There are a couple of sounds that instantly take me back to a simpler time in my life; the music of onions frying in a kitchen, U-Roy playing on a loop and sneakers being tied. I grew up in a family that took exercise seriously. In every single office that my father has occupied, he has a photo of him completing the Boston Marathon, a smile gracing his damp face, one arm raised in celebration of his achievement. My sister would stretch this way and that before she would go on a run. My other sister used to be a dedicated swimmer.
Suffice to say, part of our identities were tied up in exercise. It’s something that I didn’t embrace until I was much older, which elicited annoyance from my family. But that time did come. For me, it was almost like a siren call. The gym beckoned to me, promising to be a place that I could solve my problems and cultivate the discipline that I desperately needed and, in the beginning, it was. I learned that I was much stronger than I looked and that I could push through discomfort to lift a heavier dumbbell. It turns out those were valuable lessons for me to learn. As I’ve aged, I’ve been put in situations where I have to push back against my discomfort and stand my ground. I honestly do not think I would have been able to do that without stepping foot into the gym.
But then Instagram happened. Ah, Instagram; the bane and yet the light of our modern society. I was never an avid user of Instagram until about two years ago. I was so opposed to the app that a friend used to run my account. I didn’t see the less savory side of it until I started looking for workout videos on the app. While those videos were helpful, I couldn’t help but notice a pretty obvious pattern. All the women’s bodies looked the same. An extremely flat and toned stomach with a round, curvy butt that seemed to defy gravity paired with strong muscular thighs.
These Instagram fitness coaches preached about taking time for yourself and investing in your well being in between adds of slimming teas (which are laxatives, don’t let anyone tell you any different). In between all the weightlifting, yoga classes, high-intensity exercises, and skincare tips that I came to follow, something changed. My body never looked better, but my mind was messy. No matter how much muscle I had gained or every achievement, it wasn’t enough for me.
I was miserable. I began looking at myself in the mirror just after showering, handling my body unkindly and asking myself how come my butt didn’t look like theirs? Why weren’t my arms growing at a faster rate? How come I hadn’t hit a certain number of calories burned on the treadmill? I didn’t realize that part of the wellness culture online is cultivating the feeling that you could be better and that your best self is just around the corner. If you can hold out for just long enough and spend a little more money, use more derma rollers to firm up your cellulite or wear these leggings while doing weighted rows, your life will change.
Months later and I was burnt out. Not just physically but emotionally. Deep down, I knew something had to give. So I did the one thing I needed to do; I took a break. I ate whatever I wanted, and that includes ice cream for dinner because why not? I only exercised when I felt like it and not a minute more. I let my body be, with no expectations attached. Through this process, I discovered A Swole Woman‘s Instagram account. Her only goal is to teach people about the strength of their bodies even if they don’t see it or feel it. Through her, I have learned to focus not on the aesthetics of my body, but the strength that it holds.
I am currently still on my break from exercise. I am dedicated to refocusing my joy on what my body can do and not what it looks like. I am also relearning that my body does not need to be on a constant track to something better. Through this, I’ve learned to love my body more, even if I don’t necessarily like it all the time. Soon enough, I will walk into a gym again in the cold and put my hands on a squatted rack the same way I did a year ago. But the reasons for it will be very different and so much better.