It's no great secret that I have a love-hate relationship with my body. After having four kids in six years, this bod has seen some things, you guys. Things that, unfortunately for my husband in one or two instances, can't really be unseen. On one hand, I am totally in awe of what this body has done after having kids. I've ran 10 miles, I've made super cute, chubby babies, I've fed those babies, I've gone days (though it feels like weeks) on little sleep, I've endured mastitis, and through it all, this body has suited me just fine in between the sheets with my husband. After all this, though, my body has also shown some serious signs of wear and tear. Because of this, I'm worried I don't show my body enough love. There's the fact that one boob is way smaller than the other, and that both look a bit like Yzma in Emperor's New Groove, and the fact that my body doesn't look like it did pre-babies, no matter how hard I push myself. But such is the burden of carrying the miracle of life within, right?
In my case, the "miracle of life" looked more like "the miracle of the biggest pregnancy belly you've ever seen," with each pregnancy getting subsequently larger and larger. During my last pregnancy, I had a severe case of Polyhydramnios, which simply meant I had uncontrollable amounts of amniotic fluid in that belly for seemingly no reason that my doctor could find. My Polyhydramnios was so bad that my doctor had to induce me early in order to avoid some serious complications with the baby at delivery.
Anyway, after my fourth baby delivered, I've been greatly struggling with getting beyond looking and feeling like I'm still six months pregnant. I took up exercising for real last Thanksgiving, starting with free Jillian Michaels videos on YouTube, then I began using the Beachbody T25 program at home. I bought a gym membership to start lifting weights, which I happily discovered I absolutely love.
I know that I will never give up exercising, but even beyond the obvious benefits, I feel so, so much better mentally and emotionally. Exercising regularly, for me, is so much fun. I love challenging my body and I love how working out translates into my everyday life as a work-at-home mom. Just this morning, I ran across my yard carrying my 15 month old on my hip and a giant, rotting pumpkin I had to throw away on my shoulder — I didn't even break a sweet doing it.
Exercising has taught me how to actually love my body for what it's capable of doing. But through all of my hard work, it's been a struggle to see it as The Beautiful Machine it is. Instead, all I see are problem spots.
So I decided to try a week of just loving on this ol' 29-year-old bod of mine and seeing what happened. I decided that every time I'd catch myself thinking a negative thought about my body, like "ugh, I'm so fat," I'd replace it with a kind thought about what my body was capable of. If I couldn't think of anything nice to say, instead of saying nothing at all, I'd think about a particular body part I actually loved.
I gave it a week, and a lot of positive vibes, and here's what happened.
Full disclosure: I started this experiment out with a huge, epic failure. I've been training for my first half marathon and I've been having a hard time struggling against the mentality that more running equals better running. (Running is complicated.)
Basically, my whole training for the race has been f*cked up because I was focusing on more milage instead of "smart" mileage, and my right shin started hurting really badly. But I had two weeks left until to the race and even though this evening I didn't feel like running at all, I forced myself to go.
And guess what, guys? I hurt my leg to the point that I couldn't even finish my run, something that's never happened to me in 13+ years of running. I learned that not listening to my body is a major form of not loving it, and only bad things happen when I don't listen to the signs and signals I'm getting. Sigh.
It taught me, instantly, that using exercise to "control" your body or tame it to look a certain way is just another form of hating and punishing your body. To really love your body, you can't beat it down by substituting a "healthy" workout for negativity. Loving your body also means listening to what it needs and not punishing it for what it can't do. So I did just that. I listened. And it felt so much better when I did.
Today, I tried very, very hard to squash any and all negative thoughts as they popped in my head and holy crap, was it exhausting. Have you ever really focused on how many times you mentally berate yourself in one day? And the negative thinking wasn't just about my body — it was about everything. Ugh, Chaunie, you're so fat; ugh, you smell bad, your hair looks terrible. Chaunie, you're so boring. You have no friends. Oh my god, is your tummy really that big or is it the mirror? Why are your kids so bad? Why are your boobs so stretched out and saggy? Why did you eat that? Why don't you take better care of yourself? What are you even doing with your life? Seriously, what have you done today?
When I paid attention to the many voices in my head, they never, ever stopped. My mental conversation was a constant replay of insult after insult, and it was depressing to realize. Why is my self-talk so negative? Why do I always assume the worst, and always feel so negatively about my body? So I made a really conscious effort, and every time a new insult popped in my head, I just replaced it with a positive thought.
If the voice said, "Chaunie, you're so fat," I answered with something that made me feel good about myself and my body. Instead of letting the negativity wash over me, I thought: "Yeah, my stomach needs a little work, but I'm doing right right things to get my body to where I want it to be. And have you seen my quads? They are FANTASTIC!"
Actually doing this hour after hour, day, after day, was incredibly hard. But even if there are parts of me that I don't love, the parts that I do love count just as much — if not more. #QuadsFTW
My husband happened to have the day off on the third day of my experiment and my middle daughter had a field trip. TBH, I really, really wanted to go to the gym because I'd had a stressful week at work and needed to blow off some steam, but I was struggling with a major case of guilt because I felt like I should be the one going to the field trip. I felt like I didn't have an excuse not to go, being a SAH mom and all.
In order for me to go to the gym, it meant that my husband would need to take our two other little kids along on the field trip. In the rain. With no other dads. But you know what? He's just as important a parent as I am, and last year I took those same two kids — one of whom was just a newborn — on that same field trip. With every other mom. So do you want to know what happened? My husband took the kids, and I got to hit the gym — score!
At the gym, I felt a million times better because for me, a good sweat and time away from my phone and my computer really helps clear my head. I've realized that in order to love my body, sometimes I need to just be in my body, if that makes any sense. Being at the gym allows me to literally just let my body be who and what and how it wants to be, with no demands from anyone else, husbands and small children included.
Today, I spent my entire day (OK, maybe like 10 minutes, which is basically an eternity when you have four kids running around) Googling "what's the cost of tummy tuck?"
Part of loving my body means accepting its limitations and not killing myself to have flat abs. I may never have flat abs. I may never have svelte legs. I am aware of that, and I'm OK with it. But that doesn't mean I can't do things that physically make me feel better about the way I look. So, I've been considering a tummy tuck. I tell myself that in a few years, when my husband and I are "officially" done having kids, I'll give myself permission to get one. If I currently spend 23 hours of every day hating my body, it's just affecting every part of my life.
When the time comes, and if I still want one, a tummy tuck will help me feel more like me. And I'm not doing it for vanity or because of a mid-life crisis (I'm not even 30 yet!), I legitimately have extra skin from my four pregnancies. If a tummy tuck works for me, then it works for me. It's not a requirement for every woman with kids, but I have the right to do what looks and feels best for my body.
Telling myself that there's a Plan B makes me feel a lot less stressed. Instead of stressing that I need to get perfect, flat abs right this second, I can be a little kinder to myself by keeping in mind that if I truly work my hardest and can't get rid of the extra skin, I could give myself permission to change. There's nothing shameful in that, and it feels like a sigh of relief to someone like me, who sometimes sees her body as the enemy.
If I really and truly can't learn to love myself as I am, I can do things to change how I feel about the way I look. I can enjoy my time with my kids now, focus on exercise that makes me emotionally, physically, and mentally healthier, and when the time comes, I can get that tummy tuck. But only if I want it.
I was four days into this experiment and I was really just how many layers of self love there are. My body isn't going to change over night, but giving myself the freedom to know that I have options down the road made me stop and think about the big picture. Self love is a journey, and I'm just along for the ride.
Day five of my experiment fell on a weekend, so I was able to hit the gym during the afternoon when it was empty, which I absolutely adore. I just feel like I can sweat and grunt till my heart's content without any weird men lurking in the corners and giving me looks.
Weekends also mark the "beginning" of my lifting schedule, and I love starting my week out with legs, because for some reason squatting makes me feel fierce and strong and badass and like I am Beyoncé and I run the world. I also love the three-day soreness after leg days because it makes me feel like I am actually accomplishing something with my workouts, plus it feels good to know I've worked my body in a way that only makes it (and me) stronger.
On day five I focused on how strong my legs looked and guys, when I looked in the mirror during my squats, I saw strength. I saw a powerful body. I saw a body that werks. Yes, there are areas that I still need to work on, but this week has taught me that those aren't the only things that I see. The "work in progress" areas are only a fraction of this whole amazing body. Not only has it given birth to four amazing babies, but look at these legs!!! Damn.
Sometimes I hit the gym with my sister, who is fierce and strong and also happens to look like a model. She's the one who taught me how to lift, and I love her example of being both beautiful and strong, because it's inspired me to be proud of myself for the big and the little things.
I set up a workout with my aunt to meet at the gym and do arms, but my husband came home late and then I had an editor ask me for a last-minute article, so before I knew it, it was 5:30, dinner wasn't started, and thanks to Daylight Savings, it was pitch dark outside and it felt like midnight. My husband was stressed and cranky, the kids were all crying, and then my 3 year old wiped out in the yard, hurting his neck to the point that he wouldn't even turn his head without whimpering.
So the gym had to wait. Instead, I queued up my trusty T25 and did one workout and a half of another. Then my husband interrupted. While I was jumping and squatting and "focusing," part of me hated myself for skipping the gym. But as I did my exercise at home, I realized trying to fit it all in was making me even more miserable than trying to make it to the gym. Some days I can't do it all. I can't work out and work and be a mom and be a partner and make dinner and fix boo-boos. I just can't. In a mere four years, all my kids will be in school, and then I'll have the luxury of dedicating a full day to working out. But not right now, I don't.
As I watched my kids play outside on a beautiful and rare 72 degree day in November while I was busy sweating it out in the basement, I thought, WTF am I doing? Is losing this gut really that important to me to miss out on some incredible memories with my kids?
It made me sad for a minute and those instances definitely happen to me, but I've realized that guilt is a wasted emotion. Thirty minutes or even an hour of exercising makes me feel happier and way less stressed out. The kids weren't missing out on time with me just because we were separated for an hour while they got to play. We're together all day anyway! So I kept working out and gave myself permission to do what felt good to me, knowing that my kids were totally safe and cared for and capable of entertaining themselves.
Like I do every single morning, I set my alarm for 5:00 a.m. and told myself I'd either work in the morning or hit the gym, depending on how I felt. I was dreading going to the gym and instead of fighting that feeling, I told myself it'd be OK to listen to my body instead of constantly punishing it.
If this experience taught me anything it's that treating my exercise and my diet and healthy lifestyle changes are best approached by recognizing that they're a gift to me, not a task, and certainly not punishment. Most days, I love my "me" time in the gym and I genuinely love breaking a sweat. On the days I'm not feeling it, maybe it's my body's way of warding off a sickness or telling me I need to spend more time with my kids. Or maybe it's just telling me that I deserve an hour on the couch with Gilmore Girls.
So I got up, walked right past those carefully set-out gym clothes, and headed downstairs to the solace of my computer and coffee ... until three out of four kids woke up at 6, which you just knew was going to happen, didn't you?
Did A Week Of Self Love Work?
Maybe you already know this, but it's way harder learning to love your body than it is to hate it, which got me thinking about a lot of things, mainly just: Why? It's hard to love what I still see as "imperfect," and it's hard to come to terms with the fact that there might be a limit to what I can physically change. And it's hard to strike that balance between living and enjoying my life and obsessing 24/7 about what I eat and when I will exercise, because with four kids and a career, it's literally a struggle just to fit in going to the bathroom alone.
I did learn a valuable lesson, though. When those negative thoughts hit, I don't have to answer with more negativity. I can respond with optimism and with hope. I can encourage myself and remember that it's all part of the journey, kinda like motherhood: it's messy, imperfect, and never-ending, with twists and turns and bumps and stretch marks, but no matter what, it's worth every second.
Images Courtesy of Chaunie Brusie/Instagram (9)