Fear is a funny creature. Fear tied to Body Image is giant and overwhelming monster.
My current battle in a lifetime war with my own mind is Fear. My Fear of the Moment seems to be using an AA gun filled with Body Image Worries to shoot down my Plane of Confidence.
My issues with my body started young. I clearly recall being 12 years old, still in jods and years away from my first pair of field boots. Back then, I was very new to English riding, having taken 7 or so years of lessons in a Western saddle before my parents let me switch disciplines. I was a Barn Rat in those days. My mom would drop me off around 0700 hrs every Saturday, and I would clean tack and do stable chores with several other kids my age in order to earn extra ride time. I loved it.
I had also never given a thought to my size, height, or shape, prior to one fateful summer day at the barn.
I was standing in front of a stall, soaking up some equine therapy by admiring a big bay Thoroughbred that was boarded there. A couple of older riders were nearby, discussing a boarder that hadn’t been to the barn in a while. The conversation went something like this:
“Hey, have you heard from so-and-so lately? I haven’t seen her around.”
“She’s doing okay – but she’s as big as a whale! Her belly is so huge that she can’t even see her feet anymore!”
“Oh, wow, I would kill myself if I ever got that big, pregnant or not!”
Couldn’t see her feet? I thought to myself. I carefully glanced over at them, and for the first time in my life I looked at their Bodies. They were all thin, and their breeches seemed to flatter their long, graceful legs. Their shirts were tucked in, and there was a smooth, seamless transition from their waists to their hips. They looked so elegant to me, those women.
Later that night, when I got home, I studied myself in the mirror before taking a shower. I tucked my shirt into my jodhpurs, and was crushed to see Lumpiness between my waist and my hips instead of the subtle, smooth curve I had been expecting. My hips seemed to bulge out, and I noticed that instead of a flat stomach like the ladies at the barn, mine sort of stuck out.
Concerned, I took my clothes off and stared at myself in the mirror. I noticed an indented line in my skin where the elastic on my bra and underwear had pressed into me. I had weird lines on my abdomen, that were turning into angry red stripes – at the time, I didn’t know what these were, but I later found out they were stretch marks due to me hitting puberty + shooting up in height and weight at a crazy fast rate – so fast that my pediatrician thought I was going to be over 6′ tall (I have been 5’5 since I was 12).
And then, the true test: I looked down at my feet.
I was devastated to discover that I could barely see my toes.
Ashamed, I got into the shower and cried while I washed off the dirt from my day at the barn. Until that day, the physical differences between me and the pretty, older hunter riders that I idolized, had been invisible to me. Now I found myself unable to ignore them.
The next time I went to the barn, I looked at every one of my peers in a totally different light. Nearly all of them were thin and petite. I, on the other hand, was 5’5″ tall, was wearing a size 10/12 and wearing a B-cup, even though I wasn’t even a teenager yet. In fact, when I was a Senior in High School, I could still fit into pants that I wore when I was between the ages of 12-13. I got my first period on my 10th birthday.
I felt so awkward. It was like my body didn’t fit anywhere. I wasn’t thin, yet I wasn’t obese. I didn’t have a flat stomach, yet I still had a defined waist. But because I didn’t look like the thin, graceful riders I admired, I categorized myself as Fat and Gross.
And I have struggled with the damaging mental side effects of identifying myself by those 2 words for the past 2 decades.
I went to a small high school, and I was the only one there that really had an hourglass figure. Sure, there were students much heavier than me, but I still didn’t “fit” into the Thin category, in my mind. I would overhear girls talking about their weight # and feel sick to my stomach at how much more I weighed than they did. Adults, especially women, would constantly tell me how beautiful my figure was, but I couldn’t really accept what they were saying. I wasn’t a perfect size 2, so how could I have a gorgeous figure? My brain just rejected that idea. It breaks my heart that Teenager Me couldn’t see how gorgeous I really was.
Since then, my weight has been a roller coaster. I lost a bunch of weight in my early 20’s and had nice muscle definition in my legs. I then gained 80+ lbs due to an emotionally stressful pregnancy that required me to be bedridden. Afterwards, I slowly progressed down into the 180’s, then the 170’s, then the 160’s, and I finally felt comfortable in my own skin. Then I rocketed back up to nearly 200 again. Slowly peeled it back down to where I felt confident in myself, but over the past 4 months I have packed on 30 pounds again and feel pretty awful about my physique.
How is this relevant to Fear? Because I have noticed that how I view my body directly impacts how confident I am, especially when it comes to riding.
When I am heavy, I consciously feel my wobbly belly, my chubby arms, and the discomfort of my breeches and half-chaps not fitting me.
When I consciously feel what I define as my shortcomings, I mentally berate myself.
When I mentally berate myself, I feel anxious, depressed, and uncomfortable.
When I feel anxious, depressed, and uncomfortable, I don’t trust myself or my skills.
When I don’t trust myself or my skills, we have a problem.
So, that’s where I’m at right now. I don’t trust my skills in the saddle. It is the most frustrating and debilitating thing I have ever experienced. It doesn’t help that until last month, I had only been on a horse 3 times in the last 4 years – a far cry from riding nearly every day for many years prior to that, so not only am I fighting a weird, new body that Feels Wrong, I am also dealing with the fact that things that used to Feel Normal (basic shit like TROTTING) now feel like Mount Everest.
But, over the past couple of days, I have been Fighting Back. I am learning to be okay with small accomplishments, like getting on without someone holding my horse for me. Or, sometimes, for just getting on – instead of arriving at the barn and being so paralyzed by fear that I can’t get out of the car. I am slowly coming to terms with the idea that it is Okay just to Walk and Trot a few steps, instead of trying to ride the entire Training Test 1.
I have also decided that it is Totally Fine to talk to my horse constantly, even if it’s gibberish, because I know that talking means my breathing will stay normal, and I will transmit less anxiety to the patient and lovely horse that is currently taking care of me as I venture back into the World of Dressage.
So, I’ll be the one out there whose right half-chap still won’t quite zip up all the way, who has some Muffin Top action going on right now, and who is telling her horse all about her day…because that’s who I am and where I’m at right now.
And I’m becoming more and more okay with that every day.