Growing up, I always hated my thighs. That self-loathing peaked during my junior high years during the 1980s, coincidentally, when unforgiving stretch pants and stirrups were all the rage, as they are again right now. Preteen lemur that I was, I owned several pairs of stretch pants in varying colors and shades; so did all my other trend-conscious classmates. But while my prepubescent peers sauntered through the halls, hugging books at chest-level, their relatively exposed legs swathed in thin Lycra coats looking down-right twiggy, I relied heavily upon low-slung book bags and long sweaters and sweatshirts, which I insisted hit mid-thigh or lower, to cover what I perceived to be my abnormal upper inner thigh plumpness. Looking back now, it's clear that I wasted the thinnest years of my life slumping around in shirts that were two or three sizes too big.
As I got older, my distorted body image persisted. In college, I lamented not being able to wear the ever-popular short, thigh-bearing sundress, in which other classmates looked so delightful and spring-like. A sundress would have been my kiss-of-death, I imagined—cottage cheese central for anyone caught walking behind me on campus. This notion persisted in my first full-time job, which was at an ad agency brimming with beautiful blonde coworkers. I noticed how wonderful a professional woman could look in a freshly ironed pair of straight-legged trousers. But I, of course, couldn't fathom wearing such pants. My stumps would surely ruin the straight line that made them so great-looking in the first place. I made do with an assembly of black, floor-length skirts.
I always hated my body. Hated it! As ridiculous, comical and even pathetic as that seems to me now, I hated it because it didn't resemble the models' bodies draped across the pages of my favorite fashion magazines. Nor did I feel it resembled those of my peers, who seemed to attract much more attention when we went out to bars.
Never mind that mine had always been a very healthy, sturdy body: no birth defects, no missing limbs, no genetic or chronic illnesses, minimal allergies, semi-normal digestive tract. I had purely aesthetic reasons to turn my body image dysfunction around through physical activity and, in-turn, improved diet. After joining a gym, I found I could run, swim or elliptical-train at incredible distances. A bike-commute to work set a healthy precedent for the entire day, in the first place having a sounder appreciation for the body that propelled me to the office. The thighs that carried me through a grueling, two-hour ski race no longer seemed as fat as they did…but rather robust. In short, exercise helped cultivate an appreciation for my body's more functional virtues.
As I became more active, my thighs got thinner, sure. But the therapeutic benefits of exercise—even just moderate activity—go far beyond the simple quest to lose five pounds. Getting our recommended daily exercise doses improves the relationship between our minds, our actions and our physical selves, in turn improving our empathy for and appreciation of our bodies. Exercise works swiftly, too. Some research indicates that regular workouts can improve body image in as little as six weeks.
Exercise even boosts body image in extreme cases. Karen Lawson, MD, whose work with the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, uses dance therapy to treat young girls with eating and body image disorders. Lawson explains the two-fold goal of such therapies: to discover where emotional pain manifests itself and to reconnect patients with the bodies they've been inflicting such harm upon. "If you haven't done exercise, you lose the sense of when you're hungry or when you're truly tired and need sleep or when you're carrying stress in your shoulders," she said. "Exercise really increases people's awareness of what's happening inside them."
Regular exercise works for the scrawny 14-year-old boy who so wants to resemble a body builder as well as the pear-shaped, post-menopausal woman. The active person treats the body much more respectfully, fueling it with healthier, energy-rich foods while avoiding such destructive behaviors as binge drinking or frequently munching on French fries. The active person sees the body in terms of what it can do rather than what it looks like. In my case, what I realize—now that I'm older, wiser, heavier and more physically active—is that my heart, brain, lungs and even my inner-thighs are remarkable machines; they're capable of doing great things. I still exercise them every day, and that's enough to make me feel proud of them.