The Healing Power of Strong Shoulders

When I was growing up, I was really self-conscious of my shoulders. I hated how “imbalanced” my body felt with such broad shoulders and such skinny hips, and I vehemently avoided anything like cap sleeves that accentuated shoulders. I remember a time in middle school when my mother told me how elegant I looked sitting at the church organ, drawing an upside-down triangle to mimic my shape. I’m pretty sure I went home and cried, horrified that my shoulders made my body into some weird upside-down polygon when all the “pretty” girls looked like hourglasses.

Struggling with weird body image is something I talk about a lot, and it is not unique to me in the slightest. I also know that even my upside-down-polygon-ness still fits a hell of a lot better than many other women into how society tells us is the acceptable way for a female body to exist. But it still sucks to feel held hostage in a shape that feeds your insecurities, regardless of how well that shape matches up with what society expects.

When I was at my sickest, my shoulders fed my insecurities in a new way: while certain parts of my body (like my round stomach and thighs) felt “too big,” my shoulders seemed too thin, especially for being so broad. Instead of feeling like an upside-down triangle, I felt like a wire stick figure packed with too much clay in the middle parts. Still imbalanced, still unacceptable, just in a new way. And for some reason, it was always my shoulders reminding me of my inadequacy.

My relationship with my body has come a long way since I was that insecure middle schooler crying over a compliment from her mom, and in some ways even further still from the sick woman I was much more recently. I’ve talked a lot about my recovery from anorexia over the past couple of years, and especially my journey returning to fitness and completing my 200-hour yoga teacher certification. But I haven’t talked much about the symbolic hold my shoulders have had on my conception of body image.

Fitness was definitely one of the most challenging aspects of my recovery process, because while I’ve always been an active human, I harbored very real reservations about my tendencies to get obsessive and overdo it. Completing yoga teacher training helped a lot in reconnecting with my body, and demanded the type of physical rigor, married with emotional balance, that I needed. I was tasked with practicing yoga physically four times per week, staying hyper-hydrated, and practicing mindful eating (no distractions, one bite at a time, portion control, etc.), plus journaling about my experiences with hydrating, eating, and meditating.

This type of written accountability worked well for me, because it forced me to remain tuned into the experiences and needs of my body (it also forced me to confront the spaces where I thought I had made the most recovery progress, but actually hadn’t). I all but eliminated urges to restrict because that kind of intense physical routine doesn’t work well if you’re dehydrated or inadequately nourished. I noticed, a lot, if I was making meal choices that weren’t nourishing or if I wasn’t eating enough. I noticed, a lot, if I wasn’t hydrated. So, I ate enough to fuel me, and I chose better fuel. I stayed hydrated. And I did my best to stay tuned in and hold myself accountable.

But anyways, back to shoulders. For those of you who don’t know, yoga is hella strength training, all over. The “mini vinyasa” sequence that serves as a transition between flow segments is pretty upper-body focused:

Cut to four months later of doing this regularly and my shoulders are muscular as fuck (Along with most other parts of my body. See: Rigo’s excitement over my “fit girl butt”). I didn’t even really notice the visual difference at first because I’d been working to focus so much more inward on my feelings and my strength. But then I had a friend take a #meditationmonday picture for my yoga Instagram and all I could think when I looked at it was “Hot damn. Look at those shoulders.

What used to be the source of some of my biggest physical insecurities has somehow become the defacto symbol of my resistance against anorexia. I used to want to hide my shoulders and pretend they weren’t so broad because I didn’t want to feel imbalanced or masculine or ugly. Now when I see my shoulders I think about how much I’ve been through and how far I’ve come, and I want to wear anything that shows off my shoulders because they’ve become a symbol of my strength, both physical and mental.

I think if my mom complimented my “elegant” shape and made that upside-triangle motion today, I wouldn’t cry about how ugly I am. My relationship with my body will be something I’m always working on, but as far as my shoulders are concerned, I finally recognize them for what they are: a beacon of strength and a beacon of resistance against the pressures and lies that tell me I’m not good enough. And now I have enough upper body strength to knock out anyone or anything that tries to tell me my shoulders aren’t badass.

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