It’s Southern Belle’s turn to contribute to #BodyConfidenceWeek, with a very personal tale of coming to terms with all her body is and isn’t capable of.
Miss Twenty-Nine xxx
When most people write about body confidence issues it is typically weight-related.
They talk about external pressures in the media, friends competing to be skinniest and trying to look their best for a potential partner.
I have a different experience.
I am the oldest child in a family of four. When I was two, my Mum noticed I walked slightly strangely, with a limp and a misplaced foot. She took me to the Doctor who ran some tests and confirmed that I had a smaller and weaker right side, which may have been the result of a very minor stroke before I was even born.
My reaction times on the right side of my body were noticeably slower and my parents were concerned about how that would affect my physical development long term. My Mum was heavily pregnant with my twin brothers so my Dad became responsible for the physical therapy that they prescribed for me every night and morning. It consisted of him somewhat painfully manipulating my leg and foot to stretch out the Achilles tendon and enable me to walk properly.
I remember my physio sessions with my Dad and as I got older, I absolutely hated them. Who knows how I would have done without them but no child wants to go to bed in pain. This early focus on my physical development meant that my Mum watched me like a hawk. At school I fell over a lot in PE. Maybe I was just naturally clumsy, but my Mum would tell me it was because of my little foot. She wasn’t trying to give me an excuse, but it definitely instilled the belief in me that I wasn’t capable of doing the things the other children could. I shouldn’t try to run fast or jump in gymnastics, because I’d probably hurt myself.
My brothers were natural athletes, good at everything they turned their hands to. My sister was always faster than me, even though she was four years younger. My parents and I were convinced that sports weren’t really my thing and so I turned to music. Playing the clarinet was excellent therapy for my slower right hand because it trained my muscle memory to move each finger fast and independently, something I had struggled with initially. I loved music and for the first time, I’d found something I excelled in, to the same degree as my brothers with sport.
The problem this created, as I’m sure you can imagine, is that I had little to no faith in what my body was capable of doing.
Unlike other children who constantly push the limits until they find them, I was scared of hurting myself and making myself more broken. Rendering myself even less capable. A perfect example of this is a completely freak accident I had at an indoor playpark. My brother and I went down the same indoor slide and the company had forgotten to pad the end. My legs slammed into it and my weak ankle shattered, while my brother got a bad sprain. 6 weeks in a cast meant I lost all the mobility my Dad had worked so hard on over the years, and to this day, my ankle will not flex past 90 degrees.
When I was 9, my parents decided to send me to France for 3 months on a foreign exchange. I was ahead at school and they really believed in learning languages, so I was sent to a French family just outside of Le Mans. It was a wonderful experience and I think it really set me up to be a completely independent adult, but I spent a large portion of that time in a hospital.
My host family’s Dad was an orthopedic surgeon who noticed my weak right side, so he decided to study me and take x-rays, do physio with me and ultimately tell my Mum & Dad that I needed surgery to be a “normal” child. Mum & Dad politely refused his offer (the potential side effects were worse than the positive outcome) but took me to several specialists when we returned to the UK to make sure there was nothing else to be done.
To be clear: from seven years old I walked (for all intents and purposes) completely normally to the naked eye. My body had compensated for the small deficiency in my leg by tilting my hips and the fact that my right foot was smaller just made shoe shopping twice as expensive for my poor Mum.
The NHS decided there was one more thing they could try. To correct the external rotation of my ankle (walking on the outside of my foot and weakening the tendons) they made me a custom splint. Yes. A splint. It was bright red and plastic, molded to the shape of my leg in the correct position with black Velcro straps to hold it in place. It was agony to wear. I was bullied mercilessly for it. It made me feel so broken and incapable, I just stopped trying to be physical at all. I got chubby.
Chubby girls with frizzy hair and red splints on their legs do not make for the most confident of kids, let me tell you.
When I went to secondary school (age 11, for our American readers!) I flat out refused to wear it anymore.
I didn’t want to let this thing, that only I needed to know about, define me and make me even more of a target than I was as the frizzy haired awkward music geek. Luckily the school that I went to had a very strong music program and I found my niche in a whole community of music geeks. We still had P.E programs which I didn’t excel in, but honestly there were other people in the school that were weaker athletes, and they didn’t have any of the things going on I did!
At 13, something changed. Our school was on the river and at 13, we were given an introduction to rowing.
My problems with netball, hockey and P.E. were that my right leg and ankle were weak and liable to sprains at any time. My right arm didn’t straighten all the way, but it could definitely hold oars. Sitting down in a rowing boat, I was the same as every other person … and even better, I was good at it.
I quickly opted to drop all the other games in favour of rowing, which they encouraged at my school. Suddenly erg tests were a weekly occurrence, I was on the water 4 – 6 times a week, for an hour and a half a day and the girls who I’d previously been ignored by were suddenly the girls I’d be standing in the river with. Together we would hold a huge boat above our heads, and shout at the boys (the beautiful, strong rowing boys) to move their asses so we could get in the boathouse.
For the first time, my Dad was interested in me. (He’d never shared my passion for music, unlike my Mum). Dad had been a rower down in Southampton and he came to watch my regattas (which we normally won). He would even dab my bleeding hands with white spirit to “toughen them up”.
And so I had 4 blissful years of being good at a sport, healthy in my eating (you can eat what you want when you row for 10 hours a week!) and competitive with my peers. It was a lot of fun.
As rowers, you train rain or shine – including high water when it’s safe to do so. When it floods, the steps from the landing stage get a layer of silt from the river and instead of 4 girls on one side, 4 girls on the other as you walk up the stairs, all 8 girls brace the boat on their hip and everyone steps up together. It’s not fun and most of the time, you end up with a few bruises.
On one of these days we were carrying the boat up the steps when Lucy, the girl behind me at the back of the boat cried out and slipped on the mud, falling under the boat and hitting her head on the steps. 8 people carrying an eight means each girl is responsible for approximately 110lbs of weight. When Lucy slipped, the boat torqued down the steps and started to fall towards her head. Screaming at everyone to stop, I grabbed at the rig and twisted myself to stop it falling. As I did so, something in my back gave way.
Lucy got a severe concussion and was pretty shaken up, but just fine after a week of rest. I went home, took a bath and told my Dad that I’d hurt my back. It was a dull, twisting pain and he said I’d probably just pulled a muscle. I’ve mentioned my Dad’s MS before on the blog, but at this point, he was still mobile and experimenting with various different painkiller/anti-spasm meds.
He gave me some of his painkillers to take and said the important thing was to focus on training for the big head race we had coming up, which was a rower’s version of the London Marathon. I took painkillers, kept training and it got worse. I could barely lift my right leg in the morning to get out of bed. Finally, after rowing a 10 mile training day, I couldn’t get out of the boat. Jo, our coach asked what was wrong and I told her my back was bad, that I just needed some more painkillers. She looked in my bag, asked how many/how long I’d been taking them and took me straight to the doctors.
After a careful examination, the Doctor said I’d slipped a disk. It wouldn’t have been too serious.. had I not trained on it for 6 weeks. I was prescribed muscle relaxants, physical therapy and forbidden from getting in a boat or even on an erg for six months.
I was so angry. At my Dad for not taking me seriously when I said I was hurt (I know now that the MS and his medicines impacted his ability to give advice/make decisions etc.) but mostly at myself for being so stupid and at my body for failing me again.
I didn’t row again for my school. The girls went on to win at Henley that year and National Championships and I was very sad to not be a part of it.
In University, my exercise was walking around Aberystwyth University campus and running behind a bar for 40 hours a week. I didn’t join any sports clubs – what was the point? I couldn’t row and there was nothing else I felt I was capable of doing. I graduated Uni as a fully-fledged and passionate supporter of my friends and their sports, but with none of my own. My figure was a slender UK size 10 – a combination of poverty and working all the hours to pay for my tuition.
When I got my graduate job, I switched from a completely active, fast paced lifestyle to sitting on my butt for 10-12 hours a day.
I was dating a rugby player from Aberystwyth and we’d moved to Manchester together, happy and in love. He loved me when I was a size 10, he loved me at a size 12, he loved me at a size 14.
He understood that I didn’t like the changes in my body but he struggled with the fact that I didn’t have something to turn to (like Miss Twenty-Nine’s love of Bikram, for example) to turn to. I was presenting him with a problem. I was unhappy, the solution was exercise, but I didn’t want to do anything he suggested. Because of my leg length difference, I can’t run. It jars my hips and puts a lot of strain on my lower back. There was no swimming pool near my office or our house. We couldn’t afford bikes. Aerobic videos at home? I sprained my ankle with the moves that required control over my right side. It was a very frustrating time.
What I’m about to say will probably invite some criticism of my parents but please … Refrain.
When I went home, my Mum and Dad were shocked at the twelve stone me.
The comments were hurtful. My Dad has a younger sister, who we rarely see. We don’t see her because in my lifetime, her weight has fluctuated between 19 and 26 stone, making it exceedingly difficult for her to travel. She comfort eats, because she’s so miserable being fat, and has always done so. My Dad (this is what MS can do) called me by her name repeatedly. He asked if I was living on the second floor of my house, because he wasn’t sure if the floors could support me. Every meal time, he’d ask if I was done yet. If I was in the kitchen, he’d ask if I was looking for more food. Mum didn’t defend him at all and told him to leave me alone, but she didn’t offer me the reassurance that I was beautiful regardless, or tell me to ignore him.
She too was concerned and had other pieces of advice about calorie counting and calorie deficits. She mentioned that my boyfriend was probably too kind to say anything, but that I’d definitely need to “fix this problem” because I didn’t want to turn into Auntie Angela.
Not turning into Auntie Angela was the theme of my Christmas holiday.
I solved it by eating less. Much less. I cooked for my boyfriend and then picked at my food, knowing that I hadn’t done enough exercise to earn it. The weight started coming off gradually and the thrill in my Mum’s voice whenever I reported my progress was motivation enough to keep going.
When I went home though, Mum wanted to know why I didn’t want to eat her cooking. She ignored all of my requests for small portions, healthier food and so, I ate the food. I didn’t keep it down though.
Not a high point in my life, fair to say.
Have you ever heard of the phrase skinny fat? I was skinny fat.
Because I’d starved and abused myself to a lower weight, I had no muscle tone, so the negative body image perpetuated itself further. My boyfriend was really worried and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t see myself as beautiful, even though he told me every day. Why would I though?
My body had consistently failed me when I wanted it to do something, I’d been bullied (a regular amount) at school for being chubby, and the support I looked for from my parents wasn’t there. I have never been one to find validation in my appearance from a boyfriend, which is a pity because if I had, I would never have gotten as poorly as I did. He was nothing but loving and supportive – a nurse by career- and when we made the decision to break up before my move to Houston, it was a very sad time for me.
Houston, and indeed Texas in general, does not have the best of reputations for nutrition and wellness.
For me though, being submerged in a culture where you can be outside in beautiful weather for 350 days of the year, and in a swimsuit for at least half of that time, was actually quite therapeutic. I was focused on building a life for myself and slowly, very slowly, I let my food demons go.
I didn’t have a trigger point as such. I focused on what I had achieved rather than what I lacked. I walked my dog in the searing Houston heat and ate salads because who honestly wants to eat much else when it’s 110 degrees outside?! I found my best friend Kate and discovered Pilates, which we did together once a week. Pilates is great for using every teeny tiny muscle in your body and creating awareness of what you can do without hurting yourself. It is perfect for me and I love it. I got stronger and more confident – hence all my hysterical dating stories that you’ve been enjoying.
My body is not perfect and it will never be as strong or as capable as I want it to be, but I’ve learned to challenge it more and trust that I will know my limits, not someone else.
My body cycled 180 miles in 2 days for the MS 150 in honor of my Dad.
My body did Crossfit for a year and a half before my back issues meant I had to take a break.
My body has hiked portions of the Appalachian trail and loved it.
My body took me scuba diving for my 30th birthday and allowed my heart to heal.
And for all of that, I’m very thankful.