It’s hard to imagine a feeling state that you haven’t ever felt. For instance, I have no idea what it feels like to win a Nobel prize or have chest hair. I can guess at it, I can ask people who have been there, I can decide that I don’t mind not knowing, or I can make changes in my own mindset and behavior to see if I can find out for myself. Some exploration can be interesting. It can also be helpful whenever there’s any kind of conflict or friction around a mysterious feeling state. One of these is the idea of self-acceptance. Where is the line between self-compassion and fatalism?
What does self-acceptance feel like?
It’s probably different for different aspects of the self. My guess is that most people are not bothered by certain parts of what they see as the “self” while being frustrated by other parts. Physical appearance, character flaws, intelligence, sense of humor, relationships, skills, talents... It’s easy to imagine someone who, say, is proud of being good with animals but feels unattractive. Maybe another person feels clumsy but smart, or friendly but bad at art. Probably most of us feel acceptance when our strengths line up with our values. It’s when we feel judged, shamed, or criticized by others that we tend to beat ourselves up and have trouble with self-esteem.
This makes sense, but it’s also funny. Anyone who has watched the first couple of episodes of a season of American Idol knows that plenty of people have strong self-esteem in areas where it may not be warranted. (I’m a terrible singer with a good ear, so I know better than to inflict my voice on an audience). There’s also no guarantee that we’re really as weak as we think in the areas where we feel more vulnerable or wounded. When it comes to ourselves, we lack perspective.
That’s the point of self-acceptance, of course. Ideally we’re learning to be more compassionate and patient with ourselves. What’s the point of shame, anyway?
The challenge is to learn how to reframe the inner work, so that it isn’t a battle over shame. It’s possible to view these challenges with a growth mindset, seeing areas for improvement without feeling less-than, rejected, or criticized, by self or others.
As an example, when I was in high school I used to spill milk in my lap all the time when I was eating cereal before school. It was really frustrating! The day I realized I could avoid this problem by eating at the table instead of sitting on the couch, it felt triumphant. AHA! I suppose I could have seen myself as clumsy or something. At the time it just felt like I was unlucky, because something was Happening to Me that wasn’t happening to other people. I realized it wasn’t Happening to Me, but rather that I was Doing It to Myself. I had the power to make a very simple change in my behavior and instantly get better results. I wasn’t judging myself or blaming myself, I was recognizing an unhelpful pattern and making my life easier.
This is why I think that self-acceptance can often be defeatist. There are so many common human foibles, things that many or most people do, and there’s no reason to “accept” them and continue to do them. We can change our behavior with an attitude of humor and affection. There I go again, looking for my sunglasses when they’re already on top of my head! Oops, I just came back from the store with everything except the thing I went there to buy. Me and everyone else.
Probably, though, we already know how to laugh off our silly mistakes. It’s the bigger stuff that catches us up.
In my work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization, there are a lot of contradictions. My disorganized clients tend to beat themselves up quite a bit, punishing themselves as though being scattered were some kind of moral flaw. They almost always refer to themselves as “hoarders,” even though they have little or no emotional attachment to their stuff. Squalor clients, on the other hand, don’t really believe in germ theory, and they have no hang-ups about truly unsanitary conditions, mold, vermin, insect infestations, or even the occasional dead rodent. My true hoarders tend to feel entitled to hoard, not just their own but others’ possessions, not just their own personal space but that of roommates, relatives, friends, neighbors, and the general public. Hoarded homes tend to look extremely similar, yet they got that way through wildly different emotional and cognitive states. Maybe there’s some irony here. Those whose behaviors are the most frustrating to others around them tend to be the least concerned about it, feeling like “that’s their problem, not mine.” Those who feel the most guilt and shame about chronic disorganization will often adopt a new behavior or structure the moment they learn about it.
The ultimate questions are ethical concerns about how much our behavior impacts others, and straightforward evaluation of our results. Is what we’re doing on a routine basis fair, interesting, efficient? Does it make our lives or others’ lives easier, better, more fun, more meaningful?
In our current cultural moment, when billions of digital images are so instantly accessible at all times, people seem to be struggling more with accepting their physical appearance than anything else. This has always felt very puzzling to me, because why should that matter, of all things? What does how someone looks have to do with their personality, intelligence, character, or contribution in this world? Why on earth should someone’s body or face, both of which change decade by decade, feel like a bigger deal than how they act, what stories they tell, how they treat others, or what they do with their time? What the heck does the physical vessel have to do with the legacy of a lifetime? What will we leave behind after our time on this earth, other than a bunch of photographs?
Maybe that’s the most defeatist idea of all, the premise that appearance is first and foremost, the most important trait and the single quality that defines us. The time we spend on the outer work takes away from the time we could be spending on the inner work. What if we just redirected our focus? What if, whenever we started focusing on our body parts and wishing for external approval of our externally visible traits, we simply paused and decided to go further in?
It’s happening again! I went to a party and another woman showed me how to do something I couldn’t do when I was a little girl. Last time, it was spinning a hula hoop, which led to my immediate purchase of my own hoop(s), months of obsession, and a non-obvious segue into running. In a way, my first tentative spin of a hula hoop at age 35 led directly to running a marathon.
This time, it’s the headstand.
My inability as a child to do a cartwheel, spin a hula hoop, jump through two jump ropes, or do a headstand had nothing to do with lack of trying. If I’m anything, it’s persistent. I just couldn’t figure out how to model what other kids were demonstrating. This might be because, due to my late-July birthday, I was younger than other kids in my grade, and thus smaller and less developed. It might be because I’m still not great on proprioception, knowing where my body is in relation to the external world. I defined myself as bad at sports. I hated P.E. I was last picked for teams. All these childhood antics left me feeling excluded, clumsy, slow, weak, and sorry for myself.
In my forties, I’m finding those missing pieces. When I meet other women my age in a physical setting, we gravitate toward each other immediately. Just the other night in kickboxing, I had someone ask to be my training partner after someone else had already asked! These days, I’m first picked instead of last picked. (We had an odd number in the class so the three of us partnered up together. I would NEVER leave another girl hanging). Suddenly there’s this playfulness and fun in my life that once eluded me.
Now, about that headstand. What’s the secret?
It turns out that when people do something like acro-yoga or juggling, something that looks like magic, they’re doing extremely specific things. These movements can be broken down into micro-steps that can be learned and mastered one by one. Not everyone who is good at something is a good teacher, and it’s possible to do something without understanding how you’re doing it. It’s also true that lifelong athletes tend to underestimate how much baseline strength and cardiovascular fitness is required for certain things. In spite of all that, it’s always possible to find a good teacher or a video that demonstrates the steps.
It was no accident that I met my new friend. We were at the WDS opening party, a field day, and I spotted a group of people doing headstands at the other end of the field. After I learned a new hula hoop trick and taught another woman to spin two hoops at once, I wandered over there to see if anyone could teach me. I asked!
This is the magic part, really. My new friend showed me the initial stages, and I found that I was strong enough to easily do them. All of my work in boxing gloves over six months gave me a totally unrelated, non-adjacent ability. How crazy is that?? I went out and got myself bigger biceps, deltoids, trapezius, and lats, thickened up my neck a bit, and opened the door to acrobatics.
Step one: Kneel on the ground.
Step two: Put the top of your head on the ground.
Step three: Put your hands down about shoulder-width apart, halfway between your head and your knees.
Step four: Put your knees up on your elbows.
With me so far? While I was watching and listening carefully, I wasn’t really thinking about how much of my body was inverted and vertical. Put your knees on your elbows? Okay! Like this?
I had tried this in yoga class several times, even against a wall or with a partner, and it was definitely not happening. As a boxer, yeah, not only was it possible, it wasn’t even hard.
The next step is to raise your legs and straighten them out. I’m still working on this part. It’s given me a solid understanding of how much more core strength can do for my life. Comically, it’s become my major motivator. My arms, legs, and back are quite strong now, and I have some real muscle definition, but my belly is soft and slack. External appearances don’t matter much to me, but the ability to do not just the headstand, but other circus tricks actually does matter. If I can build up my abs and obliques, I can use that new muscle base to do other things, too. That’s probably the secret behind walking on my hands, riding a unicycle, and doing a cartwheel at last. Maybe I could also learn to do a backflip or other gymnastic moves.
What I’ve been doing is practicing my headstand for a few minutes every night before bed. I haven’t been this excited about anything since that first day with the hula hoop. I feel genuine anticipation when I get down on the floor, wondering if this is the night. The picture accompanying this post is from the one-week mark. As I post this, I’ve had an additional four days of practice, and I’m able to extend my right leg straight up. I estimate that it will take me 3-4 weeks to go from zero to sustaining a full headstand without immediately tipping over. Another way to put it is that, at five minutes a day, it has taken less than an hour to get one leg up and I’m guessing about another hour to get them both.
There was a rough moment. I was trying to impress my husband (while he was trying to brush his teeth) and I called him out to see how I finally had my leg up straight. Then I toppled over and landed on my back. Embarrassing! Apparently the impact caused my gluteus muscle to clamp up on one side overnight. I was limping and it was scary-sore. I took some anti-inflammatories and did my normal amount of walking, and within an hour or two it was fine. It’s only fair to say that falling over is a little more dangerous for someone with a fully developed skeleton; I weighed half this much in grade school. I just remind myself that one of my main reasons for choosing an impact sport like kickboxing is to build bone density while I still can, and that falling on the ground is literally the type of impact that helps with this. It’s also highly relevant that I’ve learned how to fall properly. A few hundred sprawls and breakfalls trained me, so that I fell in a straight line and didn’t twist or strain or sprain anything.
Be careful! They tell me to be careful when they wouldn’t tell a man. I AM being careful! I’m being careful to protect Old Me from falls, from osteoporosis, from sarcopenia, from heart disease and cognitive decline. I’m also protecting myself from regret and isolation. The moral of the story is, find something that truly excites you and strive for it in tiny increments, day after day. The thrill of finally getting that prize is something you can’t get any other way.
A funny coincidence came up the other day. Someone I’ve known socially for about a year asked what gym I go to, and then told me that he went to the same place for three years. Wow, really? It’s a martial arts school with a couple hundred students, not exactly a huge 24-hour commodity gym. He said he was in the best shape of his life at that time, and then added ruefully that he should get back on that. I paid attention to that, because he is at least ten years older than I am, and the older I get, the more I realize that matters.
Then I thought: What exactly does “best shape of my life” mean? When would that be?
Am I already there, was I there at some point in childhood, or is there still a “better” “shape” somewhere in my future?
I should throw in there that using the term “shape” is a bit ambiguous. It seems to refer to externalities like physical appearance, and that inevitably touches on What Other People Think. It’s much harder to discuss an internal sensation or overall experience of... what? Strength, agility, speed, power, peace of mind, potentiality...? Harder still when trying to get our heads around internal physical feelings that we may never have felt, like trying to explain a flavor or a musical genre without comparing it to other things.
I can easily imagine a few time periods that could compete for “worst” shape of my life. Crawling on the floor with the flu. Walking around during finals with my eyelid twitching from stress. The first time I ran down a flight of stairs and suddenly felt my back jiggle. The first time I walked up a flight of stairs and my vision started to go black. Swallowing radioactive iodine for my thyroid scan, and then struggling not to cough for an hour even though the enlarged gland caused a constant tickle in my throat. Being strapped to the table for my first nerve conductivity study. Et cetera. Hard times, scary times, sad times.
It’s because of this background of chronic pain, illness, and fatigue, though, that I’m so ready to embrace anything better. This is why I can’t give a care whether other people approve of my external physical appearance. Go ahead and fit-shame me; you won’t be the first. My health is somewhat fragile and I can’t live a conventional lifestyle in a conventionally relaxed, standard physique. I do what I have to do and that tends to result in certain external physical signs.
The body changes tend to be a mix of good, bad, and neutral.
When I was training for my marathon, my feet looked kinda terrible. They wound up growing a half size bigger and I had to get rid of every. Single. Last. Pair. Of shoes I had owned before.
Then I got more into backpacking and I wound up losing the nails on my two big toes. Took six months to heal.
As a cyclist, I learned that I always sweat out the crotch of my clothes first.
Now I’m boxing and doing martial arts, and I’ve had at least one visible bruise at all times since January. I’ve also scraped off my knuckles and broken off a chunk of toenail. Sexy stuff. I get teased because I have yet to find a successful method of controlling my frizzy hair during class, and I’ve resorted to wearing a dorky bandanna as a sweatband.
Athletic me: Frizzy, sweaty, bruised, muddy, looking like a laundry basket.
Ah, but then there’s the inner experience. It starts when the scary stuff gradually fades away. My thyroid nodule disappears and never comes back. I realize I haven’t had a migraine in a year, then two years, then three years, then four years. My shoulder quits spasming. I stop feeling like a human trainwreck.
Then I start to be able to keep up. I can keep up with the other students in class, I can do moves that would have left me quivering on the floor a month earlier, I can ride my bike or run at the same pace as my friend.
Then I start to notice that I’m doing weird things, like opening the pickle jar in one try, or running up a flight of stairs two at a time without losing my breath.
Then I start feeling very, very strange feelings, such as the desire to do core exercises. I read that an Olympian athlete does 700 sit-ups a day and I feel curiosity. Oh? How long does that take? All in one set or throughout the day? What else does she do?
In spite of all the evidence that my body is changing, because my experience of being in my body is undeniably different, it still surprises me when these changes show up on the outside. Brushing my teeth, I suddenly see the new definition in my triceps. Leaning forward, I’m surprised by the roll of my trapezius muscles. Getting dressed, I see the shadow marking my hamstrings. Whoa, what’s going on there?
Arguably, I’m in the best shape of my life right now. I’m about to turn 43. I can do stupid human tricks today that I couldn’t manage as an 8-year-old child. I still feel slow and ungainly in class, and I work out next to women and men who are as many as 35 years older than I am now. I can only assume that I’ll continue to improve, especially because I’m due to switch to advanced classes this summer. This makes me feel about 10% scared, 25% excited, and the rest just nonchalant, because it’s inevitable. What’s going to happen, though?
What will the best shape of my life look like, and when will it happen? How will I know?
The Self-Love Experiment is a story about Shannon Kaiser’s exploration of self-compassion. This is a very raw, immediate, real look at what it’s like to do deep inner work. It will speak to anyone who has body image issues or who struggles with self-loathing. Hence, nearly everybody.
Self-compassion is the antidote to shame. Unfortunately, the first level of defense that comes from toxic shame is to convince the ashamed that they are undeserving of compassion, or anything good in this world. It always boggles my mind when I work with clients who are so convinced that they are terrible people, even though everyone else around them sees them as kind, sensitive, caring friends. Trying to love yourself when you feel unlovable must feel like ripping off your own skin, like a nakedness beyond nakedness.
Shannon Kaiser talks openly about her issues with depression, eating disorders, drug addiction, and body dysmorphia. If she could learn to love herself while fighting all of these demons, then surely there’s something here for everyone.
Something I found really intriguing in The Self-Love Experiment was the differentiation between the “rebellion self,” the “reward self,” the “protection self,” and the “lonely self.” These are aspects of the personality with different drives, and they explain a lot about coping behaviors.
This is a very approachable, yet multi-layered and complex book. There’s enough here that some chapters could keep someone busy for a year. If you’re a Feeler, if you’re dissatisfied with your life, or if you are ever mean to yourself, it would be a self-compassionate act to read this book. Try the Self-Love Experiment for yourself.
It never occurred to me that trying to change my outside world was a desperate attempt to feel better on the inside.
To stop loathing myself is to reduce the negativity and pain in the world.
Despite what you might believe about yourself, you are not broken, you are not your problems, there’s nothing to fix, you’re not off track, there isn’t something wrong with you, your insecurities are not hindering you, and your flaws don’t make you weak, unlovable, or unsuccessful.
How do I write about hedonism without making it sound all sexy? This is a serious question. In fact, there are few things that are more serious than the ways that pleasure overlaps with morality, and we tend to oversimplify all of that by making it about sex. I’m a very shy person, and I have no intention of going there on this blog. What I have noticed, though, is that my people (my clients, my students) are really poor at identifying things they like and enjoy. They’re also really poor at imagining a positive future for themselves. Here are some of the hardest things I’ve asked them to do:
Describe your perfect day
Make a list of things you enjoy
Tell me your favorite
What would you like to happen between now and this time next year?
This area is wide open for research. Is it something about depression and anxiety that prevents people from enjoying themselves and imagining better times? Or is it this disconnect from pleasure that perhaps leads to anxiety and depression? Does this all just have to do with the amygdala being activated or something? I think these ideas are objectively testable. As with everything, of course, we can test ideas on ourselves. Say it with me: does it work, or does it not work? Does it work for you, or does it not work for you?
One of those ideas we can check is the idea of sin, or morality in general. I’ve noticed that my people tend to moralize about things that simply aren’t moral issues. “I was bad.” Ooh, naughty. One of those areas is housework, another is money, and another is food and body image. A close friend of mine was trained from childhood that a clean house is morally virtuous and that household dirt is shameful, perhaps evil. THIS IS A MATTER OF OPINION. I keep a clean house because it’s a cheap workout and because otherwise I can’t find anything or think straight. I also like how it looks, feels, and smells, and more on this later. Many people have been taught that money leads to evil, which is a bummer, because most of these same individuals would probably be terrific at fundraising for charity if they allowed themselves to think that way. A million volumes could be written on all the ways we’ve been taught that certain foods are “decadent” or “sinful” and how we’re “bad” or how we’ve “been good” for eating in certain ways. If we want to be decadent and sensually indulgent, my dears, there are so many better ways...
There are zero, zero rules for what you can find pleasurable or not pleasurable. Nobody else can tell you whether you like something or don’t like it, just as they can’t tell you what emotions you are feeling. As you learn to inhabit your body more fully, you’ll be more aware of what you do or don’t like and what you are sensing and feeling. Not knowing is a promising sign that you have a lot of fun experiments ahead!
Also, it’s nobody else’s business what you enjoy privately. The reason so many people cherish time alone is that this is when we get to do all the stuff we like to do. For instance, when my husband goes on a business trip, I watch horror movies and eat eggplant for dinner, because we don’t share those delights in common. It’s nobody else’s business what you listen to on your headphones, how you season your soup, or what you choose for your favorite colors.
There are a bunch of things that are commonly perceived to be pleasurable or fun, things that I personally dislike. Start with the word “pampered.” UGH! That will only ever make me think of disposable diapers. Also, I despise being waited on or having very attentive customer service. I’m shy and independent, and I distrust flattery. I’ve never had a professional manicure or pedicure, although I’ve bought them for men I’ve dated, because it sounds awful to me. Two words: toenail fungus. In fact, just stop at the word ‘toenail.’ Let’s see, what else? I don’t like alcohol or coffee, I think cheese is revolting, and there are a lot of desserts that turn me off. I don’t like croissants, gummy candy, or anything with powdered sugar or syrup. I don’t care for chocolate either.
Each and every one of those items that I dislike are things that another person would love. That’s awesome. More for you!
I’m attentive to what I dislike or find ‘blah’ or uninteresting, because one part of expanding into pleasure is avoiding the icky stuff. This is an existential position. Practical philosophy! I believe that I have the right to move toward things I love and enjoy, and the right to say a firm NO to things that I don’t. This is a radical, revolutionary position. A lot of us don’t necessarily believe that we really exist, that we have a right to our own opinions. This is something that can take a lot of work, something that is worthy of exploring with a counselor or therapist. Why shouldn’t you wear socks in your favorite color, listen to your favorite musicians, or say “no thank you” when you’re not interested in eating something? Huh? Why shouldn’t you?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from coaching is that each of my clients has a highly idiosyncratic, negative story behind whatever painful, ineffective thing it is that they’re doing. That’s why I really mean it when I mean that you should put serious thought into why you think you’re not entitled to basic pleasures or basic, fundamental boundaries. Because you are. Of course you are!
As a matter of fact, the vast majority of pleasurable things you can indulge in won’t affect anyone else in any way. They don’t even have to know. If you like cutting your sandwich on the diagonal one day and horizontally the next, go ahead!
I’ll go on to say that claiming pleasure for yourself has a positive ripple effect on others. It helps as a foundation of strength, something that supports you as you do difficult things, like contributing at work, serving others in your life, volunteering, being a good citizen, or taking on challenges and quests. Pleasure nurtures you, helping you to avoid burnout, draining the boil of irritation or futility that you might otherwise spatter on others, venting and complaining about various miseries. It’s pretty hard to feel pleasure and annoyance or disappointment at the same time. Trust and believe that most people would rather hear about something enjoyable you did than something that frustrated you, unless of course you were able to make it into a funny story.
Spending time in nature, either physically or virtually. The phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset, clouds, stars, the weather. Trees, landscapes, flowers. The sounds of wind, water, birds - I’ll never forget the first time I heard a fox bark. Pictures of mountains, the ocean, the surface of Mars, anything that increases your sense of awe and delights your eye.
Visual delights. Color. Symmetry or asymmetry. Scrolling through museum collections online. Gazing into the middle distance. Changing your phone wallpaper a lot.
Music. Which is greater: the pleasure of listening to a beloved song over and over, or the pleasure of hearing something that captivates you for the first time?
Fragrance. Gardens in your area. Soap. Lotion. Candles. Spices. Home cooking. Removal of bad smells. Nostalgic scents like pencil shavings.
Sleeping. Probably the single most underrated pleasure of them all.
Exploration. Adventure. Learning new things. Anything that you find inspirational, anything that ignites your sense of curiosity, anything that impresses you or makes you want to know more, should be pursued. Learning new skills is an entirely distinct pleasure, the satisfaction of efficacy.
Storytelling. Story sweeps us away like nothing else. The great thing about the internet is that there’s so much out there, from blogging to fanfic to podcasts. Not everyone likes comedy but most people appreciate storytelling.
Connection. Snuggling with pets. Dancing. Working in groups. Singing in a choir, or so they tell me. Hugging - some people like it! Deep listening.
Pleasures of the body. This is a subject for a book of its own, but food is only one of the many, many ways the body can experience pleasure. I think it’s actually the weakest and fundamentally the most boring. Describing the pleasure of waking up as a well-rested, nourished, fit, active, strong, supple body is like giving people directions to the unicorn rides. Nobody believes you. It’s like a religious experience that you can only understand by living it for yourself. Shake it off and think of something else. Physical warmth, massage, stretching, working out a kink in your neck or shoulder. Sighing, deep breathing.
It’s possible to live surrounded by beauty, indulging in pleasures throughout the day, and still be a productive, caring, ethical, morally correct person. This is an affirmation. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it because it’s what your friends and loved ones would want for you. Do it because it sets a good example for your kids or for other young people, for other humans in general. Do it because it’s good for the economy. Do it because nobody would begrudge it of a shelter dog, so why not you? Do it because nobody else will notice and nobody else will care. Do it as an experiment. Do it in the nature of philosophical exploration. If you can’t bring yourself to do anything else, at least just pause, stretch, take a deep breath, and allow the idea that pleasure is okay for someone, somewhere in the universe. You think?
It’s our regular morning get-together. You know, you need a little pick-me-up to start the day off right. Something hot and steamy for just us girls. Us girls and a heavy bag, that is.
By “heavy bag,” I don’t mean that giant tote with the powder compact and the travel-sized flat iron. I mean that big ol’ thing suspended from the ceiling, the kind you see in boxing movies. It’s for punching. And kicking. And generally being on the receiving end of chaos and mayhem.
You see it all, down here in the dojo. French braids. Fuchsia pedicures. Nose rings. Double pigtails. A variety of chemistry-enhanced shades of red hair. Yoga pants, called by that name only because ‘kickboxing pants’ has too many syllables. The only thing you don’t really see down here is acrylic fingernails. They don’t go as well with the boxing gloves.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are male students at our school. They’re even in class with us. It’s just that they tend to partner off with each other, and that means that for our purposes, they fade into the background. Sometimes there are half a dozen of us and only one of them, or rather, him.
It’s a brave man who walks into a room of women fighters and ragebeasts all on his lonesome.
If you haven’t trained with the competitive variety of female, then you haven’t seen competition. Remember that in any given yoga, spin, or Pilates class, at least some of the women have probably given birth. Once you’ve done that, you can do anything. Women are built for endurance and pain tolerance; otherwise, our species never would have made it. It’s a basic survival trait.
Never get between a mama and her cubs. That’s a law of nature. Certainly it’s at least as true for a woman as for an animal mother. Mess with her kids and any woman will end you. In fact, most of the parents I’ve met at my school have enrolled all their children, too. Give them a fighting chance, but let Mom get in the first lick.
We’re zero-sum competitors about other things, some of which would never occur to a man. Generally they don’t worry about whether they’re the prettiest or the cutest. I live at the beach, and it’s readily apparent that most men just put on swim trunks, shrug, and enjoy themselves being at the beach. They’re not going around giving each other side-eye and playing Who Wore It Best with their big ol’ khaki cargo shorts. They’re not making their own lives more difficult by trying to walk in four-inch strappy heels. When men compete with one another, it’s more likely about who’s the “biggest” or who earns the most money. Not who has more finesse with liquid eyeliner.
Not that there isn’t a place for the perfect cat-eye. One would simply have to reapply after practice.
We know pain. We’ve walked in the heels. We’ve worn the underwires. We’ve gone to work with cramps. We’ve tried all the crash diets. We’ve had various sensitive parts of our faces waxed or threaded, and someone explain to me the difference in sensation between having your upper lip threaded and being electrocuted. We know a heck of a lot more about the world of pain than we often realize, and if you test us, you can have a chance to find out, too.
I often practice with another gal, a single mom who’s a few years older. If she clears five feet or a hundred pounds, I’d be surprised. I mean, I’m small but she’s just little. I’m pretty sure she wears a size double zero. Kicks like a mule. It takes everything I have to hold the foam targets steady for her. More than once, I’ve failed and the target has popped me in the mouth. It just goes to show that you can’t always judge by appearances.
There are only two or three students in my school who look visibly menacing. One is a huge guy with a beard thick enough to hide a hand grenade. Who knows what he has going on. The other is ripped and has a crew cut, and you can see the whites of his eyes all the way around. He’s a beginner, even newer to class than I am. The one I’d be afraid of is the slender young blonde with the pink hair band. Or her friend, the one who takes conference calls during training without breaking her concentration.
Beware the multi-tasking woman. She can plan a wedding and kick you back into an alley without even adjusting her headset.
We’re so busy right now that we can’t even, so don’t start with us, okay?
Most of the people I see in training four mornings a week do not look like practitioners of the martial arts. It’s been my experience that elite fighters, and athletes in general, have left any sense of needing to prove themselves behind long ago. There’s no question in their minds about their relative rank or competence, so why should there be in yours? Did you really need to go there? It’s better this way, better to be placid and serene in your physical confidence. Stealthily chill. Here I am, minding my own, all on my loney. Checking my manicure. Don’t make me mess it up.
Here we are, every morning, lining up in our bright colors and our sweet smiles and our candy-pink boxing gloves. Eyebrows on fleek. Punching targets until sweat starts visibly flying across the room. Showing each other our pressure cuts and skinned knuckles. You thought we were fierce, and that was before you knew that we are in fact ferocious.
A cocktail dress makes a certain impression, and never so much as when you wear it in the mat room at the gym. We’re having a special training week at my martial arts academy, when we’re encouraged to wear street clothes and practice fighting in real-world conditions. I take this seriously. It’s when I’m wearing evening clothes that I feel the most vulnerable. Exposed skin, tight skirts, and truly stupid shoes: this is stuff I only really feel safe wearing in the company of a group. I figure it will be good for me to train in something a little less comfortable.
Glamor is silly. It’s never ceased to amaze me that people fall for the trick where the plain girl takes off her glasses, shakes out her hair, and suddenly looks gorgeous. Can’t you see her? This is just a costume change. She’s still the same person under all that. Do people really only see cosmetics, clothes, and coiffures? Apparently so. I train with these particular people every day, barefoot, in yoga pants and a t-shirt. I walk in wearing a Lycra dress and a bib necklace, having spent five minutes flat-ironing my hair, and suddenly everyone is flustered. Rather than feeling nervous and constrained by this get-up, I start to feel more confident and stronger.
I’m new at Krav Maga, see. I’m used to being the slowest, clumsiest, and least experienced. Standing in the mat room in my workout clothes, I’m below average. Standing there in my Vegas clothes, I’m elevated into some kind of sultry Bond villain.
We train. Our warmup is twice as long as usual. I do pushups, my necklace clattering on the floor. I do sit-ups, my bike shorts doing exactly what they’d do if I wore them with a shirt instead of a dress. I jog around the room. I jump rope. A large rhinestone flies off. I stuff it down my top, to the consternation of the instructor.
“Or that’ll work,” he says.
What I realize, as I look around the room, is that I’m having an easier time than the students who wore jeans. Men and women both are constantly yanking at their waistlines. Jeans tend to be tight in some places and loose in others, yet not in any ways that are compatible with much jogging, kicking, or rolling around on the floor.
I get a male partner. I feel privileged by this, because we usually self-sort by gender. I’m in the room to learn not to be flustered or triggered by full-body contact, specifically from males. My partner shows his respect by treating me exactly like any other opponent. We straddle each other in full mount and take turns throwing each other around. “Now if you get attacked by anyone who weighs a buck and a quarter, you’ll be prepared.”
Training with men is great, actually. I’ve found it the same in the weight room, on the trail, and now in martial arts. The vast majority of male athletes are delighted to train with women.
I wish my mom
I wish my sister
I hope my daughter
Many men carry a ‘white knight’ image deep inside themselves. They’ve been waiting their entire lives to come to the rescue of a woman in peril. The idea of another man inflicting physical violence on a female is one of the worst things they can think of, something that fills them with intense loathing and disgust. This is why they’re so pleased when we train to defend ourselves. (I’m just as interested in defending myself against an attack from a wild animal, but). When we train together it’s a mutual triumph.
This is part of why I wasn’t surprised when I talked to my husband about my training. I asked him how he felt about me studying martial arts. “Relieved,” he said. RELIEVED. He travels on business, and every time, he worries about me sleeping alone. We practiced together a little, and it was funny to see how he lit up when he realized how quickly I’m improving, especially when I almost kicked him in the forehead. “That was a good one.” I’m just barely good enough that I aimed to miss, and missed. If he’d caught me a week earlier it might not have gone so well.
It’s already working. I’m learning that I can skin my knuckles and not feel it all that much. I’m learning that I can be tossed on the ground and jump back up, giggling and ready for more. I’m learning to stand still and hold the foam targets and brace myself against dozens of kicks and punches. I’m learning to boil away the part of me that freezes in fear. I’m learning to walk tall, knowing that the element of surprise is on my side. Already, if someone comes for me, I’ll have at least a few seconds to create a different destiny for myself. Not today, buddy, not today.
The next time I walk down the street in this particular cocktail dress, I’ll remember how I wore it today. Fifty snap kicks, a hundred palm strikes. Inside the dress I’ll know I still have full range of motion. Now all I have to do is reattach a few rhinestones.
Winter is here, in case you haven’t noticed. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, that means short days, long nights, and icky weather. Well, as far as I remember. The city where I live is south of every single city in Europe; we’ve only had to kick our heater on for a few hours over the past few weeks. That’s exactly why I live here. It’s a lot easier to be active when it’s bright and the weather is nice. Take that into consideration when you set your health and fitness goals for the year. Probably, it’s better to focus on getting your pajama body right now.
Gyms and magazines play on our emotions. They try to convince us that buying what they’re selling can get us the results that their models achieved by training several hours a week for years on end. I’m here to tell you that those photos are in fact real, and the people in them are, too. Here in Southern California, everywhere you go there are genuine actors, models, professional athletes, stunt people, dancers, and fitness trainers just buying groceries and getting into their cars. It really is possible for real humans, even those of us of grandparenting age, to reach those goals. It just isn’t possible overnight.
Don’t worry about that for now. Let’s talk about how you, too, can get your pajama body.
The first thing is to respect the season. If it’s cold and yucky out, and you can’t bear going out there, skip winter. Train in the spring, summer, fall, or whenever you are most likely to do it. Don’t skip the entire year just because the weather is so foul right now. Hanging out in your pajamas every night for a few months of the year is perfectly respectable. There’s plenty of time during the rest of the year to get yourself out there.
If you’re a beginner, set yourself up for success. You want to lecture your ego and prepare yourself emotionally to just do iddle-biddle baby steps. If you’re in it for the long haul, you have to pace yourself. A huge part of this is respecting the sleep schedule that you have right now. Don’t expect yourself to train AND suddenly start waking up an hour or ninety minutes early. If you’re used to scraping by on 5-6 hours a night, and you suddenly start working out, your body is going to insist on at least 8 hours. Possibly more. Professional athletes are extremely disciplined about their sleep, and many of them sleep more than twelve hours a night. You’d better believe that they have their pajama bodies!
Sleep is when the body repairs tissues, removes junk cell debris, and builds new cells. The longest session of fourth-stage sleep happens in the last cycle, at the end of the rest period. Most of us never even get that last, long sleep cycle because we’re simply not staying asleep long enough. If you sleep less than eight hours, you cheat yourself of that. The result is chronic exhaustion, inflammation, pain, irritability, loss of concentration, poor memory, and lowered immune response. Nobody would do that on purpose. We just aren’t taught as much about it as the professionals, who earn their living based on their physical performance.
How can we possibly believe we can get the same results as someone who behaves in a completely different way?
The weird thing is that pro athletes don’t just sleep more than we do, they also eat a heck of a lot more than we do. Training gives you a real appetite, and more importantly, it drives the thirst that the average person does not feel or respect or supply. Drinking vast amounts of water is another thing that the professionals do that we don’t. They do it for their energy level, they do it because it makes their skin look dewy and fresh, and mostly they do it because they’re so thirsty they can’t not do it. The only way to get enough sleep and enough water, though, is to start guzzling it right when you first wake up. Otherwise, if you wait to drink until you feel thirsty later in the day, you’ll wind up waking yourself up throughout the night.
My favorite thing to do while wearing my pajamas is to curl up and read. This is an ideal way to start studying up. If you want to train, if you’re tired of having a kink in your neck, if you’re tired of groaning every time you stand up, it’s a great idea to learn a bit first. Look at one of those cool anatomical charts and learn the names of some of your muscle groups. Skim through new recipes and allow your natural curiosity to guide you toward something with a little more green in it, maybe? Watch some videos of people doing the thing you’re interested in doing. When you do start with those small daily steps, you’ll do it with a bit more context, and your newfound knowledge will help to make the work more interesting.
You’ve got the pajamas, right? They’re super comfy? You’re giving yourself permission to sleep more, and figuring out how to shift things around in your schedule so that you can get more quality rest. This is a big deal, because when you do start to train, after the weather turns, you’re going to love those pajamas more than you ever have. The thing about training hard is that after your session, you get to lie around guilt-free. You kinda have to. If you’ve pushed yourself hard enough, you’ll be so wiped out that you’ll need a long nap afterward. It’s like first breakfast, get dressed, second breakfast, train, first lunch, shower, second lunch, nap. Your pajamas are going to get more of a workout than they’ve ever known.
All right, are you ready? Are you ready to get that pajama body? Do you have big dreams of big dreams? Well, what are you waiting for? Plan your next nap right now. I’ll see you when the sun comes out.
I drag the bathroom scale into the kitchen. No way am I going to fit if I try to stand on it where it normally waits, tucked in a corner. I tap it with my boot. I’m impatient to step on and see how high the number is today. I gasp with incredulity. One hundred and eighty-one pounds! I’ve never had a weigh-in this high in my entire life! I call out to my husband; I have to tell him right away. This is what it’s like to feel proud and excited about a high weigh-in.
I may have cheated a little. It’s possible that I have chosen to weigh myself at the end of the day, after a large dinner, fully dressed, and wearing my new mountaineering bots. Oh, and maybe my fully packed expedition backpack.
Once upon a time, I was obese and chronically ill. The idea that I might one day look forward to climbing a mountainside while carrying forty or fifty pounds of equipment would have been more than a cruel joke; it would have been inconceivable.
Now I’m actually a little disappointed to weigh less than I thought I would. I want to show off my Herculean strength with impressive numbers indicating how heavy a pack I can carry. Since I’m traveling with my husband instead of my various backpacking friends, he insists on carrying the tent, the mess kit, the stove, and the first aid kit. Just because he’s twice my size he thinks he should hog all the cool stuff.
Once upon a time, I used to carry a thirty-five pound backpack everywhere I went. It was me. It was myself I had to carry. Every step I took, every stair I climbed, every minute of the day, I had to do it under the strain of this extra weight.
In fact, due to my body composition, what I had was probably at least fifty pounds of fat, some of which made way for at least fifteen pounds of muscle.
I’m strong now and I love it. I can put on my pack, pick up my husband’s with one arm, and walk across camp with ninety pounds of gear. My knees don’t even hurt.
We’re getting older now, as is everyone, and we like it when we see other backpackers a generation older than us. They’re our role models. We realize anew on every trip that if we want to continue to do this into our eighties or better, we can’t quit. We can’t ever quit.
When I’m thirty-five or forty or fifty pounds overweight these days, it’s my luggage. It’s a giant black canvas duffel bag filled with a backpack, two-man tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, pillow, space blanket, four changes of clothes, two sets of thermal underwear, three jackets, solar charger, gloves, hat, scarf, towel, pocket knife, head lamp, lantern, stove, mess kit, water filter, trekking poles, and even a folding chair. In other words, cool stuff I chose carefully, stuff I wouldn’t want to leave behind. That’s the difference. I got fat by accident and I didn’t enjoy it. My metaphorical backpack is one I felt stuck with. My actual backpack I can take off or put on whenever I want.
I decided to start running again. What 'again' means is that I had to quit 2.5 years ago due to an ankle injury. It took approximately a million years longer than I thought it would to wear an ankle brace, rest it, go to physical therapy, ice it for 20 minutes at a time, eat buckets of anti-inflammatories, work with a personal trainer, and finally discover the magic of shiatsu massage. Other stupid things happened, from ripping my knee open to losing a toenail on a hiking trip. Now I'm about to turn 42 and thinking more and more about how long I can refer to myself as a "marathon runner" if I'm not actively running. Sort of like whether I can think of myself as "young" anymore, or whether I could think of myself as "employed" if I don't have a job. What am I, really? What is the nature of the universe?? How old is the ocean???
Having left a bunch of skin in the sand, and probably a bunch of sand in my skin, I am now a part of the ocean and the ocean is a part of me. Think of that the next time you accidentally ingest seawater.
I had it all planned out. I bought an app called Tides that is sort of like Dark Sky's cousin who lives in Hawaii. It has all the stuff I've learned to obsess about as a distance runner: the projected high and low temperature, chance of rain, cloud cover, wind speed... and also the phase of the moon and tide charts. I never knew until I started playing with this app that the tides are different every single day. Not in a predictable manner like sunrise and sunset, either. WHAT SORCERY IS THIS? I cannot for the life of me understand how someone could predict the tides in advance. It is seriously messing with my mind. I asked my husband to explain it to me, which he could, since he is an aerospace engineer and he has a master's degree in this kind of thing. I still don't get it. The more I think about the moon hanging out there in space and moving water next to my apartment, the more it wigs me out. I try to ignore all of that and just treat it like a cool wristwatch I got in Diagon Alley. Low tide: 10:24 AM. All righty, then, sandy beach, I'm coming atcha.
I read about a dozen articles on running in sand while I was planning this whole escapade. That's how I roll. I was reading marathon books before I could finish a 5k. It turns out that the main trick is to run at low tide, because otherwise you wind up running on a slant, with one leg uphill and the other leg downhill. This is exhausting and not all that great on your knees or ankles. The books all say to run on the nice hard-packed wet sand, because the dry sand slides out from under your feet. Got it. Run on the wet sand where it's flat near the waterline. I can do this!
I knew to expect that running on sand is more tiring. That was sort of the point. My mission in life is to develop more grit, which, what could be more perfect for being gritty than something that is literally gritty? I set out to do demoralizing, dirty, and exhausting things now and then so that I'm better able to handle terrible things like putting my laundry away. I have an affinity for sand; when I was working on losing my weight, I would go on extended rants about how I would do WHATEVER IT TAKES! IT'S COMING OFF!!! I'LL WRAP MYSELF IN BARBED WIRE! I'LL EAT SAND IF I HAVE TO! Then I would go on the elliptical for 90 minutes and think about curly fries. I lost the last 25 pounds, and I didn't have to eat sand after all.
Given a choice, though, eating a little sand is probably easier than trying to slog through it while the tide is coming in.
The thing about tide charts is that they are probably intuitive to people who are familiar with the beach, but maybe not so much to people who are not. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's ignoring the obvious. I had this idea that low tide would mean the ocean went out for a lunch break, and I could have my run and be back home before it flipped the 'OPEN' sign over and unlocked the door. What I didn't realize, because I grew up 90 miles from the ocean and only visited for a few hours once a year, was that low tide is the minute the tide starts rushing back in.
I actually made it a few yards before the waves started lapping over my feet.
A few minutes later, it was coming in up to my knees. I started angling up toward the dry sand.
Running in sand with the ocean on top of it is nothing like hard-packed sand, which I figured would be a lot like pavement. It's not even like running on mud, which is quite nice until you start to skate sideways on it. Running underwater in sand is more like running in... pudding. Like, pudding with minced pistachios in it.
I started doing high-knees, which is great for the hip flexors, but quite tiring for a brief intro run. The sand kept slipping and sliding under me, and my feet would plunge in ankle-deep. I could feel the abrasive pull of the sand roughing up my skin. Then I came to the section where all the pebbles and shells wash up.
By the time I made it to the jetty, I was trashed. My heart was pounding and I had a stitch in my side. I checked my Watch.
POINT FOUR SEVEN? THAT'S NOT EVEN HALF A MILE!
I stood there and collected myself, by which I mean that I waited until my chest quit heaving and I was no longer thinking about flopping over like a sea lion. I watched a young woman on a surfboard, wearing nothing but a bikini and a long-sleeved t-shirt, and I thought, "If my butt looked like that for one single day, I could take over the world." I thought about how fit I would have to be to stand up on a surfboard. Then I watched a grinning man of my own age blunder out of the water in a swimming cap and a tiny Speedo patterned with the California flag, the sort of swimsuit a woman of his size would never dream of wearing in public. I thought randomly of body image and self-acceptance and strength and aging and bucket lists and fitness goals. I recalled that I had already run farther than I did on my very first day, aged 35, and how proud I would have been to have made it nearly half a mile without stopping.
I turned around and "ran" back to where I started. According to my stats, I ran about a 15-minute mile pace, which is a tiny bit faster than my walking pace. Ahem. I also burned... 89 calories. So much for that protein bar I ate to fuel my run, coming in at 270 calories. Another way to put this is that my energy needs were completely covered by my morning oatmeal, and that if I were making an attempt at weight loss, I would have been better off skipping both the run and the glorified candy bar. Fortunately, my goals are simply to rebuild my fitness level and to avoid gaining back the 35 pounds it took me so much effort to lose. These are things I know how to do.
I'll just wear socks and shoes and stay on the pavement. Running on the beach is a beautiful fantasy I can use to threaten myself if I ever have a lazy day. Better hit that sidewalk or you're running on sand tomorrow!
'CURATE YOUR STUFF' WORKBOOK NOW AVAILABLE!
Download on the Products tab today!
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.