A Different Sort of Goal
(Above, one of the dance classes I attended–I’m squished between people on the left, doing an “ok” sign)
This year instead of having a typical ‘number-based’ fitness goal, I decided I just wanted to move more. I wanted to want to exercise, instead of always viewing it as some tortuous activity. Sure, during the summer or other breaks I’d find ways to work out, but it was never consistent because it was never something I felt motivated to do for the activity itself. So this year, I just wanted to do fun physical activities, and get myself craving movement for movement’s sake.
So far, this new and different strategy…is working!
I know it’s only February, and I also know that currently I’m between jobs (so, in some ways less busy than usual). But I also know that there are other breaks I’ve had where I’ve done 0 workouts, especially during winter.
I started out by going to every single Afrobeats Dance Boston class that has occurred since I got back from China. I love dancing and doing more of it just compounded on itself–the more moves or choreography I learned, the more I could learn at home. I now dance at home almost every day.
Weirdly, it also made me want to…run? Both the dance and a change in mentality.
First, more sleep and the dance classes gave me that extra energy and flow which lasts beyond and individual workout. That feeling is a benefit of regular exercise I know and love, and it’s only when I’m in that general state of being that I ever have the urge to run.
Second, a couple people I met this year changed the way I mentally thought about running.
I joke often that my father, an Ethiopian, always tells me to do more distance running because ‘it’s in your blood’. I also joke that my brother got those genes and not me, because even after a (surprisingly brutal despite the name) summer independent fitness PE class I did in high school, I never was really ‘into’ running.
I met Mike, a Cameroonian working in China, while I was living in Shanghai. He runs marathons, and he told me that running could be addicting. There’s a high you get from it after a few tries that keeps you going, and he really enjoyed his experience running the Singapore marathon. I told my usual joke about not being Ethiopian enough, but what he said stuck with me.
I met Halimo at a bar/club in Boston one Friday night. We surprised each other by finding out we were both mixed Ethiopian–her mother is from Djibouti. The following Sunday we met up at Lucy’s Cafe, an Ethiopian restaurant. She said she ran cross country (“like every East African” was her joke) and I said again how I had never really been interested in running, even though I really had tried. Halimo told me I had to “try for, like, three years”. I laughed, but she told me I (we) really did have an advantage. Resting heart rate, VO2, these things all contributed to cardiovascular ability and the ability to run.
This is not a message of genetic superiority – – I’m definitely still bad enough that anyone who’s a serious runner regardless of background is better, and I know for a fact that my natural body shape is not that of an Olympic marathoner. But having a little message of motivation, something that framed running as a little connection to heritage and roots, was just a nice thing to think about.
So I’ve started doing this thing where I run for a reason. I run to get somewhere.
I run to my dance classes. I run when my roommates dog needs to be taken out. I run when I’m late. It’s been both effective at getting me to run and helpful in my daily life (when I’m late, for example). I’ve surprised myself by how long of a stretch I can go. I ran to church from my house recently, a full two miles which I haven’t done in a long time, and I was surprised that I made it the whole way.
It’s been interesting to find out what motivates me to be active, and using that to really get myself moving. I had my annual physical and happily reported to my doctor that I ran maybe every other day and went to dance classes. I feel good–the aforementioned energy has helped a lot. And days when I’m frustrated or just feeling out of it, I’ve learned to put that energy into movement.
A big, big part of all this is also that I’m finally in a place where I can love my physical body as-is, regardless of whatever state it happens to be in. I used to have a really terrible relationship with my body, and part of the reason I hated exercise was that it was always in service of weight loss. Motivation disappeared entirely when numbers on the scale did not seem to match the effort I was putting in. It has taken literally years to undo the way I thought of my body, tied up with complicated issues like race, society, family, and culture.
The ironic thing was that ignoring all of that and loving my body for itself, loving movement for its own sake, is probably the healthiest thing that has ever happened to me.
On Loving Yourself
I know, better than anyone, that I cannot sit here and tell you to love yourself in the manner of certain types of people on Instagram, or use a #bodypositivity hashtag as though that will make everything fine.
I know that loving yourself is hard, and the hardest part is that only you can do it.
It will require many days of going through, again and again, all the painful comments of family members, all the insults you ever heard at school, and every time, trying to believe in them less.
It will require strength and supportive friends, because even though this is something no one can do for you, it is not something you have to do alone.
You have spent hours in front of mirrors, poking at parts of yourself you don’t understand, and asking your body why, and treating in ways it does not deserve. You will need to spend more hours taking care of yourself, healing yourself, recognizing that you and your body are a team, not enemies.
It will take years to unravel the inner turmoil you have about yourself and your body, and, like tangled string, you will find parts of it linked to whole other bits of your life story–family issues, childhood moments, past romantic partners.
You will need to love yourself regardless of trends or of the swing of media or of anything outside your control. After all of that is gone or moves to the next thing, you will still be here, and so will your body.
For me, it took all of these things. It took being on my own away from home. It took taking an aerial acrobatics class, and realizing I should just get excited about all the things my body can do, not what it looks like. It took supportive people reminding me, whenever I made self-deprecating comments, that I was a person who was worth something. It took a lot of thinking, and drawing, and writing. It was a process of 3-5 years. It is ridiculous to think that a blog post or a hashtag will transform someone’s thinking–but I will say, the aggregation of that movement has changed the way broader media approaches bodies, and I do appreciate that. Let us remember that it started not with fitness gurus and models championing positivity–but from women who were vocal about it even when their body did not fit the media standard.
And so for today, even if you don’t love yourself yet, maybe you can at least be a little less harsh. You can at least be a little bit kinder to yourself, to start to think of your body as your friend, to even begin to want to love your body as it is. That’s where I started, around three years ago–I simply began to want to love myself in the first place, rather than always wanting to change.
It is a long journey, but I wish you the best of luck.