Photo courtesy of Linda Martella-Whitsett
By Linda Martella-Whitsett, Special to Everyday Health
That picture haunted me!
That picture of me at 16, twin pony tails framing my smiling face as I walked in a field at summer camp on my way to lead my little campers to their next activity. How had I never noticed that, despite thinking of myself as “hippo hips” and “thunder thighs” — names given to me by my brothers — I had been a beautiful, petite teenager?
Stunningly, it wasn’t until I was 59 that I realized the terrible damage done by my dysmorphic body image. I had become as large as I had always imagined myself to be. I had lost and gained pounds by the dozens, dozens of times. I didn’t have the heart to attempt dieting again. Willpower always failed, and I felt defeated.
But that picture haunted me! I wanted to know her. I wanted to be her. I longed for her hopes, innocence, passion, and wholeheartedness (although I certainly did not want the pathos that comes with being 16). Despite having never felt at ease in that version of my body, I wanted to feel the way I should have as a slender 16-year-old!
Yearning to Be Free of My Struggle With Food
I began to study pictures from the years before I padded my body with weight. I yearned to be free from my torturous struggle with food.
Food gave me no pleasure. I would grab something and shovel it down on the run. I rarely devoted my time to preparing a delicious meal. I thought I had better things to do. I became more and more observant of friends who had mastered the art and practice of healthful eating. I thought: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to eat when I am hungry, enjoy my meal, and then not eat again until I am hungry again? Yes! But would I be willing?
I yearned to be free from the extra pounds I had accumulated over the past 40 years. I was embarrassed by my weight, but torn between “you can do something about this” to “get used to it, your metabolism has changed.” When my yearning became excruciating, I began listening. I had a lot of weight to lose: the weight of self-derision, dysmorphia, and limitations.
Limitations ruled me: I felt limited by the amount of weight I could lose. Every time I reached a new low, the pounds crept back. I could not exercise like other people. My leg muscles have always been short and tight, something I was made aware of during a dance class I took when I was 5 years old. I can still remember my mother and aunt laughing about how stiff and awkward I was.
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I could not expect to stretch and be limber. I would have to live within the limits of my genetics. I come from a family of short, round Italian women. As much as I have dreaded it, I felt I would have to accept that I would look more like Aunt Emily as I aged.
I struggled with these thoughts. And then it dawned on me. Maybe these limitations were just stories I used to soothe myself. Maybe I could shed my excess weight and sustain a truly healthy body. Maybe I could become more flexible and defy my genetics.
But was I willing to try?
Sowing the Seeds of Will
Some time during the 40 years I spent criticizing my body, I had managed to physically turn it into something that matched my negative image of it. Stuck with that image in my mind, and in the mirror, it was hard for me to imagine having a strong, flexible, graceful body. I observed other women my age and older who radiated health and vitality. Their clothes fit beautifully. They stood erect yet relaxed. Their arm, shoulder, and leg muscles were defined, and their skin glowed. They were well-proportioned and trim. I wanted to know if I could have a body that beautiful and graceful. Was I willing to try?
Willingness was a big issue for me. I felt unwilling and unable to make the changes I knew were necessary. I began asking myself several important questions: “What am I choosing, what am I committed to (as observed by how I use my time and my money), and am I willing or willful?”
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A Death Prompts the Beginning of a New Life
Then, one seemingly random day, I awoke knowing I was ready to commit. Two things happened that day. The first thing was subtle: I felt my energy shift. Seeds of “will” were growing into tender, tentative sprouts of willingness.
The second thing that happened was terrible. A dear friend and colleague died. After 30 years of sobriety he had secretly started drinking again. His death was most likely a suicide — he drowned in the ocean. Some buried inner resolve arose from within me that day, as well as the strength to say “Your new life begins today” and “I am willing.”
Acting on information I had researched months before, I enrolled in a medically-supervised weight loss program that promised education, nutritional counseling, medical monitoring, and exercise assessment. I chose a 12-week series and faithfully executed every aspect of the plan: measuring, weighing, and logging my food and water intake. I worked out with assistance from fitness testing and training, and went to every scheduled appointment with medical and nutrition professionals. After successfully completing the first 12 weeks, I chose another 12-week series, followed by transitional support. By the end of my journey, I had lost 60 pounds.
Meanwhile, I cultivated my capacity to release, shedding false beliefs about myself. I worked hard to create order in my life, carefully choosing a number of daily habits that promoted long-term health. And I continued to practice “will” by committing time and money to a whole, healthy life.
It was then I reclaimed the fervor of my 16-year-old self. I rediscovered my innocence, passion, and wholeheartedness. I recovered many latent capacities that I believe are natural to all human beings — strength, stability, courage, and tenacity. I became a master of release and will. Where willpower failed time and time again, willingness helped me succeed. I found the freedom my 16-year-old self never dreamed of.
Linda Martella-Whitsett is the author of two books, Divine Audacity and How to Pray Without Talking to God. She is also a respected Unity minister and spiritual teacher, senior minister at Unity Church of San Antonio, and a mentor for emerging leaders in new thought.
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This article originally appeared on EverydayHealth.com: It Took Me 59 Years to Love My Body