I got a lovely complement yesterday. It felt like it came totally out of the blue and I don’t even think it was actually intended as a complement.
I had just finished teaching Barre Conditioning at the gym and was in the locker room. One of my regular students, who I’d never had the opportunity to talk to before, asked me whether I had any other classes on the schedule and then blurted out “what do you do?”. I started to go through my laundry list of jobs and she interrupted with “no, like what do you do? You look really fit”.
Ummm, thanks! I told her I run and dance and do yoga and Pilates. I also said that I used to really be a gym rat and “exercise” a ton but these days I just stay very active in general without necessarily “working out” hard.
This conversation stayed with me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because I was flattered and surprised.
The student was a beautiful young woman with a very small frame and who I think most people would consider ‘in shape’ by virtue of her thinness. I, on the other hand, have often in my life felt like people don’t see me as ‘in shape’ by virtue of my thickness.
My body is awesome and serves me very well but it is not the kind of body that has often solicited admiration from random (thin) women.
On the contrary, when I lived in Peru my response to the inevitable “what do you do” (in the job sense, not the workout sense 😉 ) was “I’m a personal trainer/dancer/group exercise instructor”. This would almost always (and especially by men) be met with a slow and thorough up and down examination of my body and then some sort of surprised comment about how they wouldn’t have guessed. Admittedly I was carrying few pounds more than I prefer when I lived there but I was also running more than I ever had in my life so I was absolutely fit and in shape. Sadly, most people seemed to see my thickness rather than my fitness.
Now, I know I am not a big woman. But I am thick. My bones are broad and dense and my muscles like to be big and strong. For the most part I am more than okay with this. I won’t pretend for a second that at times I haven’t wished for more inches here (I’m 5 foot 3!) or less there but overall I have always been grateful that my body is strong and proportional and I am fond of my muscle tone and athletic build.
The other thought brought on by this little locker room interaction was about how much my body image and relationship with exercise has changed and improved over the last ten years.
I used to work out hard and as a result I was hungry so I would eat a lot. In retrospect I feel like I spent my twenties in a tug-of-war with my body. Regular hard workouts would tug it one way and then the resulting refueling would pull it back the other direction. I was strong and fit and healthy but not always thrilled with the way my body felt or looked and frustrated at an appetite that was hard to keep up with. I was proud of my fitness but wasn’t fully embracing my thickness.
Over the last several years I’ve lightened up on the exercise and as a result my appetite has decreased. And I just may be in the best shape of my life, both in the actual shape of my body and in my energy levels, overall health, and endurance. I feel like both ends of the rope have gently let go and rather than crashing down into the mud pit, I calmly stepped away from the whole game. I still eat plenty but it’s nice to be able to go several hours without needing to refuel, although I definitely still notice an increase in appetite when I do exercise especially hard. I’m active, almost everyday, but many days I am satisfied with a long walk or a quick yoga session or teaching a class whereas years ago that wouldn’t have necessarily “counted” as my daily exercise.
Lastly, I think this conversation struck me because it made me realize how rarely we make comments/complements on each others bodies. I have been known to shout out to a passing runner that she had awesome legs but more often than not the complements I give are of the I Like Your Earrings/Shirt/That Color On You/Hair/Nail Polish variety. Perhaps we are worried that straight-up commenting on someones body will make them self-conscious? Or is it that there is so much envy/jealously/comparison surrounding people’s bodies (especially among women, let’s be real)? Is it that we are concerned it could be misconstrued as sexual? Like we’re not supposed to notice someones beautiful body unless we want to touch it? Have you been complemented on your body? I’m not talking about the sort of generic “you look great” but rather a direct reference to your physical shape. Do you regularly give out this type of complement?
So if you haven’t gotten complemented on your body lately, now’s your chance to brag on yourself. What’s your favorite thing about your physical body? What makes your proud? What do you like to show off?
I am small breasted and like to wear v-necks and lower cut tops to show off my collarbones and tan chest. I also like that my stomach is muscular yet soft and feminine. Your turn!
Mia (Savor Everyday)
I wish my younger self had known that it’s more important to focus on what our bodies CAN do – whether that be walking/running/swimming/hiking/dancing/lifting/ etc etc and what our bodies do for us, as opposed to feeling frustrated about not fitting into some external standard of shape and beauty. My focus now is more about enjoying movement and feeling thankful that I can move.
Interesting, what you wrote about complimenting other people (body-wise) – I, too, tend to compliment clothes, hairstyle and such (“safer” compliments like what you described). I think shape and body image can be such a sensitive topic to some.
I’ve had friends compliment me on my arms and shoulders (especially when I was swimming a lot). I’m small (5 ft) but I think I’m stronger than people may think 🙂 Funny, you’re the only other person I “know” who mentioned collarbones! My best friend said that same thing about me once and I always wondered about it – seemed like such a random body part 🙂
Great writing, Faith! Thank you for this. 🙂
I am so glad you wrote this post. I am 5’1″, about 137 ish, and am not a thin built person. I had a woman who first met me look at me and say “you look STRONG” (as if she was surprised by my stature or something?). Spending the later part of my teens and early 20’s being uncomfortable about this, I’m glad now that I’m older and have better things to worry about, it doesn’t bother me so much that I’m not small, but it still surprises me when people compliment my muscular legs or when my husband refers to me as “little” because that’s not something that I consider myself in my own mind. I have very muscular legs and I’m proud of them, and I don’t hesitate to compliment other athletic looking women, but I think they find it odd because sometimes I get strange looks and a strained “thanks” in return. Women need to realize being an athletic looking person is something to be PROUD of!
YES! Thanks for the great comments! And I couldn’t agree more with “now that I’m older and have better things to worry about, it doesn’t bother me so much…”.
When I was in high school I had someone tell me that I had great child-bearing hips… definitely not something I wanted to hear at the time (and not something I think many people would think to say?), but now that I’m pregnant I’m hoping they were right!
Sarah (The Simple Dietitian)
This post literally made me choked with emotion. I can totally relate to everything that you said.
I grew up as a chubby girl. I liked to eat, I hardly liked to move. And at 5’8″, carrying extra weight made me feel very big, very large. After my freshman year of college, I dropped 35 pounds and became thin and light as a feather, secondary to my running like a mad woman. I even ran through several injuries, which I am *not* proud of. In turn, I received countless compliments on my appearance. “You’re so thin…what do I have to do to be thin like you?” “You’re so tall and graceful.” “You’re so tall and thin…you should be a model!” Etc, etc, etc…
But I never felt it. I never felt tall and thin. Or beautiful. And I most certainly wasn’t strong or happy. No. I was tired. Tired of running all the time and (like you) feeling like I had an insatiable appetite. Fast forward 7 years. I’m now 25 pounds heavier than during that time (10 pounds lighter than my “heaviest” weight.) I no longer get compliments on my “thinness,” even though I’m still on the thinner side (just not skinny!) And I’m so incredibly happy with myself!!! My shoulders and arms are finally feeling strong, thanks to yoga. I run because I want to, because it makes me feel amazing (versus because it was keeping me thin and keeping those non-believed yet welcomed compliments coming!)
I’m still on the thin side, but I’m not skinny. I’m healthy. Deliciously happy. And I think it’s amazing that you were so kindly complimented on your body. Especially since you’ve obtained your strong body through doing what you love! I couldn’t agree more that it’s (a) okay to compliment others on their appearance and (b) it’s okay to compliment OURSELVES on our appearance too. We’re such big critics of ourselves sometimes. It’s sad that we can’t give ourselves the same respect, love and nourishment that we so freely give others.
Great post!!!! I really, really enjoyed reading this.
Thanks Faith for sharing your thoughts and experience on this topic which can be difficult for women to be open about.
I flirted with disordered eating and distorted body image issues for a long time and had a wake up call 11 years ago when I got to my lowest weight from over exercising and not eating enough.
I “looked” great according to women who envied my flat stomach and thin thighs and it fed my disordered thinking even more. My sister who is now a nurse, but at the time was an exercise trainer, was worried for me and said that I looked sickly and needed to eat more with all the exercising I was doing.
It took a significant back injury that took years to heal that snapped me to my senses. I examined my self image issues and excavated deep unresolved pain and hurt that fed my dis-ease. I realized that I felt the best about my body when I am dancing. I understood that exercise is not a currency with which to buy food. I starting appreciating my body’s strength in pursuits like rock climbing and running and I realized I could not do those things as a size 2, 100lb skinny woman who “looked” good by starving her body of nourishment, physically and emotionally.
I wish I could say that the old, unhealthy ways of thinking are gone for good, but they linger. When I find myself comparing my body to other women’s bodies at the gym I repeat my mantra “there’s only one Aimée, you are a one of kind.”
I am so excited to dance with you in the upcoming series of classes. It is a gift to myself and I am thankful to use my unique body to express myself through movement.
I’ve found focusing on training or making my body strong for something specific (I boulder & rock climb too) was the turning point in my paradigm shift as well. There are still moments of harshness and insecurities, but I try to approach it differently now. Perhaps if we compliment those women we see – like Faith mentioned – our egos & insecurities will lose hold even more. And perhaps we will make a friend in the process.
Awesome Allie, thanks for writing!
Here’s to being deliciously happy!!!! 🙂
What a great post. I sure hope you have a lot of young readers who will take your message and not waste years worrying because they don’t look like their ideal of a perfect woman. Eventually most of us learn to love ourselves, the good and the bad. The sooner you can do that, the more you can learn to live life fully.
By the way, I like my legs. They take me anywhere I need to go and they are long!
Great post Faith. I am about the same height as you and have always been an active, sporty person. I remember in high school boys in my PE class saying “you’ve got legs like a guy” Yeah well these legs and the legs of another girl in this class are the ones that are going to win the PE prize this year for best student! That makes me sounds like I never had any shape issues but for me it was my boobs. They came in early and just kept coming. Yes they are bigger than average and my body matured young which was hard at times, being mistaken for a 15 year old when you are 12. My body continues to surprise me and for inspiration I just need to look at my mum. At 63 she still plays badminton twice a week which she has been playing for 45 years. Zumba once a week and will have a got at just about anything. Watching her on a treadmill for the first time was one of the funniest things I have ever seen! Strong, fit anf healthy wins the day
A beautiful message. It can be difficult to compliment one another; but then our silent admiration can so easily get misconstrued as envy or the bitch stare. We should be proud and support each other in our strength. I’m not exactly thick, but definitely more athletically built: narrow hips, big(ger) arms, small breasts…so highlighting my collarbones (+shoulders) is something I do too.
In my “older age”, I find myself showing off my attributes through performance rather than obsessing over body parts. It’s made the rest sort of fall into place more organically and acceptingly.
I love your story and all of the comments. It’s wonderful to see how insecurities shift and allow us to not only accept but EMBRACE our bodies.
I think you have a beautiful body. You look confident and graceful and I admire the way you move, all your parts seem to fit together perfectly. I am tall and skinny, strong and very active, but not graceful at all. I am very small breasted and grateful for it, but my posture could be better and I wish I had the confident/graceful thing you have. I like the endurance and strength I have from running/yoga, but worry a little about my body breaking down as I get older and not being able to stay active doing the things I love, I’m 41.
Thanks for the comments and very sweet complements. I hear you on the staying active thing, at 31 I am already noticing shifts and changes in my body, particularly in regards to injury. As a teen/twenty-something I tried to be “good” about warming up and cooling down my body for exercise and teaching but it wasn’t really that necessary for performance or injury prevention. These days it is absolutely necessary! I’ve also cut way back on strength training, which I think is really important but also puts unnecessary stress on the body when overdone.
I was in Florida visiting my grandparents last month. They are 91 and 94 and their exercise philosophy has been to never stop moving. I went to aerobics class with my grandmother! Yes, things change as we age and I hope to continue to embrace those changes and adapt to new circumstances as gracefully as possible. I wish the same for you too!
Love this post! I have a similar body type as you – muscular and lean. I will never be a waif, unless I stop eating and exercising but that’s not happening. Currently I’m in the best shape of my life (my shoulders are my favorite!) but recently got frustrated with the number of the scale. I stopped weighing myself a while back but then recently hoped on the scale with the hopes of seeing some magical number that would validate all my hard work. Nope, turns out I’m only 3lbs less than I was when I was 2 pant sizes bigger. It was so confusing and frustrating, but all the more reason to let go of the number in my head and own up to my “thickness.”
On a side note, I think you have an amazing body and look like someone who has integrated fitness into their everyday life! Beautiful and inspiring!
Catching up on my reading. Very insightful and wonderful post Faith – really thought provoking for sure.
I think we’re trained to be so judgemental of our bodies (and everyone elses) and it’s wonderful and important to compliment yourself and your loved ones. I struggle with opposite issues from yours. I’m tall (6′) so I stick out in groups and I have to have realistic expectations of my size and weight (6′ means you have to be comfy that even if you’re ‘thin’ you’re going to be 20lbs heavier than your friends). I’m also ‘curvy’ for how ‘thin’ I am (always jealous of anyone who can pull of something low cut without showing ‘too much’). But as we grow into ourselves I think there’s really a comfort there in trusting and knowing your own body – you stop comparing so much and just own it.
I love my stomach, my bone structure and my long long legs – and my 6’4″ husband for making me feel small!!
Again, great post Faith!