My trainer, Matt Wenning, has a new book coming out soon, and he recently gave me a copy of the manuscript to proofread. Sorry, no spoilers today! I will say that in addition to a treasure trove of technical information, he includes a detailed biography that goes all the way back to his childhood and discusses his challenges, talents, habits, etc., and how it laid the groundwork for who he is today.
I’ve been pretty open in this blog about my life-long struggle with food, weight, and body image, and that it has roots deep in my childhood. But Matt’s writing got me thinking about other aspects of my early life in addition to food, and how those issues that started when I was so young all contributed to the situation I found myself in as an adult.
For the sake of brevity I want to tackle this subject in two posts (I originally wrote it as one, but it was entirely too long!). Today’s post is mostly background about what my physical and emotional life was like as a kid, and how several factors came together to mold a body and mind that regarded physical activity as uncomfortable and punitive.
My next post will be about how I use the pain of the past to help others today. I will offer some observations and suggestions based on my experience that I hope can help adults struggling with these issues, as well as parents who have children exhibiting some of the same problems that I had.
Without further ado, let’s get started!
The year was 1987. I’m nine years old, in my third year of dance classes with the annual recital coming up. In addition to my usual tap and jazz routines, my teacher put me in a big group number set to Lionel Ritchie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling.”
The routine opens with the girls coming on stage one at a time doing a move where they clap their hands above their head, and then drop down into a deep squat and clap their hands again. Over and over several times until all the girls are on stage.
There’s just one problem.
Nine year-old Jennifer cannot drop to a deep squat with her butt down and her chest up. My butt stayed up and my chest fell forward (if you’ve read my other posts, this sounds familiar). Not graceful or cute, definitely not worthy of Lionel Ritchie. My teacher said if I couldn’t get it right, I was out of the group.
I had to practice that move every night at home for weeks. It still wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough to keep me in the group. At the very end of the line of girls and one of the last ones to come on stage, so I didn’t have to do it that long!
At nine years old, I already had some of the physical challenges I would face as an adult.
I was always one the tallest kids my age, with long arms, long legs, and broad shoulders. Even as a young child, I remember having back and neck pain. In my work with Matt, I have learned about how low back pain is often strongly associated with a lack of hip mobility (see my earlier posts, Anatomy of a Pain in the Ass Part 1 and Part 2). As my dance class anecdote illustrates, I had inflexible hips and weak legs from the beginning. I hated all of the activities that kids usually love in gym class: crab walks, bear crawls, leap frog, somersaults, cartwheels. It was awkward, painful, and embarrassing to not be able to do what seemed to come naturally to so many other kids.
I was not a rough-and-tumble play kind of kid. My play was typically quiet, solitary, and driven internally by imagination. Most days I played alone with my Barbies, inhaled books, swam in our backyard pool in the summer (I didn’t actually learn to swim until I was about 10 years old), and sat outside daydreaming and making up little stories in my head. I remember wanting to climb trees and read my books up there, but it was too hard. I avoided monkey bars or any other kind of climbing apparatus because I was afraid I would fall.
Running? Forget it. I hated to run pretty much as soon as I learned how. I had zero endurance and was winded almost immediately (even before I gained weight). It’s rough to be one of those kids that always straggled in last in any type of running challenge.
(Side note: I still hate running. If you ever see me running, you better run too, because there is mortal danger afoot.)
So physically I was already at a bit of a disadvantage with this tall body that I didn’t have the strength to support. Throw serious mental and emotional challenges into the mix, and matters got much worse.
I’ve been a perfectionist as long as I can remember. Yes, it drove me to accomplish some great things, like being valedictorian of my class and getting my bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University. But on the whole, perfectionism has been a destructive, inhibiting force in my life. It made me horribly reluctant to try new things. If I didn’t think I could win, I didn’t want to play.
I was willing to work hard when it came to intellectual pursuits because I had talent for those endeavors. But all things athletic were difficult and uncomfortable, which made me even less likely to try them. I was on a few sports teams over the years. I was the bookworm in a family of athletes and felt obligated to do something sports-related, but I never enjoyed it.
The only sport I stuck with for a significant amount of time was track; I threw shotput and discus from seventh grade all the way through high school. I was a solidly average thrower, but I lacked the hip strength and speed to hit big numbers. I peaked in my sophomore year and didn’t make much progress thereafter. Honestly, I chose that sport because I felt it was the only thing suitable for a “big girl” like me.
Around second or third grade I consciously remember beginning to eat compulsively for comfort. I was a sensitive kid and had serious difficulty managing my emotions. I remember being frequently overwhelmed by anger, irrational fear, sadness, and self-hatred, and having no way to deal with it or appropriate venue to express it.
So I ate. A lot. For a long time.
With compulsive eating came its conjoined twin: weight gain. Then the teasing at school started. I was an easy mark; I cried at the drop of a hat and flailed in anger at the least provocation. Kids are smart and often cruel, and they figured out fast that if they pushed a few buttons, I paid off like a rigged slot machine.
In third or fourth grade, my mother put me on my first diet. Typical mid-80s stuff: low calorie intake with lots of “diet” (i.e. terrible) food. And I was encouraged to exercise as part of the dieting process, things like running laps around the house or calisthenics. Not to be fit, or strong, or healthy, but to be skinny.
This was a pivotal moment. I was already an unathletic kid, awkward inside my body. And now, in my mind, exercise was firmly linked with one goal: losing weight. From that point until just a few years ago, I considered exercise a price to be paid for being a fat slob, something to struggle through with gritted teeth to make myself skinny and acceptable. Certainly not something to celebrate or enjoy.
Shockingly (said with great sarcasm), that never worked as a source of motivation for more than a few weeks or months. Self-hatred is a fast-burning fuel that exhausts quickly and leaves the tank empty.
I carried serious resentment about some of these childhood issues for a long time. When you are a kid, adults are like gods who are supposed to always know the right thing to do. But once I became an adult myself, I learned the dirty little secret of life: adults don’t know everything. The adults who loved me did what they knew how to do. They weren’t capable of doing better because they didn’t know better. Nobody gets dealt a perfect hand; everyone has their unique set of challenges to face in life, and these were mine.
So now that I’m a big grown-up girl, I have to take responsibility for myself and not blame my past for my current problems. But hopefully I can be a source of education, and help others redefine their relationship with their body.
Today I know that the pain of the past is one of my greatest assets in helping others have a better future. Tune in next week for insights into how we can use experiences like mine to make ourselves and our children stronger!
Taking back ownership of your body can be overwhelming and scary, but it often helps to work with someone who has been where you are and understands the struggle. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 614-517-2520 and let’s talk!