Before and After: Penny Scheenhouwer
As women, how many of us adore ourselves and love our bodies? Do I hear a deafening silence? Why is this so? Here’s one woman’s story of how she graduated from childhood innocence, to not accepting her body as a teenager, and then gradually reclaiming herself as a beautiful woman.
Penny grew up in a family where healthy food was a normal part of life. She never had much sugar, or any soft drink; she ate whole grain breads and plenty of green vegetables. Even today she feels that when she does not have any greens with her meal, it is not complete.
She was never really overweight and had not paid much attention to how she looked: “I played sports and was always active. I never thought about my body much. But people say things to you that make you self-conscious.”
As a young teenager she developed severe acne. Then one day, after the acne had cleared up, she was talking to a friend and recalls:
“As my skin had cleared up she was being very sincere when she said how great my face looked, but then she poked me in the stomach and said, “… and now you need to do something about that stomach.” Up until that point I had not considered that people looked at my stomach or that there was anything wrong with it. I have been very self-conscious about my stomach ever since.”
When she was about 15 years old, a neighbour made a comment about her getting ‘a bit chubby’:
“People say these things to you and then you start to look outside of yourself for what you should look like. Of course looking back, I now understand that I was not ok with who I was, and so it became always about what other people think.”
By the time she was 20 years old, Penny had become heavily focussed on her appearance. She would at times follow a crash diet like the Scarsdale Diet, but mostly she had become very serious about sports and going to the gym and had her own personal trainer: “None of this was because I was actually overweight, because really I was not. At my heaviest I was an AU size 12. But I had bought into the ideal of the skinny, tight body and so I was always exercising, using heavy weights, running etc. I could feel from my body what to eat and not to eat and so my diet at this time was actually very healthy.”
Even though Penny put such effort into looking good, she hardly ever felt good about herself:
“I once had a boyfriend and had lost quite a bit of weight. My boyfriend’s mum said to me that I looked so skinny, which then made me feel like that was not right either. At some point I was working in a job where everyone had a nickname and the guys called me ‘The Body’ (as a reference to model Elle McPherson), and still I did not feel ok about my body. It has always been like that – I was never ok with how I was.
I have always picked out certain parts of my body that were never ok because I was comparing myself to other women or to an ideal image of beauty. No matter what I did I never felt enough as I was trying to be not me but someone else.
I always felt heavy and tired. When I look at my pictures from back then I can see how I was much more bloated than actually fat. I looked very puffy.”
Over the years Penny had been from time to time connected to what she could feel from her body was right for her, and what was not, but she never really stuck to it. “I had already felt to not eat gluten or dairy in my early twenties and of course innately I have always known that all the alcohol, drugs and cigarettes were harming me. I had stopped a couple of times but always came back to it. Then, one day, I simply reached a point where I had enough of being in the same cycle all the time. I stopped the alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.”
Exercise and connection
When Penny became pregnant she kept the same lifestyle as before, exercising strongly almost up to the end of the pregnancy. But when her daughter Saskia was born, everything was about to change: “I became aware of the fact that Saskia would react to the gluten and dairy when I breastfed her, and therefore I was forced to take a very keen look at my own diet. I became very strict about leaving out dairy and gluten. After I stopped breastfeeding I realised how much better I felt with this diet and never changed back.”
Saskia’s arrival brought more changes to Penny’s life: “All that weightlifting and running had always hurt in my body as I was doing it. But that did not stop me, as in my mind I was convinced it was good for me. After Saskia was born I tried to go back to that, but as the baby did not sleep much at first I felt too tired to do all that exercising. I simply could not push myself the way I did before anymore, and I wondered why on earth I had done that to my body for all those years. Having this stop gave me the space to realise how much I had been over-exerting myself and how this had really felt in my body. I did not want to do this anymore.”
The way Penny now exercises has changed drastically: “The exercise I do now is not hard-core like it used to be. I used to lift very heavy weights and run to exhaustion. Now my exercise is based on what is needed for my body to do what it needs to do on a daily basis.”
The changes in diet and exercising has changed her life: “Now food is much more about nourishment and what my body needs for that, instead of to reward, celebrate, control or numb. This has been a choice for me based on what feels right in my body and how I feel about myself in truth. For the first time ever this has become the way I live, not a diet or temporary change. It is very easy.”
“I have gone through many weight and body shape changes since. There was an initial drop in weight with cutting out the alcohol, gluten and dairy, which would be expected, but the real changes started when I began to look at myself and deal with my issues and look at what I was choosing on a daily basis. I also began to choose food based on what truly agreed with MY body.
In the last 4 years especially, I have changed clothes and bra size a lot as I have worked through ideals and beliefs that were holding me to ransom. What has been consistent is my daily exercise and my constant listening to my body for what does and does not agree with it, and my commitment to loving myself and others first and foremost. This is what has brought about the most amazing changes, to not just my body, but my whole life.”
“I walk every day now and do some gentle stretching. Exercise for me is the foundation. Not to lose weight or to get fit, but to develop and deepen the relationship with myself.”
“It is the basis of how I am with me; it keeps me steady and it supports me in feeling and honouring my body’s rhythms. I am now exercising and eating to support my body and my life, not to control my body and life.”
Penny feels great about herself these days. She has much more energy and she has come to her natural weight and body shape rather than the ideals she had carried for a long time.
“My lack of self-worth lay at the heart of how I used to see myself. It now is my marker of how I am with myself. I can feel great about my body one day and then the next day not like that same body. It shows me then how I am with myself and that I need to work on my connection with myself.”
“Now at 44 years I have a much deeper connection to myself and my body and really know what my body is saying to me on a daily basis. This listening allows me to know in any given moment what is or is not needed for my body, whether it is food or exercise or rest. I am no longer doing these things to achieve or control, but to love and support myself.
“When I am connected to who I really am, as opposed to how I should be based on ideals from outside of me, I feel lovely and good about myself and my body feels and looks lovely.”
“Connection to me is knowing who I am within. Not about anything outside of me telling me I’m ok, but knowing there is something within myself that is innately lovely and beautiful, and that is me; the outside is just the physical reflection of the inner. It is how I feel within myself that is important, not what I do or how I look.”
Postscript – 2016, age 47
“It has been some time since this article was written and there has been much change in my life. In the two years since it was written, I have been diagnosed with 2 chronic illnesses – an autoimmune disorder and a chronic lung disease.
As I reflect on my journey, I realise that the deep connection to my body that I have developed is what has been key in being aware of the changes that were occurring in my body. I have actually been diagnosed with both illnesses at a very early stage.
My specialists have commented that being in the very early stage of the illnesses, most people would not even notice most of the symptoms that I do. To me this early awareness is very empowering, allowing me to truly care for and nurture myself in the way that is needed in this moment.
I have had to make adjustments to the food I eat, sometimes even needing to reintroduce some foods I had not needed to eat for a while, to the exercise I do and to how I do every moment of my day. All of this supports my body with what it needs at this moment in time. Rather than the illnesses continuing to go deeper into my body, the deep connection I have and the support I give myself from that place of connection offers my body the space and platform to truly heal.
I am currently taking one medication and a couple of months ago finished taking another long-term medication. The illnesses that I am currently experiencing and the medications that I need to take have created many changes in my body. This has required adjustments in how I care for myself. There are some physical limitations I experience and I have to be very honest about what I can do so as to not put my body into a position that requires me to not be able to do anything for several days.
One part of the illness has been my weight fluctuating down and up. When I was initially sick I lost a fair bit of weight, which is quite common with such conditions. Since then I have gained weight beyond what I started at.
All of these changes have brought me the opportunity to go deeper in my relationship with myself based on who I know myself to be rather than how I look. It has definitely not been a smooth, easy road but it has been something I would not change. I thought that I really loved myself based on knowing how "innately lovely and beautiful I am", but have come to realise that I had only gone to a certain level with this, perhaps only appreciating and accepting myself as I fit an image with a certain body shape and sense of health and wellbeing, although I had felt better about myself than I ever had before.
My illness and all the body changes have deepened my understanding of how all we are is reflected in how we move our body.
Now when I am dealing with illness and disease I appreciate more deeply the lessons that I had previously learnt about awareness, self-appreciation and that understanding that there is so much more to me than I had ever realised.
I can truly say now that weight is not just about food and exercise and that our bodies are amazing reflections of all that is happening in not just our bodies, but our lives. I can also say that I deeply appreciate how my body talks to me regularly, and that I am willing to listen like never before.