I (started to) defeat my body image issues with a sword

Guest post by Emily K. Stamm


Like a lot of people, I have a complicated relationship with my body. For as long as I can remember I’ve worried about being too “fat,” too “ugly,” too “not normal.” As I’ve gotten older I’ve bounced between self-acceptance and self-hate, with plenty of yo-yo dieting in the middle.

After getting engaged I started getting even more bombarded with messages about hating my body, losing weight, shaving everywhere, getting my nails done, getting my makeup done, styling my hair… Even more so than before, I felt the extreme pressure to conform to our society’s harsh beauty standards. I quickly realized that I wanted to love myself, not just on my wedding day, but every day.

Lucky for me, I was already part of the wonderful community here at the Offbeat Empire, so I knew that loving my body didn’t have to mean losing a ton of weight or spending a ton of money on beauty routines that bored me.

Once I realized what I didn’t want, I had to think about what I did want. It was clear to me that I had to change something in order to be happier with myself. If I wasn’t going to focus on calorie counting and the number on the scale, what would I do?

I knew I wanted two things: to feel physically and mentally good about my body. How could I do that? I broke it into smaller goals. I decided to do the Couch to 5K program. I decided to start eating more fruits and vegetables, and less chocolate and fried food. I decided to focus on media that presented positive images and descriptions of people of all shapes and sizes. And I decided that I would learn to use a sword.

I have never been an athlete. I’ve always considered myself too fat and slow for any sports, so I never put the time and effort in to learn them. Learning to run was the first time I ever realized that yes, this was a thing my body could do. It doesn’t always feel good, and it certainly isn’t easy, but running has shown me that my body is more capable than I thought. After just a few months of eating slightly better, stretching, and gradually kicking up my running times, I was able to run more than twenty minutes in a row, over a mile and a half! I’m not fast, and I’ll probably never win any races, but running has given me the gift of being proud of my body.

A few months after starting to run regularly, my fiance found a local sword fighting class. Even a year earlier I might have hesitated (“swords aren’t for people like me”) but thanks to my new-found confidence, I was ready to dive in.

We started taking classes with our local chapter of the Medieval European Martial Arts Guild in German Longsword technique. Almost every Saturday morning we practice the difference cuts, sometimes with a blunted practice sword, sometimes with a sharp sword. I pretend to be my favorite sword fighting heroes, like Alanna of Trebond from Tamora Pierce’s books. The sweat soaks my shirt, and I’m often sore for days afterward, but I feel like a million bucks. I’m not very good yet, but every week I can feel that my cuts get better, and feel more natural. Soon I’ll be sparring with the instructor, slicing reeds, and maybe one day I’ll even compete.

My fiancé and me feeling victorious after our first time running 20 minutes in a row.
My fiancé and me feeling victorious after our first time running 20 minutes in a row.

I’ve spent the last six months focusing on thinking of my body in new, positive ways. I focus on what I can do instead of my perceived flaws. I don’t wake up every morning feeling like the most beautiful woman on the planet, but I also don’t usually wake up in a cloud of self-hate.

Sometimes I still worry that various body parts aren’t good enough. I’m sure I’ll spend years, if not the rest of my life, working on loving myself and finding new ways to enjoy my body. For now I’ll continue to slay my body-image demons with my sword.

Comments on I (started to) defeat my body image issues with a sword

  1. Great writing and fantastic message! I didn’t even know regular folks (i.e. those of us who aren’t in the cast of a fantasy movie/show) could go about learning sword fighting. So cool!

    • Yes, you can! There’s a growing interest in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), and there are lots of groups and schools where you can go to learn. You can learn all sorts of different martial arts, from longsword to rapier to sidesword, pollaxe, wrestling, sickle… lots of options! If you’re interested in finding a class, I’d recommend googling some combination of “HEMA+your city” or “swordfighting+your city” and seeing what comes up. Unless you’re in Southern California, in which case I have specific recommendations. So yes! Swordfighting is awesome and open to everyone.

  2. I love love love that you channel your inner Alanna! She is one of my all-time favourite fictional heroines (and Daine, and Aly, and Kel….)

    • Agreed! Alanna and Kel are two of my heroes. Kel in particular gave me the courage and strength to do battle with cancer (and win!). I love seeing them inspire other badass ladies too 🙂

      • For those of you that appreciate a good Tamora Pierce novel, you should check out Kristin Cashore’s Graceling trilogy!

        Also, this is one of my favorite “body posts” ever (not just on this site)! The author said – Hey, what I’m currently doing isn’t working. I want to be happier with my health/appearance, and here are some specific things that I’m going to do to help me feel that way (that have nothing to with – be prettier, by mainstream beauty standards, because THEY said so). I LOVE her approach here.

  3. So much love for this post! Also a huge Tamora Pierce fan, sword fighter (fencing though), and runner at a size that media doesn’t deem beautiful but ta hell with mass media, bodies are awesome in all of their configurations and I’m glad you’re also learning to love yours yours.

  4. This is my favorite post ever ever ever! This is so badass and I hope more folks take up your message.

    I had a similar self-love awakening – from non-athlete to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor – because once I focused on what my body could DO, I was much less concerned with how it appeared. Much healthier, since how you appear to yourself can be so distorted.

  5. I am loving this post! It is a real shame that we grow up thinking our bodies need to be a certain way to be active (oh let’s face it, thin, we think active bodies are thin) and it isn’t true. The more I delve into fitness I see so many amazing bodies that look so different from each other. BUT it is so hard to love your body and focus on just what your body can do since the fitness industry is so focused on weight, how tone this, getting your bikini bod, whatever. That what I love about some alternative exercises, because you can seclude yourself from all the body hate. I am super picky about where I go to exercise, making sure no one say something about how my body looks is the end goal. Because I don’t need that sort of energy. If I had it near me, I would totally take up sword fighting over the gym XD

  6. Your post really resonates, especially this part:
    I’m not very good yet, but every week I can feel that my cuts get better, and feel more natural. Soon I’ll be sparring with the instructor, slicing reeds, and maybe one day I’ll even compete.

    I recently started taking aerial yoga and am in exactly that same place, but with aerial, not fighting. I was having a conversation with my spouse the other day about how 2 months in I can do things I couldn’t do the first day and how exciting that was. His response was that he would never get that far, he’d try once and give up. I wonder what makes the difference in stick to it despite no natural ability folks and the give up immediately folks.

    • As someone else who started exercising (again) and found strength and confidence in doing so, I think the difference between choosing to continue and improving with time versus giving up immediately has more to do with a person’s goals/dreams/desires. I have given up on belly dancing and martial arts after trying them for the one and only time. I haven’t given up on running, biking, or swimming despite sucking terribly at them in the beginning. In the beginning, I didn’t have any specific goals associated with running or swimming, I just wanted to do it and I KNEW I would be bad and that it would get easier with time.

  7. Wow, this is incredible and could not have come at a better time for me (are you inside my head?!). I completely relate to never really feeling athletic or coordinated. Always being picked dead last for teams really left a painful impression. I’ve been looking for ways to get out of my latest rut, but felt so completely stuck. I’ve been passively interested in learning tap dancing (33 isn’t too old, right?), but always thought I was too uncoordinated to risk looking (or worse, feeling) foolish. You’ve inspired me to get off my ass and do something about it – even if it’s just look at tap shoes and find some YouTube videos. Thank you times a million for this.

    • Do it, Laura S.! At 44 I started Bollywood dancing, and that’s with no dancing background and as a redhead, no one can assume that I’m Indian. The other ladies in the class have been great and we get to perform several times a year. It feels so good to learn a new skill and to push past anything I’ve done before.

      I also have a friend in NYC who is in beginner tap. I went to her first recital earlier this year – the school had beginner tap, ballet, and modern dance classes and some of the people on stage were in their 50s and 60s. So no, 33 is not too old!

  8. I am SO darned excited to see HEMA mentioned! My boyfriend goes to class 2 times a week. I practice with him periodically, but not all the time. I also LOVE how empowering it feels to swing around a sword. Its really freeing to be a girl and be given permission to hit things (harder! you an do it!). Plus the community itself (at least his classes) are made up of guys and girls who are awesome; fun, nerdy, positive people.

    • Yes! Our group is full of wonderful nerdy people too, and I can’t wait to get more involved with the wider HEMA community. I’m still so excited that groups like this exist, and I get to be a part of it!

  9. Great article! Good luck and have fun with your swordfighting classes. You are very right, focussing on positive ways to improve your health (not: to lose weight) can be great.

    P.S. While I don’t do it anymore, I’ve also had longsword lessons. It is great. I actually met my future husband there. He (accidentally) whacked me on the fingers. Love at first sight 😉

  10. YES! As a female archer (who uses archery as a mental focus) I lovelovelove that you’re doing sword fighting. Not only is that unbelievably badass, but a fantastic way to gain upper body strength and control (as the running will focus on the lower body). The most empowering thing is to find ourselves capable of so much more than we thought we were, and I applaud you for embracing that, challenging yourself, and being open about it. You’re an inspiration!

  11. First, LOVE the Alanna reference. It made my day.

    Second, I need to seriously check this out. I’m a rennie and would love this, but I thought our only option was the SCA. I’m not sure I want to get involved in that group.

    Third, whatever MOVES you to move. Running, sword-fighting, Yoga (one of my things) or whatever. If you feel empowered, graceful, sexy, beautiful, daring and so much more. DO IT! I am 33, a woman of size and have taken up belly-dancing again for the first time in years. I love it! Each week I get a little bit better. A little bit stronger. A little bit more graceful.

    Thank you for sharing!

  12. Roller derby has done wonders for my self esteem and body issues. It’s a great sport for all body types, and they train from the ground up. I didn’t even know how to skate when I started.

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