“In all the years I’ve been a therapist, I’ve yet to meet one girl who likes her body.” ~Mary Pipher, Author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls
“There is more wisdom in your bodies than in your deepest philosophies.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche
I have a confession: I love CrossFit.
Like a lot of folks, I once had about a million pre-conceived ideas about CrossFit that left me convinced I would never, ever, EVER try it.
Specifically, I had been told — by other healthcare practitioners, especially — that CrossFit is dangerous and bad for me and cult-y and just a really terrible idea in general.*
And, so, I was pretty sure I’d avoid it forever and always, amen.
Except then I fell in love with a man who loves CrossFit and the desire to understand why overtook my desire to be stubborn in my refusal to change my mind.
Which is how I found myself in a CrossFit gym initially. But then I kind of got hooked and now I’m there 4-5x most weeks. (Cue disbelief from my former self.)
Up until about two years ago, my almost sole form of exercise was running. I played competitive soccer from age 5 until I graduated college in 2004, and transitioning into long(er) distance running seemed like a natural progression for me.
And, in all honesty, I was pretty convinced that running miles and miles every week was the only way to stay fit and healthy and — more importantly — thin.
I think a lot of women of my generation absorbed the same message: Cardio, cardio, cardio. Thin, thin, thin.
After all, we grew up in the 80s and 90s, when aerobics was all the rage and thinness was worshipped.
(It sort of still is, but I think the conversation is shifting. Or, at least, I hope it is.)
Over the course of the past two years, I have gradually changed the way I approach exercise and fitness and moving my body, both with regard to the particular movements in which I choose to regularly engage and the attitude with which I approach those activities.
Initially, I started incorporating bodyweight exercises into high intensity intervals on my own at home in addition to maintaining my running schedule. Which improved my strength and benefited my running a ton.
But I was still secretly obsessed with staying thin.
And so, yes, I got stronger. But also: I was still largely motivated by aesthetics.
When I started regularly going to the CrossFit gym with my boyfriend, I rather quickly lost sight of any supposed aesthetic ideal I was hoping to someday achieve.
This happened for a few different reasons:
First, I was too busy learning new things and trying to master new ways of using my body to care that much about what it looked like.
Second, I started eating to feel strong and perform well in workouts instead of eating to stay thin.
And third, I saw so many different examples of healthy, fit, strong, badass female bodies to believe that any one body type could ever embody some sort of ideal image.
I have now been going to the same gym for about a year, and in that time I have never once heard anyone utter a single thing about how their own or someone else’s body looks.
I have never heard anyone talk about being too fat or too big or wanting to change her body.
I have never heard anyone compare her body to another person’s body or determine that one particular body type is better than any other.
And this has been the most refreshing thing.
Because all of our bodies are capable of being fucking fantastic at something. And I don’t know if this is true in every crossfit gym, but the women with whom I have had the privilege of working out this past twelve months all celebrate the ways in which each individual excels.
I can run and row and press things overhead like a champ. My squat, on the other hand, needs work. And there are women in the gym who can easily squat 50, 75, and 100lbs more than me. And who can lift a ridiculously heavy barbell off the ground like it’s made of styrofoam.
Which never ceases to impress and inspire me.
But this is not really the point.
The point is this: We need to widen our lens on female beauty and health and embrace a more diverse representation of the female body.
And we need to do this as a society, but we also need to do this as individuals. Because by seeing beauty in the wide variety of bodies around us — and actively choosing to surround ourselves with more body diversity — we can better learn how to appreciate our own.
And the ripple effects of this type of acceptance and celebration can be pretty profound, if you ask me.
I grew up believing there was only one right and ideal body to which I should most definitely aspire. And I did my best to achieve it. Even while my body was telling me, Nope, you’re stuck with me. Figure out how to make this work. And also, here are some stretch marks and cellulite and some little tiny boobs that will never get any bigger. That little pooch under your belly button? It’s pretty much here to stay. Regardless of how strong or small you are. Sorry. Oh, and your hips? They will never ever be a size 2. But thanks for asking.
Exercise was always secretly not about health at all. It was absolutely about aesthetics and trying to mold my body into a certain form. A form that, in all honesty, it’s kind of incapable of being forced into.
I’m just not built that way.
And here’s the truth: Probably less than 1% of women actually are built that way. Which means that our culture’s version of the ideal female body is totally unattainable for most of us.
You guys! This is dumb. And it needs to change.
And I truly believe that the change needs to start with us as individuals. Women, in particular.
By embracing our differences and rejecting the idea that we should all look the same.
By not making self-deprecating remarks about our bodies when alone or with each other.
By not succumbing to the societal expectation that, as women, we should not love our bodies unless they conform to an unrealistic standard.
By not shaming ourselves or anyone else for anything we or they might decide to eat.
By having conversations when we’re together that are about ANYTHING other than how we look or how we wished we looked or how fat we are or how “bad” we are for eating something we just ate or how we can’t eat something because we haven’t exercised enough to earn it or how we’ll have to run an extra mile later if we give in and enjoy this cookie now, etc., etc., etc.
Changing the larger conversation around female beauty and female bodies has to start with the conversations occurring on a smaller scale everywhere all the time. I really believe this.
Trust me, it wasn’t all that long ago that I was the person in my group of friends saying unkind things about my body on a regular basis without even thinking twice. And believing that I wasn’t allowed to feel good about my body because I hadn’t yet achieved perfection.
To which I say: ENOUGH.
Because you are allowed to feel beautiful and to love your body at any shape or size or age. Period. The end.
I know this started out as an article about CrossFit and that I have now veered a little far away from my original topic, but I do want to bring things full circle before I’m finished. To mention just a couple of the things working out at this gym with these people has taught me about how to better relate to my body:
1. Embrace novelty and discomfort and challenging yourself — and your body — to master something new.
While I am absolutely not suggesting that everyone needs to try CrossFit**, I am suggesting that putting yourself in a situation that requires you to learn a physical skill you have never before learned can affect the way you relate to your body. In a surprisingly wonderful way.
When the focus moves from what your body looks like to what your body can do? The potential for healing is pretty profound.
And your body is built to be a rockstar at something. I promise.
(Side note: Quick plug for strength training of some kind. Especially for women. For SO many reasons.)
2. Choose to spend time with other women who aren’t regularly engaging in the type of self-deprecating, body-hating dialogue I mentioned earlier.
And if you are the one in your circle of friends who frequently puts yourself down or who can’t eat a meal without making some sort of comment about what’s being eaten or how you really shouldn’t, or says anything at all about anyone’s body or your own body, or about how you’ll have to work off all of these calories later instead of simply enjoying a meal or a snack? JUST. STOP.
You might not be able to quiet the internal dialogue right away, but you can certainly stop perpetuating those thoughts by repeating them to your friends.
And P.S. When you say terrible things about your body or talk about food like it has to be earned, you might just make someone else who’s struggling with body image and disordered eating feel even worse about herself.
But if you decide to celebrate your body in all its imperfect glory and feed yourself well without guilt or shame, you might just empower someone else to do the same. Think about it.
I still have days when I look in the mirror and just say, “Uggggghhhh.” But these days are a lot less common than they used to be. And the feeling usually doesn’t linger too long. Especially if I snap myself out of it by going to the gym to lift something heavy or bust out a pull-up just to feel strong or hop on a rower to get back in my body or practice any of the gymnastic moves I have yet to master. (Ahem, muscle-up, ahem.)
Someday, I hope the fashion industry and the entertainment industry and our society as a whole realizes that female beauty comes in hundreds of different varieties.
But this has to start with us.
So let’s celebrate our differences and lift each other up. And reclaim our right to feel confident and capable and feminine and strong and totally badass in our bodies.
*I would be more than happy to discuss my feelings and opinions about the idea that CrossFit is dangerous, but that is not really the point of this article. If you’re curious to know what I really think about this, please feel free to reach out to me personally.
**I want to highlight the fact that all crossfit gyms are not created equal. So do your due diligence and find a gym that has great coaching. A place that prioritizes proper form over lifting heavy weights or performing any more advanced movements before you’re really ready to do so. And somewhere you feel welcome and supported. And if you’re local, I highly recommend checking out Intrepid Athletics in NE Portland. The coaching and the community are both top notch.