We’re getting a little deep today. This is a long post, and there’s still so much more I could’ve said — and still want to say — on this topic. It took me two months to hit finally publish and to want to share all of this. Here’s a bit of reflection on my relationship with my body over the years…
Last week, I went to my first November Project workout in months.
I woke up at 4:20 AM to give myself time to go to the bathroom (several times), get dressed, and Uber my way to the Upper East Side for the 5:28 AM workout. It was comforting how, despite being away from the group for so long, so many things felt the same.
There were loads of fresh new faces at the workout, but there were also so many of the same familiar ones I know and love. We ran the same shamrock-style loops we always run around Gracie Mansion and Carl Schurz Park, and I saw several of my favorite UES puppies — plus my two least-favorite ones, those two bratty chihuahuas that once bit my ankle. We took the same group photo we always take at the end of the workout, and then I ran back to the ferry to head home — just like I always did.
It wasn’t until I got back home — still riding that familiar NP high that comes with each workout, hug, and high five — that I realized one thing that was really, drastically different from my old November Project routine.
I never once thought about my body. I didn’t carefully plan my outfit, and I was never aware of people taking photos at the workout — and there are always people taking photos at the workouts. How I looked never even crossed my mind. And holy hell, I cannot even tell you how freeing that feels.
But, OK, I’ll try…
I spent a really long time hating my body. I hated what I saw in the mirror and in store windows as I walked past. I hated photos. I hated how things fit and how they felt.
And then, one day last year, I just stopped.
I stopped hating my body. I stopped talking badly about it. I stopped even thinking badly about it. I stopped criticizing photos, and I stopped obsessing over my reflection.
On that day, nothing about my body had physically changed. I hadn’t lost weight or suddenly become a certain size, and I hadn’t run any remarkable time at any specific race. The switch happened overnight, and it was all in my head — and it was the best switch I ever flipped.
I’ve always told myself I have a long history with body issues “because I was a dancer.” And while, yes, the dancer part is true, when I really examine the place I got to mentally over the past few years, it has nothing to do with the fact that I grew up surrounded by mirrors, or the fact that my dance teacher senior year told me I’d “be able to jump a lot higher if I weighed less.”
The truth is, I was a super happy — if totally stressed out and obsessed with getting straight As and being on student council and honor society and being the editor in chief of the yearbook and participating in every other extracurricular I could find — girl. I was always active because I danced so much, and my body was just a body. It didn’t matter.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I got mono. And unlike most people — who get mono and are too sick to eat and lose a ton of weight — I packed on some serious pounds during my bout. I had to stop dancing for weeks, and my throat was so sore that the only food I would eat was mint chocolate chip ice cream. I think I ate a gallon a day. So yeah, I gained some weight. Plus, I was going through puberty. Really good times.
Once I started dancing again, I didn’t lose my mono weight. I squeezed into too-small clothes and was always uncomfortable, but I don’t remember obsessing over it. It was more of a “this is your body and this is the way it is.” In fact, my senior year of high school was probably the most I ever weighed, but I was perfectly happy with myself. I wore pleather pants and spaghetti strap tank tops to go eat ice cream sundaes at Friendly’s with my friends, and I never thought I should be anything other than exactly what I was.
Then I went away to college, and my body fluctuated a ton. Thank you, Franzia and those really good chicken quesadillas from The Ratt (yes, The Ratt) on campus. I was on the dance team and I’d occasionally hit up the elliptical with my roommates, but fitness wasn’t a priority. Having fun was, though, and my body never determined how much fun I was going to have at any given party or social event.
I remember coming home periodically from school, and if I had happened to lose some weight that semester, my parents’ friends would tell me how good I looked. By junior year, when I was really having fun in college, I remember being at a Christmas Eve party and no one commenting on my appearance — which is socially acceptable, but was surprising after it always being a topic of conversation before. Because that’s the thing: When you lose weight, even if you didn’t “have to” or if you looked amazing before, people will start commenting on it. They’ll say you look great or they’ll tell you how good you look. And of course that can feel like a confidence boost — until it stops.
There were times when two of my roommates — in a big room of nine — would be getting ready to go out and they would stand in front of the big bathroom mirrors tossing compliments back and forth. “You look so skinny!” “Oh my god no you look so skinny!” Meanwhile I was in the common room with the other girls, rolling my eyes as we cued up a rousing game of Slap the Bag.
So often we talk about body issues stemming from childhood or adolescence, so I always just kind of accepted that. But it turns out, that wasn’t really my case. Did I always love my body as a high school and college student? No! But I don’t remember obsessing over it the way I did once I entered certain parts of the post-collegiate “real world.”
My issues started when I started running. As much as I love running, and as much as I attribute so much of my happiness and success to what running has given me, running also inadvertently became the root of a lot of my problems. I started working out regularly in 2008. I started running, and joined a gym where I quickly became hooked on their group fitness classes. I genuinely loved those classes. I’d run in the morning and hit up a Chisel (strength) class at night. Then I realized there were all these women doing the Chisel class — and then sticking around for the kickboxing and abs classes after. They were doing hours of exercise each evening, and that seemed fun to me!
I started running and working out for all the right reasons. I wanted to feel healthy, get strong, and have fun. But within a few years, it had spiraled out of control a bit. It wasn’t until I was working out to the point of injury that I realized I was less happy than I’d been before. I had lost weight, sure, but I also lost a heft of happiness. I was dependent on exercise to make me happy.
Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Wouldn’t all my other problems go away if I was permanently a size four?
Ha. Ali. No.
At the time, I was working at Dance Spirit — a job I adored with people who became my best friends — but we’d created something of a toxic environment. We were a close staff of five adult women, and each morning, when we were done regrouping about the crazy things our significant others had done the night before (Brian’s was always leaving the kitchen cabinets open and leaving the collar-stays from his dry-cleaned shirts all over the floor), the conversation would turn to our outfits and, most likely, our body issues. I look back now, and these scenes were straight out of Mean Girls. We nitpicked everything about ourselves in this odd, fire-fueling, cyclical way.
This was also when I had started reading lots of “healthy living blogs.” Those all seemed innocent at first, and now I look back on a lot of the ones I was reading and the first word that comes to mind is “disordered.” There were a lot of unhealthy behaviors being paraded as totally normal, and I was impressionable so I found myself following suit in many ways.
Eventually I left Dance Spirit, which is also when I started going to November Project. Instead of leaving my body stuff behind at DS, my most deeply-rooted issues developed during my early days at NP.
And that is of no fault of November Project itself! This was all on me. The group is empowering, uplifting, wonderful, and life-changing. But having photos taken at each workout became something I hated.
I went to my first workout wearing one of my favorite tank tops. It’s a black-and-white striped tank, and I had my hair up in a messy bun because the workout started at 6:28 AM and my appearance was the last thing on my mind.
But then, a few hours later, the post-workout photo album went up on Facebook. And there I was, in all my striped glory. And I hated what I saw. I spent way too much time flipping through that album (and repeatedly untagging myself) and obsessing over those photos. (I wrote about it a bit here.)
If you’ve ever had a less-than-flattering race photo, you might be able to relate.
Nevermind the fact that I was just coming back to running after a two-year Crohn’s flare. No no, I didn’t want to talk about that! I wanted to talk about how I looked — or how I thought I looked.
Those weekly snapshots became something of an obsession. I started choosing my outfits more carefully. I started being aware of when I was running toward someone with a camera, and I’d flash a giant smile. And yes, I was having fun, I promise I was! But I was also always on. And that is exhausting. Then, when the albums would go up online, I’d fly to the computer to stalk them and would scrutinize everything about myself.
I know I wasn’t the only one. I know this is a pretty common thing, and it became a major talking point in my friend group. “OMG I look so huge in that photo.” “How bad is the album?” “Any good ones today, or are they all disgusting of me?” These lovely, wonderful albums — taken by people who show up just to do something nice! — were not serving me positively, but I kept going back to them.
Suddenly, I had become this woman who was obsessing over everything body-related. It was never in an “I need to lose weight” way so much as it was just a general constant check-in about how I looked. I never dieted or changed my eating habits in an effort to look “better.” I was just always tuned in to my appearance. Most of the time, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I look back on old blog posts or Instagram photos that have captions like “thighs by Velveeta” or constant “jokes” about my thighs. And while it’s fine to joke from time to time, my “innocent” comments were pretty constant, no matter what shape my body was in at the time.
Then, last year, I hit my breaking point. I realized I was so happy — except that I wasn’t.
I was a blissed-out newlywed, fresh off a once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon, working a dreamy job with a new puppy at my feet. I lived blocks from Central Park, my favorite place in the world, and I had loads of quality friends and meaningful relationships.
But instead of focusing on all that incredible stuff, I scrutinized my appearance. I was constantly and second-naturedly (probably not a word…) tugging at my clothes all the time, always finding something to dislike. I’d talk to my friends and I’d realize I was boring myself talking about the same old body shit. And surely I was boring them, too. So why was I doing this?
Finally, I said enough.
I put a hard stop on the fat talk, the body obsession, and the constant body-related analysis. I stopped thinking my appearance had anything to do with my self-worth, my intelligence, my professional life, or my relationships. I stopped asking Brian to take a photo and then letting me look at it immediately so I could decide whether or not I needed him to retake a more flattering way.
And it worked.
I literally told myself, “Stop doing this,” and I actually stopped. Overnight. The shift was immediate and kind of remarkable, to be frank. Just like I unfollow people who aren’t serving me on Facebook or Instagram, I unfollowed the part of my brain that was telling me to focus all my energy on my reflection.
Do I love my body every single day? Nah. But I also don’t think about it every single day. I know — and I very much accept — that my self-worth has nothing to do with my appearance and everything to do with who I am as a person, how I treat others, and how many face licks I get every morning from my dog. (Right?)
This isn’t a preachy “love your body no matter what” post. We throw the phrase “body positivity” around a lot these days, and in theory, that’s a wonderful thing. But in practice, sometimes just achieving body neutrality is OK, too. The key, I’ve found, is not making body negativity — or total body scrutiny and hatred — the driving force in my everyday life.
So here I am — not at my leanest, my fastest, or my most muscular, but I’m so much lighter.
“I know it sounds hard and like I’m trying to make it so simple, but you have to focus on the things that make you happy and bring that into your life, whatever that may be. It can’t just be ‘body body body’ all the time. You’re missing out on life! You can’t live a life dieting and trying to change inches on your hips. You’ll miss laughing your ass off with your girlfriends! You can’t keep yourself from doing the things you were made to do or destined to do because you’re solely focused on changing the way you look. The love, the confidence, the positivity, the drive…that all has to come from the inside. Focus on all the things that make you happy. That’ll get you in the right direction.” —Candice Huffine on Episode 11 of the Ali on the Run Show