It is hard to encapsulate in words what signing up for my first triathlon signified in the overall story of my life. In many ways, it was the epitome of my new, fearless approach to living. I had called off the war on my body and was fearlessly pursuing all the activities I had always wanted to do, but never felt were within my grasp; such as running, and above all, a triathlon.
The emotional, mental, and personal growth I experienced during my training for this event was nothing short of life-changing. Here I was, harnessing my true personal power and was freely, and finally, exploring my limitless potential.
Needless to say, the lead up to this first race was incredibly emotional for so many reasons. On the way to racking my bike I couldn’t control the tears, such was the significance of this moment to the life of Leah as we knew it thus far. A true moment of surfacing, ‘arrival’ and triumph.
So why was there still an underlying sense that it wasn’t enough? What more did I possibly need for this moment to be the life changing event that it was?
You see, back then, even though I had long let go of the focus of weight loss as the sole goal and purpose of my newfound athletic pursuits - I had lost a significant amount of weight along the way. I was quietly aware of it and I wanted to hit the magic number that people class as ‘remarkable’ in the physical transformation sense, because then my achievements would be fully validated. So here I was, on the precipice of one of the greatest achievements of my life, slightly disappointed because I couldn’t quite round off that magic number. I was quantifying something that couldn’t be quantified and it was cheapening every single minute of this significant life moment.
It would be easy to look back and be scathing on my attitude at the time, but I now realise it was a result of pure and utter social conditioning, and sadly, I see it playing out - ALL. THE. TIME. Think of the last time you dared to browse the Health and Lifestyle section of a major news outlet. I guarantee you there will be at LEAST one piece in there titled something along the lines of “Woman loses 50kg and Completes Marathon.” Or “Man loses 100kg and Does Ironman.” As a society we have so tightly intertwined personal transformation with a physical transformation that we struggle to separate them and celebrate them independently of one another. Have you ever seen a headline of “Woman Gains 15kg and Completes Marathon”?
So here we are, completing Ultra Marathons, conquering summits, exploring the outer limits of our personal and natural comfort zones, redefining our limits and pressing ‘reset’ on the perceptions of what women are physically capable of achieving, and still being expected to talk about what happens to our bodies along the way. We are expected to tell stories of triumph AND transformation – but only physical. The significance of our adventures, victories and explorations are being measured by the proverbial ‘before and after’ photos. It is a conversational trap that we are falling into because the dialogue is so inherently ingrained in us – personal transformation is only deemed significant when it is accompanied by material wealth or physical transformation, the traditional Western markers of ‘success.’
I fell into this conversational trap for a while. Because I was so passionate about changing the conversation around overweight and obesity, and determined to promote the power of non-shaming approaches to public health, I felt I needed to play the game and talk about what I had achieved – physically - by pursuing something I had always wanted to do. But deep down I knew that the victory for me wasn’t the physical transformation, and that talking about it like it was the victory was cheapening everything else I had achieved along the way – all that resilience, inner strength, tenacity, the enlightenment – no one ever asked me about what I felt was the true triumph. All they wanted were the before and after shots that I didn’t actually possess because I never took them.
So one day I stopped playing the game. I talked only about what I had learned about myself, how I had developed personally, and how it felt to be exploring my potential as a strong, athletic female in the world who believed that we needed to change the conversation about fitness, health, and what it means to us. But the question kept arising: “but tell us what has happened to your BODY along the way?”
It got stronger. Faster. More stable. It is in a constant state of evolution as any living being is. Next question.
Needless to say, this has resulted in the ire of many a journalist who wanted to document the story that ‘pays’, per se. Only a week or so ago during a radio interview I was asked about the conundrum that apparently exists when people embark on these amazing athletic journeys and (gasp) they don’t get any smaller. “Why do you think this happens?” Was the question, asked in a tone which inferred like it must be the most frustrating thing in the world.
“Who knows? Our bodies are amazing, no two are the same, and we all adapt to training and physical activity in different ways. For many of us physical transformation is not the victory, its everything else we experience along the way.”
These are the conversations that we each need to have every time we talk about our most recent events, adventures or achievements. We need to change the core talking point of our amazing experiences from our bodies to the experience itself: that view from the summit, the feeling of crossing that finish line, or what we learned about ourselves when tirelessly navigating through tough terrain in order to set up camp before nightfall. Yes, there will be the proverbial blank looks, tumbleweeds and crickets that may need to be weathered from those who are still wanting the old story, so the temptation to fall back into saying what we feel we need to say will be there. But we need to remember that the significance of what we have achieved cannot be measured in centimetres, inches, dress sizes, nor kilograms. It is instead represented by our increased sense of self worth, our resilience, our fearlessness, and that twinkle in our eye that simply says “what adventure is next?”