How Mountain Biking Changed My Life (Or, How I Learned To Love My Body)

A friend recently posted this video on her Facebook wall. It’s a trailer for a documentary film titled Embrace. In it, grown, mature women talk about how they feel about their bodies. Go on, watch it.

One quote stood out for me, “I have no idea what [not worrying about my weight] would feel like”, not only because I know acutely how that feels, but also because I no longer feel that way, and haven’t for a while now.

I was just telling my husband the other day that at 33 years of age, 34 in December, I can finally say that I truly, wholly love my body, and that I don’t resent it at all. It’s taken me 33 years to get here, but thank God I made it.

I was around 8 when a domestic helper would repeatedly comment on how big my butt was. At 10, a school nurse chided me in front of my class for being overweight. My class laughed. At 15, boys would remark on how thick my legs were. At 17, I was repeatedly weighed in front of my class and put on a program for overweight students. While the rest of the school had their lunch, we fatties were made to run around the track in full view of everyone else. This program was creatively titled the Trim And Fit program. I’m sure you can see what word the acronym can be rearranged to. At 21, my boss told me that a higher up said I was getting fatter and I needed to lose weight. At 23, another colleague commented to another that I was “so big” that I was “built like a man”.

And these are just the instances that I can remember. At all these times, my figure may have ranged between chubby to plump, but I have never actually been clinically obese. Not even close. I can only say this in retrospect; if you had asked me then, I would have told you I believed I could sink a ship.

I’m no medical professional so I can’t say if I ever had an eating disorder, but I definitely had a very unhealthy relationship with food and laxatives for a long time. In fact, one of the main reasons why I picked up smoking—and continued to smoke for more than ten years, hitting up as much as 1.5 packs of Marlboro reds a day—was because I believed cigarettes were effective meal replacements. Good Lord, I actually believed cigarettes were better than food.

So, yes. I do know what it feels like to hate yourself every second of every day. To obsess over real or perceived weight gain. To weigh yourself many times a day and be ruled by those red LED digits. To feel invincible when you feel thin, and worthless when you feel fat.

When I was first introduced to off-road biking, it was just another way to burn calories in a not-mind-numbing way. When people told me that I looked like I’d lost weight, it just motivated me to wear down those fireroads more. When my body became efficient at riding the same fireroads, I switched to long-distance running because to me, it seemed like most long-distance runners were thin.

A number of years ago, I learned to ride technical single-track and grew to love technical challenges. I even quit smoking because I wanted to be as fit as I could be so that I could ride longer and harder without feeling like I might die. Initially, I rode up only so that I could ride down. Last year, I started to work hard on the ascents just for the satisfaction of conquering technical climbs, with the descent being the other fun half.

I started going to the gym to build muscles, because strong musculature is the best body armor in case of falls. I learnt how to stretch and relax tense muscles and joints because flexibility is your best defense against acute and cumulative injuries. I started to eat well and sleep more because when I didn’t, I couldn’t be my optimal self on the trails or in the gym.

In short, mountain biking helped me appreciate my body for what it was designed to do, rather than for how bikinis and skinny jeans are designed to look.

In response to the exercise, rest and nutrition, my body now takes me on epic rides, thousands of feet up mountains I never thought I could climb, let alone on a bicycle. It remembers the things I’ve trained it to do, and together with my bike, we surf berms and turns, stay strong yet fluid on chunky descents, and hold our breath as we enjoy the second of silence when we’re airborne.

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Sometimes, things don’t go well. Flesh is ripped open, and my blood surges forward to drive out poisons and heal the wound. Sometimes, my muscles, tendons and ligaments bruise, tear or swell and my body, knowing all too well what I’m like, makes me sleepy to force me to rest and recover. And even though I’m impatient and use those parts before they’re ready, my body, like the survivor it is, keeps trying to heal.

Nowadays, I look at my sturdy waist and appreciate how the muscles underneath keep me stable, protect my back and help me to execute moves on the bike and in the gym. I look at my thick legs and marvel at their strength and endurance; at how these days, my mind gives up long before my legs even start to whine. I look at my butt and see the result of many, many pedal strokes up so many mountains in amazing places. My forearms aren’t slender and dainty at all, but without their chunk, I couldn’t reign in the beast that is gravity.

I genuinely love my body and just want to give it as much goodness as it’s given me.

I hope that every woman who has ever felt depressed over their appearance finds that one thing that shows them how incredible their body really is and helps them appreciate it. It doesn’t have to be mountain biking; it doesn’t even have to be a sport. It could be motherhood, yoga or building houses for refugees.

If this got you thinking even a bit, I’d be happy, and wish you all the best. Also, on your journey, if you find a way to not hate the zits on your chin or forehead, please let me know. I’m not quite there yet.

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