I recently joined a Facebook group intended for other women who are following the same fitness guide as me. When I joined I imagined that it would mostly be people asking for advice on the exercises (or perhaps some mutual acknowledgement that we all feel ridiculous doing crab walks around the gym). What I didn’t expect is that so much of the comments and questions in the group would be what I would call ‘asking for permission’, or offloading some great sense of guilt at something that had happened that the women in the group considered counter to the achievement of their goals.
What I mean by that is this – someone will share that they’ve worked out five times already this week, but they’re lying in bed in horrendous pain from period cramps and they can’t face going to the gym. Do the group think she should just suck it up and go? Or maybe – someone says they’ve tracked all their calories all week but their boyfriend has suggested ordering Domino’s tonight – should she sit in the other room and eat chicken and rice instead? There is usually a huge underlying sense of guilt and shame inherent in these comments. I’ve not exercised enough, I ate too much, I’m not working hard enough. Should I still go to the gym if I worked a 12-hour shift and have only had a few hours’ sleep?
I realise that it sounds a lot like the development of disordered behaviour towards eating and exercising. But (from my own experiences), I don’t sense that that is the root cause. The posts are a call for permission – for the kindness and empathy we find it difficult to give ourselves. These women aren’t forcing themselves out of bed in the midst of cramps to go and do 100 squats, they’re not out running 10ks when they’re still getting over the flu, and they’re not existing purely on broccoli and plain chicken. A part of us knows deep down when we need the rest. We know that a few slices of pizza on a Friday night won’t lead us to put on a stone overnight. But for some reason we find it impossible to give ourselves the grace and self-compassion to live with balance and flexibility. Even though our gut feeling is that it’s actually the unhealthier choice to exercise when we’re not well, or to deny ourselves the foods we love, we need someone else to validate those decisions, and to show us the kindness we are not always able to show ourselves.
It feels like a cliché but I often think about that concept of speaking to ourselves the way we would a close friend or family member. I would never tell a friend they were greedy for eating a whole sharing bag of Doritos, and I would always encourage people to listen to their bodies if they feel they need rest. When I find myself in the shame spiral surrounding food, exercise, or anything I’m berating myself for not having done (why does the word ‘should’ always come up in these scenarios? I should have been more productive, I should have cleaned the house, I should have finished that paper at work…) I try and bring kindness and compassion to the situation and realise that I’m not inadequate or a failure just because I didn’t follow a pre-ordained plan of what a perfect diet, day or life looks like. I hope that one day we will all be able to show ourselves that kindness and generate it from within, rather than needing others to tell us that ‘it’s okay’ – but having a tribe of people who can offer us compassion when we can’t find it ourselves is also bloody important. We have enough magazines and adverts constantly trying to market us products based on making us feel as if we are not enough – but we ARE. You are enough, whether you are at the gym, or eating Galaxy in bed – you are enough.