The Real Body Project: Heidi Gill: "Bodies are pieces of art time creates."
"Me, fit and fabulous at 140 lbs."
This is an ongoing series of interviews with courageous women who are willing to share the their raw experiences of being in their bodies. Some stories feature betrayal, some expectation, some loathing, some celebration. All the interviews have a shared thread...being human.
Heidi and I have circled around one another for years. On the rare occasion, Heidi and I have had the pleasure of sitting across from one another to chat. I always walk away with nuggets of goodness from our conversations. I always walk away wanting to know more about her and wishing we could become good friends.
It is my honor to present her interview to you. I provided Heidi with a list of questions she wove into this beautiful essay. May you find healing as you see your story, fears, challenges and triumphs in her brave face.
Thank you Heidi for your time, energy, and wisdom. Rock on with your Badass Self!
Beth and The Real Body Project
My name is Heidi Gill. I am a Baton Rouge native that now resides in Jackson, Mississippi with the love of my life. I am 42 and flirting with the early stages of menopause. My daughter is 22 and has successfully launched into her own life, which makes me a new empty nester.
I have spent 18 years of my life as a massage therapist. More recently I have been diving in and cultivating the health coaching side of my business. My work is a reflection of my personal journey. I help women restore balance to their digestive system and relationships with food. I fully believe that we can use food and our digestive system as metaphors for life and have them show us where we need more work.
Most of my experience with my body has been one of conflict. Torn by what other people expected me to look like, the struggle to fit in the box that made them comfortable and what I was biologically designed to look like and weigh. And to be clear, I never struggled with how I looked, just the number on the scale and other people’s approval of how I looked.
As a young child (before puberty) I remember hating going to family functions and having my plate scrutinized. “That’s all you are going to eat? Sweetie, that’s not enough. Go get more.” my aunts and grandmothers would say. Feeling like I was being bad or letting someone down by not eating more, I would go back for seconds and push past my body’s signals that I was full.
At 14/15 years of age, I remember being so excited that I finally weighed over 100 pounds. I weighed 102 pounds and was 5’4. I told my father what the scale said thinking he would be as impressed as I was. He responded with “If you are careful and eat right you should never weigh more than that.” Boom. Obsession began. I am sure my father (now deceased) never knew how much his words impacted my life. He probably never gave that conversation a second thought. But for me, it was a life altering moment.
I really always have loved to be active. But now, there was a tinge of fear attached to that practice. What if I missed a day? Would I gain more? Would I suddenly lose the ability to stay thin? Would I be loved? Would I become a target of my fathers pointed words?
A little back story, my mom also struggled with her weight. Only on the opposite end of the spectrum. She is a larger bodied person who struggles with emotional/binge eating. I remember my father expressing his anger at her for not taking better care of herself. I remember our family going to the beach on vacation and her not having any swimsuits. I remember my father taking her to Wal-Mart and making her try on clothes until she was in tears because she couldn’t find anything either in her size or to her taste. And then I remember the flip-side, when she would begin to lose weight, the jealousy that would spring up and the hostility that would cause between them. She too was caught between a rock and a hard place.
At this time Fiona Apple was queen of MTV, Ally McBeal was taking over prime time television, Cosmo Magazine and Vogue was in every waiting room you visited. Heroine sheik was put on a pedestal. With minimal effort I rocked that look.
"The beginning of the journey. 15 years old, 5’4 and 102 pounds of influenceable innocence."
I can tell you I never thought about how I felt physically. I never felt “fat.” There was simply the goal of making it back to 98 pounds. The thought being, if I could get to 98 pounds, I would have some wiggle room and not have to worry about weighing too much. And if I couldn’t do that, 102 must be maintained at any cost. I never restricted foods other than candy and pizza which were not in the house much any way. I also never purged. Mainly because I hated puking so much I would do anything to avoid that. I simply ate healthy foods and did a lot of aerobics. I can tell you that there was frustration that my brothers could athletically out skate and bicycle me. Looking back now, I know it was due to eating much less than them to stay so small. You need calories to be strong and have endurance.
Then enter the church…Someone started a rumor that I was anorexic. It spread like wildfire. Instead of holding altar calls for people to give their life to Christ, they held one for girls struggling with eating disorders. I can still remember peeking through my eyelids and seeing all the pastors looking at me and waiting. They waited for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally some other young women went down to the altar and I guess that was enough to satisfy them. Then began the struggle of how to stay thin and yet weigh enough as to not be accused of having an eating disorder? That is a really tough mental place to live.
I didn’t become self-conscious of my body until I got pregnant at 19. I went from 105 at conception to 174 on delivery day. Again, people scrutinized my eating from beginning to end of pregnancy. Then after her birth, the lectures began about the weight I was carrying. It felt like a never ending cycle of people pleasing and failing to people please. Despite gaining near 70 lbs, I packed my size 2 Calvin Klein jeans to wear home after delivery.
My body never “bounced back.” I did lose weight with the help of diet pills. Only to gain some of it back as soon as I stopped them. The loose skin and stretch marks were there to stay. I loathed both for many years. On a symbolic level they represented, excess, an overflowing of softness, and femininity. All of which I viewed as weakness. Ironically, it was a man that ushered in the years of body obsession and a man that would be the catalyst for healing. But that is a little later in the story.
My daughter was 4 years old when I entered massage therapy school. And I can tell you that my years around the massage table has heavily influenced my perceptions of the aging and ever transforming female body. I don’t see wrinkles, sagging body parts or excess weight. Bodies are pieces of art that time creates. I see incredible histories and stories of lives well lived. My hands are witness to trauma, healing and sacrifices made from years of showing up when times were tough. I see resilience as women well into their retirement years are riding 20+ miles on their bicycles for fun without attachment to physique goals. I see wellness warriors that prioritize care for themselves because they know they are worthy of love, care, tenderness and attention. On some level, I wish all women could be a massage therapist for a few years. My clients of the past 18 years have been my mentors. I think seeing natural bodies not influenced by Hollywood or Los Angeles would rid us of a lot of our body image and self loathing tendencies.
In 2013 after being diagnosed as having hypothyroidism and pre-diabetes, I enrolled in the Nutritional Therapy Association. Long story short, I quit fighting and starving my body. I decided to feed it so it could heal. No matter what the scale would do, that was the plan. If I had to put on weight, so be it. I couldn’t hate or beat it into submission so I decided to love it into health. Instead of focusing on a scale number, I would focus on how my energy was that day, productivity levels, clarity of thought, anxiety levels, physical ability in the gym, inflammation levels, sleep quality and so on. I focused only on non-weight related goals.
Not an easy journey to change such an ingrained focus but the payoff was life changing. After several years of a targeted nutrition, supplement plan and HIIT workouts, my metabolism kicked back in and did its thing without me really noticing. Well, until people began commenting….”Lose any more weight and you will look sick.” “Are you okay?” It never stopped.
"My most recent descent to 118 pounds.This is the only picture I have of that time and it was only two years ago. It speaks to the vulnerability I feel at that weight. I have many more pictures of me at my current heavier weight. Ironically, it’s easier to be judged for being a “fluffy” health coach than it is to be 'thin'"
With my thyroid and blood sugar levels in optimal ranges, my weight self-regulated itself down to 120 pounds, I began to become insecure and pick apart my body again. I remember glaring at my OBGYN after she commented on my perfect BMI number. I disliked how I looked. I wanted to ask her how in the hell that was healthy. I looked like a waif! Looking back, I know that was triggered by fearing accusations of an eating disorder again. Those 15 extra pounds had an unrecognized and hidden benefit. It protected me from unwanted comments on my weight. It helped me be invisible.
Without that weight, I felt naked, seen and vulnerable.
There is one part of my body I have always struggled to accept. The loose skin from being pregnant and gaining 70+ pounds in such a short period of time. Fortunately, a lover would enter my world and provide me with a life changing moment. One night we were spooning and he wrapped his arm around me and put his hand over my lower abdomen. Scooping all of my loose flesh into one hand he pulled me in close and fell asleep holding me just like that. I lay there and soaked my pillow in tears. Here was a man that thought the ability to give birth, to create life, to be soft and feminine was the most beautiful and precious thing. He held that part of me, the part I looked at with such disdain, with such tenderness and reverence that it shook me to my core. It literally rocked my views of myself and being a woman.
"Learning to love all of me. (130 pounds)"
Now, here we are in 2020 and I weigh a solid 145. I have 7 years of learning that my body is very sensitive to stress, blood sugar imbalances and hormonal changes. Stress alone impacts my blood sugar regulation. 2020 has been writhed with life changes, stress and hormonal fluctuations.
Am I obsessing over weight gain? Not really. I like my new curves. I did a diet audit a few weeks ago to see how many calories were coming in and contemplated “dieting” but decided against it because I love how I eat now. I love my lifestyle. Sex life is at its best. Inflammation is at its lowest and my mobility is better now that in my twenties.
Weighing less and taking up less space on earth is no longer a priority in life. Quality of life is. I also know this current weight is probably temporary. As soon as my body does what it needs to do, the weight will self-regulate to what it needs to be at this time in life. And if that regulation brings me back down to 120, I have the tools to navigate comments, vulnerability and fears. I can love both versions of myself without guilt or shame.
I recently saw a post from Marc David, co-founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating that read “Here is the honest and straightforward science: We simply don’t know how much anyone should weigh at any point and time…”. I am good with that. I hope that you reach this place with body acceptance as well.
Before I go, I do want to share a few of my favorite resources in the body acceptance and mindful eating world:
Moderation/body acceptance: JillFit and Neghar Fonooni on Instagram
Podcast: It’s Not About The Food by Dr. Stefani Reinold
Books: Eating in the Light of The Moon by Anita Johnston, PH.D
Wishing you all the delicious nourishment in the world,