Writing by Maria Emrides // Illustration by Freya Bennett
There is a relationship that every woman will have in her life; one that’s sometimes fills us with anxiety and one that cycles through an unpredictable pattern of a pain and pleasure. A lifelong union, it can be harmonious at times but it can also be unbearable and utterly exhausting. It’s often said that these great loves are worth suffering for, and perhaps this couldn’t be more true when it comes to the relationship we have with our bodies.
I’ve always been one of those daydreamer-like hopeless romantics, that loved the idea of love but struggled with the hard parts of it. Maybe that’s why then too, my own relationship with my body has been as volatile as my romantic life for the last seven years. For a while, I couldn’t figure out why this was, or rather I was content with masking a real connection in favour of results. What started off as small adjustments to my diet to look good in bikini photos for a European summer at 21, ended up in pattern of disordered eating for which my brain would never fully recover from. And from restricted eating came binge eating and from binge eating came overexercising to counteract the binge. I can recall many nights after eating what I considered ‘too much’, where I went for long runs at 12am to try and burn off the calories I’d eaten.
Doing it in this way seemed perfectly normal to me, as strange as that sounds, because in my mind it wasn’t like my head was down a toilet or something (even though, I had unsuccessfully tried that too). And when something becomes your own, twisted day-to-day normalcy, it’s difficult to see a problem with it and it’s even more difficult to stop altogether. My diet had sprung from my own perfectionist tendencies and the exercise component only continued to water it, because I felt a constant pressure to always maintain, even when my body just didn’t want to. I felt anxiety when I went a few days without, and I felt guilty when my friends exercised and I hadn’t. So, it never occurred to me, or rather I never questioned my love of exercise, because it was something I just did.
Coinciding with this phase of my life was the rise of the HIIT movement, or high intensity interval training for anyone isn’t already familiar. From online programs, YouTube videos and fitspo accounts, gaining access to what is an effective weight loss method became very easy, heck you could even do it from the comfort of your home if you wanted. Too intimidated to use the real gym equipment, the gym floor became my safe zone and just like muscle memory, I had a routine with my standard squats and sit ups, down pat. Maybe it was the routine that the perfectionist in me so enjoyed, the idea of a certain amount of reps and a certain number of minutes.
But through all of it, even though I could see results, I also found very little joy and gained quite a bit of anxiety. Even if I didn’t feel like it, I had to push through those 28 minutes, had to finish that 12th rep because it wouldn’t be a complete work out if I didn’t. And I guess that’s what exercise came down to for me, something I would do because I wasn’t prepared to deal with the stress if I didn’t. My inner critic, just like a lot of ours, can be a real bitch when she wants to be but I knew what to do to keep her at bay when needed, just like feeding a fire to keep it lit.
The thing is, throughout these 7 years, I never felt the need to question any of it. Truthfully, I became so terrified as to what will happen if I don’t follow these rules I’ve set into place, that it didn’t seem like an option. It wasn’t until the start of this year, when I made a simple choice to take a dance class, that my mind set began to change a little. I had always harboured a strong love for dance, since I was 13 and had taken hip-hop and Latin ballroom classes until I was 17. But when I got my first gym membership, it was like those things weren’t as important anymore and I began to favour an aesthetic result instead of an intrinsic one. So, as soon as I finished this dance class, as awkward as I felt, it set into motion a whole new world that I thought I had shut the door on. Suddenly, not only was I dancing but I was performing and with it came a connection not only to myself, but to others who loved the same things as I did. I had a commitment and a purpose that I wanted to show up for, and one that I could feel making a huge difference to my mental health.
Since then, my trips to the gym haven’t been as frequent and when I do attempt a workout, the intensity isn’t quite as high and I do it for strength instead of weight loss. That’s the thing about making a mindful choice is that you notice when other things don’t feel quite as good and that’s what dancing has illuminated for me. I’m not perfect with my commitment and it weans just like most thing naturally do, but for someone who has favoured a strict regime for so long, it’s so damn refreshing.
I’d be lying if I tried to make it seem like these issues that begun when I was 21 have suddenly been magically fixed through a few dance classes. I always think twice before I eat something, and I’m not sure if this way of thinking that my brain has been wired around, will ever completely stop. I exercise on most days, and I do still struggle with being completely at ease if I don’t move my body in some kind of way. But by connecting a piece of my soul to my body, I can feel more in tune with what actually serves me and what might be a part of my ego lingering around. It’s set in motion other ways of moving like yoga and running, which have naturally come about and feel like an extension of what I began with dancing.
The biggest difference in all of this that I can see as I get older, is that I know what I’m looking for perhaps more than ever and it’s got less to do with perfection and more to do with ease. If any of this rings true to you or your experience, the only thing I can say is that what’s important to go in pursuit of peace instead of results. Results often have a timeline and sometimes naturally have a need for maintenance, whereas peacefulness doesn’t need to be forced and can always be drawn upon. I don’t think it requires us all to go to India and become yogis if it doesn’t feel right, but instead it more encourages us to look at what we’re doing and questioning if it’s coming from a truthful place.
It is never too late to do things differently and to go in search of what will truly make you feel good. I know it’s going to be uncomfortable at first and will take some adjusting, but being kind to your body is a relationship worth working on and worth having.[share]