Fitness and the American Woman

1193197_HiResWhen I was 29 years old, an age at which I took my health and strength for granted, I was scrubbing a bathtub and my back gave out.  It didn’t make a sound—a snap, crackle, or pop—it just seized up, and in the time it took to get from one second to the next, something I had been taking for granted my whole life became an insoluble problem.  I couldn’t stand up. I crawled into the living room, got myself onto the couch, and asked my husband for help. That was the first of many episodes in which my back seized up, landing me on the couch or in bed for a day or two.

At the time, fitness was not a concept in my life.  I didn’t exercise regularly, and I ate and drank what I pleased—large bowls of vanilla ice cream drenched in chocolate syrup, consumed in front of my favorite nine o’clock TV show; plates of dumplings and chicken and broccoli from the local Chinese place; and the ubiquitous pizza, sausage and mushroom with extra cheese. Although I knew that exercise would probably help my back pain—my mother has a bad back, has exercised for years, and highly recommends it—I didn’t change my habits.  I chose a short-term fix for the problem—a potent combination of hot baths, Advil, and beer.  Sometimes, I got a massage.  If the back pain really acted up, I went to a chiropractor.

If I thought about my body back then, it was never in terms of what she could do, or what she needed.  It was in terms of what I wanted—ice cream or beer or rest—and what I wished I could look like, a concept I gleaned from magazines and television.  Every once in a while, I would go after some exercise program with gusto, but I always gave it up within a few weeks because I was motivated by a desire to look like someone else, and that wasn’t a good, or tenable, reason to change my life.

Then I had children.

By the time my son was born and my daughter was four years old, pain had taken up permanent residence in the muscles running from my lower back to my heels, claiming me for its own.  This pain was something I simply got used to—I did what I could to ease it, but healing myself was not at the top of my list of priorities.  In addition, my body had been through the trauma of a couple of surgeries, and I’d gained a lot of weight with my second pregnancy. At thirty-five, I felt old—overweight, exhausted, and in pain.  Still, when I thought of my body it wasn’t in terms of fitness.  It was in terms of how far she looked from the ideal, and how far she’d fallen from where she used to be.  I felt as though I’d used up my best years without even realizing I’d been living them.  A melodramatic idea for a thirty-five-year-old, but hey, I was awash in hormones and suffering from sleep deprivation.

While I was in this state of mind, I watched the movie Spanglish one night when my husband was out of town.  Halfway through the movie, these words struck me:

“American women, I believe, actually feel the same as Hispanic women about weight.  A desire for the comfort of fullness.  And when that desire is suppressed for style and deprivation allowed to rule, dieting, exercising American women become afraid of everything associated with being curvaceous—such as wantonness, lustfulness, sex, food, motherhood—all that is best in life.”

When I heard these words spoken, I had to rewind to listen again.  And again.  And dang if I didn’t listen one more time, word by word, so I could write it down.  The quotation summed up so much of what I’d always felt about my body, exercise, and pleasure.  I thought about the times I had halfheartedly tried to be one of those “dieting, exercising women,” the times when I’d given up an indulgence and gone after the American ideal with fervor, only to give up within a few weeks because I was so resentful of the deprivation necessary to ensure perfection.  It seemed to me that I’d spent my life caught between these two poles: the desire to enjoy food and relaxation, and the desire to look like a woman in a magazine.

I put the quotation away—it became one of a number of scribbled notes that were the beginnings of this blog—but it stayed with me.  It stayed with me as I took the first steps toward losing the weight I’d gained, as I began to exercise not in resentment but in gratitude (because of my surgeries, I had been denied the ability to exercise for months, and now it was something I wanted, needed to do, not to be someone else but to be fully myself), as I allowed myself the pleasure of a beer or a bowl of ice cream.

It has been five years since I watched Spanglish, five years since I first began to define the line between deprivation and desire.  In that time, I have lost the thirty pounds of baby weight and then some.  I have reduced my back pain to an occasional inconvenience, though I haven’t eradicated it.  And I have learned to think of my body in terms of what she can do and what she needs, in addition to how she looks.

Sometimes, I’ll run into someone who I haven’t seen in a long time, and they’ll ask me how I lost the weight.  I always say this:  slowly.

Because it is a short conversation, and the person isn’t asking for my life history or my theories on pain and pleasure, I don’t say this:  with a new awareness.  Because this answer begs the question, An awareness of what?

And I have a new awareness of so many things.

First, I cannot take my body for granted—not even her ability to stand, or to see.

Second, my body needs me to care for her so that she doesn’t experience unnecessary pain.  She needs the right kind of food in the right amounts.  She needs exercise.  She needs sleep.  And she needs the comfort of fullness.

Third, fitness doesn’t come easy.  It is a journey, a deeply personal one.  The journey involves coming to peace with yourself, inside and outside, and blocking out all of the insanity of the world.  It involves finding something you love to do physically—dancing or walking or running or playing volleyball—and doing it with joy in your heart and faith in your body.  It involves pursuing fitness for the sake of health, not depriving yourself for the sake of style. That said, you do occasionally have to kick your own ass.  You just have to make sure you’re not going overboard when you do it.

Fitness, I have learned, is a tricky beast.  Especially in a culture in which magazines named Fitness and Self have women in bikinis on them.  Granted, these women are presenting themselves as models of beauty and fitness, not models for sexual consumption, but a bikini body is a bikini body is a bikini body—especially when the woman is looking at the camera, and not at her life. According to these magazines, the line between style and substance is a thin one indeed.

It is on this line that I find myself balanced, here, at a new place of transition, that I still ask myself the question:  do I want to reach a new level of fitness so that I can be ever closer to the women in magazines, or so that I can feel stronger, happier, less controlled by the pain of muscles that would benefit from more stretching, more strength, and the ability to do more with less?

The answer, of course, is yes.  I want it all.

Ah, but I know myself.  If I try to kick things up a notch so that I can reach an unreachable ideal, I’ll be done before I begin.

Instead, to reach a new level, I plan to draw on the inspiration of people I know:  men and women, of varying ages, who include fitness in their lives because it’s a part of who they are.  People who live their lives with enthusiasm, energy, and hope.  People who eat well, exercise often and hard, and don’t deprive themselves of a damn thing in the name of style.

Last April, at the age of 39, I participated in the first 10K of my life.  It was one of the most exhilarating, life-affirming things I have ever done.  And even though it was, for me, a milestone of fitness, I know that it could be just a step along the way.  I could run the next one—or the next ten.   Because here’s one more thing I know about fitness:  it is a conversation.

Fitness is, at its most elemental level, a conversation you have with yourself—a personal conversation between your body, your mind, and your spirit.  But it is also a cultural conversation.  Parts of the cultural conversation have gone mad, run amok, acting as though it is possible to separate one aspect of fitness and glorify it to the detriment of all the others.  This cultural conversation we are having doesn’t only affect women and women’s bodies—increasingly, we are putting pressure on men to think of their bodies as fodder for the camera as well.  And the more we buy this idea—that fitness really means an impossible ideal of beauty—the further away we will get from accepting ourselves, and from achieving a balance that will nourish and strengthen all of us—body, mind, and soul.

2 thoughts on “Fitness and the American Woman

  1. Brooke Soderholm says:

    “Still, when I thought of my body it wasn’t in terms of fitness. It was in terms of how far she looked from the ideal, and how far she’d fallen from where she used to be. I felt as though I’d used up my best years without even realizing I’d been living them.”

    Those exact thoughts have been in my head too. And also- all the bikini girls in fitness. Danny is like, “Brooke, you know that I wouldn’t look through a magazine like that- why would you?” Because I like the articles, but you are right! How necessary or inspiring are all of the bikinis,sports bras, and itty bitty shorts?

    I really enjoyed reading this. You are a great example of fitness and I am glad it is for all the right reasons now!


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks, Brooke. You are also a great example of fitness–you lead Zumba classes while pregnant! Had I known you when I was pregnant, you would have been a great inspiration to me. You are beautiful inside and out.


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