I’m getting ready for my talk at WriteUp! SpeakUp! at this year’s Wells Festival of Literature. I will be speaking about my experiences of running. Not running per se, more around the extraordinary mind shift that being physically active can produce.
Often people are drawn to exercise because they wish to lose weight, rather than solely seeking a positive mental effect – which is the angle I’m coming from. I’ve experienced a different correlation between exercising, body shape and the psychological aspects of weight, which surprised me. I found a good explanation of why I changed my mindset to weight-related issues in Caitlin Moran’s fictional story (“How to be famous”) through the words of her character – a 19-year-old girl called Johanna Morrigan.
Like Johanna, in Caitlin’s fictional story, my real-life teenage body “gave me despair so deep I could not acknowledge it”.
Poor self-image weight worries, that can begin in your teenage years can often take hold in your brain for years to come.
For Caitlin’s character, Johanna, there was deep “sorrow of being a teenage girl who is not slender” this was because:
“I am not what I should be; at nineteen: Lithe-limbed, tiny-waisted, and living in shorts and cut-off tops. That’s what the teenage girls on TV look like.”
Caitlin Moran’s novel is set in the 1990s, coming back to the more up-to-date there is likely to be an even more overbearing pressure on teenagers to be “lithe-limbed, tiny-waisted”, amongst other things, amplified on social media.
I spent years trying to fix my weight self-image in every conceivable diet industry way. An attitude that led me down some dark corridors, passing bulimia, surreptitious diet pills and fad fashion diets, casting a long shadow across my teen years.
In Caitlin Moran’s novel there is a eureka moment capturing the transformation from body shame to body respect, something I had experienced in only a few months of regular exercise in my forties:
“As we spend that spring walking, and talking, I became aware of a gradual shift, in my head. I slowly started to like my body! A bit. Just a bit. After a long day, I lay on the bed and felt something completely new: total physical exhaustion. And it felt amazing. My legs and thighs glowed with the springy ache of exertion. Lying in a hot bath, looking down at my legs, I felt fondness for them, for all the work they had done.”
Who knew that the legal high that is physical activeness can help to shift your mind about your body image! After my “physical exhaustion” of a run, cycle or robust walk I feel a natural mental reverie. I feel connected to my body in a positive way, as the source and deliverer of my mental reward.
Running and weight is connected, it is just not in the way people would naturally expect. It’s all through the mind, its how you feel about your body, which affects how you perceive yourself. You see what is good about your shape, especially as exercise does change your shape, muscles start to be less shy in places you never noticed before, your behind is first to acknowledge your achievement – lifting proudly and tight!
Have I lost weight? The extraordinary thing is I don’t know the answer because I don’t care, I’m not measuring that aspect of my physical activeness. My teenage-self – if she heard this – would have a gaping jaw, which would drop to the ground! It was always about weight for her.
We know body image affects self-esteem, at worse leading to severe mental health issues that can be life-long and crippling. Maybe we need better ways to market to teenagers a new free legal high, that is simply – do more exercise!