Women, Fitness, and Body Image: Reshaping the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Biking in the Methow Valley, Washington.
Biking in the Methow Valley, Washington.

Some years ago, I ran into a guy I knew in elementary school.

"I guess you remember," he said, "how I always had a hard time reading aloud in class."

I remembered many things about this guy -- how cute he was, how kind and soft-spoken, what a gifted athlete he was -- but I remembered nothing about him being a slow reader. Clearly, though, he remembered it, and he vividly recalled the shame of feeling inadequate in front of his peers. It had stuck with him for over 20 years, through a successful career and marriage and the births of his three children.

I was a fairly confident reader, but I would have traded my reading abilities in a second to have some of my friends' athletic abilities. It wasn't that I was a particularly heavy or clumsy kid, but I wasn't a particularly lean or agile kid either. I was sort of in between, a little pudgy around the middle, my arms a bit flabby, good at jumping jacks and the forward roll but not much else.

Each year, the Presidential Fitness Test meant certain humiliation for me, and though I practiced for weeks leading up to the test, up until fifth grade I could never do any of the "ups" that were required -- push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups. And then, finally, my fifth grade year, I managed one sit-up. One. Which was almost more embarrassing than none.

Worse than that, though, was the fact that I had a fear of being hit with balls -- softballs, footballs, basketballs, soccer balls, any kind of balls. Even games that were supposed to be "fun" -- dodge ball, Red Rover -- elicited the same reaction from me. As soon as a ball flew within my general vicinity, I ducked and covered my head with both hands, tornado-drill style.

As if that were not enough, middle school gym class brought its own special forms of mortification. By sixth grade, my breasts were a good two bra sizes larger than those of most of my peers, and I had already started my period -- two facts which made me basically an alien in my middle school locker room. While the girl who had a locker beside mine strutted proudly around the locker room in her red bikini underwear with the words "Make Love Not War" emblazoned right there on her tight butt, I mastered the art of changing my entire outfit in less than 30 seconds without ever actually being naked.

Then I darted out to the gym and took my spot on the floor, ready to begin the next painful event, a series of calisthenics that would make the U.S. Military proud -- one armed push-ups, crunches, flutter kicks -- boot camp for middle schoolers. This was inevitably followed by a rousing round of volleyball or softball or some other sporting event wherein my performance was so demoralizing I found myself counting the days until we got to watch a film about scoliosis or when the public health nurses came to discuss personal hygiene.

Today, I look back on this time with both gratitude that I made it out with some semblance of self-esteem and regret for what I would not learn until many years later: Physical education, at least as I was taught it back in the '70s, had very little to do with lifelong fitness. Back then, though, I believed the message that, in so many words, I was given: that I was not meant for sports, that I should just find a big, cozy couch somewhere and stay there.

Today, I am still not overly fond of balls or games involving balls, and I am still not exactly an expert sit-upper. However, throughout my adult life, I have been an active, outdoorsy type and I do occasionally go to the gym for muscle pump or spin. I also hike. I swim when the opportunity arises. I take long walks almost every day, and though not exactly fast or sleek, for many years, I was a distance runner.

I didn't especially enjoy running. It involved too many body parts aching and creaking and throbbing, but I liked being outdoors, and it helped me manage my weight. And then one day a few years ago, a friend invited me to go mountain biking.

This friend was a real athlete who had once played college-level sports, and the mere sight of her conjured up all my old insecurities. She was fit and firm, a lifelong sports fan who did crunches every morning and routinely played badminton and pickle ball for fun.

"I don't know," I said. "I'm not all that athletic..."

"Come on," she said. "It'll be fun."

And it was. After that first ride, I was hooked -- to the speed and adrenaline, to the feeling of mud slapping onto my calves and sweat soaking my jersey, to the blood splattered across my arms due to all my near-misses with trees, but mostly to the camaraderie and to the newfound confidence that came along with being able to do something difficult and perhaps a little risky. For the first time in my life, I didn't particularly care how "good" I was, whether my bike shorts were a size larger than everyone else's or whether I was the first one up a mountain. I was doing a sport, and I was enjoying it.

Which is not to say that my athletic endeavors since then have all been exactly successful. Once, this same friend convinced me to do a mud run, another paramilitary affair involving running and scaling walls and swinging over rivers. Somewhere along mile two, while the rest of our team was sailing effortlessly over a wall, I ended up stuck on one side. No amount of straining on my part was going to propel me over, so finally, a college student who had been waiting for his turn to go over, the same college student I had earlier seen guzzling a coffee mug full of vodka, placed one hand on my ample butt and heaved me over the top.

Still, I would never have attempted this race if I had still been caught up in the language of my childhood, the narrow labels by which children learn to define themselves and by which those children, once grown, often continue to define themselves -- the slow reader, the inept athlete.

Now, finally, I have moved beyond adding points and keeping score, of not deducting what I am not good at when I calculate my worth. At times, this has meant coming full circle and re-imagining a more perfect childhood for myself, one where I realize I was cheated just a little bit back in P.E. class with all the sprints and lunges and squats, where I realize it was never really about the number of sit-ups or who got picked first for the dodgeball team. In this ideal childhood I conjure for myself, I realize early on that it's about the journey, pure and simple, and I stride confidently into the middle school gym shower, my size D breasts leading the way.

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