Sweat stained the woman’s gray tank top. I watched her reflection in the gym mirror as she carefully executed one bicep curl after another. I glared before turning away. “Ugh,” I sneered in disgust, the words floating inside an ugly cartoon thought bubble. “How did you get to look like that?”
As our coach gently corrected form (“Bring the weights a bit more forward. See?”), we turned to the mirror. The out-of-shape woman looked back, but I quickly dropped my gaze. I’d do just about anything to avoid seeing her.
On another day, as I walked through the doctor’s waiting room, savagely similar thoughts hammered in my head: “How does anyone get so big so fast? What kind of lazy slob just lets go? Where is your will power?”
That sad woman in the mirror? The slob sparking those horrible criticisms?
Out of Shape and Into Body Shame
In August 2016, I went to Davis Mountains Fitness and Training Camp. Earlier that spring, I’d run the Paris Marathon, taken on a mountainous 50K in North Carolina, and completed a half marathon on trails in Bastrop State Park.
The week after DMFTC, however, I was completely sidelined by unrelenting fatigue. Sofa city, sweetheart. That weird exhaustion sent me to my doctor–what in the world had happened?
Two years later, I’m no closer to finding out why. Worse yet–I haven’t gotten much better. Truth is, I’ve simply adapted by limiting my activity. One easy run a week combined with simple, low-impact exercises; walking’s my go-to workout.
If I’m lucky, any given week has more active days than sofa time. And because this more sedentary lifestyle burns fewer calories, I’ve gained weight. A solid 25 pounds.
Once upon a time, I believed that, as long as my body could perform, fitness, not size, was what mattered. Sure, that thinking was never easy; I’ve always been on the plus side when compared to my endurance-athlete friends. People would ask, “How is it that you exercise like you do but you’re not stick thin?” and I’d respond, “I don’t know.” When I lost weight at the beginning of my trail running mania, a well-intentioned couple remarked, “It’s like you lost a whole person! You look so much better!” (I had lost 12 pounds). And then there was the workout “friend” who asked: “Is everyone in your family fat?”
When my little girl self begged for dance lessons, my mom explained I didn’t “have the right body to be a ballerina.”
So, yes, all my life, I’ve understood no one sees me as thin. But as an adult, I’d come to believe fit was better than thin. I could run ultra marathons, complete multiple daily workouts, and show up (in my 50s) for sessions that had 30-year-olds spewing vomit.
My body, however it looked, was an amazing machine. I could celebrate and treat it well. To hell with whatever the world said I should weigh.
Until my body quit performing.
Food, Weight, and Embarrassment
Food: It’s one of our most fundamental needs and, face it, a source of much unhappiness. We American women are so bound by appearance, which is tied to weight and how we do–and don’t–eat.
“‘Good,’ for women, means saying no: to food, to sex, to temptation, to pleasure….Sitting down to a meal becomes morally and emotionally fraught: Will I make a ‘good’ choice? …Amid all this anxiety, the primitive pleasure of eating takes a backseat.”~ Jill Filipovic, The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness
Since I’ve stopped running and moving, nothing slows the scale’s alarming climb. The number at my last medical appointment–the one that inspired such loathing–has surpassed Baby & Me amounts. Food, no longer functioning as fuel, is the enemy. Just forget pleasure! Guilt twines around my fork like spaghetti: every bite’s a snarled knot in my stomach. Fraught debate over my food’s nature (its quantity, timing, frequency, quality) wraps tightly around guilt over whether I should eat at all.
How can I justify consuming calories that aren’t being burned? If I cut back enough, I’ll have to lose weight, right? But if I don’t fuel my body, I’m certainly doomed to inactivity. Really, though–without workouts, do I deserve a nice meal? Shouldn’t I just eat to subsist?
Good food makes me happy but this body makes me miserable.
I’ve never experienced such a tortured relationship with meals. In the past, though I may have wished I were thinner or prettier, my body was never the problem. But now I don’t want to look at myself. I’m uncomfortable with my husband seeing me naked. My social circle, so largely clustered around training, has shrunk. In groups, I’m self conscious of what I eat, fearful that I’ll be judged.
“We all need to feel valued, accepted and affirmed. When we feel worthless, rejected and unworthy of belonging, we feel shame.” ~Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Wasn’t)
Shame, as Brené Brown explains, is crippling. When I run into folks I haven’t seen in a while, I’m hyperaware, on edge, wondering if there will be some comment. Like the PR woman who took one look and knew I wasn’t the writer requesting trail time: “Oh, no–that interview’s not yours; I’m sure the fit, sporty woman has that.”
Truth is, I’m not fit anymore. No one can spend years on the couch and claim fitness (except, evidently, our 45th president). When I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize the sedentary woman staring back at me. So I don’t look. I avoid and cover up my hurt, grief, and shame by being “fine” and “too busy” for workouts. So many friends have severe issues–heart surgery, paraplegia, cancer, a loved one’s unexpected death–that my fatigue issues feel like a cloud of gnats.
What I Know Versus How I Feel
I read Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger, and while she and I are not the same kind of fat, she often wrote for me.
“I hate my body. I hate my weakness at being unable to control my body. I hate how I feel in my body. I hate how people see my body. I hate how people stare at my body, treat my body, comment on my body. I hate equating my self-worth with this state of my body and how difficult it is to overcome this equation. I hate how hard it is to accept my human frailties. I hate that I am letting down so many women when I can’t embrace my body at any size.”~ Roxane Gay, Hunger
Intellectually, I understand American society’s unrealistic demands on women’s appearance. As a fitness magazine editor, I chose to showcase active bodies in all sizes, shapes, ability, and ages. I railed against sickly thin, giant breasted “fitness” models and championed “real” women who worked out.
Until now, I never realized how fitness provided my escape from lookism. My critical inner voice granted the weight bye because I worked out.
On good days, I can still walk miles. I can swim laps, show up at a gym class, travel a trail. On a very basic level, I have a fully functioning body. That’s more than a lot of folks can manage.
On bad days, my body swims through molasses, arms and legs almost too heavy to lift, brain foggy and fit only for mind-numbing TV binges, supine on the sofa. Those days are so much more debilitating than they should be.
Gay says her book is not for me. She’s right–I don’t weigh hundreds of pounds. Many would debate how “over weight” I actually am, but I’d argue that’s getting buried in the details.
These unwanted bodily changes have plowed through my life like a wrecking ball. I’m struggling to rebuild the temple.
It’s true; I don’t know what moving through Gay’s world, with all its undeserved disgust, is like. But I’ve given myself a taste.