"You have heart disease and you're going to have open heart surgery next week."
These are the words that catapulted me into a new relationship with my body.
In April 2016, I was diagnosed with congenital heart disease and was told I was in the beginning stages of congestive heart failure. I was born with a one-inch hole between the left and right chambers of my heart, and if I didn’t have surgery soon, I would die. I was only 23 and had been living unaware of my impending death my entire life.
As you can imagine, this experience changed my life. But I never imagined it would also change how I feel in a swimsuit.
I felt my happiness depended on getting rid of those last five pounds.
I've always been a confident person, but that doesn't mean I've always had a healthy relationship with my body. In high school, I suffered from an eating disorder. I can recall plenty of times I cried in a dressing room, and plenty of times I felt my happiness depended on getting rid of those last five pounds.
I overcame my eating disorder as I entered college, but still found myself crash dieting or wanting to hide as my sorority sisters changed into their formal dresses next to me. I thought my insecure thoughts would start to dissipate as I became an adult. But years later I still found myself in a near panic attack when I saw swimsuits start appearing on department store shelves and as my once-steady weight started fluctuating on a monthly basis.
I have never hated my body as much as I did the first two months after my heart surgery. The scar on my chest took me by surprise every time I saw it, and I kept finding marks all over my body from tubes and shots that looked like tiny bullet holes. People were in and out of my hospital room, poking me and moving me around as if I were a medical experiment.
I gained 10 pounds of pure water weight overnight and looked like the girl from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who turned into a blueberry. I felt a total loss of freedom as I started physical therapy, had to re-learn to climb the five steps up to my front door, and as my mom bathed me every day for a month. My body didn’t feel mine anymore, and it certainly didn’t look like mine.
Two months after my surgery, however, I had a moment that could only be described as a scene in a music video for a girl-power pop anthem. I got out of the shower, looked in the mirror, and started crying. Friends and family had been telling me for months how much of a warrior I was. That moment, looking at my scarred, naked body, was the first time I felt like I looked like one. It was the day I learned to love my body for all of the things that it does, and stopped hating it for all the things that it doesn't look like.
I learned to love my body for all of the things that it does, and stopped hating it for all the things that it doesn't look like.
I started setting goals based on this newfound body love too. Rather than setting out to get the body of a fitspiration post on Pinterest, I set goals to run a 5K, 10K, and half-marathon. Because of my heart condition, I had never been able to run more than a couple minutes without passing out or needing to stop.
I started simple. I walked five days a week, and each week I added five more minutes to my walking time. After a couple months of walking, I hopped on the treadmill one morning and felt like running. I feel like running was a foreign concept for me, and I was nervous to start for fear of disappointment.
I had been waiting months to try out my newly repaired heart, and thoughts of But what if it’s still just as hard and I was wrong?! pushed to the front of mind. But I started anyway, and to my complete shock, it was easy. After 23 years, I ran my first mile without stopping—something I had never done, even during my three-month stint running cross-country in 7th grade. That moment felt better than any time someone had told me I looked skinny or pretty. I had earned something and proved, once again, what my body was capable of.
Riding this newfound wave of body positivity, I found myself hyper-aware of all the interactions I had with people that revolved around their body image. I noticed friends making me promise to delete a photo or dipping out on pool plans because of a “fat day,” and coworkers mentioning how they didn’t want to schedule their next vacation or start dating until they lost some weight.
At first, I felt annoyed. These insecurities sounded stupid. But then, I thought back to the eating disorder I had in high school and all those times I cried in a dressing room. Without realizing it, I had let my body image dictate too many experiences in my life. I feel sick thinking about the first dates I’ve cancelled, the photos I’ve deleted, and the people I’ve shied away from, all because I felt self-conscious. Those “I’ll be happy when I have the body I want” moments stole happiness and memories I’ll never be able to get back.
Today I feel more fulfilled than I ever have. Spoiler alert: It’s not because I got the body I’ve always wanted. By society’s standards, my body looks the worst it ever has. My boobs are saggy because of my incision and the weight I lost, and smack dab between my two saggy boobs lies a big, red scar. I lost all muscle tone from lying in bed for almost two months, and my hair has thinned from all the medicine I took.
It’s the body that, even when it should have been dead, kept me alive.
But when I look at my body now I don’t see those things. I see a vehicle. It’s the body that’s going to help me cross off my bucket list items, like hiking a mountain and running a half-marathon. It’s the body that allows me to enjoy my favorite things, like dancing and karaoke. It’s the body that, even when it should have been dead, kept me alive. And it’s the body that gave me my life and my self-worth back.