Before and After

Two selfies of Kaja, taken 3 years apart.

There’s a lot more than three years separating these two selfies. Between taking one photo and the other, I bought an apartment, underwent a dramatic and risky career change, and gained 20 pounds. Of those three things, the last one has had the biggest impact on my life.

That bit of extra weight marks a radical transformation in my health, my self-esteem, and my sense of how i fit into the world. It’s hard to appreciate just how much it matters.

I’ve always been skinny. Lanky. Slender, if someone was being generous. I picked up several nicknames based on my body type from the age of 10 onwards: Spaghetti Legs, Spider. None of them were flattering. When I hit high school and puberty didn’t suddenly bless me with a D-cup and childbearing hips, I resigned myself to the fact that I would never be a real girl. Friends told me I was built like a teenaged boy. Adults told me I looked like a model just as popular culture was turning against the fashion industry for promoting eating disorders and distorted, disgusting caricatures of femininity. Real women had curves, and I was all angles.

As I got older I realized that there were plenty of people who liked the way I looked, regardless of what I thought of myself. I learned to dress to show off my long legs and flat stomach, and pestered my lovers into telling me over and over how beautiful I was — that they adored my bony hips, my visible spine, my small breasts. I still felt awkward and gangly, but I could be convinced that my sense of myself was wrong. Replacing my self-regard with other people’s opinions wasn’t without consequences, but it was a fine short-term survival strategy during my first encounters with depression.

My other tool was capability. I’d been an athlete as a child: from the ages of 7 to 14, I figure skated up to 5 days a week and competed several times a year. I was pretty good at it, but hated the culture, which put far too much focus on the body that was slowly betraying me by growing so far beyond the 5-foot-tall frame that was ideal for a skater. I soon towered over my competitors, and one of my coaches christened me Spaghetti Legs because of how wobbly and coltish I was on my long, thin, new-to-me limbs. When an injury knocked me out of the competitive season for a few months I felt nothing but relief, and never went back.

I didn’t miss the sport much, but I really missed the feeling of being good at something physical. Skating was the first way I was able to connect with my body in a positive sense — via what it could do, and not just what it looked like. Soon after, I was throwing myself into snowboarding with the same passion I’d felt for the ice rink. I didn’t compete anymore, but I pushed myself harder and harder each season, spending months riding alone every weekend and reveling in the feeling of my strong legs carving through the snow on a steep run, or just barely catching me after a big jump. I felt powerful, and I started liking my body again. After that it was rock climbing, mountaineering, and, finally, fencing. I was good at all of them, ruthlessly pushing my body past pain, fear, and fatigue. My self-worth was tied inextricably to my performance, and success was worth a permanent injury or two.

When the photo on the left was taken, I’d been fencing for most of three years. I was skilled but not particularly fit (my training at the time was almost exclusively focused on technique), and I’d lost most of my wiry climbing muscle after leaving that sport a year previously. I had also just been diagnosed with Celiac disease, and was a couple of months away from my doctor catching my severe anemia and putting me on heavy iron supplements for most of a year. My digestive system didn’t work, and it was next to impossible for me to gain any weight. I was pretty good at my current sport, but old injuries were starting to catch up to me, and some of the extreme postures involved in the style of fencing I was practicing were giving me debilitating back pain. I could still play pretty and post chainmail bikini selfies to Facebook, but I was back in a body that didn’t look or behave the way I wanted it to.

Two months later, Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly organized its first few classes, and I started a new kind of fencing training. We worked on movement mechanics and fitness before anything else. Gymnastics, calisthenics, bodyweight strength training, handbalancing, and a dozen other exercises I didn’t have names for were all suddenly on the menu. I started boxing and wrestling along with swordplay. All of us were trying new things that were well outside our comfort zones, and succeeding (or failing) together. Every class became a celebration of the human body and the ridiculous things it could do — or might one day do, with enough practice.

I started to like myself again, but this time it was different. I wasn’t the best fighter at the school. I failed at 75% of the gymnastic exercises we tried to do, and barely managed many of the others. I watched 8-year-old gymnasts on YouTube do the hardest lifts I was capable of as warmups. The pleasure didn’t come from winning. Instead, it came from exploring what my body could do: what its limits of strength, flexibility, range of motion, and endurance were, in every possible dimension. It came from adapting my movements and my fighting style to accommodate my body’s natural strengths and weaknesses, and improving my skills within the parameters it set. For the first time in my life, I was paying close attention to my body as a guide for what worked, rather than shutting out unwanted pain or looking only for errors to correct. I was learning to love my own body the way I’d learned to love others: by accepting it on its own terms and seeking to nurture its natural growth, rather than shoving it into a box of my own devising.

I got stronger every day. More flexible, too, and my range of motion expanded dramatically. It turned out that paying attention to what my body needed didn’t stifle growth, but let it happen in a sustained, and sustainable manner. Knowing exactly what my limits were meant that I could push them forward incrementally, and without injury. It also meant that I came to understand my strengths deeply, and forgive my limitations. Every training session affirmed all the amazing things that I could do, and found ways to work with those I couldn’t. I stopped trying to build myself into the platonic ideal of a rapier fencer, and started trying to be the best possible version of myself instead. Instead of shying away from video of myself fighting, or using it as a means of picking apart my flaws, I delighted in the strengths I saw. Sure, I couldn’t bat aside an opponent’s blade like it was nothing, but I was fast, and agile, and I could strike like a snake. I started seeing beauty in my movements, and recognizing them as uniquely mine.

Through all of this, I was slowly gaining weight. I got my illness under control with help from a sport nutritionist, and my body was taking in nutrients properly again. I was steadily putting on muscle — gaining not just definition, but mass — and had built up a small fat reserve for the first time I could remember. 20 pounds over 3 years is so little, by the numbers. In experience, it’s everything. The noticeable curve of muscle in my shoulders, upper arms, and chest is a testament to years of steady progress in gymnastics and strength training. It’s a visible marker of everything that my body can do. I have earned every inch of it through sweat and struggle, and there’s something incredibly empowering about taking up a little more space in the world. When I look at the photo on the right, I don’t see a skinny girl anymore. I see a powerful, competent woman whose strength is written upon her body. I see a bit of softness, and curves that have been carved from muscle. I see substance, and a solidity that I always felt I’d lacked.

I’m not sure anymore what anyone else sees — when I first posted these images side-by-side, I was nervous that others wouldn’t see the difference, or grasp its magnitude. I’m still thin, and weirdly tall, and will never have the kind of curves that I so admire in other women. And none of that matters. My body now is one that I have earned through years of effort and love. It looks the way it does because I have listened to what it wants, and celebrated what it can do, and poured my energy into making it better at what it is. I am the best version of myself that I can manage to be. What I see in the mirror is a reflection of what I feel inside, and that feels better than I could possibly imagine.