Dear Virgie,

Why do I feel so avoidant of exercise, when I know it’s healthy for me? How do I find a way to exercise that feels good to me and doesn’t feel wrapped up in diet culture?

Hey girl!

When I FINALLY decided to stop dieting – after years and years of on-again, off-again starvation and obsessive exercising – it took me almost two years to be able to do any physical activity (except sex) without the obsessive, internal calorie-counting, self-hatred blaring drill sergeant lady going off inside my head.

But let’s start with something important:

  1. Stop thinking of it as “Exercise,” and start thinking of it as “Stuff I Do With My Body Because It’s Fun and Feels Good” 

As I mentioned just a second ago, the only strenuous physical activity I engaged in that didn’t set off my intensely disordered thinking around exercise was boning. Why? Because even though Cosmo has told us that sex is the best way to get “killer abs” it’s just too fun to qualify as legit exercise. That’s because the whole POINT of “exercise” is not to have fun.

Exercise is part of that whole WASP obsession with things being difficult and misery-inducing otherwise they’re “not worth having.” 

Exercise is this kind of made-up concept. It’s indistinguishable from “stuff I do with my body because it’s fun and feels good” except without the “because it’s fun and feels good” part. Exercise is something you do explicitly for the purpose of fitness or discipline, and that’s why it’s so hard to disassociate doing exercise from dieting. Dieting is like exercise’s creepy twin in some ways, but it doesn’t have to be if we begin to divorce physical movement from utility, and just see it as fun and pleasurable.

2. Recognize why you feel the desire to avoid some physical activities 

In regards to my story, the reason I avoided doing physical activity was because I was hella triggered by years and years of using “exercise” to alter my body and make it thinner. What we’re really talking about here is recuperating your relationship to your body and reclaiming the machinations of it. This is HUGE, especially for people who have essentially donated their body to diet culture for a long time.

Anyway, I live about 400 feet from Golden Gate Park and not much farther than that from the Pacific Ocean, and I couldn’t bring myself to see two of the most beautiful places in the world because of my internal dialogue. I hated that I couldn’t just go for a walk around the block without my mind automatically beginning to interrogate my every move:

“Are walking fast enough to get your heart rate up?”

“How many calories are you burning right now?”

“If you walk up this hill does that mean you can eat 8 more Cheetos than normal?”

Not to mention the slightly more practical questions like:

“If I power walk to my coffee date will my sweat drenched clothing be off-putting to my potential new boyfriend?” 

I had no tools to deal with any of this, and so I just stopped doing a lot of physical stuff. I’d walk to the train. I’d walk home. And that was about it.

As I mentioned it took me almost two years to get to the point where my outcomes-driven brain wouldn’t take over my thoughts whenever I left the house. So, my biggest piece of advice is actually:

3. Give yourself some time to have the feels and heal 

To tell you the truth, I couldn’t even ACCESS the pleasure that one normally could feel from just getting some fresh air, watching the sunset, rolling around on the grass in the park, running around on the beach or any number of things that humans have been doing since the beginning of time.

Diet culture had totally stolen that from me. And it took me a while to get it back. I wasn’t sure how long it would take, but it happened. Kind of like a break-up. You have this long term relationship with diet culture or weight loss fantasies, and then even though you’re ready to move on it still takes time for the transition to happen internally. 

For me, nowadays, the drill sergeant is largely gone, and when she pops in for a visit, I can usually tell her to please sit down and shut up.

4. When you’re ready, pick some things to do that are fun & pleasurable  

If you want to try gauging what your new relationship to physical movement could look like, then make a little list of things you’d really like to do. Do you love to swim? Have you always dreamed of having a who-can-go-higher contest on the swings in the park? Do the things on the list. Take your time and focus on the fun of it. If you find it difficult to access the fun then it’s OK to take a break, go home, and spend some time decompressing. Don’t feel like you’ve failed. Use this as an opportunity to practice compassion toward yourself.

And finally, I have to tell you:

5. The world will not end if you decide that you don’t want to focus a bunch of energy on movement 

I know it’s hard to imagine a world in which no one expects you to go for a run or spend at least half an hour on the treadmill per day. The other day I watched a man sprint down the Pacific Coast Highway in what can only be described as a magical Nordic Trac bike machine. This is America in the midst of a fitness obsession. What I’m getting at is that if it takes you a while to figure out how you’re feeling and what does and doesn’t work for you, IT IS OK. We live in a culture that believes that we are racing against some kind of invisible clock, but I’m encouraging you to take a second to breathe and recognize that you’ll do all the things that are right for you. I promise!



Dear Virgie: “I stopped dieting & my boo is disappointed with my body”

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Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, MA, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com