Author’s Note: This is a piece I wrote for the Chicken Soup for the Soul book on body positivity. It wasn’t accepted so I’m publishing it here.
Running into Love
It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was jogging lightly. Out of breath and pained, I was still enjoying the sensation of my lungs filling with air and the wind on my face. I had been running for about three minutes which, for this overweight, middle-aged smoker, meant I looked as if I was at the tail end of a marathon.
Out of nowhere, I was hit hard on the side of my face. Jerked out of my zone, I stopped short, my hand going involuntarily to my cheek. It felt sticky and for a wild moment, I thought I was bleeding. Looking down at the sidewalk, I saw a can of coke lying on the ground, its content spilling onto the pavement. When I looked up, I saw where it must have come from. A man in a pickup truck was parked on the side of the road. When he realized he had my attention, he sneered. “Try not to break the sidewalk, you ugly sow,” he yelled.
Devastated, I walked away from him as fast as I could, heading for home in a panic, sure he would follow me. Sobbing and riddled with shame, I made it home and crawled into bed. I spent days in hiding, hating myself, hating my life, hating my body. I hated every inch of my flesh and everything that I had done to myself to get that way. Every time I went to the bathroom and caught sight of my bruised face in the mirror, I hated myself even more. It was particularly painful because, though I thought he was a cruel and viscous jerk, I also thought he was right. Somewhere deep down, I knew that I was disgusting, and that people had a right to be offended by the sight of me.
I had only started running about three weeks before that incident. Fed up with being overweight, tired of being mocked, and stared at, and given unsolicited advice about the latest fad diet, I decided it was time to run. I just wanted to lose weight. I was tired of being unhappy and I thought my unhappiness came from the size of my body. I bought the best pair of running shoes that I could afford and I went out to run. My first run lasted about twenty seconds, and though I nearly passed out from a lack of oxygen, something about it appealed to me. I decided to keep trying.
The next time, I ran for a few seconds longer. After that, I added a few seconds each time I ran. I started to enjoy the freedom and the sensation of expanding my lungs every time I moved.
I started running to lose weight, but I kept running because it felt like an escape. I ran from the years of torment, from the memories of kids in school calling me fattie and lardo. I ran from the well-meaning adults who told me I had such a pretty face. I ran from the years of yo-yo dieting when I alternated between starving myself and binge eating until I was sick. I ran from that ex who grabbed a handful of my stomach flesh once and told me I’d be attractive if I lost it. I ran from the weight of the expectation that as a woman of size, my very existence was offensive.
I ran from the abusive relationship that I stayed in because I was so convinced that, worthless as I was, I didn’t deserve any better.
I ran and ran but I wasn’t losing weight and I felt like such a failure. I would come home from a run and eat. I was eating in the same way I was running – to escape. I was still miserable, I was still eating too much, and most of it unhealthy, and I was still in an abusive relationship, I was still afraid, and I still hated my body.
That moment on the street was a turning point. I was lying in bed filled with so much shame for even existing. It was that life or death moment between giving up completely or making a change. Change or die. I stayed in that bed for days with that theme running through my head. It was terrifying to come to the realization that I couldn’t come up with one positive reason why I deserved to take up space on this planet.
Change or die. That was the moment. I got out of bed and made a list of things I wanted to change about my life. The list was long and it looked impossible. So I broke it down into smaller lists, and plotted out action items for each step.
I left my abusive relationship. I quit smoking. It wasn’t as easy as it all sounds now. There were long months of planning and tears. There was so much fear and so much misery. Sometimes, I felt as if I was taking two steps forward and three steps back. But I kept going.
All of those positive changes helped to lift me out of my depression, but they weren’t enough. I had to find a way to believe that I was worth all of this work. I started a practice of catching myself whenever I would say something negative. If I looked in the mirror and thought or said, “God, I look so ugly in this dress,” I would stop and remind myself that I would never talk to anyone else like that. Eventually, I could replace many of the negative thoughts with positive ones. It took years of concerted effort. I would praise myself for the slightest accomplishment, celebrating every small victory as if I had just scaled a mountain. I learned that I loved the shape of my face, and the strength in my stride. I learned that I felt sassy and fun when I wore an outfit that I loved.
As I grew out of my misery, I pushed away all of the people from my past life who didn’t celebrate me, and I started attracting the people who did. I learned that people found me intelligent and funny. They were attracted to me and my circle of friends grew. I found a space of loving and warmth and people who cared about me, just me, just the way I am.
I learned that positive change doesn’t grow out of shame, it grows out of love. That love for myself blossomed into a desire to take care of myself. I never did take up running again, but I found other exercises that I loved, including weight lifting and yoga.
Most importantly, I learned that I can help other women learn how to love themselves just the way they are. I started teaching online self-love and mindful eating workshops. I became a workshop presenter, holding in person events designed to empower women to move into a place of more confidence and greater self-respect.
I’m still a woman of size and I still struggle with my body image. I still deal with people staring at me or the self-doubt that comes from not finding an outfit that fits. I still have moments of disbelief in the deep desire of my loving partner. I still sometimes tell my reflection that she’s ugly. I’m still a fat woman. But I am a beautiful, strong, brilliant powerhouse of a woman. I gave myself the most incredible gift anyone can ever give. Unconditional love. I loved myself back to life. And I deserve that.