On Pain, Weight Gain, and Body Respect

posted by 
Naomi Finkelstein
April 11, 2018

September, 2001

I am 18 and I start to experience pain in my outer shins during and after intense exercise. The doctor says it's shin splints. It is the beginning of an ongoing issue that imposes limits on my exercise options.

August, 2008

I discover a style of yoga that doesn’t cause me pain and shortly thereafter become a certified yoga instructor and begin teaching weekly. My body is the strongest it’s ever been. I am flexible and powerful. I do headstands and handstands and run through fields doing cartwheels. I feel amazing. My leg pain is still present here and there.

September, 2012

I become a public school teacher and in addition to the immense stress of being a first year teacher, I spend a lot of time crouching next to my students’ desks. The leg pain starts creeping back in, and by the end of the school year, I am in pain most of the time that I spend on my feet. Doctors blame my weight.

July, 2013

I participate in a work study program at a yoga ashram in the Bahamas where I spend each day meditating, practicing yoga, walking on the beach, and supporting the daily operations of the facility. After a month, my leg pain is gone. I feel magically healed. The cartwheels resume.

Jessica Diaz, Connie Sobczak, and me

October, 2014

I move to California and discover The Body Positive. I learn about Health At Every Size and Intuitive Eating. I begin the journey of healing my relationship with food and my body and begin volunteering weekly with The Body Positive. My world begins to shift.

September, 2015

I begin a job as an after school program coordinator which involves a lot of fast walking from classroom to classroom on a large campus, as well as that old familiar foe: high stress. By November, the leg pain has become so unbearable that it makes me cry.

December, 2015: I begin the process of addressing my pain.

Over the course of the next three+ years, this becomes my part time job. I see two podiatrists and get two different sets of orthotics. I see an osteopath and a homeopath, I read books on healing pain, I do months of physical therapy and acupuncture. My whole body transforms. Exercise is painful and difficult and I gain weight. I lose flexibility. I develop lower back pain. I begin to experience numbness in my thigh when lying down or standing still. This causes cooking, something that I love to do, to become a challenge. I see a therapist to deal with the emotional pain that comes with all of this. I fear that I will never heal and that I will be in pain for the rest of my life, unable to ever enjoy my favorite activities—hiking and yoga—again. I simultaneously try to come to terms with this and continue to search for solutions.

My family worries about me, and they start to forget that the pain came before the weight. They want me to be happy and healthy. They want me to try and lose weight. They think I will be in less pain. The world is a less friendly place for my larger body. Despite years of Body Positive practice, I feel pulled. I imagine halting my efforts at intuitive eating and going on a diet again.

My Body Positive community and fat positive friends are life savers. They see me and they honor my process and my body. They listen when things are difficult without judgment or needing to offer solutions. They help me remember that weight loss, if it even were to solve anything, would only offer a temporary solution. They remind me that I’ve been there before. They reflect my beauty back to me.


A month ago, I had a pretty bad week. I got into a car accident (no one was hurt, but my car was totaled) and two days later I got food poisoning. The day after that, I ended up in the Emergency Room with debilitating stomach pain. I survived on the BRAT diet for a few days (recommended for an icky tummy): bananas, rice, apple sauce, and toast, then slowly started reincorporating my regular staples, though I thought it best to lay off coffee for a while.

An important fact: I love coffee. It makes me feel cozy and happy. I drink it every day, and it always seems to add a moment of magic. A week after my trip to the ER, I was out walking my dog and I noticed that I felt like I was floating. I had no leg or back pain. Walking actually felt, dare I say it, good.

Somehow, it suddenly becomes crystal clear to me that coffee has been the culprit of my issues. My mind flashes to previous moments of relief from my pain - I took a homeopathic remedy that seemed to help, but I stopped drinking coffee when I took it because I read that it was an antidote. I realize that once I started drinking coffee again, my symptoms returned. I also didn’t drink coffee for the entire month that I was at the yoga ashram, where it’s believed to interfere with a quiet mind for meditation.

A month ago, walking a quarter of a mile was a struggle and this past Sunday, I walked four miles. Although I was pretty exhausted by the time I got home, my legs did not hurt.

Today, I am extremely grateful, and not only for the fact that my pain is so greatly diminished (I know that I will always need to be gentle with my legs, but the improvement is dramatic). What I’m most grateful for is the fact that I was able to get through the past three+ years without turning against my body. I’m painfully aware of the fact that if I had decided to pursue weight loss to address my pain, the odds are that I would have attributed my decreased pain to that, missing the mark yet again on the true cause of my problem. At the same time, I would have been putting my body through yet another cycle of weight loss and, odds are, weight gain, slowing down my body’s metabolism, compromising the progress I’d been making with healing my relationship with food, and putting even more stress on my body by under-nourishing it.

Coffee no longer holds a place in my day, and I’ll be honest - I’m heartbroken about it. But of course, it’s absolutely worth it. And this whole experience makes me think of all of the suggestions that are out there about what’s good for us and what isn’t, and how we decide which of them we want to experiment with. And how, of all of the doctors I’ve seen over the past three years, not a single one of them ever considered my coffee consumption—but you can certainly bet most of them looked me up and down and asked me about my exercise habits. We are truly the experts of our own bodies, and we must remember that and remain curious in order to take excellent care of ourselves.

Who knows if, or for how long this bout of pain relief will last—I’m hopeful that it will be permanent. But if it isn’t, I’ll enjoy my abilities while I have them, and I’ll take comfort in knowing that I have a head start on learning how to adjust to a less able body—something that most of us will have to do at some point.

I’m also grateful for the perspective I’ve gained in terms of fatness, exercise, ability, and pain. My struggle has led to an increased compassion and understanding for the struggles of others and has made me aware of my privilege. And it is the revelation of how complex these realities can be that truly makes me feel that this plight has been worth the pain. So here’s to trusting the process. May you take my story as reassurance that it is so very worth it.

If you are interested in learning more about the Competencies that have gotten me to this point, I invite you to check out our new online platform, The Body Positive Institute, launching April 22nd, 2018. Register by April 21st with code: PRESEALETBP2018 to get 20% off all courses.

Naomi Finkelstein
Naomi is a Chicago-raised, Berkeley-based Jill-of-all-trades. She has over a decade of experience working in education and has worked professionally as an actor, writer, yoga instructor, and artist. She has been working with The Body Positive since 2014 and is also a wellness coach, with a passion for working with people in large bodies who want to pursue wellness on their own terms, without the pressure of weight loss. You can learn more about her at www.naomifinkelstein.com.
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