My First Mile: Overcoming a Lifetime of Negative Beliefs About My Body

I wish someone had told me, years ago, that the way I saw myself at 10 or 15 could be the way I’d see myself at 25, 35, 45.

Certain self images can and will change but others will be stubborn as hell to budge.

I had weight issues growing up, but not the variety that our society pays attention to: I was underweight. In fact, I think I may have even fallen off the growth charts at some point. I remember catching colds frequently and being teased about my small frame. I turned down friends’ invitations to the beach because I didn’t dare get into a bathing suit. But most damaging of all was what I came to believe about my physical ability.

Moving was not my activity of choice. My mother said to me once that she could stick a book in my hands as a child and forget that I was in the room. I preferred daydreaming, reading, writing, and drawing. P.E. in school was an exercise in torture and humiliation from elementary school on through high school. Unlike the physical education that my son is now getting, my schools didn’t emphasize wellness, or at least that is not what I remember. What I remember is cringing at dodgeball, kickball, softball, and relay races. P.E. was about competition and winning.

And yes, when it came time for the captains to pick their teams, it would always come down to me or the fat boy as the last candidate. Maybe no one felt good about this because I remember their sympathetic and uncomfortable looks, even at 10 or 11. I was a nice girl, everyone liked me, but competition is competition.

Am I being melodramatic and overly sorry for myself when I say that I still tear up when I think back on that? Over 30 years later I can still feel the wind blowing over my hair and hear the muffled sounds of chatter as I stand there waiting for the captains to make up their minds and wishing that I could disappear.

As a teen I learned to forge my parents’ signatures to get out of P.E. and swim classes. I discovered that I could wear gym clothes that passed for regular clothes and sit out the rest of class after attendance was taken. I took myself out of the category of humans who could do things with their bodies. “I’m not an athlete,” “I’m not good at sports,” “I don’t exercise” all became part of the identity I would, for years to come, describe to others.

Thankfully though, life became more humane after high school graduation. I enrolled at a women’s college despite their graduation requirement of a year of P.E. credits. It was in college that my eyes opened to real physical education for the first time. The choices seemed endless, and kind: yoga, ballet, strength training, aerobics…yes, there were competitive or “hard” sports like lacrosse and squash but the menu was inclusive. I came to look forward to each semester when I could try something different. By senior year, I felt safe enough to even sign up for tennis. But my tennis instructor, also the coach for the women’s team, soon put me into the bottom group of the class so she could focus on the more talented players. “Your forearm is so thin,” she had said to me. “You’ll never be truly good at tennis.” I wasn’t trying out for the varsity team; I just wanted to try.

And so it went. I didn’t become a permanent couch potato as an adult, but I have been up and down. I joined a gym for the first time at 27, after a bad relationship break-up, and continued for a couple of years. And I tried yoga for the first time, as well as ice skating and rollerblading. With each sport the person teaching me would say the same thing: “You are really good for someone who has never done this before.” It was nice to hear, but my own messages about my athletic potential overpowered their words. I continued to dabble in yoga on and off over the years, but I abandoned the others.

It is ironic that I ended up marrying an athlete, seeing how I had always been intimidated by athletes. And then I birthed an athletic son. I also work with many successful professionals who had once been athletes. The last ten years of my life have been a gradual armchair lesson in the transformative value of sports, of believing in your body, of developing teamwork skills, perseverance, and a goal-setting mindset through sports. Most eye-opening was the fact that many “athletes” were not necessarily born but made…made over the course of many years if not decades of physical obstacles and self-doubt. It was this shred of belief that perhaps my body isn’t so different from everyone else’s that at 41 I overcame my lifelong terror of the water to learn to swim.

And last week, on Memorial Day, I ran my first mile without stopping. I never thought I could run. I was one of the last to finish in my high school running assessments, straggling in the rear with my lungs hurting. It was Max, who ran his first half-marathon at 48, who said that I could do it. Even after I had broken my ankle, even after undergoing surgery, even after believing for nearly 40 years that I didn’t have it in me to run more than 30 seconds before gasping for air. Max has been running with me, coaching me gently a few times a week. He didn’t know me when I was 10 or 15 or 20. He doesn’t know the person that has been occupying my thoughts all these years. Instead, he sees the woman I never met: beautiful, athletic, capable of anything.

Last Monday, when I could feel that I was running much longer than I ever had in my life and without any pain in my lungs, I began to cry, trying to juxtapose what my body was doing against all the pictures that were passing by of my days as a child. I did it. I finally did it.




28 thoughts on “My First Mile: Overcoming a Lifetime of Negative Beliefs About My Body

  1. Thank you for sharing your story! I loved reading it; it was honest and very well-written. Congratulations on the progress you’ve made in overcoming the negative and unhelpful beliefs about yourself that you grew up with. That really is an accomplishment!

  2. I don’t know how I would have turned out normally, but I had mumps encephalitis when I was five and had to start over learning to skip, etc. (My brother claims I was an athlete before, but who knows if that is right.) After that I was totally uncoordinated and have never been good at any sport. Last picked as well! I’m interested that it bothers you so much, though. Of course, it was embarrassing to be picked last, and I spent all of my time in the outfield during softball hoping the ball wouldn’t come anywhere near me, but it sounds like you actually are somewhat athletic, unlike me. I don’t really care that I’m not athletic except that I’d like to be in better shape. Also, sometimes I’d like to feel I could get good at a game, like tennis, with practice, but I don’t, I just get a little better. Cecilia, it almost seems sometime as if you won’t be happy about yourself unless you’re perfect. I’m glad you were able to reach a milestone. Now, in the next five minutes, I think you need to learn to be a concert violinist! (I hope you know I’m joking.)

    • Yes, I know you’re kidding 😉 I don’t need to be perfect though what is important for me is to rid myself of the negative beliefs that I had had all my life about what my body could or couldn’t do. I will never be a star athlete and I don’t strive to be, but my husband began pushing me to exercise for health reasons. I was very sedentary over the last year, which contributed to my depression. I’ve been moving much more lately and running the mile was unexpected. As for the old memories still bothering me, that’s only if I think back…well, you know me, I feel everything intensely, and the years of accumulated embarrassments and humiliations did impact me, as I imagine bullying or other incidents may impact many children.

      I think it’s fine just to get a little better! I think the important thing is to be healthy…

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  4. What a nice photo of a runner- is it you? I read this with tears in my eyes, because it is so true that no matter how others see us, we sometimes still feel like out younger selves, and all the feelings we had about ourselves back then. Those feelings can be so powerful. I often wonder how we might be able to shake them? When parenting my kids, I try to keep in mind the ability for childhood insecurities to carry over into adulthood, and I do what I can to prevent negative feelings to develop. But, unfortunately, we can’t control everything, so I just do what I can and hope for the best. The big one for me was being called ‘chubby’ and ‘big-boned’. Even though I am now, and have been for more than half my life, a perfectly average and healthy weight, I still feel bigger than other people (even though I know that I am not!). Needless to say, I have never called my children chubby (even when they were).
    I can imagine how emotional it must have been for you to accomplish your mile. I am so happy for you! I hope it gives you the confidence to keep going or to try something else.
    Here’s a quote from Margaret Atwood that I love:
    “Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.”

    • I always appreciate your thoughtful comments, Naomi. And yes, that is a picture of me 🙂 It is amazing how our childhood memories and experiences can still leave a print on us well into adulthood, isn’t it? You’re a good mom for being conscious of how it could leak into your parenting. I saw a book recently called “The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are.” Have you heard of it? Maybe I’ll read it one of these days. I was teased for being too small and you were teased for being too big…kids can be mean, but I am hoping things are changing in some parts…my son is petite but he has not wrestled with any of the issues I did when I was his age.

      And thank you for the Margaret Atwood quote – so apt!

      • I’m hoping things have changed a bit too. My daughter was taller than me by the time she turned 11, and now (at 13) she is almost 5′ 10″, but she is proud of her height and stands tall. I am assuming, because of this, that she is not being teased. I am happy to hear your son is not, either. Yay!
        I have not heard of that book, but it sounds interesting!

  5. You Go Girl – YAY!!! I think of it being blessed in what my body does for me on a daily basis. You are strong, especially mama strong (carrying that wee dude for 9 months and then carrying him some more as a baby and toddler). Think in terms of being competitive with yourself instead. Thanks so much for sharing – Happy Day 🙂

    • Thank you, Renee! And thank you for mentioning the mama part. My post was going on long enough but I was thinking also that giving birth had given me a huge boost in confidence in the power of my body. I agree that we have to appreciate the daily gifts that our bodies give us. It doesn’t have to do anything amazing – but just being alive, being free to move – it is all a blessing.

  6. I’m crying happy tears for you Cecilia. And what an exquisite post that detailed so well your struggles and your eventual triumph. I am so, so proud of you, my friend.

    • Thank you, Justine. You know you were one of the early inspirations for me. I still remember your post about your milestone and it took me some time, but I am happy to be able to finally write mine as well.

  7. While I wasn’t underweight as a kid, I was always awful at sports. I just don’t have a talent for them. And I never played team sports because I was terrified of letting other people down (in fact, I would STILL refuse to play team sports! Not that anyone is asking 🙂 I play non-competitive tennis with friends, go biking, hiking, and sometimes (very rarely these days) go for a run. All sports with very little pressure, as the only person I have to do well for is myself! I love the photo of you running at the end of the post. What a gorgeous area filled with trees and nature!

    • It’s always reassuring to meet other people who were “bad” at sports! I can definitely relate about the competition, and I was always much better at individual sports. I bet all of us can find something physical that we like and can get pretty good at. Yes, they made a new running trail/greenway near our house. At first I didn’t like it being a city gal and all but now it’s really grown on me, and I now prefer the trails to the road!

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  9. I love this, Cecilia! I too was (and still am) very small as a child. I feel like I’ve been teased more as an adult for my body than I was as a kid. When I moved into my first apartment in college, my roommate watched me put away my clothes then said nastily, “I didn’t know they made negative sized clothing.” I’m still afraid to go shopping with friends. I don’t want them to know my size and be “mad” at me. I guess they aren’t real friends if they react that way, but I’m glad your post talks about the issue of all types of bodies being judged. We small girls face just as much pressure as others.

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Emily. YES – I can totally relate, down to the fear of shopping with friends. A very good friend of mine once followed me throughout the store…it was kind of weird and scary because she was walking literally like 5 inches from my back…she said, “I didn’t know you were a size 2. Did anyone ever tell you that you won’t be able to have children?” I wish I had just said to her, “That’s a really mean thing to say.” I’m sure she didn’t even realize how her comment sounded. The meanest comments had always come from my closest female friends…not by strangers and not by men. I don’t think they meant to be mean but at the time didn’t have enough self-confidence not to be triggered by their insecurities. I’m so sorry that you are still going through that right now. If you’re comfortable, I wonder what would happen if you called them on their comments.

  10. Cecilia! I can relate so much to this post since I grew up being a shy bookworm. Of course I wasn’t very coordinated since I never seriously tried doing sports, and it was worse since I was so embarrassed if anyone saw me trying to be active. In college, I tried yoga, but the instructor would just sigh when she saw me and use the dancers in the class to demonstrate anything. There were too many students in the Latin dance class, and I couldn’t even see what the steps were…

    As an adult, I find it much easier to believe that my body *is* “normal” enough that I can train myself to do certain things if I try. It’s also easier if I just focus on skills that allow me to do things I genuinely find fun. I’m learning how to swim more decently right now, plus I’m planning to get on a bike for the first time in a decade so I can go on a cycling trip. I seem to have mild carpal tunnel or something, but I’m trying to figure out a way to go bouldering soon. Sadly, I’ve completely failed at dragging myself to yoga or pilates class here. I still find the idea of doing something like a dance class or martial arts class very scary… But I feel happier with myself just knowing that I’m trying to slowly break out of my comfort zone.

    In any case, I think it’s so hard to have confidence in your body and what it can do. I’m always in awe of athletes, to be honest. It’s great that you are having a good experience with running and that you have such a supportive partner! My best experiences have also been when there is an encouraging friend, who laughs with me (more than at me).

    • Grace, I think it’s *great* that you are pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and finding things that you enjoy! It is funny that you mention swimming and cycling because those are the 2 scariest activities for me. I did finally learn to swim but failed miserably this weekend when I was in the pool (I was so afraid I was going to drown although I think it was more panic than anything else). I hope all of that goes well for you and that your carpel tunnel will go away (hmm, maybe with yoga? ;-)). What is holding you back from yoga/pilates – is that something that you want to try?

      Maybe I should start a FB exercise group – for some virtual support and workout buddying up 😉 I joined the FB 30 day ab challenge (with about 4 million other women….) though sadly forgot to do it the last few days!

      • Cecilia, cycling is really scary when it’s in cities! I’m not afraid to get back on a bike and go cycling in the countryside, but I don’t know how to get over my fear of doing it in Tokyo or another city (Taipei is even worse)… What makes you nervous about cycling? Any ideas about what to do?? It doesn’t help that I never learned to drive. I know there are unwritten rules (??) for how Tokyo residents (mis)behave when biking around, but I don’t understand them.

        Swimming is also tough!! Ganbare!! Hahaha. Yes, it’s funny that we can relate about these two. I learned that it’s important to be calm in the water, since I’m always very tense. My problem is that I’m out of shape in general, plus I’m not good at breathing. Nothing is holding me back exactly from yoga/pilates… I tried it before and thought it might be useful, but either didn’t like my instructor or had some other issue (hard finding the right timing so I’m not starving but don’t feel vomity during a class at noon, etc.).

        Also, I totally saw the FB 30-day ab challenge and knew I couldn’t handle it. 😛 A group sounds interesting–good for moral support at least? Having actual exercise buddies is good, too. I get depressed ’cause I don’t think I’m improving that much, but I go swimming once per week with a friend (a good swimmer who just wants to exercise).

  11. Cecilia, I was also incredibly uncoordinated as a child and was almost always the last one picked in team sports. I had an awful time in school during gym and I cringe when I think back on this time. It is comforting to read that you (and probably others) have felt this way too, whether due to lack of physical stature or skills (I lacked both). I took up yoga and running about 6 years ago and have been improving on my athletic skills ever since. The difference for me was finding a sport I could enjoy with like-minded people who were kind enough to help me through a difficult yoga pose or run alongside me and encourage me to run that extra half mile. We may never run marathons, but it’s quite something to break that first mile, isn’t it? Congratulations to you, and thank you for sharing your story.

    • Thanks, Ngan, for sharing. It’s always so surprising to hear of others who have experienced the same difficulties. It looks like neither you nor I are alone in those painful gym memories! I love that you have found 2 activities that you’ve committed to (6 years is a long time!). Right now it’s yoga and running for me too 🙂 And you never know about the marathons (though I’m speaking more for you than for me, lol)! I’ve had more than one friend with similarly humble beginnings who have ended up running marathons. Good luck!

  12. Oh, Cecilia, I love this post. I am so proud of you. So much of your post resonates with me. I, too, was underweight in middle and high school. Girls often asked if was bulimic or anorexic. I didn’t recognize, until I was much older, how this was a form of bullying. Always the last choice for any team in PE, I decided to become the tennis manager (whatever that meant) to fulfill my credit.

    I started running in my early thirties. Prior to to this, I never thought I could even run a mile. Slowly, after a gradual build, I began to add miles to my weekly run. In the last five years, I’ve completed some half-marathons. I now see myself as a runner (which is odd – because for many decades I never ran at all). After every successful run, I feel a sense of accomplishment.

    Bravo, my friend, Bravo!

    • Thank you so much, Rudri! I thought of you when I wrote this post and I was curious about your running story/history. I am so surprised that you also had a difficult time in terms of physical size and PE experience (I guess whenever I know that someone is an athlete I never think that s/he could have once struggled) and yes, I agree, those mean comments from girls are a form of bullying. We don’t hear them from male classmates or friends, do we? So I am doubly happy that my girlfriends now, in adulthood, are so incredibly supportive and encouraging.

      I am so inspired by your story and success, Rudri! I’d love to hear more about it someday.

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