Let me be clear: this column is about my relationship with exercise — or, How an Asthmatic, Relatively Inactive Kid Became a Fitness Nut. It’s not (really) a column about weight loss, even though a few years ago it totally would have been.
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I’ve always had a rocky relationship with my body/weight, even though I’ve always been a healthy weight. It started in elementary school. I never had the skinny, coltish frame that a lot of my active classmates had, the byproduct of hours of dance, soccer, baseball or a lightening fast metabolism. I’ve always been short and shapely; I still have the same little pot since I was a kid. So, some girls decided I was fat, and I started to believe them. (Which is RIDICULOUS. Looking back at photos, I realize I wasted a lot of time feeling bad about nothing. Which is probably how I’ll feel in 20 years looking back on photos of me now. Reminds me of a magnet I saw once: “I wish I was as thin as when I thought I was fat.”)
I had excercise-induced asthma (it’s a real thing), so I was also pretty inactive. I was more of an art and piano lessons kid. Phys. Ed. was horrible. We had to run laps around my school field and collect popsicle sticks to every lap completed — and then, to add to the humiliation, READ OUR TOTALS AT THE END. I resorted to picking up sticks other people had dropped in the field; I could barely manage three laps when other kids were averaging 10. Games of Tag were particularly traumatizing; an enterprising group of kids made me be It for entire recesses because I could never keep up to them BECAUSE I LITERALLY COULD NOT BREATHE. (I know. Single tear.)
ANYWAY, since high school, I’ve maintained a healthy body weight. I’m not skinny; I’m a perfectly middle-of-the road size 8-10. But man, I used to YEARN to be skinny. I’ve always loved the Kate Moss aesthetic; I’ve always been envious of women with long, lean limbs. So, I started doing pilates and going to the gym. A lot.
AND THEN SOMETHING GREAT HAPPENED.
I didn’t become skinny; I became fit. I don’t have the physique of someone who does intense step aerobics (it’s come a long way since the ’80s) and weight lifting classes three to four times a week, which I do. I definitely don’t have a six-pack. But I do have the heart and lungs of someone who does intense classes three to four times a week (and, as an added benefit, the legs). I can lift heavy shit. And I haven’t had an asthma attack in a decade. LET’S PLAY TAG, ASSHOLES.
I legitimately love working out. Honestly. The endorphin rush — or Runner’s High — of a solid, sweaty workout is addictive. I thought I had cracked the exercise code: I found something I truly love to do — so much so, I actually auditioned to become a step instructor. But a recent ELLE article (I know, I’m obsessed) showed me that I was STILL kind of doing it for the wrong reason.
In the piece, writer Virginia Sole-Smith — a fitness phobe who, like me, struggled with exercise-induced asthma — interviews the brilliant Michelle Segar, PhD, a motivation psychologist at the University of Michigan and associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls. “Many women hate to work out because we’ve been taught to do it for the wrong reasons,” Segar says.
Ding, ding, ding. According to Segar’s research, most ladies hit the gym because they want to lose weight. That is, surprise, surprise, our primary motivation. We get frustrated when the pounds don’t fall off immediately (my weight actually went up a little bit when I started weight training). We give up and we stop going. We judge how “good” a workout is based on “results” — but we have an incredibly limited view of what those results look like. Exercise becomes something we should do, like a teeth cleaning, rather than something to take pleasure in.
“The problem is that this negative message frames exercise as something we should force our bodies to do, whether we like it or not, to meet an impossible standard,” Segar is quoted as saying. “It’s fitness as the modern corset.” YES. In Sole-Smith’s case, Segar explained that she was using exercise as punishment for not being skinny anymore.
Reading those words, a lightbulb went off in my head. I’m looking at my workout habits through a new lens. I’m trying to beat myself up less for missing a class. I’m trying to be kinder to myself. I’m learning, from a great team of instructors, that fitness comes in many shapes and sizes. I’m trying to take more pleasure in non-scale related fitness victories. Like one that happened the other week.
“Do you do step a lot?” asked a shy young girl who sometimes goes to my Wednesday class. “Because you’re really good. Sometimes I follow you and not the instructor.” BE STILL MY HEART.
Jen Zoratti blogs about feminism and pop culture at SCREAMINGINALLCAPS.com. Follow her on Twitter @JenZoratti.