A Better New Year’s Resolution Than Weight Loss

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Losing Weight has been one of, if not the most, common new year’s resolutions, and as most of us are familiar, one of the most notoriously difficult to achieve. It’s one of those touchy topics that has garnered a ton of attention from journalists to scientists. Magazines obsess over it – their writers scrutinize celebrity waistlines, jabber about how to “get flat abs in x days” (and throw in a couple quotes from an MD to make their articles sound more credible). There is a constant influx of miracle products that make extravagant claims (some of which garner a loyal fanbase…like Shakeology) about weight loss. There are programs like Weight Watchers and calorie counting tools that try to simplify the whole process. There are societal pressures to “look like a dancer,” “get huge,” or “have an athletic body.” And it’s all very confusing, frustrating, and in my opinion, overwhelmingly complicated.

I accumulated 15 pounds of pudge in college, and spent the first  year out of college trying to work it off with a combination of Stepmania (known to most as DDR or Dance Dance Revolution, 90’s kids rejoice), skipping meals, and obsessive salad eating. I was never obese or overweight, but I felt pressure to conform to an Asian beauty standard. Asian women are frequently portrayed as more attractive if they are petite with skinny limbs, a teeny waist, a small face, and large eyes. Growing up, I was always encouraged to be, for lack of a better term, “delicate” and “ladylike.” It was never about taking care of my body – it was about being thin and pretty. Quite frankly, thanks to my work ethic and discipline, my efforts to reduce the pudge did in fact work, and I dropped the fifteen pounds I had gained in college after about 6 months or so. But it was never easy. I was never obese by any means, but I remember obsessing over the scale and the numbers. And to be honest, doing the same boring exercises every day gets old really quickly.

I was a weakling with a flat stomach. And I’ve gained it all back – in muscle!

When we talk about weight loss, we focus a lot on how we look. And when I think about women and the standard of skinny with a flat stomach, I feel discouraged by how misguided we’ve been and still are. At the gyms I’ve been to, women in general are still spending a disproportionate amount of time cardio’ing off their calories and doing core exercises to get rid of belly fat. Strength training tends to take a back seat – women don’t generally set goals to do push-ups or pull-ups because there is this perception that trying to do them will either bulk them up or simply not make them skinnier (the first is false, and the second is true, but hear me out). Now, fitness is a very personal journey and I would never flat out tell someone “you’re doing it wrong” or “your goals are bad,” but I feel strongly that as a society, the fact that women have been told to “burn off the fat” and that gaining muscle will make them look fatter and gain too much weight is misguiding us to excessive cardio hysteria and endless ab work. Sure, it’s better than vegging on a couch, but spending hours pummeling treadmills and doing a million sit-ups gets old, and well, it’s all rather inefficient and can sometimes work against you. For example, cyclists need a lot of sugar to get through their training (think energy gels, powders, Clif bars, and other sugar-heavy cycling foods) – all that cardio happens to make us crave the stuff.

Please note that I’m not saying cardio has no benefits at all – it does and I do it regularly too!

When I started my fitness journey – this was years before I started circus training – my goal was still appearance based. It was always about how I looked in the mirror. What I actually happened as I made my way through the 90 days of P90X (which I highly recommended to fitness newbies) was that I felt better. I didn’t lose weight, but I suddenly had tons of energy and it was affecting me in a very big way. I remember when I was still in school, I would constantly need naps. I struggled to keep myself awake in early morning. Focusing was hard and I dragged myself around a lot. After I finished the 90 days, the newfound energy I was feeling was exciting and I continued doing it. I realized that fitness wasn’t really about weight loss, or looking great, or having toned limbs at all. It was about feeling great, seeing what my body is capable of, and always taking the chance to be active, whether that’s biking to work or building a snowman instead of playing a video game or watching a TV show. Weight loss and being thin was largely a dietary side effect, and I learned that the hard way.

Being able to do things is a very different goal from simply losing weight. Having the ability to touch your toes, nail that yoga pose, or run that marathon. Having the ability to balance in relevé. Feeling energetic enough to not require coffee every morning. The more we focus on what our bodies could do instead of what they look like, the more naturally the aesthetic benefits will come, because when you are strong and active, chances are, you will feel more drive to hike a mountain than bog down inside with chocolate cake. Yes, we should all eat less slop, and reducing our body fat is still a formidable pursuit, but perhaps we should do that in the name of self care, getting stronger, and feeling better rather than trying to look like a supermodel.

How I Started to Feel Beautiful, Despite Believing the Contrary

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Everyone has insecurities. And for many people, especially so with appearance.

There are certain aspects of our lives we can readily control. Following a certain set of habits will get you a fit body. With practice, we can improve our mannerisms and social skills. Education will help shape and reshape our thinking. And to a degree, these changes can also shape how we are perceived by others.

But you cannot naturally change your eye color, hair structure, bone structure, facial proportions, skin color, or stature. Just like how you can’t convince someone who is firmly rooted to his or her set of beliefs, you won’t be magically growing another 4 inches or moving your cheekbones with sheer willpower. It doesn’t help that we’re constantly bombarded with all kinds of messages that our looks, especially for women, can trump other characteristics. Beautiful people often become defined based on their appearance – their underlying characteristics, good and bad, trumped by beauty. Ugly people receive a dose of sympathy and either are ignored by society or inspected closely for redeeming qualities.

It’s an uncomfortable topic. One that affects our interactions with those close to us and not so close to us. If we are ugly or feel ugly, the words “beauty is on the inside,” “You’re beautiful,” or “everyone is beautiful” don’t mean much. If that was true, wouldn’t we all be beauty contestants? If we feel ugly, it’s easy to dissect ourselves into wondering why we got so unlucky and why we can’t look like someone else. The reality is, beauty standards exist and we can’t help but notice them in others. Models and beautiful people market things well and they not going to go away. Methods like plastic surgery, makeup, and other such methods are out there, but they come with expenses, time, and doesn’t necessarily fix the problem of feeling ugly underneath all the artificiality.

The way someone looks can aid in diagnosing someone’s thoughts and feelings, but I think what much more valuable is how you feel. “Being” pretty and “feeling pretty” can really change someone’s approach to life. And even pretty people will feel ugly at times. For me, the one thing that has helped immensely is getting serious about fitness.

When you focus on a workout, you become so much less wrapped up in how you look. Being sweaty and gritting your teeth and wrinkling your face is all part of the ordeal, but being less focused on being “beautiful” and more focused on what you are capable of will get your mind off of things like how your hair looks. You’re very unlikely to be concerned with the shape of your eyebrows when you are on mile 10 of 20, rep 3 of 5, and so on. I’m not trying to say that getting your mind off your physical appearance will solve all your physical insecurities, or that not being fit means that you’re ugly (body dysmorphia is very real among fitness enthusiasts). But I truly believe that awakening the body to its fullest capabilities can truly make you appreciate the beauty that is the miraculous human body.

So we set tiny goals, like one pull-up, then perhaps two. One mile, then perhaps two. One inch lower in your split, perhaps two. Touching your toes, then touching the floor.

From then on, I slowly weaned myself off of overdoing my beauty routine and slowly got comfortable in my own skin. I released the envy I had of beautiful models and found peace with my appearance.

Minimalist Beauty: A Story about How I Broke up with my Makeup Addiction

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When I was abut 15 or 16, my mom brought me with her to a Shiseido counter. She was buying her usual Benefiance face cleanser that came in a pretty, pearly nude squeeze bottle with a matching cap. The lady at the counter wore a thick layer of powdery foundation and super-red lipstick. As she rang up my mom’s purchase, she asked her if I needed anything.

“You need to learn how to start taking care of your skin,” she told me. My mother nodded in agreement. Apparently, I was at that age.

More accurately, I was at an age where I was eager to prove to my mother that I was able to take care of myself. In my naive adolescent mind, doing my own makeup was like showing the world that I could do adult stuff. How exciting. The saleslady, happy to have a new customer, explained to me that I had “oily” skin, so I would need a foundation that was specially formulated for oily skin, and that it was so very important for me to protect my skin with SPF and moisturize it every day (and night…for the uninformed, they do make “night cream”) to prevent wrinkles. She sold me my very first bottle of (read: expensive) foundation, and it marked the beginning of me starting to care about how I looked.

Beautiful people tend to be more successful in just about every area of life and are even perceived that way even if they are not (self-fulfilling prophecy, of course). In South Korea, plastic surgery is given as gifts to girls on their birthdays, and is even celebrated as part of the culture. Luckily, as someone who is not a natural showstopping model (read: average), I grew up surrounded by family and friends who prize authenticity and was never told that I had to change my face to be accepted by society or even wear makeup to look pretty (thanks Mom, for always telling me that I am beautiful whenever I question myself). I was lucky that my first boyfriend was also never enthusiastic about me wearing makeup. Still, like so many other teenage girls, I grew to see my face as forever flawed and that it needed a daily dose of meticulously-applied beauty products for me to be pretty.

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