As an overweight woman who performs in public, I’ve resented the ways in which women like me are reduced to our bodies and our thoughts about our bodies. I’ve mostly refused to develop opinions about mine. I’ve spent most of my life experiencing the world intellectually and emotionally rather than physically; I’ve never devoted much time or energy to cultivating a healthy body image, nor have I ever really struggled with physical self hatred. Now that I’ve been regularly exercising for a few months, for the first time in a long time, I’m more skeptical about this approach. This kind of alienation from the physical is a common response for people whose bodies are not considered acceptable. It’s an attempt at creating a safeguard against a familiar hurt.
I was not always so apathetic about my body. Growing up, I played lots of sports, and my favorite was rowing. I loved the discipline of repeating the same maneuver over and over in pursuit of a single perfect action, and the feeling of unity and power when all rowers are moving in unison and the boat seems to lift from the water. I wasn’t bad at it, either—I had good form and strong split times on the erg machine. Unfortunately, in rowing what matters is not your speed but the ratio of what you contribute in power to the weight you add to the boat. As one of the heavier rowers—I’ve been overweight since childhood—my respectable times were not quite enough to put me in the best boats.
I was not good enough to row in college, and I stopped playing other sports after high school. Collegiate academic stress combined with some bad mental health years ruled out the prospect of any physical activity more rigorous than drunken weekend dance parties. Apart from a few brief and half-hearted attempts to Be More Active over the last decade and a regular though not athletically rigorous yoga practice, I’ve lived a life of happy hedonism, enjoying my body only for its ability to consume and passively experience things—food, drugs, sex.
After all those years of inactivity, a strong and fully formed urge to move resurfaced in recent months. I capitalized on it immediately, though I’m not sure where it came from. I’m no jock, but I now go to the gym about every other day, and often hit up a hot yoga class on my off days. I lift weights and run steady 9-10 minute miles on the treadmill, and just hit a personal best of 5 miles in a 45 minute run last week.
I never thought I’d be running by choice, and long believed that if God wanted me to run he wouldn’t have given me breasts. I still don’t love running, but it’s the most direct way to satisfy my body’s newfound urge to move, and I’ve surprisingly gotten pretty good at it, especially for someone of my size.
When I started exercising, I had no grand plan: I just knew Moving was better than Not Moving, which made the elliptical a natural first stop, along with some basic weight exercises like goblet squats and bent-over rows. I live across the street from a gym and work from home, so it was easy to satisfy this sudden craving for activity. I went to the gym as soon as I felt the inkling, hurrying to get there before the craving passed. Playing sports as a kid fortunately left me with a basic level of kinesthetic intelligence and athletic coordination, and so once I got in the gym I just started doing whatever felt good and made me tired. Now I follow a more structured weightlifting program and have moved from the elliptical to the treadmill. The underlying principle of my workout regimen remains the same, though—just go move in a way that makes me happy afterward.
I don’t have a whole lot of insight to offer about the physical act of exercising itself, really. For me, that lack of subtext is the beauty of solitary exercise for an intellectually driven person—it’s an aggressively anti-intellectual pursuit. I strive to have no thoughts whatsoever while I’m working out, and make the choice to process the fatigue I feel as neutral rather than negative. Sometimes, when things get really tough, I choose to experience this fatigue as gratitude—my body hurts because I use it to lift heavy things, because I can make it move. How lucky am I that I can make my body do these things.
I think the realization that I am incredibly moved by physical expressions of creativity also helped spark my newfound interest. Watching people dance makes me weep, and I’m not even talking about Swan Lake here. I’ve cried through every Step Up movie. For reasons that are probably related, I’ve recently gotten deeply invested in professional wrestling. Watching the way wrestlers tell stories physically, with such unbelievable grace and athleticism and brutality, has totally changed the way I view what bodies can do and how they can communicate. I go to a lot of live wrestling shows now, and I’m as impressed by the matches as I am by the ease with which off-duty wrestlers inhabit space—sweaty and splay-legged in slides and basketball shorts, drinking cheap beer and hawking T-shirts after a hard night’s work. It’s a physical ease that only athletes have, and I envy it.
Despite being overweight, I didn’t start exercising to change how I look. I haven’t lost more than a scant handful of pounds in the several months I’ve been working out regularly, and while I don’t look any different, my body feels different. More than that, I inhabit my body differently. I don’t quite have the ease (and definitely don’t have the physique) of the dancers and wrestlers I admire, but I’ve come to relish the post-gym exhaustion that is my reward after throwing myself through all this; the soreness and fatigue have become familiar and comforting, even grounding. In a world where so much of my labor is owned or otherwise claimed by others, this physical work belongs only to me. It’s something I do purely for myself, to enrich my experience of the world.
I’ve never hated my body, though I never exactly fully inhabited it before this. A regular practice of exercise has allowed me to love the experience of being not just a brain but a body for the first time in my life. You should try it, even if you’re a fat nerd like me.