Emma Walker, 27, Golden, CO

This year, as part of our Take Back The Beach program, we are asking YOU to tell us about your experiences with body talk and self-perception. Below, one reader's story.
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"I Think That's Muscle, Emma"

I've wished for a thigh gap for as long as I can remember.
Even in high school, when I was the thinnest I've ever been, my thighs touched. I ran on the cross-country team. I wanted to look like the girls who won meets — waif-like, agile. Their thighs did not touch. I thought about this as I smeared Vaseline on my inner thighs before each practice to prevent chafing.
I kept running in college. I biked, too, and one summer, in hopes of dropping weight from my already thin frame, I signed up for a triathlon. I trained with a group of body-positive women who represented a vast swath of shapes, sizes, and ages. For weeks leading up to the race, I was surrounded daily by women who encouraged one another, who projected confidence in their bodies, regardless of whether they possessed the coveted thigh gap. Still, I hated the way my thighs looked.
I hated the way my thighs spread out when I sat down. I hated how they jiggled when I ran, how I could see cellulite when I pinched them. I hated the way they stuck to vinyl booths in restaurants, where I was careful to order only salads with the dressing on the side, all in the name of thinning out my thighs.
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"I think my thighs are getting bigger," I announced to a friend one day. I couldn't believe it. All summer, I'd spent hours each day exercising and, as an act of good faith, avoiding nearly all the foods I enjoyed. Now, putting on a swimsuit, I was horrified to find that my already nonexistent thigh gap was closing further.
"I think that's muscle, Emma," he told me. "You bike and run all the time. Your thighs are muscular."
Muscle. This was news to me.
In the almost-decade since that realization — that exercise made my thighs bigger and, therefore, stronger — I've spent thousands of hours exercising. I found myself drawn to backpacking, climbing, mountain biking, and skiing. Each of these activities requires strong quads.
I wish I could say this newfound correlation changed the way I felt when I looked at my body in the mirror. But, as with most things, this has taken time. I still cringe when I pull on too-tight jeans right out of the dryer or have to peel my thighs apart when I stand up from a lounge chair at the pool.
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But here's the rub, so to speak. When I feel self-conscious about the way my body moves and looks, I'm not paying attention to what everyone else is doing. I imagine the folks around me at the pool — those whose thighs do not touch, and those whose thighs do — worrying about their arms, their tummies, about any number of perceived imperfections. But I don't even notice their bodies; I'm too caught up critiquing my own shape. I certainly don't care whether they have a thigh gap. I bet they aren't noticing me, either.
Here's one thing I care about more than being "beautiful": The stronger (and bigger) my thighs are, the more miles I can run. I can reach farther-away summits and climb harder routes and ski steeper runs. To feel like the best version of myself, I don't need a thigh gap. I need to do squats.
#TakeBackTheBeach essays are meant to reflect individual women's experiences. They have only been lightly edited (if at all) by Refinery29 and do not necessarily reflect the company's point of view. Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity or harmful behavior.
Have a story of body image and self-perception that you want to share? Submit your essay to our Take Back The Beach contest here.
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