Sarah Gill (35) is a body-positive activist, yoga instructor, and empowerment photographer who lives in Iowa. She takes us through her experiences with self-image and body positivity.
“I’ve had acne since middle school. I remember how one day I had to get called out of school because I was so ashamed of my skin. I just had this all-encompassing feeling that I was ugly and that nobody needed to see me. Years later around 2017, I was going through a lot of mental health things so my face started to break out a lot more, and I was diagnosed with dermatillomania, a skin picking disorder. When my skin started breaking out, I was worried because I was like - “oh my gosh, people are going to think that I don’t shower or that I don’t wash my face.” But, I literally bathe all the time, and I have a very thorough skincare routine. Back then, I used to be a wedding photographer, and I used to have days where I felt like I shouldn’t even go, but I had to go”.
“When my mental health took a dive, my body and skin started to change. I went through a really tough time. I would sob and apologize to my husband and say - “I’m sorry that I look like this. You did not sign up for this. This is not the person that you married.” But, he was really supportive and caring. He was always like - “I don’t care about that. I love you.” Even though I had internalized fatphobia, and I didn’t think that I was worthy of love in my body, he stuck around, and he showed me that it wasn’t about my body. He showed me that it’s possible to find someone who will love me regardless of what my body looks like. It was a rough time, and I had to check myself into a hospital for a few days. However, just 2 weeks later I started going to yoga teacher training. I went to therapy, and I started taking medication to help with my anxiety and depression. During that time, I really started to dive deep into past thoughts, and I really started to find my voice.”
Sarah explains how this period in her life led her to address different experiences that occurred in her past. “My negative experiences are part of the reason why I have such a fire in me to help others with body positivity. I host retreats, and I love to host body image workshops. I’m a body image bootcamp facilitator. During these sessions, we dive deep into our self-image journey, we journal, and we have a lot of discussions. I love this because when you’re trying to find body acceptance, it’s important to have a community so old belief systems don’t creep back in. Because I was chubby, and body neutrality wasn’t a thing growing up, I decided to create a workshop that helps women undo internalized thoughts that stem from fatphobia or one-sided narratives of beauty.”
She continues to describe how everyday experiences can reaffirm these internalized and toxic thoughts. “When I was growing up, I remember how it was all about restricting, punishing yourself, and being skinny. On top of that, you get discriminated against a lot in the medical field so that only solidifies those things. Sarah recalls, “In high school, a doctor put me on a diet pill. My weight was always a huge focus at doctors’ offices. Once, I tried to tell a doctor that maybe I have PCOS or endometriosis, but he didn’t listen to me. With my PCOS and endometriosis, it took me over ten years to get diagnosed with those. A doctor even told me - if you lose weight, the cramps probably won’t hurt so much. As a person with a big body, even if everything comes back fine, sometimes doctors are still just like - you’re just in pain because of your weight."
Sarah conveys how fatphobic beliefs and perception are even widely expressed in pop culture. “I used to hate the word fat because television, movies, advertisements, and even doctors constantly told me that looking big is wrong. In TV, fat folks are the butt of the joke or the sidekick. Meanwhile, the skinny person is finding the love of their life. This is really bad because a lot of times self-image comes down to what we are taught. And in the case of people with big bodies, they’re made out to be stupid, lazy, and dirty.”
“It’s heartbreaking because we grow up with the understanding that we aren’t worthy of love. And when I got acne, I felt like people were going to start judging me even more harshly. But when I heard someone say that fat is not feeling; it’s just a descriptor, I started to change my thoughts around fat as a bad word. It’s a descriptor like blonde, brunette, short, and tall. But it took me a long time to take back my power over that word. I had to do a lot of healing, and I went to therapy. I had to learn how to take on the word fat without taking on the word’s negative socialization. Ultimately, I had to learn that no matter what, I’m still Sarah. I’m still a sister and a friend. I’m kind and caring. All in all, I don’t think fat is inherently a bad word. I think the more we normalize it - the less power it will have.”
“Normalizing fat bodies is one of the reasons I became a yoga teacher. I wanted to empower and build a safe space for big bodies. I wanted them to feel included, not like an outsider because being big had always made me feel like I needed to stay silent. I felt like no one needed to hear me. I felt like I was just some fat chick who no one wanted to see or hear an opinion from. If I ever expressed myself, I always thought that I would just upset people. However, when I started to do yoga teaching, I was required to be vocal and take the lead, and that broke open a lot of things for me.”
“At first, I was really nervous because all ears and eyes were on me, and I didn’t think I was worthy of that attention. Eventually, as I went on, I began to ask myself - “are the things that I’m thinking in my head true, or is it stuff that I’ve internalized?” When I reflected on that, I started to have more of a voice and take up more space. Then, I started to accept my body and say - you know what? This is my body. This is what it looks like, it’s not going anywhere, and it’s important for me to start embracing it. One thing that helped me do this was taking photos of myself and seeing my body from different angles. It helped me realized that the woman in the picture is beautiful, powerful, and she can actually do a lot of the cool things that she’s been holding herself back from. The longer I stared at my pictures, the longer I was able to chip away at restrictive thoughts. For so long, I even denied dancing to myself. But as I came into myself, I allowed myself to dance and do other things that I loved because doing them made me happy.”
“At the end of the day, I’ve learned that everyone is different, and it’s hard for some people to grasp that. Although there’s so much judgment in the world, just find what works for you, and do what makes you happy. I do yoga, and I go for walks because it makes me happy. We need to love ourselves now, not after some type of glow-up. It’s true that getting to this point takes a lot of hard, deep work, but just remember that it’s not our bodies that make us worthy. It’s not our bodies that make us powerful. It’s our contribution to the world and our voice.”