Leave The Gun, Take the Cannoli: Ditching Size Shame but Keeping Exercise

I know that to many of you, this is no new concept – that you’ve been exercising without a care about how it would make your ass look for a long, long time.  But really, I’ve just reclaimed it in the last year, through Operation Rad Bod.  When I was a kid and teen I ran, jumped, danced, climbed – performed hours and hours of exercise for the sheer thrill of it, no thought on calories counted.  But when I turned 20 and suddenly became body-conscious, I spent a decade exercising out of worry for how I looked.  If I enjoyed it, that was just a bonus, but it was not the point – the point was to lose weight, indefinitely.  I didn’t exercise for pleasure or to connect with my body – I exercised to change it, fueled by fatphobia.  The fear and the shame of it all went hand in hand, and it was often a miserable enterprise.

When I started Operation Rad Bod last year, I inwardly worried I would lose all my drive to exercise — without the obsession with losing weight, would laziness take over?  What I found shocked me – as I let go of the weight loss incentive, I found exercise more joyous, and started to order my life so that I could do even more of it.  I am currently exercising every day now, more than double what I was doing pre-Operation Rad Bod.  I discovered that body shame is a really shitty incentive to work out.

I should preface this all by saying that though I have been exercising nearly every day for over 6 months, and I wrote this whole article about all the things I love about it, I have a hard time getting my butt to class, every damn time.  I make excuses, I try to get out of it internally, but in the end, rhythm replaces strength.  I go because it is my ingrained habit to do so, and I trust that.  I have never regretted it. A teacher recently called the classes I go to “dance for pleasure/accidental exercise.”  Yes.  Find whatever exercise you truly enjoy, and move for movement’s own sake.  Process over product.  I’m not saying that exercising for weight loss is in any way wrong, but simply pointing out what an expansive world I have found when I removed that emphasis.

Me and my friend Joel T, turning my tiny living room into a salsa dance floor.  Photo by Ariel Kipnis.

Me and my friend Joel T, turning my tiny living room into a salsa dance floor. Photo by Joanna Santa.

So what gets me into sweaty spandex, if not the desire to change my shape?  Here are a few reasons:

1. It feels good to go all out.  We live our little lives, hunched over a screen, eating our cheese sandwich at the desk, saving our moments of expansion for vacations or the occasional deeply honest conversation.  But really losing yourself in movement is the best way to bring some of that feeling of infinite possibility into your day-to-day life.  I wanted to be an actress when I was younger, not for the fame but because I wanted a life in which I’d need to learn to ride horses in the desert, and how to cut a coconut in one chop for a survival scene.

Now, I can get that same feeling of being successful at something in my body, surprising myself with my growing ability, feeling like if I jumped that high this time, what’s next… without having to live in Hollywood.  I think this is why people get really into sports — yelling and jumping up and down with your friends is fantastic.  Why not do it by getting yourself out on the field, instead of watching someone else?

2. Endorphins are the best stress release I know.  Dance and yoga are basically my mental health regimen at this point.  They keep me sane.  On the days that I don’t move my body in creative and strength-building ways, I am snappy, my patience matched by the rigidity in my muscles.  However, after a good dance workout, I’ve often sweated and stretched out my worries, and am back to feeling like my body is my home, a place I want to stay in, rather than floating up into the world of stress and fear.

3. Exercise is body insurance.  When I was a Pilates instructor, most of the people coming in to recover from injuries they had incurred while doing everyday, pedestrian activities: opening a heavy door, lifting a bag of groceries, walking over an uneven bit of sidewalk.  Life is surprisingly hazardous, and if you are strengthening your body every day, you can rest assured that your abdominal muscles (no matter if they don’t look like a “pack” of anything, they’re in there!) will kick in and help you right yourself in time, preventing a stint on crutches.

I love the feeling that if needed, my body is strong enough to carry my fussy 30+ pound toddler the 6 blocks home from the library, fast enough to save her from taking a digger off the slide, and limber enough to contort myself into her toddler bed to put her to sleep.  Parenting-related injuries, averted!

4. The connection between body image and movement is incredible.  The absolute best way to love your body is to use it, to have a lived-in experience of seeing what it can do, and get out of your head about it.  Body image is so external – we worry about what we look like to the world, and what we see in the mirror.  But movement is a real experience that we can rely upon when we are feeling bad about what we see.  Sight is not the only sense.  Rely more on what your body can do.  A guy at the Italian deli called me “Muscles” the other day, and I laughed and struck a bodybuilder’s pose, lifting the heavy bag of groceries with extra gusto.

5. You’ll be a better lover.  When you can get in your body through movement, and you start to feel better about it, you get in touch with your own inherent sexiness.  The things my partner likes about my body always surprise me.  Some of them are things that will change with age, but some are just parts of me, that will always be there – my clavicle, my eyes, the back of my neck.

Anyway, being hot for your partner can really turn you on, but it is also a big part of sexuality to feel that you are desirable.  If you spend all your time in incredulity that someone wants you, steeped in body shame, you won’t be able to really let go into the beauty that is two bodies together.  But if you’re working out regularly, starting to feel good about your body, regardless of how it externally looks to you, then honey, prepare for some wildness.

6. Shaking your body can be a radical act: Occupy Exercise!  I’ve noticed that the dance classes I go to that are taught by teachers who are not rail thin have a surprising diversity of body size in the participants.  I have no idea if this theory is a real thing.  But I know I feel better when I walk into a class and it’s not completely full of chiseled humans, but a happy mix of folks with some jiggle and some without.

The teachers I take classes with at Rhythm and Motion are truly diverse, from some that are actual models to those who you might not guess are dancers simply from their looks.  (I get so mad on So You Think You Can Dance when crotchety old Nigel tells gorgeous, shining dancers that they don’t have a “dancer’s body”.  Um, they can dance circles around you, bro, I think they have a dancer’s body!)  I’m grateful to be a part of a dance community where the moms in their 60’s work it out just as hard as the sprightly teenagers.

I could go on, citing deeper spirituality, gained community, and simply the chance to have a break from life – when you’re exercising, you can’t be doing anything else!  However, I’m interested in leaving room for you to tell me in the comments: what are your favorite reasons to exercise, other than the one that has been way over-emphasized in our culture, weight loss?

9 thoughts on “Leave The Gun, Take the Cannoli: Ditching Size Shame but Keeping Exercise

  1. Absolutely all the ones you mentioned, plus, exercise gives me a framework for tackling others of life’s challenges. Because of exercise, I understand that it’s possible to do hard things, but that it takes time and effort. And, growth is not a constant stream of improvement. Fitness doesn’t mean you’re always getting stronger/faster/fitter (I have seasons when I train for races and long seasons when I don’t). Likewise, personal growth isn’t a daily breaking of new ground; Setbacks are part of the process.

    • Yes, I really agree with this. Doing something challenging with my body helps me to take risks in other areas of life, to understand that just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it’s not “working”.

  2. this is totally what I needed to read right now. I have been rebuilding and restrengthening this postpartum body and it has been a super slow process. most of the difficulty has been a ridiculous mental block that stops me from making and taking the time for myself and my body. My aerobic exercise gets me outside, it gets me in nature, it makes me feel strong. I walk a ton, everywhere these days and have been getting back into running. Yoga gets me out of my head and into my breath, it forces me to challenge my mind and body connection, connects me to my breath and makes me balance.

    I have no idea where the exercise is taking me- I have no race goals, no weight loss goals.. I would love to be less jiggly, but mostly I want to feel strong and able, inside and out. thanks so much for this post! keep up Operation Rad Bod, I love it! and you look GREAT!

  3. Rhea, Yoga helps me leave the world behind, and every one breathes so we can all do it. I am the crazy older woman in the back of Zumba, never in step but screaming and hollering when Nesa yells “I can’t hear you all’ . And swimming I just lose myself and I love water.

  4. totally needed to read this. I have body issues and always exercise for all the wrong reasons. I keep saying that I need to dance; I think my body and spirit have been telling me this is something I need to do, it has been missing in my life, but I’m stubborn and tend to neglect these voices. Thank you for this!

  5. Yay Rhea! The first reason I love exercise (specifically dancing at Rhythm &’Motion) is the community! I feel myself surrounded in love and energy that I just can’t live without. Secondly, I love running because its my time to listen to music I love and pretend I’m the star in my own concert/musical. Lastly, I’ve discovered that my body can do pretty great things, and alsomtomlisten to it! (My 37 year old knees can’t quite do what my 25 year old knees could). Getting older and releasing the goal of weight loss and shifting the goal to health, I’ve noticed some beautiful parts of my body ( I have pretty rad shoulders and biceps). I’m so proud of you Rhea. Thanks for putting this topic out here!

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