Over three years ago, I began to meet with a personal trainer on a weekly basis. My working class roots resisted what seemed like a posh luxury, but this was an indulgence I could justify. Like many people, I am juggling roles as an employee, parent, caretaker and writer. It is very easy to let the caretaking of my body slip down the list of priorities. Now, it seems reckless and unacceptable to ignore the longest relationship I will ever have.
I am being taught how to strengthen, recover and challenge my body with deliberate intention. I want to honor this amazing entity that carries me through the day, that survived grueling marches in combat boots, that housed my child, that does a million complicated tasks within a single day.
Many years have passed since I tried to starve my body into submission or indulged in punishing workouts for eating too much. I no longer see my body as an enemy, a distant necessity which must be managed and controlled. Enough has been said about what culture dictates about women’s bodies (although I see some expectations trickling down to men as well). We know the body politics and the commercialization and the airbrushing outrages. I’m a bit tired of it all, because it has become irrelevant to my body.
My body exists as is. Torturing it to meet unrealistic standards, damaging my self-esteem when it doesn’t meet those standards and having it constantly in my mind as an issue is completely useless for my health. I am learning to block the noise and pay attention to what is important. I get angry when I start to write about this topic, because so much energy, so much time, in my lifetime alone, has been wasted on the issue of what we should look like and so little on what we should feel like.
Amazing things happen when you turn your gaze inward and stop looking in the mirror. Do you feel strong? Do you feel energetic? Do you feel appreciative of all the muscles, bone structure, nerves and blood required to just move you through your day? Some days, I don’t feel any of those things, but I’ve gotten in the habit of doing a mental once-over. What hurts? Where am I stiff or sore? Am I tired? How much sleep have I been getting? Does my body need more water? So often we take better care of the car in the driveway than of the vehicles that brung us.
I’ve always had the desire to feel strong, but that desire has met intense psychological resistance. I’m self-conscious about my body and an introvert. Workout DVDs were my gateway drug, done secretly in my home where no one could see when I tripped doing the grapevine or hear me grunting while doing lunges. My idea was to become completely fit before going out into the world to exercise, so that I wouldn’t look out of shape or silly.
It’s an objection that I’ve overcome, but one of the most difficult mental obstacles for people to get beyond. I used to be one of those people who would drive down the street and see someone overweight running and think “I would never do that, looking that way.” Here’s a secret: How you look is completely irrelevant to how you feel or what your fitness level is.
You cannot look at a person and tell how fit they are or how wonderful they feel with all those happy brain chemicals bouncing about in their heads. Their being is not about you or your judgments, just as your body is not about theirs. Now I see somebody working out and no matter how they appear, I think “what have I done today to take care of my body?” Some days, it will entail a nap, or a slow deliberate walk or just stretching out a bit. Other days, it might need more, but it needs mindfulness.
I return to the YMCA on Monday, after a hiatus. My sole goal: get there. Once I’m there, I’ll worry about what I should do next. My insecurities will raise their ugly little heads and I will be tempted to be envious of tiny Ms. Lycra in front of me or feel smug when I see someone barely able to jog a few minutes. It’s all bullshit and like cultural dictates, irrelevant to what I need to be doing.
Areas of my body will be jiggling on the treadmill that hadn’t before. I will not have coordinated workout clothing. I will sweat profusely and look and smell not particularly delightful. I will not, well into my workout, even feel particularly good. I will appear graceless doing bench presses and lat pull downs and rows. People will look at me and wonder if my red face indicates a potential cardiac event. But I won’t care, because I will walk out of there with my happy brain chemicals, my sweaty head held high and the gratitude of a body that I’ve honored.