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Courtney Opdahl holding three kettlebells

Something remarkable happened in the fall of 2019. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on a lovely and warm Friday evening in September, I removed my sweaty long-sleeve shirt to cool off. I was wearing a tank top underneath — and yet I never wear just a tank top in public. I’m always conscious of keeping my arms hidden, the sleeves a disguise for the extra skin and stretch marks. I’d created the protocol to protect my secretive, self-loathing thoughts about my body.

That walk across the bridge opened my heart, though.

As I crossed the iconic structure, I saw so many people: families; young and old couples; musicians, artists, vendors; people on bikes and in wheelchairs. People of every shape, height, and race. And dogs — so many breeds of dogs.

No one was looking at my arms. No one was judging me, my body, or my tank top. Instead, everyone seemed to be marveling at the span of the city or the river below us. In a city as big and beautifully diverse as New York, I finally started to feel self-acceptance.

This walk in NYC was an awakening for me, because I’ve always been weight conscious. The numbers game has been an obsession — and to my detriment. I know my exact weight at any given moment. I know the measurements of my hips, arms, thighs, and chest, because I kept track over the years with a fabric tape measure.

Weight-focused rhetoric started as subtle language and messages I heard from women around me as a child, and it got my full attention when I turned 11 and started going through puberty.

But as an adult, I thought I’d begun to escape it; the work I do for Experience Life and Life Time, its parent company, has changed my thinking somewhat to lean into movement for the joy of it, eating food as nourishment, and balancing health in a frame of holistic body, mind, and spirit.

Yet, the mainstream media, the fashion industry, and long-standing messaging to be thin are difficult to avoid. Unlearning this mindset and behavior, I came to realize, would take intentional work.

It was that weekend in NYC at a body-inclusive retreat that would help me find peace.

A New Starting Point

On the morning of that lovely Friday before I crossed the bridge and walked the boroughs, I attended the LIFELOVE retreat, hosted by body-inclusivity advocate Sarah Sapora. On day one, we had already worked through some heavy emotions on self-love and body positivity. Walking was helping me process my mental state.

Sarah opened the weekend retreat with kindness, vulnerability, and encouragement to honor whatever feelings would indubitably surface throughout the event’s presentations and conversations. We practiced kundalini yoga with transformation coach and yoga instructor Kjord; we worked on journaling and identifying our story; and we spent the afternoon discussing the power of surrender with Sarah and New York–based therapist Vienna Pharaon, MS, LMFT.

Day two included meditation; a panel discussion from self-love social-media content creators; a workshop with mental-health advocate and body-liberation coach Jes Baker; a sound bath with Kjord and Sarah; one-on-one mini-sessions with therapist Adalina East, MSc; and tools for healing and for continuing the work we’d started.

It was on day two that I had a breakthrough.

Even though I spend my days deep in health-and-wellness research — and I’d started blogging with the premise to document my own body journey — the concepts of body positivity, body inclusivity, and body neutrality hadn’t been a part of my vocabulary before attending LIFELOVE. As I journaled at the retreat, I realized that my own motivations for fitness were still clouded by diet culture and the need to shrink and mani­pulate my body in service of all the wrong reasons.

In service of pleasing others, like my gym teacher who told me, when I was age 11, in front of my classmates, that my weight was too high. In service of fitting in and finding my place as a biracial woman who feared that the curves of my hips and the thickness of my thighs set me apart in my mostly white suburb.

And more recently, in service of wanting to become a mother: When I was trying to conceive my first child, I was told to focus on losing weight in order to improve fertility. When I was pregnant with my second child, because of my starting weight, I was told to gain only 15 to 20 pounds during the entire pregnancy (really).

Realizing My Strength

It was during those pregnancies and births, however, that I started to appreciate my body for its strengths, its ability to change and adapt, and its ability to heal, even if the postpartum process that came later had been slower than I expected. But those were still quiet lessons for me that didn’t have much power against our thin-centric society and media influences — that is, until I attended LIFELOVE.

Sarah told her own story and led the group through compassion exercises; Vienna asked us to imagine what would happen if we let go of fear; and Jes talked us through several gratitude practices. We pondered and shared and cried, yes, but we also danced and strutted and reclaimed our amazing abilities as humans.

I changed my social-media feed to follow Sarah (@sarahsapora) and her guests; to show myself other people who are focused on self-love and body ­positivity; and to see larger-bodied athletes who were real about the joys and challenges of working out in traditional spaces.

I reminded myself of how much I love to dance, lift heavy weights, and swing kettlebells. I readjusted my personal mantra to emphasize how I, too, deserve to “feel celebrated and welcomed and seen and understood,” as fitness coach and anti-racism activist Chrissy King told me recently (read more at “Courageous Coach: Chrissy King”).

And, above all, I listened to a lot of Lizzo.

“I’ve been doing positive music for a long-ass time,” Lizzo told writer Samantha Irby for TIME’s article naming her its 2019 Entertainer of the Year. Even after Lizzo had been performing for a decade, her songs “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell” remained at the top of the Billboard charts for several weeks, and the former song won her one of her three Grammys.

“Then the culture changed,” she continued. “There were a lot of things that weren’t popular but existed, like body positivity, which at first was a form of protest for fat bodies and Black women and has now become a trendy, commercialized thing. Now I’ve seen it reach the mainstream. Suddenly I’m mainstream!”

Love to Go Around

So, what changed to make body positivity mainstream? Is this just a trend to commercialize? Or is it that, after years of impassioned activists, influencers, and entertainers working tirelessly to convince us all that we are good enough, we are finally starting to believe it?

During her 2019 MTV Video Music Awards per­for­mance, Lizzo asked the audi­ence, “It’s so hard to love yourself in a world that doesn’t love you back — am I right?”

Yes, she’s right. It’s going to take a long time to undo all the damage that diet culture has caused our psyches over the years. But with new messaging, imagery, and thought leaders like those I met at LIFELOVE, we can finally start to see ourselves represented in all our beautiful forms.

The conversation needs to continue shifting on how we talk about our bodies. We can move away from fear and punishment and show ourselves love and kindness in our thoughts, movements, and actions.

We can value each other, and encourage one another in different spaces and conversations — because every person and body is welcome to join in. It’s time that we let go of judgment and address our own demons or traumas that hold us prisoner and turn on our coping mechanism of cruelty toward ourselves and others.

It’s time we discover body peace and liberation — even if we are intentionally changing our exterior — and find grace in our mental hurdles to actualizing self-love.

This is the year of self-love. This is the year I celebrate my body, my power, and my uniqueness.

If you see me in a tank top, feel free to give me a nod. The light is shining bright, and I’m not hiding anymore.

Courtney’s Top 3 Success Strategies

1. Diversify your social media. Seek out people of all shapes, races, and backgrounds. Fierce folks Courtney has been digging: @thebirdspapaya, @rozthediva, @iamtulin, @iamchrissyking.

2. Ditch the scale. Health is measured in so many other ways than weight. Focus on strength and fitness gains, improved mental health, or better mobility. Ask your doctor to not discuss weight and instead seek other markers, such as blood pressure.

3. Tap into therapy. Healing your relationship with your body, food, and trauma can create a positive domino effect elsewhere. Free support groups or webinars are options, too.

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