The search to be happy in my own skin. A bike trip in the outer Hebrides.

“You’re not small…” he paused, and scanned me up and down, “…in fact you’re pretty stocky”.

“I’m sorry?” I replied, taken aback by his directness.

“You’re pretty stocky for a lady”.

This short interchange stopped me in my tracks. My bubble of contentment abruptly burst as an old familiar pain flooded over me.

What to expect

A ten minute read, 2600 words. I explore how even in the wildness and remoteness of the Outer Hebrides I had a body image ‘wobble’. I explore why this happened and I share what I did and what I’m doing in my pursuit of a peaceful and loving relationship with my body and self.

Being wild and free

For my 40th birthday I decided it was time to break out of my comfort zone – time for an adventure. I walked into Tiso’s with a half-baked plan to look at bikes – I walked out an hour later with a new bike ordered and all the kit I needed for a 12-day trip cycling around the Outer Hebrides.

My journey took me through the beautiful terrain of Lewis, Harris, Berneray, the Uists, Barra and Vatersay. I stayed in hostels along the way and could only take that which I was prepared to carry.

As someone who didn’t self-identify as a cyclist and who wasn’t much interested in travelling alone, it took a fair bit of mental energy to plan and make the trip. Yet it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I loved the feeling of freedom that came from having minimal ‘stuff’ with me.

I found cycling a wonderful way to connect with the landscape – with the weather – with myself.

Cycling through parts of Harris and Lewis I’d hear the spinning of the weaving mills in people’s homes. I’d smell peat burning in their fire places. I spotted a couple of golden eagles, and numerous other birds, deer, and needless to mention many, many sheep and cows. I felt the sun, the rain and the resistance of the prevailing wind.

There were many moments when rode with a big smile on my face – as I raced down hills, or looked out at the beautiful expanse of land before me – from the lunar landscape of the East of Harris to the glorious beaches to the West.

Everyday I’d put on my ‘uniform’ of my Lycra cycling bib, shorts and top.

croped cycle pic

Me in my ‘uniform’

 

No choices had to be made. I wore make up for the first couple of days and then I chose to stop bothering.

 

It felt freeing to be away from the distraction of social media and I felt that I was becoming less image conscious. I was less aware how I looked as I didn’t always have access to a mirror. The less distracted I was by this stuff, the more I felt present in the moment. My focus moved from being guided to look a certain way to being guided by feelings and intuition.

 

Most of all I loved feeling more present in my body – every day I asked of it to cycle and everyday it agreed. When the challenging hills came up I felt so alive – my heart felt like it was bursting. When they got really challenging – like the Clisham in Harris – I’d kindly encourage myself:

“Come on Sho, you can do this”.

By evening I’d go to bed with that glorious happy tired feeling.

Seeds of discontent

Yet it wasn’t all happy camping…

It was much harder for me to eat the way that I normally eat whilst on the road.

I was limited as to what I could carry and didn’t always have access to my normal diet of veggies, fruit, lean meat and fish. Shops were very limited due to the rural locations I was traveling in.

Sometimes lunch would be a scone or cake. Dinner was often one of those packets of pasta and sauce that you boil up and add milk and butter to. And the further south I travelled the more I found other hostellers who had beers and wine to share!

I have the nutritional education to know that I’d not put on weight on this trip as my energy expenditure from cycling 40 odd miles a day was greater than the energy I was consuming from food and drink. I had the knowledge to know that I wouldn’t lose much lean muscle from not training my upper body for a few weeks.

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Amazing scones at the Skoon Art Cafe, Harris

Yet what my rational mind knows and what my emotional mind tells me are two very different things!

I’m a creature of habit and I’ve found habits that help me maintain my health and fitness.

All of a sudden I was out of routine and my habits were different. I was no longer able to weight train and I was less in control of my diet and sleep.

Wearing Lycra all the time meant I didn’t have tight jeans etc. to assess if I was gaining. My emotional mind began to make up stories that I was putting on weight and losing tone.

Reading this now I feel so frustrated that I had these thoughts and feelings while on a trip that was also so freeing and life giving. I allowed myself to be out of habit and routine and loosened my reins of control a bit – and this is good for me. But it also created a space which I allowed to be occupied by unhelpful thoughts.
It felt like there was battle between the wild and free part of me that was celebrating my body and nature – and the fearful part of me that didn’t like the feeling of not being fully in control. The words that Donald, a random stranger spoke, touched an already raw nerve about my inner fears.

His Words/ My Words

This particular day was a Saturday and I’d ran in a 10km race. I’d love the varied terrain, the scenery and the banter with the other runners and was on a bit of a high as I’d placed second woman in the race. The first trophy I’ve ever won for running!

Shona with a medal from a recent race

Shona with a medal from a recent race

I was sitting eating at the large dining table in the hostel kitchen. There were about 10 of us seated, all eating our random dinner concoctions.

I’d met Donald the night before. He was from another of the Isles and was in his early 60s. He was with his friend on a fishing trip.

 I’ve still no idea why he made the comment above about my body being ‘stocky’ and ‘not small’. He went on to say that he thought I’d probably been bigger in the past and had lost weight.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter why he said what he said.

I often say to my clients that no one has the power to hurt us unless we let them. Words are only as important as the meaning we attach to them. What matters is always our response.

I wanted him to stop.

I calmly told him that it wasn’t helpful to comment on someone else’s body and that I found his words hurtful. I can’t remember his reply as I my internal chatter was getting louder and louder.

In my head I’d gone back to an old familiar place:

Who did I think I was?

I’m kidding on that I was someone who could advise others on their weight loss and body image.

 Some personal trainer I am – look at me – even middle aged fisher men are commenting!

Everyone can see that I’m out of shape and they are all laughing at me.

 Another part of me disagreed.

No – it’s not true.

You are strong and fit and in good shape.

Look your body has got you all these miles already. And you’ve just come second female in a tough 10km.

This guy has no right to comment on your body.

He’s drunk.

He’s a misogynist trying to find a weakness in you. 

I left the kitchen, walked down to the beach

and cried.

Solas beach,  North Uist

Solas beach,  North Uist

Making sense of it

Whilst walking on the beach, I cried tears of frustration and anger at myself for getting upset.

My younger self massively struggled with food and with my body image. I’d hated myself. Donald’s words brought that memory back to me.

I cried tears of confusion. I thought I’d dealt with all this stuff. I was getting bored of always coming back to this place. Exasperated that I was back in this place so quickly and so wholly. Writing this now, I still am.

Why had I, in the midst of such an amazing holiday where I felt so connected to nature and at my fittest, so quickly become so full of insecurity and pain at a few thoughtless words?

I said at the beginning of this post that I loved the holiday as I was traveling light and could only take that which I could carry. Yet I wasn’t travelling light in my head – I realised I’m still carrying excess baggage.

I realise that in my day to day life I’m still surrounded by many messages about the idealised body. My Facebook news feed has lots of news from various personal trainers and friends who are on a diet or are body building or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with this and good on them, but I realise I no longer find their images and news helpful. I don’t want to be thinking and caring about other people’s, nor my own body shape and size all the time.  My email Inbox is full of the same stuff.

Although I was in the middle of a wild and beautiful Island I wasn’t free from all the day to day clutter and chatter in my brain. I wasn’t free from our body and image obsessed society’s messages.

I realised that I want to, perhaps need to, have a bit of a brain detox. I want to travel lighter. I was still on the search to be happy in my own skin.

Journeying on

The next day I left Berneray and headed further south to South Uist, to Barra, to Oban, to Fort William and eventually to Inverness. I travelled, I rested, I ate well, cycled hard and had some great and meaningful conversations. I nourished my mind and body and it served me well.

I remembered that I love my body. It’s far from perfect – but it’s what I live and move and be in. No matter if I’m in the best shape in the world – or kinda ‘stocky’ – or somewhere in-between – it’s still bloody amazing!

On a day to day basis I am for the most part comfortable with my own body.

There are days when I feel great: full of vitality, strong and lean.

There are days where I feel okay.

And there are days – like ‘the Berenary- hostel- kitchen- table- day’ – where I don’t feel great about myself and these days remind me why I do what I do.

A happy stay in a hostel in South Uist

A happy stay in a hostel in South Uist

I’m so much more than my body shape – I’m a determined woman with an interest and care for others, with a curiosity about the world and a passion to make a difference.

Being upset and feeling my feelings reminded me of how passionate I am about helping others see who they are and why they matter. In a funny way being I’m glad to have had that encounter with Donald.

Somehow I felt that this episode was significant in helping me reconnect with the pain that those I work with feel:

I hear almost everyday from clients who

  • feel intense pain about their perception of how they look.
  • feel a huge discomfort in their bodies/ in their own skin.
  • are shamed by the hurtful words of others.

I work with women who are far more intelligent, capable and who have jobs of far more responsibility than mine, yet who crumble at the thought of going to a gym on their own due to fear of being judged on their body.

In our image orientated culture it is so easy to zone in, with our bodies as the site of our dis-ease with our selves.  Yet if we can remember who we are and why we matter then we will remember that we are so much more than our bodies (although I believe all our bodies are amazing too!).

We live in a world where for whatever reason, people feel they can comment on other’s bodies.  This will continue to be the case.

What matters is knowing the truth and dealing with the things that are in your control:

  • Like me, you are so much much more than your body. You have intellect, gifts and talents, a story and so much potential.
  • If you have struggled with your body image in the past, like me, you may find yourself revisiting old ground from time to time. This is okay – but just don’t stay there.
  • If you want to make changes to your body image and body shape, know that this can be done kindly and sustainably with the right approach. Learn to love yourself starting where you are now. Value yourself as you embark on your fitness, weight loss and mind-set journey. Don’t be led by your emotional mind – be led by your rational mind. If you aren’t sure how to do this contact me or someone else that you trust who can help you.
  • People’s words only carry the weight you allow them to. The more you can work on valuing and loving yourself the less someone will have the power to make you feel bad.

Coming Home

Since coming home, reflecting on the journey, I feel I need to make a conscious effort to be out in nature more. Without wanting to sound too ‘woo’… – I do feel there’s cleansing and healing that comes from being in wild out door places. I feel it’s good for my soul. I’m so lucky to have the Cairngorm National Park on my door step and I feel that hiking, and maybe wild camping on my own, could be part of my future plans.

I’m taking positive, decisive steps to lighten the load.  I’m slowly unfollowing people and leaving groups on Facebook that are no longer helping me in my pursuit of being wild and free in my own skin. I’m spending a bit less time on Facebook and Netflix and am reading a bit more.

What about you?

Does any of this resonate? Are you already wild and free in your body or do you feel you still have work to do on this too?

Being outdoors and finding ways to practice being mindful can make all the difference.

Processing how you are feeling through writing or talking to someone you trust can help.

Looking at the messages and information you are taking in everyday and filtering these may be useful.

This journey has taught me that when I relax on my habits and have less control I can go back to an old place of fear and insecurity regarding the way I look. I realise that I still have some ‘sediment’ of my old beliefs. But this is okay as I also know I’m on the right path for me and I’ve lots of plans to care for my mind more.

If you’d like any help on your journey with any of the topics I’ve raised, please drop me a line – I’d be delighted to hear from you. You know from reading my stuff that I’m very real and open about my struggles  – I get that this stuff is hard! This makes me a good at what I do.

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11 thoughts on “The search to be happy in my own skin. A bike trip in the outer Hebrides.

  1. Cathy MacDonald says:

    As always, your blogs hit the mark perfectly Shona and I would be surprised if your thoughts, experiences and feelings dont resinate in some way with everyone who reads them.

    You blog exceptionally well and it is always a joy to read your writings. Thank you for sharing.

    You are right about ‘no one can make you feel a certain way unless you allow it’ but that is easier said than done. Sometimes you have to work through the emotion of what’s been said before you can balance it out with logic’

    You are inspiring, wholesome and caring and that shines through all you do. Keep being you x

    • Shona Macpherson says:

      Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful words Cathy. Yes, those pesky emotions can definitely get in the way sometimes – but I guess it’s good to feel things and know you’re alive 🙂 xx

  2. Lesley McKay says:

    Thanks again for your raw honesty. I was very impressed with your cycling challenge and taking a few road races.
    The mind is more linked to the survival mode than the celebratory as its a more primal reaction. Emotional and physical. I was also told a story by a psychologist about an office scenario. A woman has had a highly successful day. She is about to leave work when her boss asks her to come to his office first thing the next day to discuss a few matters. He leaves with no further explanation. She is taken aback. Didn’t she have a good day? Isn’t she effective at her job? On the journey home she keeps going over and over what it could be about. She starts to get seriously worried. It builds into frustration and anger that she should be targeted. Her family take the brunt of this.
    The same scenario with a male colleague and their boss happens. He gets into the lift leaving work behind and goes home to his family and has a lovely evening with them. He remembers that he must pop in and see his boss in the morning before falling into a deep sleep. She cannot sleep all night convinced that something is wrong.
    Does this sound familiar? It seems as it is classic male female reactions.
    The boss had wanted to chat to them about training opportunities that would help them on the promotion ladder.
    When your male hostel companion made that comment you went to your default position learned over years. You are still mulling it over. Also the why. Could he not have had the vocabulary to say that you had a strong toned body? Most men of his age and experience would not have encountered a woman from the island’s who had worked out.
    Embrace and cherish his comments as you have successfully changed your body and health. Proven by your trip.
    Xx

    • Shona Macpherson says:

      Thank you Leslie! Lovely insights. I agree with all you say – but I don’t think men are immune to over thinking and taking things to heart too. A few men have reached out to me in response to the blog saying that it resonates for them too. Thanks again for your comments and encouragements – and I’ll take his comments in the spirit you suggest 🙂 x

  3. Debbie Mathews says:

    Wow! What an amazing blog. Inspiring, instructive and entertaining as ever. I always admire your honesty Shona, and you’re spot on with your comments about body image and freedom. Many women need to hear that message. Are you OK with me sharing this?

    I also think spending time with nature is vital. It helps us reconnect. It can still your mind from the constant clamour of the modern world.

    Your ideas are refreshing and achievable. Social Media isn’t going to go away and there are many positives to it, especially for business and connections, but I think making sure you control it rather than it controlling you is the key.

  4. Sheena says:

    A really honest and true account of how careless words can wound so deeply..a read that I can relate to. Thank you for sharing and know that Donald obviously used his mouth and not his conscience to speak those words. Xx

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