What exercise has done for me

I've never been an athlete. Anyone who's known me for any length of time is well aware of this. Growing up, I never participated in sports of any kind. Somehow I got branded as unathletic, and I leaned into it. I pretty much gave up on my body's abilities to do anything beyond the basic functions needed to get through the day.

Actually, that's not true--I did have some athletic abilities, however small. My brother James taught me to pitch, and I'd pitch Wiffleballs to him until Mom demanded we come inside, until the light was gone. I probably continued to pitch well after he had left, and I was just hucking balls into the shrubbery. Plus I had always loved to dance. And I would run, of course; I'd chase boys or have boys chase me and actually those were the only two times I really ran all that hard. (I was often engaged in some kind of boy/me chase, up until it became weirdly thrilling, in a different, more confusing way.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about how I felt about exercise, growing up, and even into my adulthood, because now that I've taken up regular exercise I'm kind of floored at how much it's changed me. I don't mean physically, although that part is nice. I mean emotionally, mentally--it's changed me. I'm different now. How I'm different is hard to explain. Oh, but I'm going to try.

One night, my junior year of college, I caught my boyfriend looking at me strangely. We were on our way to a formal, so naturally I thought he was admiring my dress, or how my butt looked in my dress. "What?" I asked him, and he said, "I never noticed before: it's like you have two different bodies. From the waist up you're so tiny, but from the waist down you're much bigger. I guess your Irish genes took over the top half, but your bottom half is all Italian."


Instead of immediately dumping him, I turned away so that he wouldn't see that my face had turned dark red, changed the subject, and then dated him for another eighteen months. At which point (when I did finally dump him) he went insane and threatened to kill me, or himself, or kill himself in front of me--he couldn't choose which!--and then systematically destroyed every aspect of my senior year of college. But that's another story.

Let's go back to that moment, the moment my boyfriend sliced me in half, because it was at that precise instant that I went from feeling fairly content with my figure to feeling betrayed and humiliated, not by him, but by my own body. I was all wrong. I wasn't just heavy, or skinny--I was an entirely new, and awful, category.

I can't fully blame my boyfriend, as much of a jerk as he was. The seeds had been sown, long ago--by my lack of confidence in re: moving through space; by watching my mother and sister embark on one fad diet after another; hell, just by being female in this fucked-up culture, I was vulnerable to attack.

But still, even if he didn't plant the bomb, he found the trigger. I could never look at a picture of myself after that without feeling like I was looking at a Cubist painting. I didn't make sense to me. Surely everyone could see what a horrible, embarrassing creature I was. After a while I couldn't even identify what parts were so offensive--I was just hopelessly ugly, somehow. So I hid from cameras, and wore shoulder pads to even out my proportions, and dated anyone who told me I was pretty. Problem solved!

Fast forward to the present: I'm no longer wearing shoulder pads, I think I look pretty good most of the time, and my husband thinks I look good all of the time, so I'm already way ahead. I wrote a while back about how I started exercising pretty seriously, but actually I was still half-assed about it, if I'm going to be honest. I mean, I work from home, three blocks from the gym; I have zero excuse not to go every day.

So, a couple of months ago, that's what I started doing.

Well, almost every day. Six days out of the week, I'm there. I run, or I lift weights. I enjoy it, kind of a lot, which shocks me more than I can say. But here's what I want to tell you, finally: every time I go, every time, my body makes a little more sense to me. It's like exercise is reorganizing the image I have of myself, shuffling things around into a more accurate picture. Exercise is why, when I went to the doctor last week for the flu and learned that I had gained an unseemly number of pounds, I thought, "Okay, time to lay off the cheese and cookies every day," and didn't hyperventilate out of fear and shame. Because this is my body, and it works, and I prove that to myself, every day.

Exercise has taught me what my body is, what it can do, and where anyone who tells me it's not good enough can go.