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Your value is not based on size, weight, or appearance, no matter what society tries to dictate. Love your body and everything it is capable of.

While I totally recommend making healthy choices to take care of your human body, your mental state, and your emotional state, please be aware that size is not necessarily an indicator of health. There are times in my life I was at my “ideal” weight, just as there are times that I thought I had the “ideal” body composition. Looking back on those times, the story my body told was very different than what was going on in my head.

Most of those times when I was “ideal” physically, I was in a horrible headspace. I was an exotic dancer for almost 17 years, a job that focused on being physically perfect. I began equating self-worth with the dollar amount I was bringing home every night. Exercise became like a drug to me. I was overtraining and obsessively counting calories and macros, and even experimented with performance steroids. Looking back, I suffered injury after injury, was under an insane amount of unhealthy stress, in unhealthy relationships, and suffering in a job that no longer served my happiness and well-being. What I put my body through might have looked amazing on the outside, but I never even bothered to take many photos. I always felt like I wasn’t good enough, and that I needed to be thinner, more muscley, more fit. I focused so much on what the outside looked like, and not at all on what was going on inside. I hated myself.

Looking back at the pictures I do have, all I can think is that it was my very sad impulse to control something in my life when many other things felt out of control and unacceptable. I built up layers of muscle as a sort of physical armor against feeling anything on the inside. It’s no surprise that ultimately this approach didn’t work, and left me broken physically and exhausted emotionally. Looking back on those pictures, I have nothing but tender empathy for that girl and her struggle.

If I could go back in time and tell my younger self one thing, it would be to focus on building a better relationship with myself. Some lessons are better learned late than not at all. Focus on finding a happier and healthier version of yourself on the inside, and those desired outer changes will follow. When you are in a good place mentally and emotionally, you take care of the physical much better. You become a steward of your own body’s health because you have self-love, and not because you view exercise as a punishment you somehow deserve.

I turned 43 last week. I’ve had a kid. I have stretch marks, sagging skin, and wrinkles, and I’ve never loved myself more. Believe me when I tell you this with my whole heart: once you start working on yourself, your whole life will transform, not just your body. I’m grateful to be where I am today, for everything my body can do and has done in the past. The key to everything was learning to love myself on the inside, along with all the quirks and imperfections that make me unique.

Change never happens overnight, and is usually never easy. You don’t have to pressure yourself to have all your ducks in a row, not right now, or even for this whole year. One of the hardest things for me was finding myself, my true self, and loving myself fiercely no matter what. I still fall off once in a while, because I’m human. And now I give myself the great gifts of grace and love even on bad days or through bad weeks.

If you have a good therapist that is a great start. Having a good personal trainer or a safe space to work out in, with knowledgeable instructors who don’t promote toxic body composition or weight loss goals, is an excellent step. I know taking those first steps is hard, maybe one of the hardest things you can ask of yourself. You don’t have to climb the whole mountain in one go. Just focus on taking that first step.