A few weeks ago, I was in a situation where my mind spun a negative story about my body so quickly that it'd make anyone dizzy. The stories we tell ourselves cut the deepest, and I've worked a long time to try to minimize the impacts of those. It's not a muscle that's grown quickly, despite my best efforts working towards body neutrality. In this situation, I couldn't stop the negative self-talk from spiraling into body shame, BUT I was able to catch it, identify the root, and move past it before it impacted my actions. I hope that sharing a bit of how I worked through it may help next time you experience something similar.
It started with sweat.
A few weeks ago, I was in the Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati area for a final session of a leadership program that I've taken part in for the past year. I was excited to see my friends from around the state, but in the 2.5 days that we were together, I think 50% of the words that came out of my mouth were related to how sweaty I was. It was part apology, part complaint. What would that be? An apolo-plaint? Complain-ology? Meh – those don't roll off the tongue.
I knew heading into the visit that our group would probably walk across the Ohio River from Covington, KY to Cincinnati, OH. It's an easy walk – less than a mile each way. I packed my most supportive sneakers, a crossbody bag so I was hands-free, and my lightweight Spanx shorts to prevent chub rub. I added primer to my makeup because I knew I'd probably get hot and sweat a little. I felt good that even though I've not been out of the house much at all in over a year, my miles pedaling to nowhere on my Peloton gave me strong legs.
As soon as I arrived, the first order of the night was to walk over the bridge to go to dinner. I wasn't too worried about the heat – it had been mid-70s and overcast all day in anticipation of storms that never came. But the humidity? 91% and swampy.
As soon as my friend and I exited the hotel doors, I felt instant perspiration. Not in the “oh, it's a cute summer glow” kind of way. It was dripping sweat. The kind you feel roll down your back.
My inner critic came pretty quickly:
- How am I already sweating?
- But I'm not even breathing hard!
- Oh man, I'm going to have a sweat mark between the boobs from this crossbody bag.
- A sweat-stache and we're not even halfway there!
- *Interrupts conversation 20X about how sweaty I am*
- How fast can I dry my dress out?
- I'm sure it looks like I've been crying – how embarrassing.
- *standing still* and I'm still sweating – what's wrong with me?
These thoughts may seem innocent enough if they were truly just about sweat. It's a fact: sweat is uncomfortable and not super desirable in any situation where you're trying to keep up appearances.
But it wasn't really about the sweat. At the time I didn't realize this, but my thoughts were about what the sweat could have signaled to other people.
The story I told myself (subconsciously):
- People are going to think you're so out of shape between your size and this sweat.
- When people think you're out of shape, they think you're lazy, lack discipline, and are weak.
- What are you even doing here anyway with this group of professionals? They're more accomplished than you and you don't fit in.
- You really thought you were getting stronger with all those Peloton rides, but you weren't. You didn't do enough.
- No matter what I do to keep up appearances – the clothes, makeup, jewelry – it will always be negated because your body doesn't fit, and this sweaty situation is another example of how your body failed you…
- …you are a failure.
As if that weren't enough, the story I told myself started to influence my actions in a negative way:
- I should leave the group early, by myself so I can walk back without anyone having to see me sweat like this — I don't belong, anyway.
- I am not going out tomorrow night because I don't want to go through this again. I want to drive across the bridge, but then people will think I'm lazy. Maybe I am lazy.
- I know I was excited to see my friends and spend time with them, but it will be better off if I just stay in my hotel room.
It seems ridiculous writing it all out like this, but it truly is how so many situations have played out in my life when I start to feel bad about my body. In the past, I've tried to suppress it all and muscle through – the “fake it till you make it” approach – but thankfully in this instance, I was able to recognize that my thoughts were spiraling when I started to tell people I wasn't going out the second night.
How I confronted the negative feelings
I'm not a therapist or health professional, but my therapy throughout the years came in very handy in this situation. If you want to read more into specific frameworks, you can ask your therapist or search for the topic of emotional regulation.
There are so many factors that inform emotion: assumptions, triggers/events, environment, beliefs, etc. The great regulator is facts.
In this sweaty situation, my heightened emotions were influenced by location, environment, who I was with, my old beliefs about my body, assumptions I projected onto other people, deeply internalized diet culture, and perceived cultural norms. Those inputs whirled quickly through my brain and spat out the interpretation of “My body isn't good enough, I feel a lot of shame, and I shouldn't participate in something I was really excited about.”
This happens to us so quickly that we often forget to take a beat and look at the facts. I recognized that my emotions were influencing my actions, and that was a sign that I needed to check myself.
- It is warm and humid. This can cause perspiration.
- I've been primarily in temperature-controlled environments for over a year.
- Sweat is a natural body response and an indication that your body can work to regulate your temperature. Sweat means your body is working for you!
- It's not a surprise that my body may react differently to moving outside in humidity versus moving inside with an air conditioner and my Beyonce-level fan.
- Sweat is natural and everybody does it.
- If someone else was sweating, I wouldn't assume anything negative about their body.
- (I quickly developed 2 large blisters on my feet walking across the bridge) You haven't worn shoes regularly in over a year! You also haven't worn these particular shoes and insoles in over a year. Blisters are a natural response to this.
- If the people I'm around are making assumptions about my body based on sweat, they're not people I'm interested in impressing or developing a closer relationship with.
- Broader beliefs that I hold that I lose sight of in body-critical situations – I reminded myself of these:
- To truly practice weight-inclusivity (a principle of Health At Every Size), I must also accept and respect my own body.
- Being able-bodied isn't an indicator of someone's worthiness.
- Other people's opinions of me aren't my responsibility.
- I've spent too much of my life obsessing about my body. There are better ways to spend my time.
- It isn't my responsibility to convince anyone that I am worthy, valuable, or healthy.
Going through these facts and my values/beliefs took the situation from “I am not good enough” to “I'm good and worthy and still want to participate, sweat be damned.” It didn't fix the fact that I did continue to sweat, but it did stop the false narrative I wrote about my body.
Examining the facts helped reset my emotions and see things in a clearer light. In the end, I did go back out the following night but grabbed a couple of people to take a Lyft with me. It let me participate with my friends and also let me avoid the discomfort of the giant blisters + sweat. If anyone thought less of me because I didn't walk the bridge again, that's on them. 🤷🏻♀️
I hope this was relatable or helpful in some way. I know that as we re-introduce ourselves to the in-person world feelings like this can be heightened. Just know that if you're feeling it a little more than usual, you're not alone.