'You Should Be a [Plus-Size] Model'

This post originally appeared on SecondShiftAthlete.

I was disentangling myself from my tights in my gym's changing room when the friendly cleaning lady, Carla, looked me over. "You should be a model," she said, then smiled. "Ever hear of Lane Bryant? Beautiful women, beautiful clothes, but not for, you know, skinny girls." She gave me an affirming nod and went back to work.

Great. After two years of working out, my compliment comes with a side of "You're not a skinny girl." Maybe I should just skip the elliptical for a bacon cheeseburger.

That was my first thought, though I'm not proud to admit it.

Over the course of the next hour, where I had plenty of sweaty, free time with my thoughts, I considered the sentiment behind what Carla had said: You look like a model. The women who model for Lane Bryant are gorgeous, and I'm willing to bet they rarely skip their workouts to eat bacon cheeseburgers. So why did I feel like the girl in the Flight of the Conchord's (very funny) song "The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)"? Sample lyric: "You're so beautiful/You could be a part-time model/But you'd probably still have to keep your normal job."

I'll never be a skinny girl, and that was never my goal when I first got serious about working out. Over the past two years, as I've gone from a size 14 to a 10, I still like the way my body fills out a dress, and I continue to surprise and delight myself with the non-looks-related perks of exercise. But all it took was one (even if well-meaning) comment about my body to erase all that from my mind and instead focus on how the outside world saw me. Do I even look different since I started working out? Is there any point?

But maybe, as Barthes wrote about being in love, exercising is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. No other human being can appreciate the hours I've logged, the sweat I've sweated and the private victories I've celebrated. Like when I found my old passport and realized that when I was ten years younger, I looked not only bigger but older at 20 than I do now at 30.

No one else could know the particulars of my exercise story -- just like I don't know Carla's. She simply said what she saw, a beautiful woman, and was moved to speak up. And the more time I spend trying to reconcile her vision with my own narrative, the less time I have for the elliptical and bacon cheeseburgers (because there is time for both). So thank you, Carla, for the compliment. And Lane Bryant, if you're interested, I'm ready.