Glory days, they'll pass you by. My husband and I are middle-aged empty nesters now. He used to play football. Like the majority of former football players, he is not in the physical condition of a professional athlete, and neither are any of the other guys from his team. Even though my husband hasn't played football in many years, he still identifies as A Football Player in some ways, and A Hockey Player as well. I haven't ridden a bicycle so much as one wheel length in several years, yet I still identify as A Bicycle Commuter. It gets into you. The only trouble is when the image no longer matches the reality. The biggest pitfall of the athletic identity is when it masks the truth, convincing us that we still have something even as it is slipping away.
I ran a marathon. I ran a marathon in October 2014, which you probably already know, because I talk about it all the time. It was a defining moment in my life. Since then, I have barely run a cumulative four miles, although you'd never know it to hear me talk. I still plan to run "fifty for fifty," completing a fifty-mile ultra-marathon for my fiftieth birthday. That birthday is getting closer every day. I don't have a training plan. Right now, my plan looks like it will work out about as well as my 1997 plan to fit in my grandmother's wedding dress for my first wedding. I decided I would fit in the dress and made no further plans. Result: hire tailor to add five inches of panels to expand waistline of gown. I could very well have a waistline five inches wider by my fiftieth birthday. Perhaps much wider still. These things "happen" when there is no plan to avoid them.
Attempts at athletic prowess are worth it, if for no other reason than their ability to humble us and put our fragile egos in place. Learning the limitations of the body and enduring pain to expand those limits is an excellent spiritual battleground. Lo, we are but mortal. Almost any athletic discipline can burn the arrogance out of a person if it is strenuous enough. (An exception might be posing strenuously in front of a mirror). If you have ever worked a muscle to the point of failure, you know what I mean. You say, "Leg, I command thee, move forward." Leg replies, "Nuh-uh." You say, "Attend me now, lowly limb, move ye thence!" Leg says, "I ain't doing it." You realize that if you are going to step over this shower threshold, you are physically going to have to grasp your own thigh and lift your foot the extra inch needed. Experiencing muscle mutiny is a little taste of how things could be if we just start to slack off and quit trying. Use it or lose it.
What I've learned is that I'm only as good as the workout I've done within the last 24 hours. Not tomorrow's workout or last week's workout, and certainly not the workout I did three years ago. I'm guaranteed to think of myself as weighing my lowest weight (before breakfast, stark naked), eating my healthiest day of food choices ever, and having the most strength, speed, and visible muscle definition I ever had. I'm also likely to think of myself as having the best grasp of punctuation and the best potato salad recipe, although that last thought is simply objective fact. It's testable. It's testable in the same exact way that my strength, speed, agility, and body composition are testable. What I'm probably going to find when I test them will be hard for my conscious mind and my poor little ego to accept.
I tried to do a pull-up the other day in the gym. I compromised by doing lat pulls, because guess what? I couldn't pull up an inch, much less clear the bar. Any more. This is something I was good at when I was training for my first (and so far, only) adventure race. I'll probably also find that I can only run a mile without getting a stitch in my side and that I'm about 30% slower now. Of course, if I continue to do what I've been doing, and avoid testing my abilities, I can retain my athletic identity and continue to believe that I am in peak training condition.
Why do I even care? Can't I just continue to think of myself as intellectually superior and have total contempt and disdain for the athletes of the world, as I used to do? Well, no, not really, not any more. Now that I know how much discipline and sacrifice are involved, now that I know a little about everything that Spartan rigor has to offer, I can't help but respect the effort. Also, I have a firm personal conviction that my food intake, body composition, and physical conditioning are directly related to my past issues with thyroid disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraine, and night terrors. Why on EARTH would I want any of that back? Better the pain that I can control, better the pain that benefits me in greater strength, than the unpredictable pain that lays me flat and breaks my spirit.
I prefer my life when I can do functional things with less effort. Strength training makes it easier for me to carry laundry and groceries, to open jars and windows, to put my own luggage in the overhead bin. Running makes me mellow and cheerful. Overall physical fitness makes it easier to do the things I love to do, like travel to places with tons of stairs or high-elevation viewpoints. Fit Me is Fun Me.
My identity now is aligned more with self-honesty. Nobody cares but me. Not even my doctor cares all that much whether I suffer or overcome. Nobody else wakes up in my body or lives my life but me myself. Present Me and Future Me. I try to see myself less as "Athletic Person" than as "Person who recognizes weakness, strategizes, and works hard to make tomorrow better than today." Also, Person Who Eats Hills for Breakfast.
If there's a report card, I want to get an A on it. My ego needs this. The teacher's pet inside me can't accept anything less. I really want the approval of my dental hygienist, for example. Maybe I'm not good at anything else, but "my home care is excellent!" Yay! I feel the same way about getting lab work done. When my blood work results come in, I rush to compare them to the normal range and congratulate myself when everything is on target. This is what it's like to open those results and feel relieved and proud.
I realize fully and well that having good health is a luxury and a privilege. My mom couldn't bring me home from the hospital for three days after I was born because I had infant jaundice. I had a thyroid nodule at age 23 that was so big, I couldn't speak while lying on my back. They thought it was cancer. I had a respiratory infection for my college graduation, age 28, and it took my lung capacity down to 52%. Have you ever coughed up blood? I have. This is by no means a complete list of every scary or mysterious health problem I have ever had. My laundry list of health issues is the primary reason why I am so obsessed with being as healthy as possible.
Also, for the majority of my life between 18 and 30, I had no health insurance. That includes the coughing up blood, and the time I had to go to the emergency room and wound up being sent to collections for an amount under forty dollars. Health is cheaper.
Everyone thinks everything is genetic these days. By 'genetic,' we mean that "it was my fate to be born into a cursed family and nothing I ever do will ever affect anything in any way." We decide that we have no power or control. Thus, anything that goes wrong with our health is the will of the gods. Saying otherwise is a deep and dire insult, judging and criticizing others for things they can't help. Okay. Who comes from a pure and perfect genetic heritage in which nobody has any health issues thought to be hereditary? Not me!
Diabetes. Heart disease. Alzheimer's. Arthritis. Glaucoma. Cancer. Good times, yay. Let's throw in 'died of brain aneurysm' just to keep things interesting. I can wave the family banner of genetic tendencies just as hard and just as high as anyone else. This is the second reason why I pay so much attention to my health.
The third reason is that it pays off. Being healthy is its own reward. It is seriously awesome in every way.
Why not gloat a bit about it? I'm doing what very few people of my age (42 in July) have managed to do. I'm maintaining satisfactory health metrics without the use of pharmaceuticals. This is the result of tons of research on my part. This includes reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books on health, nutrition, and fitness; wearing health devices like a pedometer or a sports watch; tracking my health metrics with a food log, exercise log, and sleep log; learning to identify, cook, and eat dozens of vegetables I never tasted as a child; and pushing my physical abilities to the limit for years on end. I WORKED for this. My nice lovely lab results come from figuring out how to do it, and then doing it, meal after meal after meal and day after day.
I have had bone fractures and severe muscle strain and sprains and a dislocated hip and a dislocated rib and impacted wisdom teeth and nerve damage and chronic pain and fatigue and migraine and some wacky medical mysteries, including pavor nocturnus. Sometimes unfortunate stuff really does happen, and much of the time, doctors have no real idea of what went wrong or how to fix it. The bulk of my positive health results have come from my own persistent experimentation on myself, refusing to accept "just deal with it" as a valid medical response. I've learned that physical therapy, sleep, and nutritional inputs can do more than most people realize.
I haven't met my new doctor yet; I chose her out of a directory based on location, availability, and her photo and credentials. I don't know anything about her personal style or academic focus in medical school. What I do know is that the kind of health advice I get from a doctor depends a great deal on how I present myself at my visits. I want to walk in demonstrating that I am that teacher's pet, A+ student who will take vigorous notes and follow advice scrupulously. I want my doctor, whoever she may be, to feel that I am committed to taking care of myself and learning as much as I can. When I'm a "good patient" and "cooperative" it makes me seem more worth the time to give a doctor's full focus and attention. I say, "I really try to take care of myself, and whenever I learn about something positive I can do for my health, I add it in to my routine."
The last physician I had for a long period of time started taking health advice from me. She took up triathlon and made a point of telling me that I had inspired her to do it.
I have, in the past, felt helpless and confused and deeply sad about my health. I have had incredible frustration with dismissive doctors, and white-knuckled rage when I later learned something that helped me when a doctor said it wouldn't. (For instance, saying there was nothing I could do about my thyroid disease, which cost me years of ill health. Thanks for nothing, Dr. C). I have cried tears into my ears from the grief and powerlessness of having no idea what to do about a health problem. I feel younger and more energetic in my forties than I did in my twenties, almost entirely because of health issues I didn't understand at the time. I can say with certitude that my fixation with my physical health has paid off over the years. To me, if I had to choose between feeling healthy and fit or being a millionaire, well, naturally I'd choose all three, but having a strong body feels like a million dollars. Maybe ten million.
I don't let my A+ lab work get too much to my head. I look forward and ask my Future Self what I will want for myself ten years from now. The answer is more muscle and more bone density. I'd like to be a little stronger in ten years than I am today. That will come from giving myself the gift of more physical activity and more nutritional support. I do these things so that I can feel better today and tomorrow, and also so that Old Me will maintain mobility and independence as long as possible. We're in this for the long haul and until they make a full body transplant, I'm stuck doing it in the body I have.
Now that we've been in our new apartment for a month, we decided it was time to wander over and figure out how to get into the fitness center. The amenities were what sold us on this place; there's little other reason why a middle-aged married couple with other options would move into a tiny apartment with shag carpet, a popcorn ceiling, and only one closet. (I'm belaboring this point just in case I need to ward off the Evil Eye). Both of us are fairly experienced gym rats. We have our preferred equipment and our preferred default workouts. We also know that no two gyms are alike, even in the same chain. Taking fitness seriously means accepting that no gym is perfect.
Regard the photo above. That is my view from one of the two elliptical trainers in our gym. Regard the sea. Regard the swimming pool. Regard the palm trees. What is missing from this picture is the persistent squeaking of the flywheel behind me. It's loud, yo. Every other step produces this screech that would not be amiss in a recording of a traffic collision. Meanwhile my husband is jouncing away to my left, no doubt listening to Five Finger Death Punch on his headphones. There are half a dozen other people trying to work out, and everyone knows that I am the source of this irritating squeal. It's kind of like farting in an elevator, except you're trapped with it for half an hour.
Oh, do you think I quit using the thing just because it made a horrifying sound? Ha.
We began our workout by casing the joint. I wanted to see if there was a pull-up bar, because we don't really have a good spot to store the one I built for my office door frame - you know, the office doorframe I no longer have because neither of us has an office anymore. There is indeed a pull-up bar. Unfortunately, it appears to have been designed by Dutch people or something, because I literally have to jump a foot in the air with my arms over my head to grab it. Freaking tall designers, I tell you. My husband offered to do an assist.
"You mean like when you push my weight up and down from my knees and I pretend I'm doing real pull-ups?"
"I'm not holding that much of your weight."
"I'm not here to do fake pull-ups."
Needless to say, the home pull-up bar is staying, at least for now.
The second piece of equipment we were hoping to find was a squat rack. If you only have time in your schedule to do one exercise, five minutes of squats is the exercise for you.
"I know you like squats."
"It's not that I like squats, it's more that squats like me."
No squat rack. We went over to the free weights instead. My husband picked up a pair of twenty-pound dumbbells. I figured I'd use the same ones when he was done. Then he reminded me that this is a body weight exercise, and reminded me again of how sad I would be if I overdid it and then tried to walk down stairs the next day. Or the day after that, as DOMS often doesn't hit in its full glory until the second day. DOMS stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, and I delayed explaining that to mimic the effect, which clearly can't be done with text because we don't have enough vowels OR enough consonants for HEEAUUGHHHHkfff. Five pound dumbbells it is!
The third piece of equipment I hoped to find was an incline board for doing crunches. No such luck. For some strange reason, I have been feeling this physical craving to activate my core lately. I'm a physically restless person, which is why it's fortunate for everyone that we live on the ground floor, so nobody has to listen to me pacing around all the time, which I do. Yet the urge to fold myself in half over and over again has never made itself known inside my body before. My abs are speaking to me and saying 'HEY LADY.' I always pay attention to these inner messages because who knows? Maybe if I ever find a genie in a bottle that's how it will want to communicate. My first wish will be for a strong core, my second wish will be to be able to do muscle-ups, and my third wish will be to be a billionaire so nobody kicks the back of my seat in the movie theater anymore.
Anyway, back to the lack of incline board, there was an abdominal cruncher, so we both used that instead. I kinda hate it when my husband goes first, because he very ostentatiously moves the pin back to a lighter weight. He does it deliberately to provoke me, I know it. Well he'd better be careful because before he knows it, I'll be shifting more weight than he can even though he's twice as big as me. Watch it, mister, that's all I'm saying.
We don't do all the same machines because I have some chronic tension issues in my neck and shoulders. I worked with a trainer and I have a laundry list of specific exercises I'm supposed to do to balance myself out. When we start from a zero fitness level, it results in tightness in certain areas and weakness in others. That pulls the body out of alignment. That's when we start to get the chronic tension and the snapping, crackling, popping sounds. "Pain comes last," says my trainer, and I'll tell you, that spooked me to my weak little core. I already have pain! You mean to tell me I don't have all the pain yet? All I have to do is look at any given person who is older than me, and my commitment to avoiding more pain is redoubled.
I used to think that people only worked out if they had nothing better to do. What, you can't read a book? Then I found out that I could read on the elliptical, and I could listen to audio books while I run. I would read while doing squats if I could convince someone else to hold my book for me. Also, I started to learn that working out is how non-young people such as myself avoid the slow slide into grinding pain, worsening posture, and unbalanced gait that eventually lead to walkers, wheelchairs, and hospice. I remember how nervous my Nana was about stepping onto an escalator at age 75, and I take the stairs, and I recommit to retaining my mobility as long as I can.
No gym is perfect. No body is perfect, either. Nor should there be such a thought. Every body is just the vehicle for the person inside. What we find in an imperfect gym is a place to rectify the crookedness that time wreaks upon us. We're here to stand up straight and tall while we can, and sometimes to try to jump up and grab things that are barely within reach. We're here to get sweaty and make annoying noises, accepting that nothing in this room will be pleasant or easy. We do it because life isn't perfect, either, but it's both easier and more pleasant with more muscle power.
There are a million myths about exercise. One of them is that it leads to weight loss, which is silly. Another is that you just go to the gym and "work out" and live happily ever after. The truth is far more complicated. Our bodies are very efficient in adapting to anything we ask them to do. That means that whatever workout we choose, within a few months, it will seem relatively easy. That's why it's called a routine. It's true what they say, that today's challenge is tomorrow's warmup. We want to periodically reevaluate our physical activities and make sure we're getting the most of our sweaty-fun-times.
The best time to start a new habit is right after you move or change jobs. That way, it just seems like starting a new chapter, or a new book. There was that time when I lived at 123 Main Street, lounged around on the couch watching Game of Thrones, and ate a lot of cereal for dinner. Then I moved to 1212 Shakethatbootay Street and suddenly I was in training.
'Training' is somewhat like working out, except for something very specific, in the same way that shopping for a wedding dress is somewhat like regular shopping.
Two and a half years ago, I ran a marathon. I over-trained and injured my ankle, and the road to recovery was long, significantly longer than 26.2 miles. This is one of the many reasons that we must periodically reevaluate our workouts, so that we don't hurt ourselves. I had heard of cross-training, but I didn't truly understand what it was. It means that no matter how often you dream you are wearing a unitard and a handlebar mustache while crossing a finish line at the Olympics, you do have to mix it up and not run every single day.
Cross-training means that some days of the week you do one activity, and other days of the week you do something very different. Ideally, this will be a mix of cardio, strength training, and flexibility. There is no end to the information out there on physical culture. What tends to happen is that you dabble a little and read an article here and there, and then you get sucked into the vortex. The more you read, the fitter you get, with the catch that you are also more aware of how slouchy and slow you really are. Well, I don't know about you. You might be able to deadlift a tractor tire. I myself look very much like the bookworm I have been since I was two years old.
If I were a man, I would probably be more embarrassed about my lack of upper body strength, although it's pretty typical for a runner. As a middle-aged lady, it just means I can pass for a schoolmarm. I would say 'librarian' but most of the librarians I know can kick my butt.
Here I am, finally unpacked in my new apartment. Despite the past few weeks of packing and hauling and unpacking boxes, I haven't been working out much lately. By 'lately' I mean two years. My daily workout has been walking three or four miles, punctuated by the occasional yoga class. I'm feeling tense, crooked, slouchy, sloppy, weak, and tired. Welcome to your forties, right? WRONG! I refuse to feel like an old lady until I'm at least eighty. I know how good it feels to be in great physical condition, and I want that back. Now it's time to reevaluate my workout.
It starts with the brutal truth. All the truly rewarding journeys in life do. If you want to be wealthy, it starts by confronting your financial balance sheet, including any and all debts. If you want to be organized, it starts by confronting all your disorder, including anything you've procrastinated or hidden from yourself, such as a cluttered storage unit. If you want to be strong, well, that starts by finding your weak points. In my case, that includes chronic neck and shoulder tension, a weak core, and a sadly flat marathoner butt. I know from working with a trainer that I need to strengthen my core, glutes, and quads, and I need to work on hip stability. The strength training exercises that I do will therefore be different than what another athlete would do, such as a swimmer or tennis player.
Check that 'need to.' Whenever we find ourselves saying 'need to' or 'have to' or 'should,' we're telling ourselves and others that we're trying to fulfill a duty or obligation or responsibility. It's helpful to reframe it as 'want to.' IF I want to run another marathon, THEN it will be helpful if I do high-knees to strengthen my hip flexors. IF I want to release my shoulder pain, THEN I ought to start running again, because the micro-movements of pumping my arms really help with that. I WANT TO cross-train effectively so I can do what I love (or used to) without hurting myself. Faster and farther than ever before.
If I scrape the barrel, I can remember how happy I was when I ran all the time. I felt like my mood was at a 9 out of 10 most days. Regular Me runs at more of a 7. Chronic Illness Me runs at more of a 4. I've fluctuated back and forth through health and illness, happiness and pain, enough times to confirm for myself that Workout Me is the version I prefer.
One of the most interesting questions is not "Why should I do this?" It is actually "What is the most I can do, and how do I find out?"
I used to feel defensive about my activity level, and I felt the need to painstakingly lecture people and train them all about my various health problems, so I could prove (to them? to myself?) that I not only didn't have to exercise, but that I could not. Ever. Then I gradually realized that my state of health involved variables that I could control. One day I woke up pain-free, and I finally understood. If I was careful, if I kept records and tracked data, if I paid attention - I could stay pain-free. When the novelty wore off, I started to wonder what else I could do, and so far I haven't found anything that I could not. Why be satisfied with 'good enough' or 'oh well'? Why not try for HECK YEAH?
My plan is to run on the beach at least one day a week, as soon as I can figure out the tide charts. I'm also looking for a pleasant hilly area for my other training days. Next is two days a week when my husband can strength-train with me in the apartment gym. We're getting our bikes fixed, so we'll play around with that, and maybe I'll drop in on some classes around town. Whatever I do over the next few weeks probably will not bear much resemblance to what I wind up doing a few months further down the road. The important part is to continue to reevaluate, making sure I'm making the most of this earthly body while I still can.
Skepticism is the natural and appropriate reaction to a proposed change. Critical thinking skills for the win! Alas, it seems that there is a curious relationship between skepticism and success. What is straightforward and obvious to one person (go to the gym, buy groceries once a week) can be convoluted and complex to someone else who has spent more time thinking about it. We succumb to analysis paralysis because we really can't believe things could be that simple. We want proof before we commit. Perhaps more importantly, we just can't identify with ourselves as Version 2.0.
Nope. That's just not me. This is just how I roll.
A really common talking point I hear from people who are no further than a 2 on the Readiness Scale is that "I'll still be the same person." This feels important. It's not so much that we love Current Self so very much, because often we don't. It's the feeling of supreme contempt and annoyance toward Those People. Those uppity, snooty, snobby, irritating darn people who are daring to live my dream. I kind of feel this way about people who are good at wrapping gifts. I once played a game at a holiday party that involved wrapping presents one-handed with a partner, and I swear it looked better than what I normally do with two hands. What kind of person would I have to be to show up with perfect packages? Someone with weird priorities? I am sure, though, that if I did wrap pretty gift boxes I wouldn't think it was all that big a deal. Would I "still be the same person"?
Physical transformation is the biggest change of all. It's much different from other major changes like going back to school or changing socioeconomic status. At least when you have more education or more money, you still look basically the same when you look in the mirror. Physical change can be so dramatic that you sincerely don't recognize your own reflection at times.
Physical change isn't always about weight loss. Obviously, it could include scar tissue or health issues. Sometimes it's as trivial as a new hairstyle. When weight loss is the proposed change, it feels somehow more voluntary than a new hair color, and yet emotionally heavier in many ways than adjusting to a new health status. There's just something about deciding to lose weight or "get in shape" that feels like capitulating, like giving in or giving up. I know I felt that way at first.
I considered thin, fashionable, conventionally attractive women to be bimbos. That, and probably also "mean girls." I considered jocks and athletes to be dumb. I thought the whole thing was a tool of the advertising cabal to convince us to spend vast amounts of money on the weight loss and beauty industries. I was too smart to fall for any of that.
The thing about skepticism is that we tend to be swayed by empirical evidence. Certain trends get harder and harder to ignore. The data start to pile up. In my case, that builds curiosity. At a certain point, I have to find out for myself. What does this button do? How does that work? What happens next? I made a decision to experiment on myself and change my body, just because at that point I needed to know for myself what it was like.
What I found was that all my assumptions about what goes on in the minds of people who look a certain way were completely unfounded. Almost everything about the way I experience the world radically changed. I started to see things in the context of how much physical energy I had, things like how much I wanted to socialize or how willing I was to initiate and follow through on projects. I started sleeping better, and my food cravings changed. Now I wonder why I wanted to stay "the same person" so much, because "the new me" is so much more fun to be.
Ultimately, what we realize when we start to develop a growth mindset is that we are never stuck. We can try out different things, see how we like them, and then go back to default if we prefer it. We're only committed if we feel committed. We can change our schedules, we can redecorate and get makeovers, we can test out new recipes, and, of course, we can reshape our bodies. Then we can go back and do it all over again. It's not like teleporting onto a new planet. It's not like a tattoo, although people usually have a much easier time emotionally with the permanent commitment of a tattoo than they do with the temporary changes of weight loss and strength training.
It's weird, but true, that we can cheerfully, creatively play around with almost every aspect of our physical appearance except actual body image. Hair cut, style, and color! Manicure! Tattoos and piercings! Clothes, shoes, jewelry, and accessories! An infinite variety, sure to elicit compliments galore from everyone who digs that particular look. Change your proportion of muscle to body fat, however, and all bets are off. Perhaps this is why I have it backwards; I find exercise is for hedonists and that beauty treatments are exhausting, where most people seem to feel the opposite. It takes time before a new habit becomes a part of your identity, whether that's straightening your hair or straightening your posture.
What if changing your body image was really as simple and transitory as getting a new haircut? What if you just looked different every few years? What if it turned out to be really interesting and absorbing to go through that process of physical change? What if it was a lot like the mental effort and inherent fascination of reading a long series of novels? Changing your body can be just as separate from your core identity as reading a book or wearing a particular color of shirt can be. Maybe you like it, maybe you don't, but it's worth a try. You can always go back.
It takes a photograph for a lot of us. Now and then, we are surprised by our own reflections where we didn't expect to see them, like in a plate glass window. Usually, though, it's a photograph, because they're everywhere now. People are constantly demanding group photos. I need PROOF that we had lunch together! Hold still! We have that many more opportunities to see ourselves how others see us, or, in other words, the way we actually look.
The graying hair. The slouchy posture. The pinched and crabby facial expressions. The body.
There are no full-length mirrors in our current house. Our last two houses had mirrored closet doors, so a full-length reflection was unavoidable in both the bedroom and my office. That was a coincidence. Now, like most people, when we look at ourselves, we see ourselves from the chest up, in the bathroom medicine cabinet. This is a setup that allows for maximum mental fadeout. I can avoid ever thinking about or wondering about how I look from the collarbone on down. If I wear baggy enough clothes, a lot can happen to my body outside of my conscious awareness.
Believe it or not, this can go all sorts of different directions. One thing that happens to everyone is simple aging. No matter our build, things happen to our skin. Medical things. A problem with pretending we don't exist below the brain is that we may not notice things that turn up on this, the largest organ of the body. Focus and awareness pay off. What we love and accept, we notice, and what we notice, we care for. We must love the skin we're in, literally if not figuratively.
To me, 'body' and 'body image' are totally neutral terms. They seem to be culturally loaded right now, though. I can tell you that my dog's body image is that of a much larger dog, probably triple the size he is. My parrot's body image is a glamorous one of iridescent feathers, flirty eyelashes, and the scaliest toes possible. She kisses her reflection in the mirror, while, to my knowledge, the dog has never noticed his. Imagine what it would be like if you thought your own reflection was utterly adorable. Imagine if you were genuinely oblivious to it.
Physical changes can happen a lot faster than our mental image has time to adjust and accept. Some examples of this would be forgetting that you're wearing a costume and then catching a glimpse of yourself, or noticing your new sunburn about an hour before it starts to hurt. Perhaps more interesting is what happens when you Finally Reach Your Goal Weight.
A few years ago, I made the decision to perform an experiment and reduce my body weight until I reached the "healthy weight for my height." I had no idea whether I would like it or not, and I hadn't committed to stay at that size. I just wanted to feel what it was like. I wanted to find out for myself. I did it, and I liked it, but a lot of really confusing things happened. I couldn't find clothes in my size. My bra size radically changed. Then I ran a marathon and even my SHOE SIZE changed! I wound up having to get rid of all the shoes I had bought before the marathon, because even the shape of my foot is different now. I eventually figured out where I could buy clothes that would stay on my new runner's hips, with some challenges. It took me about two years to be able to hold up a garment and tell at a glance whether it would fit or not. In my mind, I was still a size 12 for many years after I got smaller (and also the stretch of time when I was bigger).
I live in my head a lot. I don't particularly think about my body; I feel restless, or there's something I want to do, or something I want to look at, and so I get up and move. It's like I'm driving my eyes and brain around to distract them when they get bored. During the moments when I am bathing, or dressing myself, or exercising, I'm me. I look like myself. Oh, hello, me, how am me today? I don't really feel any different than I did when I wore any of the previous seven clothing sizes that I have worn for at least a year each. It tends to be when I see myself in a mirror or a photograph that I realize, Oh yeah! I remember now. I look different.
I notice it more when I stand next to someone else.
That's the problem with body image. It's a pernicious form of social comparison. On the one hand, we compare ourselves with others who look different from us, and someone winds up on the losing end of the comparison. Whether it's yourself or your body image opponent says a little bit about your general mood and attitude toward life. On the other hand, we compare ourselves with those who look the same as us, and we are then satisfied that all is well. We can relax and quit noticing. The problems start to come in when we notice our friends being hospitalized one after another. Once we pass the age of forty, we can't pretend anymore. Things happen to the body.
Aging in reverse is weird. It's confusing. It tends to bother people. Show up with visible muscle or improved posture, and suddenly everyone else seems to have lost the game. Guess what? Nothing physical is inevitable. Body image tends to come with a complete package of learned helplessness, resentment, and pessimism. Personally, I was often told I had "birthin' hips." Nobody says that anymore, possibly because I'm a crone now and I've demonstrated that I did not, in fact, have "birthing" anything. Probably, though, because I wear a size XXS. What I do have is visibly more energy, health, strength, vitality, muscle tone, and agility than I had half a lifetime ago. Plus slightly more gray hair. The older I get, the more my physical appearance says things about me. My body announces certain proclivities. People can actually make accurate judgments about some of my behaviors just by looking at me. This will become more true with every decade that goes by.
The surest sign that someone's body image has not yet caught up with reality is the baggy workout t-shirt. Mine were all size Medium, old shirts, some of which had been too tight for a while there. Then suddenly they were flappy. They started to become physical obstacles for exercise purposes. They didn't want to stay in place during inverted yoga postures. I finally understood why athletic people insist on wearing fitted workout clothes. They fit the body. That requires an awareness of our physical outlines that we may never have had before.
We might as well practice accepting that our bodies change with time, because they do. The only thing is that they can change in far more ways than we realize. There are plenty of octogenarians who discover their inner jocks for the first time when they reach an advanced age. It isn't out of our reach. Whether it is better to let our outsides match our insides, or vice versa, is an interesting puzzle. How much do our inner pictures of ourselves reflect struggle, acceptance, or triumph? What would we wish our external selves to reveal?
I lost 35 pounds and kept it off. There are people out there who find this more impressive and interesting than if I told them I'd won a Pulitzer. There are also a lot of people who become spitting mad when the topic of weight loss comes up. Body image is a minefield. That's not an inappropriate metaphor because plenty of people die due to their poor body image. Of course, far more people die due to poor lifestyle choices, which they won't examine due to their fury over the cultural conversation about body image. I'm out of the game. I do what I want. I do what I want in all situations. I work for myself, and I work toward my own goals. If you don't like the way I look, deal with it. The way I look is none of your business, just as the way you look is none of my business. Now that that's settled, let's proceed.
Obesity is an American thing. I've been to nine countries on four continents so far, and the more I travel, the more it stands out. In everywhere except the US, you get half the amount of food for twice the price as what we get here. Overeating and eating "food" that isn't really food is affordable for everyone here. In fact, when you're poor, junk food is the default. It takes strong determination, networking, and a lot of knowledge to eat well on a low income. Come to think of it, that's a good topic for another day. Things I Wish I Knew Could be Done With Food Stamps.
Weight loss is different for men in our culture than it is for women. A higher percentage of American men are overweight, 70 percent of males compared to 58 percent of females. That's partly due to a masculine gender norm that BIG is good. My husband says that men don't want to wear a size Small anything, much less an Extra-Small or, heaven forfend, an XXS. He and I both went to school during a time when all the money went to boys' athletics, and girls were deliberately excluded. Athletes in many sports routinely manipulate their physiques, trading tips on how to gain or lose weight on a deadline. The goals are always to get the qualifications to play and to perform well, not appearance. When men and boys are shamed about their bodies, it's usually about being small or about their head or body hair. Many men joke casually about their midriffs. My husband's doctor patted him on the belly and said, "You could lose some weight." I would be stone-cold astonished to hear of a doctor doing that to a female patient. Nobody tells men who want to lose weight to "be careful." We think the attempt to lose weight is okay for men, but that it will drive women insane.
I've overheard two conversations in which the person was outraged that a doctor told them they were obese. One was a man and the other was a woman. The man could easily have lost 50 pounds; the woman could easily have lost 100. Both parties were surrounded by friends who expressed shock and anger. "How dare he!" "You're not fat!" This was clearly a topic of intense interest to everyone who heard it. From my perspective, this is what a train wreck looks like. I go to the doctor to get an informed, educated, professional opinion. If I have a broken bone, I need to know and I need to get it treated right away. If I have an infection, I want antibiotics. I don't get offended that the doctor insulted my bone for not looking right, or treated me contemptuously by claiming that I'm contagious. My health is not a matter of body image. If a licensed physician were to tell me that I met an internationally recognized clinical standard for anything, I would pay close attention. I would ask what to do next. I would follow up. I would research it on my own time to make sure I was taking maximum effective action. To me, ignoring medical consensus on obesity is precisely the same as being anti-vaxx. It's part of the Death of Expertise. I have no qualifications or credentials other than a history degree, so I can't reasonably see myself as an authority. I'm good at research, but that's it. I'm always looking for new medical journal articles and nutrition and fitness paradigm shifts, but I'm not going to try to debunk consensus. Especially not if it works for me.
I finally decided to try being the "healthy weight for my height" out of curiosity. I knew the number and I had forcefully rejected it in the past. I am 5'4" and the healthy weight for my height is 120 pounds, according to multiple sources. I thought that sounded sickeningly thin. My mental image of myself at that weight was garish and alarming. I thought I would look like the proverbial stick insect. I understood, though, that the statistics I was looking at were based on hundreds of millions of people. I also knew that I'm quite capable of gaining a pound a day, and that weight gain if necessary would not be a problem for me. If I hit 120 pounds and felt wrong, I would be back in my comfort zone within days. What I discovered was that I felt better than I ever had in my life, and that I looked perfectly ordinary. I am the exact same height and weight as Betty Grable, and I've never heard of anyone accusing her of anorexia or body dysmorphia. I'm not thin, I'm vintage!
I went on a diet. It worked. "Diets don't work" when you're committed to your default lifestyle. If you eat bagels, you're going to go back to eating bagels after your diet is over, and you're going to gain the weight back. Remember, I labeled this post as 'contrarian.' After losing a hundred pounds between us, my husband and I talk amongst ourselves about Fat People Food. There are entire aisles in grocery stores that we never go down. There are entire restaurant chains where we won't eat a single item, because ewww. There is almost nothing in the Standard American Diet that either of us will eat. Dairy products, for one. Cheese consumption in the US has more than tripled since 1970. Question that. It matches up pretty well with the upward national trend in body weight. As a general rule, I don't eat anything I could buy at a gas station. I don't eat fast food, I don't eat in the car unless I absolutely have to, I don't drink anything carbonated, I don't drink alcohol or coffee, I don't eat any artificial sweeteners, and I don't eat out of vending machines.
I live to eat. I love to cook. If I feel like it, I'll eat half a bag of tater tots, or two slices of pie, or a bag of candy - and that happens maybe once a year. I'll eat with my hands. I'll talk with my mouth full. I lick my fingers. My niece told me off once. "Don't lick your hands, Aunt Jessica, or you'll get germs!" I have few compunctions about what I eat, when, where, or who's watching. That's because I know what I'm doing. I behave in a way that is consistent with what I want out of life. I have learned that being the "correct" size makes my life easier. I don't feel better. I feel AMAZING. I feel sometimes like a wild gazelle that wants to run toward the horizon and never stop. My body is an amazing gift. I like how I look and I like how I feel. Most people who are about to turn 42 can't say that. Not only can I climb a rope, I can still sit on the floor and stand up again without holding onto anything.
I have battled chronic illness. That wasn't motivating for me in terms of physical change. I just believed that it was fate, that I was stuck that way, and that it might be unfortunate, but it was my lot in life. I wanted no part of anyone's advice. My doctor said nothing I could do would affect my thyroid disease and textbooks said that fibromyalgia made me exercise-intolerant. I only started having success at feeling better purely by accident. It took years of stumbling across things that worked before I truly believed that I had power over my conditions. When I have talked to other ill people about fibromyalgia, or thyroid nodules, or migraine, they are not interested, any more than people are interested in hearing that I lost weight by eating massive amounts of cruciferous vegetables. Information is not motivation.
I have no trouble maintaining my physique because I'm internally convinced that it's the best way for me to live. I've tried the alternatives. I've been poor and rich, and I like rich better. I've been obese, overweight, average, and athletic, and I like athletic the best. I didn't want to turn into an old lady and never know what it was like to feel strong. I'm too stubborn to let public opinion hold me back. I'm not "supposed" to wear a size zero or to claim that diets work. It's cruel or something. Not as cruel as Type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, or Alzheimer's. I'm not a young girl anymore. I built my self-esteem on grit and self-respect. I'm entitled to do with my body whatever I darn well please. Until you can demonstrate that you're fitter, stronger, faster, more agile, and more energetic than I am, you can reserve your criticism quota for some other annoying thing I'm doing. I lost weight and it works for me.
Imagine waking up one morning, a la Freaky Friday, in a totally different life and a noticeably different body. What if you were you, only with no problems? You had no chronic pain and all your blood work checked out, which you intuitively felt it would, since your body felt strangely vigorous. Not only did you have no debts, but your bank balance showed a number you thought would have to be a mistake because it was much too high. As you checked out your weirdly new muscle definition, you couldn't help but notice that your surroundings were beautiful, orderly, clean, and welcoming. Then you checked your phone and had a bunch of sweet texts from your family and friends.
What would you do with yourself?
What would you worry about?
(If you're a chronic worrier, you'll quickly find something. I'd list a bunch of examples, but I wouldn't want to include one that hadn't occurred to you yet).
If you suddenly found that you could power-lift enough weight to set a new world record... would you go off and do it?
If you suddenly found that you were a multi-millionaire, would you set up a foundation to correct that tough world problem that has always broken your heart?
If you suddenly found forgiveness from and for everyone you'd ever encountered awkwardly, what would you do then?
If you were selected to test out a new cleaning robot that went around making your house immaculate, would you use it?
I've been somewhat obsessed with this idea lately. What if you had no problems? What if I had no problems? What if they had no problems? Would we collectively re-create some or all of our problems? Would we create brand-new problems never before seen, just for something to do? Would we have a giant block party, times a million?
Would we recognize ourselves?
Would we like ourselves?
I suspect that many of us, certainly including myself, derive our identities from our problems. This has come to my attention because I've changed so much over the years, in so many areas, due to my penchant for Fact-Finding Missions.
I paid off all my consumer debt well over a decade ago. Yet I still have to talk myself into buying things for myself, such as new socks. I know with absolute certainty that Past Me would think of Present Me as wealthy, but it doesn't feel like it fits.
I lost all my excess body fat three years ago, and I've had no trouble maintaining the "healthy weight for my height" now that I know how to do it. Yet it's still sometimes hard for me to adjust to how other women sometimes react to my presence. I see myself as an unthreatening nerd, but I guess I don't look like one as much anymore. Someone close to me lost a significant amount of weight years ago, then promptly gained it back because she didn't like any of the clothing styles available in her newly smaller size.
It seems that one of the things that holds us back from making change is contempt for People Like That. I'd love to be debt-free, but, ugh! Rich People! It would be nice to be able to fit into my old favorite clothes again, but I don't want to go farther than that because Skinny Bitches. Maybe life would be easier if I get organized, but Dull Women Have Clean Houses. I can only go so far down this path, but no farther, because the people a mile further down are too gross for words. You can't sit at our table.
It can really mess with your mind when you look up and realize that you have, indeed, become one of Those People.
I used to hate it whenever I saw someone jogging in place at a stoplight. Oh, SHUT UP! I would say. I would go on rants about it. I knew with certainty that these people were showing off, looking for attention, and that they had no other thoughts in their shallow little brains than whether they had chosen the right shade of neon Lycra to best show off their vain little bodies. Men and women both. Mm hmm. I'm clairvoyant and I can read everyone's minds. Look out, you might be next. Then I sort of accidentally fell in love with running. One day I BECAME That Person who jogs in place at a stoplight. I had to admit to myself that I had been wrong. The only reason I did that thing I so hated was because I knew that if I quit for even one minute, I'd probably quit running for the day, and possibly quit running for the ever. I ran for my health and I didn't give a care whether other people glared daggers at me. I did care a bit when they shouted abuse at me from car windows, but not enough to quit. When I turned 40, I gave myself permission to do whatever I want, as long as it's harmless, and to stop noticing other people's reactions. They as well have my permission to do what they want, even if it includes judging me.
If your only problem is what other people think, then in reality you have no problems.
One benefit of the No Problems thinking exercise is that it can speed up our work on our existing problems. Curiosity can move mountains. What will I do with my newly beautified space once it's cleaned up? Make art? What will I do with my money after this debt is laid to rest? Go on vacation, save for a house, start a business, or invest it? What charity will I choose? What will I do with my awesomely strong body once I reach my goal weight? Run a 5k? Learn to swim? Climb a rope? Taunt my siblings? (Never underestimate the motivating power of the desire to taunt one's siblings).
It's easy to find hundreds or thousands of examples of other people in our situation who have reached our goal before we did. Plenty of people have paid off over $10,000 of debt in a year or lost a hundred pounds in a year. I've worked with clutter clients and cleared an entire house of many years' accumulation in a long weekend (although squalor takes longer). The first step is to feel sick of the previous situation, to feel that This is Not Me and that I Want More For Myself Than This. The second step is to visualize yourself in dramatically unfamiliar form, having achieved the goal, and to find some excitement for the truth in that image. All that's left after that is action and adjustment.
New Year's is coming. This, as far as I'm concerned, is the most wonderful time of the year. There's just that big red-and-green speed bump to get over. I've already written my New Year's Resolutions because I couldn't help myself. As with every year, one of my areas of focus is physical fitness. It was that way when I was obese and out of shape and had no idea what I was doing. It was that way when I was fumbling around, trying to learn how to think and act and live like an athlete. It's that way now, when I'm confident about my strength and abilities and ab definition. My goals and resolutions about my body have been different over the years, but the one thing that has stayed the same is that I've always taken my physical needs seriously.
One way to know that there is a hidden source of power in your life is when you find yourself acting like a defense lawyer about it. Whatever you're defending is something you know you've outgrown in yourself. Imagine being an adult and trying to wear your baby shoes. Not happening. Why would anyone want to hang on to past versions of oneself from younger, more immature ages? Simply move in the direction of the resistance. The power that will be unleashed is like the eruption of a subglacial volcano.
For some of us, the resistance will be found around an expired personal relationship. For others, it will be around a safe but annoying job. For others, it will be around a substance addiction, and bless you if that's you. Enough of that now, it's time to live. For most of us, the resistance will be around body image. It's an American problem. Two-thirds of women and almost three-quarters of men in the US are overweight. I've traveled over four continents now, in nine countries, and the one thing that's clear is that everyone can always spot the Americans. There's something different about the way we do things here, and we can have a lot of discussions about what that might be. The upshot is that what has happened to us is not genetic, it's not fate, it's not a natural result of aging, and it has nothing to do with becoming a parent. That means that it is within our sphere of influence. What we resist persists, so desist and feel blissed.
(I just made that up!)
I chose to start running because it was the worst thing I could think of. I had an ulterior motive, which was to encourage my husband to work out, and I knew I would get his attention by doing something extreme. I asked him to help me. He would do anything to help me, of course, and when I couldn't even make it 1/3 of a mile, it was clear just how much I needed him. (Not sure if it would have occurred to him that I wouldn't "need" him in that way if I simply stayed on the couch with my head in a book). I didn't love running but I did love my man. I knew I had the grit to sacrifice my own comfort if I thought it would benefit him. The joke was on me, because I fell in love with running, and I didn't even make it four years before I finished a marathon.
Then I took two years off while recuperating from a series of sports-related injuries.
Now I'm getting up to speed again. I have the mentality of a marathon runner and the cardio endurance of a beginner. I went out last week and managed to make it barely over a mile. I got a stitch in my side. I was pleasantly surprised with my pace, but saddened that I probably couldn't even make it through a 5k right now, even if my family was watching. During marathon training, I never bothered with a distance shorter than four miles. I ran at least four to six miles even in 90 F heat. It's tough on the ego to feel like you're struggling to handle something which in the past wouldn't have been worth the effort of lacing your shoes.
As a grown-up, I realize that I need to respect my limits. This is part of why a middle-aged person can always out-distance people in their teens and twenties. Kids have no idea how to pace themselves. They'll sprint as hard as they can until they have to walk, then start sprinting again, and then fall back. I've been passed by people half my age dozens of times, only to pass them again and leave them behind by the halfway point. Meanwhile, I'm getting left in the dust by someone twice my age. I've seen octogenarians crush me running up a steep hill, unfortunately more than once. I love it, though. It gives me something to look forward to. One day I'll be a little old babushka thumbing my nose at all those forty-year-olds trudging behind me.
Choosing a body-related goal means including the beginner level. If we're trying to get back a fitness level we had in the past, it also means including things we might find boring or embarrassing. It's hard on the old pride. It's hard to tip over in yoga and it's hard to have the instructor come and work out next to you in step aerobics because you keep getting on the wrong foot. It's hard being stuck behind an eight-year-old child in a 5k. (Sharing all my secrets here). Just like any game, though, the challenge rounds are more interesting. That's why we play. The resistance that we beat when we reshape our bodies is the same resistance that holds us back in every other part of life. We have to remind ourselves why we're doing it: A better life for Future Self while we're still young and strong enough to make it happen.
After a two-year hiatus, I'm ready to start running again. I ran in the rain a couple of times over Thanksgiving, but I haven't gone out again since I got home. I realized that this is because I really love the regional park by my parents' house, but I don't have a regular route in my new neighborhood yet. I thought I'd share the process of figuring out where to go after the first sidewalk square outside my front door.
That's how I mentally measured distance as a novice. I didn't think much of my cardio endurance, and I figured six sidewalk squares at a time would be within my abilities. If you'd told me I'd be running a marathon not even four years later, I would have been angry that you were making fun of me.
Every runner is different. We tend to find what works for us and then become superstitiously attached to it. I have a friend who loves to run against the display on the treadmill. Some people love running in the early morning, some love running at night. Some prefer to run in groups or with a dog, others prefer running alone. I prefer trail running, something that is hard to manage in a big city.
I start with a map app, scanning the area around my house. I walk about 15-20 miles a week, generally for errands, and I want something different for running. My ideal is a large, hilly park with trails and a public restroom. Any park with a path will do, though. A surprising number of public parks have no pathways, just parking around the entire perimeter. Enjoying them as a runner means disrupting people's frisbee games, alarming their dogs, and generally being in the grass. I'll go far out of my way for my preferred kind of park, because this is my "treat" for my weekly distance day. I can run a standard/boring/shorter route on the other days.
When I started out, I physically couldn't make it around the block. I had to walk part of the way and lie on the floor afterward. My first challenge was to find a flat section of sidewalk that measured 1/3 mile. No hills! I added just 1/10 of a mile at a time every few days. A few years down the road, my first goal is to find the steepest hill within five miles. It probably takes me a third of a mile to quit fiddling with my gear. No matter what I choose, I know it's just a sampler. I'll test it out, knowing it's possible but unlikely that these particular streets will still be on my route six months from now.
I have no problem with repeating the same route over and over again. Tolerance for monotony is an important trait for running, knitting, sitting on a couch and staring at a screen, and all sorts of other fun activities.
For short training runs, I want what I call a "big loop." That's the largest possible area in which I can run laps without having to wait at a stoplight. In my old neighborhood, the big loop went around a car lot, a community garden, a gas station, and a grocery store. My street bisected it. I could choose between a two-mile loop or two versions of a one-mile loop. Urban streets tend to be on a regular grid, and it's possible to get really close to one-mile units. The advantage of this was that I could easily determine my distance for the day by doing one or more laps around that loop. Another advantage is that it usually keeps me within a quarter-mile of my house, depending on side streets.
Within the big loop are typically smaller rectangles or circuits of quarter- or half-mile increments. I like areas with a lot of cul-de-sacs. That means I can run around them without worrying about through traffic. Sometimes there are also basketball hoop stands to hurdle. Another interesting feature is that sometimes, if you run with a GPS app, you can make patterns with your route. I inadvertently drew a waving hand one night. On a big enough grid, you can spell things.
These are the factors I can discover on a map. Quality only comes with experimentation. For instance, my old neighborhood was at virtually the epicenter of the 1996 Northridge earthquake, and it had a lot of severely buckled sidewalks. I tripped on one while running at night with my dog, and tore my knee open. I learn to plan my route to avoid barking dogs, broken streetlights, hanging tree limbs, creepy shrubbery, and those predictable blocks where the street harassment never seems to stop. I learn which side of which street has the most shade on hot days, and which routes are better in daylight or at night. I learn where other runners put in their time. One morning, I was heading back to the barn when I waited at a crosswalk with a young man in street clothes. He asked me if I was training, and within two minutes, we had picked each other's brains, for he turned out to be an ultra runner. Serendipity is out there.
As it turns out, I do in fact live near a very hilly regional park. It's a big, enticing green blob on the map. I see that one edge of this blob is almost exactly two miles from my house, a straight shot down a street I already know well. I can't tell yet whether I can get in from that side, or whether I'll encounter a fence or some such. Now that the existence of this park is within my awareness, it won't be long before I'm jogging on over there to find out more.
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.