Until I was sixteen years old I had always been a little bit chubby. Whereas both of my siblings were extremely athletic, physical education and sport that I was forced to do were a source of humiliation for me. In fact, a few months before I turned seventeen I boycotted the "Bundesjugendspiele", an annual athletic events that is compulsory for all German students to attend and that involves competing in various athletic disciplines in front of the entire school. Instead of running the 800 meter lap I walked/danced it. I got into huge trouble.
If this sounds very untypical of me - it was and I never would have done it if I hadn't known that I would move to the other side of the world shortly thereafter. I had received a scholarship in Singapore to attend the United World College of South East Asia to study for two years with young people who want to change the world.
I was ecstatic to be with people like me. And yes, I have insanely happy I would never have to go through another German sport lesson again.
But something odd happened shortly after I moved to Singapore. Although we didn't have PE, part of our curriculum required us to do some kind of physical activity. I chose to play badminton. But this time no one graded me for my performance. I could attend the training and the only person I had to compete with was myself - not a treshold I had to reach
a specific grade.
And to my surprise, I started enjoying it.
Moreover, my growing interest into psychology introduced me to the benefits of exercise not only for the body - but for the brain. Exercise releases hormones that make you feel good and lowers your stress levels. So apart from doing badminton twice a week I also started going to the gym. Another place where no one was assessing or competing with me. Along with now eating meals at the same time (I was in boarding school) and cutting out a lot of bread consumption (Germany/Asia differences) my body changed.
I didn't notice it at first - I didn't intend to lose weight so I didn't weigh myself on a scale on a weekly basis or anything. Yes, I thought of losing weight of a nice side effect but I primarily wanted to be healthier. And I did.
About a year into regular exercising we went on a trip to a climbing resort, an event that would have caused me to be "sick" on the given day in order to spare myself the humiliation of gasping for air between trees and ropes in the middle of the forest. But this time it was different. I was still terrified (we climbed really high up) but I distinctly remember climbing up one of the pillars and thinking: "Wow. I can do this". It was physically demanding but totally doable.
Exercising regularly allowed me to walk up to the sixth floor without gasping for air on the way up. I could run to catch the bus without feeling like I was about to faint.
I was healthy and it felt amazing.
When I graduated two years later I had lost around 13kg (28 pounds).
In fact, the physical change was so drastic - I had also cut my hair and started wearing glasses - that when visited my German school, no one recognized me. I recently went to see a teacher who taught me for six years before I moved to Singapore. When I walked into her office she simply looked at me - her face expression
neutral - and asked "Can I help you?". When I explained who I was, she couldn't believe it.
When I go back to Germany, I get a lot of comments on my physical transformation."You lost so much weight, you look great". In fact, I enjoy showing people photos of me three years ago and pride myself for the work that I put into my body.
But the truth is - I hadn't exercised to change how I looked. Yes, I remember standing in front of a mirror back in Germany wishing my belly was smaller or whatever. But I don't remember struggling with how I looked. Now I am 13 kilograms thinner and I have come close to having a six-pack twice this year and I can tell you that I am majorly struggling with my body image. I hate myself for eating a single cookie. The feeling of a full tummy makes me feel sick. If I eat food that makes me look a little bloated I start skipping meals.
I have never done this before.
Because now I am terrified to "go back". Every time someone complemented me on having lost so much weight, it communicated to me that I look better now than I did before. I worked hard, yes - but not for people to find me more beautiful but for me to be healthier, live my life better and most importantly: longer.
We need to stop complementing people for losing weight but start complementing people for making healthier choices!
How you look is greatly influenced by your genes. There are people who are naturally skinny and people who naturally are a little bit more curvy. I envy the former for being able to eat things I don't touch because my body immediately transforms it into fat.
Working to look the way the media is teaching young girls and boys how we "should look like" is not an indication of a healthy lifestyle. In fact, it can be the opposite.
Again, we need to stop complementing people for "losing weight" but start complementing people for making healthy choices.
I am scared because I have been contacted by friends (mostly younger girls) who are now asking me how I lost so much weight. And every time I read a message like that it makes me question what kind of role model I am. I want to be an advocate for a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, lot's of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and protein - and being able to eat your favorite snack without guilt or shame. I want to encourage people to develop a healthy relationship with their food and bodies in a way that makes them feel good about both. Starving yourself, skipping meals or doing unhealthy diets is the opposite of all of that. Your goal should never be to "look" a certain way. But to "be" a certain way: healthy, happy and kind.
Do you want to make a difference?
Tell the people around you about how beautiful they are.
Don't tell little girls about how cute they look or how pretty their dress is: ask them about school and their hobbies and complement them about being so smart.
If you hear yourself or others using language that perpetuates unhealthy images of femininity or masculinity (or anything in between) - stop yourself. Even something as harmless as "I have to stop eating because otherwise I will roll out the door" does indicate that a curvy body time is something undesirable. We should avoid that kind of language - not only to protect others - but also to protect ourselves. We are the first victims of our images of "the perfect body".
The most important thing is that you are happy and healthy and comfortable in your own skin. When I now find myself in front of the mirror, I try to tell myself that I am beautiful. Instead of focussing on areas that I want to change, I focus on the wonder and respect I have for my body. I am a woman. My body works hard keeps me healthy and to allow me to pursue my goals. And the best part: my body gives me the ability create life. That is pretty amazing.
Choose a healthier life. Not a better body.