Historically, I have not been a terribly athletic person.
(Wait. If we break this apart, you COULD say, somewhat truthfully, that if I was athletic, I was terrible at it. So “terribly athletic” is deceptively close to the truth here.)
I didn’t play sports as a child. I read books. Lots of books. I was a voracious reader with an insatiable appetite. I remember vividly my mother sending a note to my second grade teacher to please, please allow her daughter to select chapter books instead of picture books. I guess she got tired of helping me cart twenty books at a time back and forth to school.
So, I spent a lot of time on the couch reading, instead of “playing outside,” whatever THAT was supposed to mean. My only physical activity, really, was the required “physical education” a couple of days a week in school.
And who here has excellent memories of gym class?
Yeah, me too.
In elementary school, gym wasn’t too taxing, really. We all looked forward to the days where the gym teacher would roll out the big parachute, and we’d flap it up and down together, taking turns running underneath the bright, billowed canopy. (If your school didn’t do this, you totally missed out. Trust me.)
I looked less forward to the mandated “square dancing.” Let’s face it, no one wants to dance with the class egghead. Even in third grade, no one picks the smart girl to dance with. Especially if she has glasses, braces, and an awkward haircut. And ESPECIALLY especially if she’s chunky. Or just plain fat.
It wasn’t just dancing where I was picked last. That was the protocol for pretty much any team sport – in elementary school, this was largely kickball. Of course, I couldn’t kick, I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t catch. (Last-picked loser trifecta!) I tried to stand in the outfield, sending anti-ball vibes to the kicker. Fortunately, when you’re seven or eight, no one can really kick it much past 2nd base, so I didn’t screw up any big plays.
In middle school, there were new challenges. I was still fat – when we were lined up for our scoliosis test (you remember, where they lifted your shirt up and drew down your spine with a ballpoint pen?) and they weighed us, I was the kid on the scale when they moved the “big weight” from 50 to 100. I remember some gasps. I remember my classmates’ eyes widening. I remember that odd sensation of feeling so big and yet so small, all at the same time.
Gym class was harder in middle school. They actually expected you to DO things.
Pushups. (To this day, I still can’t do a single one.)
Pullups. (You’re kidding, right? I can’t even do a pushup. What gravitational miracle do you think is going to transpire once you move the chair?)
Climbing the rope. (HAHAHAHAHAHA. No.)
And…group showers. Yep, it’s not bad enough that you’re at least thirty pounds heavier than your classmates, and the only one who needs a bra*, but now, two or three times a week, you’re expected to CHANGE CLOTHES and SHOWER – NAKED – in front of other people. Funny, I don’t actually remember what anyone else looked like. I just remember feeling…big. Naked and big. Like the Darci doll in a world of Barbies, it was clear I didn’t fit in this toybox.
*Ah, my first bra. In 5th grade, I distinctly remember asking my mom for a bra, because it hurt to run in gym class. Mom said I was too young (even though I needed to shave my pits, WHATEVER MOM) but reluctantly took me to the local Ben Franklin to try some on, since I insisted. I walked out with a 36B. Mom was, and still is, a 34A. Totally blew her cups out of the cabinet at the ripe age of 10. That had to be…awkward.
In high school, the stakes got higher. By now, we had some decent athletes among us. I was not one of them. (OBVIOUSLY. I think we’ve established this.) But, our gym teacher coached track, volleyball, and a few other sports I don’t care about, so she used gym class to condition her hopefuls for the sport in season.
In the fall, it was track. She had a cross-country course all laid out for us – leave the high school, turn left at the bottom of the hill*, run in front of the elementary school, across the field to the middle school, do a lap at the track, and then back up the hill to do four laps in the gym (as well as some bleacher climbs, pushups, cartwheels, pole vaults, or some other thing that clearly was not going to happen.)
*Our high school hill was legendary. When it snowed, people came from all over the county to sled down it – well, before there were six lawsuits for every light pole and before helmets were even an afterthought. It wasn’t truly winter until someone busted a bone doing a total yard sale out of a plastic saucer shooting down High School Hill.
In the winter, we moved the fun indoors…to swimming. Humiliation, Boss Stage: you now have to parade around ALL of your peers, boys AND girls, in a <gasp> SWIMSUIT. (Oh, the horror!)
And to add insult to injury…remember I said I wore glasses? I am EXTREMELY nearsighted. I am “butter the toast, get butter on my nose” nearsighted. I am so nearsighted that if I hold a book up to my face to read, I have to close one eye, because if one eye can focus on the type, the other eye is too far away to see it. Yeah. THAT nearsighted.
So one day I’m standing by the end of the pool, waiting my turn to do a 25-yard crawl. The gym teacher is at the midpoint. She’s telling people when to go, spacing us out so we don’t crash into one another. (Really, I should just go last. No way I’m catching up to anyone in front of me, and I won’t slow the group down if I’m on the tail end.)
I’m shivering by the edge of the pool, ready to dive in. I’m waiting, and waiting….nothing.
I yell out to her, “Do you want me to go?”
“Mrs. A! Should I go now?”
After a couple of rounds of this, I relax my stance. I step away from the edge of the pool. Clearly, something is wrong, and I’m not swimming any time soon. (Boo hoo, I’m crushed.)
Then about five minutes later, she’s IN MY FACE yelling at me. Whu…? Well, apparently, when I was standing there asking her “can I go? how about now?” – she was WAVING AT ME to go. And I kept standing there asking “Do you want me to go? Do I go now?” while she was waving at me. The one who LITERALLY CANNOT SEE PAST HER OWN NOSE. Comedy of errors, anyone?
Worst part is, she totally didn’t believe me that I couldn’t see. (Gah, I hated that b!tch….)
So that was my introduction to what it meant to be physically fit. Suffice it to say I didn’t actively seek out exercise of any kind for most of my adult life. When you’ve spent twelve years being told you’re absolutely terrible at something, you usually quit doing it.
But marry a self-loathing for your body with external criticism about your lack of physical abilities and it’s no wonder, really, that you give birth to a whole family of food issues and eating disorders.
My upbringing and my experiences worked together like well-meaning grandmothers to knit together a robe that I was all too happy to slip on. It was comfortable and familiar, and I clung to it like a favored baby blanket, reluctant to let go of the security it gave me.
I didn’t ever think about whether I LIKED dragging the old, tired garment around. It was simply a part of me, and I kept it close long after I should have outgrown the ratty thing and chucked it in the rags bin.
Even now, as I’m working to recover, I can only set the blasted thing down long enough to wash it periodically.
For some reason, I’m unable to get rid of it – this blanket of poor body image, of uselessness, of self-doubt and criticism, stitched with fat-feeling threads on seams that are never thin enough, and finished with a band of anxiety and depression.
I know I don’t NEED it. That’s just silly. Right? But yet, I keep slipping it back on over my shoulders – when I’m stressed, when I’m tired, when I’m frustrated.
I’m just starting to realize that it really doesn’t fit all that well, and the colors are all wrong for me. But I think it’ll be hard to throw away until I find something to replace it. Hopefully, something woven from joy, love, and contentment, with a soft lace border of peace.