Discovering Who am I When I am Well

three black women, one doing yoga, one doing a face mask, and one sitting in a pool floaty
Image via Canva

When my therapist asked me “well what is a healthy lifestyle to you” I had a very nebulous answer. Now I am a Type A, high achiever, goal-oriented type of college student, so I know all the makings of a good goal, and specificity is key. My therapist challenged me to take the rest of the week and really dig into defining a healthy lifestyle, since a lack of specificity may have been the very thing impeding me in finally achieving this goal.

The first thing I did was try to unpack what I’d offered as an answer in therapy. One of the phrases I threw out during my session was to adopt a “healthier diet.” I asked myself what specifically did I think made up this healthy diet? The obvious fruits and veggies came to mind but not much else honestly. Did I leave room for protein or carbs? Not really. Even though factually our bodies need all types of fuel to run including carbs and sugar, I had narrowed “healthy” to just the “bare bones” of food, as though less inherently meant better for you overall. The next phrase I broke down was an “active lifestyle.” In my session, I’d said “you know getting active 4–5 times a week for a half-hour or so.” When I pressed myself though I realized that I specifically imagined getting active as grueling cardio and strength training as the only activity that “mattered.” I didn’t leave room for fun dance parties and pleasant evening strolls as forms of movement that “mattered”. After all this thought though, my health lifestyle goal still wasn’t clicking for me, so I tried to conjure an image in my mind’s eye of who was “healthy” Aaliyah.

She was thinner first and foremost, flatter stomach, more muscular legs, and toned arms. She had a yoga mat, and Lululemon leggings and a hydro flask and Nike sneakers, and pretty ponytail tied up with a cute matching scrunchie. She drank her coffee black with no sugar. Only ate fresh, organic salads, soups, and greek yogurt, and always had fruit for dessert — if she even had dessert at all (she didn’t have much of a sweet tooth). She meditated, did yoga, had a HIIT workout and strength training exercise plan down pat, and ran 2–3 miles a day at the crack of dawn. She was rigid and flat like a bad painting, utterly unrealistic and unattainable. The “healthiest” version of Aaliyah was a person so toxic I was ashamed that I could even conjure her up in my mind’s eye. It’s not that anyone who does any or all of those things is toxic or that any of these things are toxic themselves.

Don’t believe me? Let’s unpack some of the implicit meaning behind my “healthy” Aaliyah. Before I thought of anything else I made her skinnier. Thinness being synonymous with beauty and health is an inherently white supremacist construct. The thinness I had imagined was one my body would never achieve post-puberty again. My hips, thighs, and butt are built with a curve and weight that I can not work off. My stomach is squishy because stomachs are meant to be squishy! There’s important stuff in there that needs padding. In truth, the “healthy” Aaliyah in my head was built more like the idealized thin white girl than the real-life average size of a Black girl. The yoga mat, the Hydro Flask, the Nike sneakers, the Lululemon, the perfect matching scrunchie, and the types of brands I chose? A representation of a capitalist aesthetic of wellness and brands socially implied to be very white and middle class. Being “healthy” meant externally signaling that health and those externals signals had a price tag. Looking healthy wasn’t a smile; it wasn’t laugher; it was stuff.

Are yoga mats, Nike sneakers, Hydro flasks, Lululemon, and scrunchies antithetical to health? No, but they’re not essential to it either; brands shouldn’t appear in my mind’s eye portrayal of health. Now that food part? That was a doozy. My imagined aversion to sugar and carbs? The product of a billion-dollar diet industry/culture that tells us our bodies’ natural cravings must be sedated, and we will not achieve real health until not only are we thin, but our body doesn’t even crave a cube of sugar or a carb. Honestly quite laughable considering that’s what our fuel is made from. The specificity of fresh and organic food only? Well, that’s a signal phrase for a particular socioeconomic status. See, I know having grown up Black and low income that the fresh and organic food and stores are in the whiter, more affluent neighborhoods, and they’re gonna cost you a pretty penny. I’m home for the summer and helping my mom stock our kitchen with fresh, accessible, and affordable food for the family was a hassle just this weekend. If you can make your diet largely fresh and organic that’s a racial and/or economic privilege. Is fresh, organic food bad? Of course not, but I recognized what my fixation on it was connected to. Unfortunately, access to fresh and organic food is a part of socioeconomic privilege, and I wanted that socioeconomic status or at least the appearance of it. What about the emphasis on grueling exercise as the only form of rewarding physical activity? Another product of a diet culture that tells us we must earn our food, that consistent calorie deficit is the ultimate prize, and that movement needs to be high impact and grueling to be truly rewarding. Now if HIIT workouts, strength training, and or running is your thing? By all means, have at it, but “healthy” Aaliyah did all this to earn her food, keep her body burning as many calories as possible, and stay as thin as possible. “Healthy” Aaliyah was actually “assimilated” Aaliyah, a version of myself as close to whiteness and capital as she could get.

A Black woman swallowing white supremacist, capitalistic ideals is suicide. Internalizing ideas positioned as the antithesis to your existence will produce a self-hate so deeply rooted and painful it is unlike any other. You can erode yourself from the inside out. I only consciously have felt that a few times in my life. This was one of those times. You may not notice it until the very moment it comes spewing out of you, incompatible with your core, and, boy, does it hurt on the way out, like acidic vomit it burns in your chest, scratches your throat, and pricks your eyes with tears, choking you.

That is what it felt like to look at assimilated Aaliyah and realize I had idolized a version of me that hated who I was, where I came from, and my politics and values.

No wonder I struggled with disordered eating. No question that I felt out of control of my body with a need to exercise. No brainer that I often described my relationship with food, body image, and health as up and down as a yo-yo. The gulf between my very real values and identity and assimilated Aaliyah had only grown in recent years. I was pulling myself in two different directions. The goal I was trying to reach was a goal poisonous to who I was. In a metaphorical sort of way, I was unknowingly trying to kill myself, kill who I really am anyway. And of course, my goal was so nebulous. It wasn’t a goal rooted in me. It was an external and harmful goal I had internalized without interrogating its value.

So if that’s wasn’t Aaliyah when she’s healthy…who was?

At this point, I turned further inward. I elected to design a new truly well Aaliyah — since wellness implies a more holistic approach — from the inside out. I sat down and I wrote out a list of qualities that would make her. This Aaliyah was content first and foremost, an easy smile on her face. Life wasn’t perfect and neither was she and she was a-ok with that. This Aaliyah was balanced she ate all the fruits and veggies she liked; the sugar and carbs she liked, and she felt okay about both. Neither gave her anxiety. She didn’t need any hard and fast rules to stick to feel okay with eating them because this Aaliyah trusted herself and her choices. This Aaliyah respected her body. She fed it well. She didn’t overwork it. She was active in a way that brought her joy. She honored it just how it was, even if it never dropped another pound. This Aaliyah might not have been fully realized yet but she was flexible and dynamic. This time she was wholly realistic and attainable to me.

Like Frankenstein, I set off to the lab to determine how to give life to the “well” Aaliyah. I researched “anti-racist wellness”, “sustainable wellness”, “diet culture”, “health at every size”, and “intuitive eating.” I found the data that supported wellness in an image that was adaptable to my identity and values. I made a list of tried and true ideas and practices that I might incorporate into my toolkit to build this new Aaliyah. I reached out to Black and Brown female dietitians to ask questions about how to approach wellness and health in a way that was data-driven and culturally conscious. I purged my social media from harmful images and replaced them with goodness and wholeness that reflected “well” Aaliyah. At my next therapy session, I walked my therapist through the journey she’d sent me on, and I asked her to help me begin to work through how I structured my life and mindset to undo what was hurting me and build something better in its place. “Well” Aaliyah is currently a work in process but the work of building her has been more rewarding and self-satisfying than years of chasing “healthy” Aaliyah have ever been.

Wellness is unique to the individual, and it is a way of life, not an end goal. I will likely spend the rest of my life in pursuit of my wellness. The pursuit may look different at times. I’ll have different challenges in my pursuit as my life changes. However if at the end of the day I can look in the mirror and say “you honored your body, your feelings, and your thoughts today as best you could” I can honestly say I’m living well.

Undergraduate student | just writing into the void | topics of interest: race, gender, music, and culture | Instagram: liyahh.allen