At 12 years old, I exercised every day, seven days a week—even when I didn’t feel like it. By 15, I was keeping a food journal, and allowed myself a breakfast of less than 300 calories and three grams of fat. According to my regimen, I wasn’t allowed to eat pizza, chips, or sweets. I also required myself to hop on the scale every day to check my weight. By 21, the vicious cycle of dieting was in full effect. I couldn’t enjoy social events without stressing about food or how my body looked, and I refused to miss a workout, even for something important. I distinctly remember the time I drove to the gym at 11 p.m. to do 45 minutes of additional cardio because I had eaten M&M’s. But I justified these behaviors in the name of being “healthy.” All I wanted was to shrink my body at whatever cost.
Growing up in the Midwest as a black woman from a working-class family and attending a predominantly affluent, white school made it difficult to embrace myself. My hair was thick and coily, while everyone else had long, flowing locks. I was almost 5’8” by the time I was in the third grade, while most of my peers were averaging 4’8”. My family could barely afford the private school tuition, while my peers were living in fancy, beautifully decorated homes and traveled the world on holidays. Their parents were lawyers and doctors; mine had high-school diplomas.
It was the late 90s, and I didn’t see myself represented anywhere, especially in fashion magazines and TV ads that promoted messages like “get flat abs fast,” and “lose 10 pounds in 10 days.” Everywhere I turned, there was a standard I couldn’t reach. I couldn’t change the color of my skin nor did I wish to, but I could make my body thinner and I put all my energy into the pursuit.
It took nearly a decade of misery, deprivation, and body obsession to realize that losing weight and getting in the best shape of my life weren’t going to make me happier or make me feel any more worthy of acceptance. Everyone around me constantly told me how great I looked, and yet I always found more reasons to be unhappy with my body. I always needed to lose five more pounds, or get a flatter stomach or perkier glutes. It was never-ending. Deep down, I knew that’s not what I wanted for myself. Though I was seeking conformity, what I really wanted was body liberation. I wanted the freedom to stop living up to expectations (my own and those of the people around me); the freedom to stop seeking approval and validation; the freedom to unapologetically feel comfortable existing exactly as I am in this very moment without comparing myself to anyone else or to previous versions of myself; the freedom to disavow diet culture; the freedom to love the person I am instead of the person I wish I were; and most importantly, the freedom to take up space. My unhappiness after achieving my goals was a wake-up call. My sense of self-worth would have to come from somewhere else. Enter strength training, and eventually powerlifting.
While I had spent the majority of my formative years focused on shrinking and conforming, strength training allowed me to stop focusing all of my energy on what my body looked like and to start seeing all that it could do. It gave me a new appreciation for my body because I stopped viewing physical activity solely as a means to reduce my body weight or to punish myself for eating too much. Through lifting weights, I slowly learned to love, appreciate, and accept my body in all of its iterations. These realizations had such an impact on me that I sought to share my experiences with other women. This led me down the path of becoming a trainer who specializes in helping women find peace with their bodies.
During this journey to heal my relationship with my body, I gravitated to the online body positivity space, particularly Instagram, and it seemed to me like everyone was having such an easy time accepting their bodies and loving themselves. Why did I find myself struggling so much? In my mind, I knew that the system was broken. I knew advertisers were spending billions of dollars a year trying to convince me to be dissatisfied with who I was. I understood that they desperately needed to convince me that I needed to buy whatever they were selling so I could “fix” myself. I also knew there was nothing actually wrong with me. Even though I recognized that health is not determined by size, I still sometimes felt inclined to chase ever-changing and unrealistic standards of beauty. I still found myself comparing my body to thinner bodies. But I also felt ashamed by the impulse to want to change my body. So I started asking myself questions like: Do I feel nourished, energized, and whole? Am I enjoying my relationship with food and exercise? Can I engage in fitness and wellness culture without feeling bad about my body? How is my mental health? And finally, Can I show myself love and compassion?
The reality is that our bodies are constantly changing, and they will never remain exactly the same. If we base our self-worth on our bodies, we will forever be on the emotional roller coaster of body obsession and body shame. We are inherently worthy because we exist, not because of what we look like. Developing the ability to radically accept our bodies and recognize their value regardless of how they look is paramount if we ever want to feel at home and at peace with ourselves.
When I find myself struggling to remember that my self-worth is not tied to weight loss or mainstream ideas of beauty, I remind myself that the least interesting thing about me is the way I look. I think about the time and experiences I missed out on because I was worried about my appearance. I think about the pictures I skipped taking because I didn’t like my body. If left to the devices of diet culture, I would essentially spend the rest of my life chasing unattainable and arbitrary standards of beauty—and this is not my purpose. The more I fall prey to the belief systems that try to convince me to attach my worthiness to the way I look, the unhappier I will continue to be. If I’m going to spend the rest of my human existence with myself then it behooves me to learn to be at peace with my body.
I would be lying if I told you that old insecurities never creep in, if the feelings of what it means to be an “acceptable” black woman never resurface. The truth is, my relationship with my body fluctuates on a daily basis. Self-love is not a destination, it’s a journey that I’m continually on. Every day, I decide to take up more space. I decide to show up as an unapologetic black woman. I decide to stop attempting to fit into society’s boxes. I decide to choose radical self-love regardless of what I look like—and this is one of the most worthwhile efforts I have ever undertaken.
Chrissy King is a writer, speaker, and strength coach who empowers individuals to feel comfortable and confident in their bodies. She writes about body image, feminism, and the need for a more diverse and inclusive wellness industry.