BY EMMA SHUPPER
Today, I am me and nothing else. I am a person going through this crazy, beautiful, scary journey we call life. It’s a task of continually defining and redefining, learning and unlearning, who I am by removing limitations that I put on myself. I have learned through significant struggle to forge my own path, charting new territory everyday while letting life unfold beautiful ways. And I have learned that in order to create the life we want to live in, we are in charge of our own destiny. We have to fight with every ounce of our being for the things we believe in. But all of this hasn’t been easy, because I know what it’s like to live with an eating disorder.
I am strong. I am beautiful. I am enough. These were and will always be my mantras. In the times when we don’t believe in ourselves, we need something to hold on to to remind us where we’ve been. That we’re fighters—each and every one of us.
Self-hatred and disrespect for our bodies and selves are learned behaviors, just like anything else. We are not born this way. Instead, we take on these beliefs as reality from a number of factors that include the environment and culture we grow up in.
Comparison, image, and competition are incredibly prevalent in the horse world. While there is no blame to be put on anyone, I do not doubt that the show-world helped to cultivate distorted self-image and destructive behaviors in many young riders, particularly in the form of eating disorders. Eating disorders should not be taken lightly. They are a serious mental health concern that can lead to death if not addressed, and they are particularly prevalent in sports and environments where “image” is the constant topic.
I wouldn’t wish the experience of living with an eating disorder on anyone.
Have you ever felt trapped inside your own body, wishing you could rip every inch of skin off of your body? Have you ever felt like food has ruled every aspect of your life, including all of the decisions you make? Have you ever felt entirely hopeless and consumed by your emotional instability, like you were losing it and couldn’t find your way back to reality? Having you ever hated yourself with every ounce of your being? Have you ever had such debilitating anxiety that you just couldn’t function?
I have, and I am here to tell you that you can overcome it.
I started riding when I was seven. I remember distinct points in time, sometime around middle school when I started to become aware of the space that I took up in the world. I started noticing what people looked like—particularly what riders looked like. The overwhelming theme was thin was better. Stick thin was the best.
When I was growing up riding and competing, comments were always made about how thin riders always won because of their presence on the horse. There was always this overwhelming sense of needing to make yourself small in order to make yourself elegant. Small to be seen. Small to be worthy.
I remember hearing things about people being criticized if they were “bigger” than normal, or didn’t have the body type of a rider. Others said they were beautiful riders, but they wouldn’t win or succeed because of how they looked. This along with the diet culture at the time contributed to my intense need to fit into a certain mold. This systematic focus on image instead of ability, actions, and execution needs to be recognized and needs to be changed.
I struggled with anorexia and bulimia for almost 10 years, recovering and relapsing until I finally made the choice to see myself as worthy and not define myself by what I look like. Shifting this focus took work and a complete reframing of all areas of my life. I quit my job as an engineer and completely uprooted my life. I started my own business in movement coaching so we can learn how to reconnect with our bodies and selves through movement.
In a world filled with so much noise, the stress, “shoulds,” labels, black and white thinking, and shame are all confusing and treacherous. Our own values become buried in the depths of imposed rules, which makes it even more challenging to find your voice, your reasons, and your why.
We are taught by this blind and fast-moving culture that things are “good” or “bad.” Feelings should be pushed aside and numbed. Somehow we are flawed if we don’t magically fit into this little box of labels deemed “acceptable.”
The irony, however, lies in the fact that the beauty of the world—with all of its own complexity and fragility—is born from the unique qualities and perspectives that we each bring to the table. Our “differentness” should be celebrated and allowed to shine bright, not disparaged and neglected.
Change and growth come from stepping out of the literal and figurative boundaries we call our comfort zones. By challenging ourselves and releasing our tunnel vision to see the broader picture, we can quiet the noise of the world and listen to our bodies. Because how can we recognize opportunities for growth and change if we are unable to look down on the playground of our lives from above and ask the deep and difficult questions?
Movement allows us to reconnect with our bodies. It helps us listen to our bodies, to love, heal, and develop skills. Movement develops the strength to live with courage and a solid sense of self. Movement is a metaphor for the deepest pain and internal struggles we face. Movement allows us to step out of the pain, process it, and overcome it, by completing the trauma loop without judgement. Movement allows us to redefine our stories.
And what is riding besides a celebration of movement? This sport is like no other. We meld our power of movement with the horse. Our partners grant us access to movement that humans alone could never duplicate. The power of riding is about so much more than ribbons. It’s a channel to our best, inner selves.
Focusing so much on body type or “the look” is an insult to the movement of riding. Use the gift of your body, your horse, and your ability to move, to open up your life instead of add more constraints to it. Enjoy your ability to be with your horse. Feel how your bodies move together in harmony, listen to the sound of your breaths, and close your eyes to all the unnecessary noise.
Emma has a passion for helping others find meaning and clarity in their lives and believes that the integration of intuitive movement, intuitive eating, and mindfulness are key components in healing our relationships with our bodies and minds. Her journey through recovery from anorexia, exercise addiction, and bulimia was fueled by her discovery of the deeper metaphors in strength and endurance training. While formally trained with a BS and MS in mechanical engineering from Caltech and USC, Emma recently transitioned fully to the development of her own business in wellness coaching to pursue her passion for helping others find ways to empower themselves to share their unique story.