and got better and my body shrunk and my gym performance improved.
My friends at the gym are truly one of the strongest reasons why I did not drop out of school that first semester. I would stumble into the gym before the sun came up, sure that I could manage everything if I just woke up early enough, and they would ask me if I was ok, knowing that I was unable to be honest in my answers. They would hug me in those early morning hours and remind me that no, I wasn’t going to fail out of school and have to become a full time CrossFit coach, every time I needed to hear it. Coaching became a passion of mine. It gave me a chance for new connections and to build myself up on days when my never ending list of assignments had me questioning whether I had any sort of competency at all. I felt guilty though, every time one of the new athletes asked me what kind of diet I followed; what they should do to make their legs look more like mine. I would usually laugh and say something generic about consistency and everyone’s body being different because it didn’t feel right to suggest that they, too, try adding fat and limiting carbs while caring for a sick parent and managing a constant fear of failure.
As life settled and I began to realize that it’s more work for PhD programs to kick someone out than to keep them in, I was able to feel better about the progress I was making and the effort I was putting in. I was not in a place yet to think through the privilege inherent in coming to this feeling of belonging in a program like mine. I appreciated the words of encouragement and inspiration I would get from people that I loved but it would hurt me every time someone would tell me that they barely recognized me or that I looked like a new woman. I knew that the sentiments were meant to acknowledge my training and hard work but all I could hear was that if I was finally meeting some unknown standard now, I certainly had not been doing so before. It crushed me to hear people that I had loved and valued for years talk about me being a “different person” because I wasn’t different on the inside--and isn’t that why they loved me?
My love of fitness began to intersect in more complicated ways with desires to work for social justice when Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by white men for running while black and when, shortly thereafter, George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight while an officer kneeled on his knee for almost 9 minutes. I "ran with Maud" and participated in the "Big Floyd" workout at my CrossFit gym. I thought more about the questions I often pushed to the back of my head about why my gym, as kind and caring as it is, was not a space that was accessed by people of color. Several days later, the founder of CrossFit made racist comments on twitter that he later doubled down on in his "apology." My gym disaffiliated right away and started conversations about the culture of CrossFit and its accessibility. CrossFit Headquarters came out a few days later explaining that someone new would be taking over and that they had not made previous statements about the Black Lives Matter movement because of their respect for "various opinions." The language used reminded me so much of many of the other people in my life that I love who talk about all lives mattering, supporting the cops, and wishing I could not be so dramatic about these kinds of things.
My continued struggle to parse apart health, wellness, self-criticism, self-reflection, and attempts for total control over my life all while working to commit to anti-racism work is largely what brings me to this platform. I truly love some people who voted for Trump . I benefit from the systems of privilege I want to dismantle. I know that I feel and move better when I am fueling my body with more fat than carbs but I find myself in continuous patterns of restriction and over-indulgence when it comes to sugar. I am often part of conversations, particularly with other women, about “being bad” or the parts of our body that bring us angst and find myself sharing a laugh or a non committal collaborative statement (“story of my life!”) because I don’t know what else to say. I know that the women in these conversations are mostly White, because we haven't even considered the way that these concerns are compounded for women of color. I make jokes when racial justice conversations become too charged with my loved ones, talk to my therapists about working self-care strategies into my anti-racist work in ways that doesn't harm BIPOC. I tell other women that they should not worry so much about their bodies when what I want to say is “I think about those things all the time, too and I wish neither of us had to.” My hope for this platform is to share my experiences and my learning in order to sustain my role in this work. I hope to build my courage and capacity to offer real responses and to stop asking each other not to care about the things we are all thinking about. I hope to start re-defining what it means to keep ourselves well in ways that are not dependent on the maintenance of systems of privilege and oppression.