How CrossFit Taught Me to Love Myself

By Kendra Whittle
Sep 06 2023

How CrossFit Taught Me to Love Myself

Tears soaked my pillow as I laid in bed in the fetal position. My husband laid down next to me and wrapped his arms around my waist, assuring me that I was beautiful to him and that I would be OK. But at that moment – I felt less than OK – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I was three months postpartum with my second daughter, my beautiful Margot. And while her arrival had been celebrated with all of the sleep-deprived joy that comes with life with a newborn (and a two year old, did I mention that?), I was finding that in embracing my new role as mother of two, I felt I was losing myself. The leftover 15 lbs from pregnancy hung around my midsection, making me feel bloated and uncomfortable in my own skin. My breasts were swollen from nursing Margot. I hadn’t done my hair or make-up in weeks. My eyes wore the dark circles of new motherhood. It was a far cry from the girl who had run lost all of her baby weight in mere weeks after the birth of my firstborn without really trying and then ran a half marathon at nine months postpartum (please don’t hate me).

Feeling awkward and insecure in my body is something I’ve battled most of my life. A child of the toxic ‘90s diet culture, a close relative told me my goal should be to ‘lose my belly by end of summer’ (I couldn’t have been more than 7) and my childhood “you are beautiful the way you are” innocence was lost. From 7 to 17, I remember restricting my food, getting chastised for ordering dessert after dinner and waking up in the middle of the night to do crunches. I even remember looking in the mirror, sucking in my stomach and wondering if I could just walk around like that all the time (never mind breathing). And the worst part was – I felt like I was the only one with curves and a hated belly. Mind you, I was never classified as overweight or obese, or told by my pediatrician to keep my weight in check. But in my head, I was all of those things. There was something wrong with me. I was 35 by the time I realized these feelings had a name and a clinical diagnosis – body dysmorphia.

I was in college when exercise morphed from a chore to actually something I enjoyed doing. I was leaner, stronger, healthier – and I loved it. I loved the feeling of being in shape and feeling in control of my body.  I was the cardio queen – running, swimming and Zumba became my jam. I did triathlons, half marathons, even a mud run. I felt I had conquered that insecure little girl through exercise. It was so easy in my 20s.   

Then my 30s – and motherhood – happened. Between working full time and taking care of the kids, carving out 45 minutes to get in my workout was becoming increasingly difficult. And the weight wasn’t budging. So, that tear-filled postpartum night in August was a breaking point. I was obsessed with the idea that I was going to lose everything I had gained in the last several years – all of my fitness gains, all of my hard-fought self-confidence. I didn’t recognize this strange body that had given me two children, and I wasn’t sure how to get comfortable with myself again. And, most importantly, I looked into the beautiful eyes of my daughters and made a promise to myself: they would never hear me disparaging my body or hating myself physically. I would radiate that I felt strong and beautiful, and that they were strong and beautiful. Because I wanted so much more for them than what I had given myself.

I’d like to say it was my genius idea to try CrossFit, but I can’t take credit. It was my husband. My college sweetheart turned hubby has always been the one to challenge me and to push me to my limits – in the best way possible. He suggested CrossFit, saying, “I think this is the jet fuel you need.” He found my first box – an easy 10-minute drive from our house. We walked through the CrossFit website, and I was instantly intimidated. I didn’t know much about CrossFit, but it generated visions of wickedly strong athletes completing ridiculously hard workouts. I mean…I knew I was fit, but this seemed extreme.

I agreed to a trial class. I must have worn either a terrified or defeated expression because the coach greeted me with “Don’t come in here looking like that!” in a boisterous way. Well, alright then, I thought to myself, If I’m going to do this, I need to put on my big girl spandex and just do it. Even if it scares the crap out of me. The coach took me through a basic CrossFit workout – some rowing (I’d never sat on a rower before), push-ups, air squats, and the like. My eyes darted around the gym, wondering if anyone was staring at me and snickering at the newbie. No one was. By the end of the trial class, I wouldn’t say I was hooked, but I would say I was curious enough and desperate enough to give it a try.

I had never done anything like CrossFit before, so I started out with a six week On Ramp class. Three times a week, 6 a.m. on the nose, I learned the art of the Olympic lifts and the science of the cardio machines. I was every kind of a beginner. In fact, in some cases, I think it’s safe to say I was remedial. My air squat turnout was so weird that my coach asked if I was recovering from an injury. My push up form was compromising my shoulders, so I did push ups against a 24-inch box. For overhead squats (which TERRIFED me), I was working with a 15-lb training bar (and *maybe* some 2-lb plates). Every WOD I would pray silently, “Please, please don’t let me finish last” or “Please, please don’t let anyone look over at me and see how bad I’m doing.”

Until…after a while, I didn’t. Somewhere along the way, I just stopped caring. I stopped watching other athletes to see if they were watching me, and instead, took the opportunity to learn from them. I watched their form and the amount of weight they were lifting. I watched how they handled their fatigue, and I watched them struggle through hard WODs – same as I was. I started paying more attention to the weight I was lifting. Suddenly I had graduated from the training bar to the 35-lb Bella bar. Then I swapped out the training plates for 10-lbs. I celebrated getting better at things I was already good at (like running and sit ups), discovered I was *actually good* at some parts of CrossFit (like wall walks and handstand push-ups), and amazed myself again and again by progressively lifting heavier. A 55-lb back squat jumped to an 75-lb back squat in a number of weeks. I established a 155 baseline PR for a deadlift.

I made a new rule for myself that first year. If I looked at Wodify and saw that there was a workout that scared me, I had to do it. No excuses. Even if I was time capped or had modifications for every movement, I committed to showing up and doing it. Just to prove to myself that I could. And you know what? I did it, in my way, every single time. It taught me a lot about myself. It taught me that I was resilient. It taught me I could do scary things. The confidence carried me into trying other scary things in my life – a third promotion. A move. A third baby.

Then COVID happened. My gym shut down, but I discovered a new community online – The Barbell Beauties. Throughout the pandemic, I embraced the camaraderie that can only come from a bunch of gals in sports bras. We swapped at-home workouts. I asked questions about nutrition, lifting form, even mental health. I even posted flex photos and – gasp – photos of my exposed midriff. And the best part was – we all cheered each other on!

When the world started opening up again, I was quick to tell my husband, “I need to go back to CrossFit.” That’s when I found my new community’s gym, CrossFit Levo. Even though it had been over a year since I had stepped into a CrossFit box, it instantly felt like home. And this time, I was going to do things differently. Pre-COVID, I didn’t really talk much – I was so intimidated! I used to say, “I’m not going to CrossFit to make friends, I’m going to CrossFit to get my butt kicked and to meet my goals.” Post-COVID, I started working from home. While I loved the flexibility, I didn’t always love that I only saw people through Zoom. So I decided to put myself out there, and I’m glad I did. I joined the 6 a.m. class and started going regularly to the same class. And it didn’t take long to surround myself with a group of fellow dark o’thirty crazies – learning about their work and their kids and their CrossFit goals and achievements. And much like the Barbell Beauties, we all lifted each other and encouraged each other through our workouts. They became friends. And my coach? My hero.

One thing I’ve learned about life is that it’s all about seasons. My postpartum time where I was so frustrated and low? A season. COVID? A season. But CrossFit has been with me through these seasons. Even in the last year, my CrossFit gym and CrossFit community walked with me through job changes, a broken foot and three rounds of IVF. Life will bring me many more seasons, but thanks to the confidence I’ve learned in my CrossFit gym, I know I’m ready for it. 

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