I was 21, sitting cross-legged on the floor with a bunch of other young climber women, talking about whatever it is that 21-year-olds talk about (I’ve forgotten -it was 10 years ago, and also my memory is going in my old age), when someone made an observation that I still repeat to whoever will listen. She looked around at us all, and said, “Hey, isn’t it cool that we’re all pretty fit, but we each have completely different body types?” I hadn’t noticed our respective body types, but looking around, I had to admit she was right. We were tall, short, stocky and willowy and everything in between. There were big boobs and small boobs and child-bearing hips and no discernible waist-hip ratio. The only real similarity between us was that we all climbed (and ran, and biked and hiked and skied) pretty regularly, so we were all in pretty decent shape. What that “in shape” looked like just happened to be lots of different shapes.
This shouldn’t have been an epiphany, but it was. There’s all sorts of talk these days about how “fit is the new skinny“, but we still seem to have this belief deep down that if a woman just worked out more or ate “more healthily” (read “less”) she, too, would be skinny like the women on the covers of fitness magazines. In other words, skinny is the new skinny. We’re just using the idea of “fitness” to sell skinny now, because it’s more socially acceptable to encourage people to overexercise than it is to insist they under eat.
Some of you may not know that I’m a substitute teacher (when I’m not writing super-interesting blog posts, of course). One thing I love about my day job is that it’s different every day. Today, I attended a post-secondary presentation by the Canadian Armed Forces. (Did you know Canada has a military college? Being a mennonite, and therefore a born pacifist, I did not. But it looks pretty cool. And also terrifyingly structured.) One day last winter, my “job” for the day involved accompanying a class to the ice rink, where we skated (well, they skated, and I wobbled precariously) or played hockey.
One student, a petite asian girl of about 15, did a few rounds of the rink with me, and then we sat down together to nurse our sore toes and bruised asses. As we sat making polite conversation, a figure skater made her way onto the ice and began to warm up. My new friend was clearly impressed. I asked her if she had ever been interested in pursuing a sport, and she (incredibly depressingly) replied that she couldn’t do sports because her calf muscles would get too big. She then opened up about her deep concern that her weight was approaching 100 pounds, and she would be mortified to cross that threshold.
I was momentarily speechless. I had heard the “big calves” worry before, as a running store employee; and as someone who could never fit into knee-high boots until the slouchy look became a thing, I can sympathize. But the thought of prioritizing how you look over what you can do was beyond me. I wanted to say something profound to this girl -to somehow undo a lifetime’s worth of conditioning and its constriction, to exchange her pencil skirt for a pair of palazzo pants. Feel the freedom. I probably didn’t succeed. But I thought about what works for me: I pointed out the figure skater, who had the most muscular legs I had ever seen on a woman, and asked my student if she thought it mattered that her legs weren’t skinny. Because look what she could DO.
I didn’t realize until recently how important my involvement in certain sports has been for my self-esteem. Let’s get this straight -I am no athlete. I’m slow and lack hand-eye coordination, and I trip over my own feet a lot. But I love climbing and hiking and skiing. I love being in the mountains and not dying an agonizing death by over-exertion, so I have learned to enjoy running and cycling (sort of) as well. By proxy, I have found a community and at least a piece of my identity in these things. What my body can do is important to me.
So, when I see perfect women on magazine covers, and red carpets; when I see men (and women) falling over themselves for the chance to spend time with (or offer to help or hire) women who are prettier and skinnier than I am; when I see men (and women) criticizing the appearance of women whom I consider to be prettier than me; when I weigh myself and I’ve somehow gained three pounds overnight; when I have to buy a new bathing suit and (as usual) need a size smaller in the top than in the bottom; when I’m tempted to stop eating, just for a little while; when I feel like I’m just gross and awful; when I look in the mirror at the climbing gym and it seems like one thigh is a little lumpier than the other, and I remark to my climbing partner that I wonder if this is the beginning of what they call “saddle bags” and she laughs but doesn’t deny that my right thigh does indeed look a little lumpier than my left one; when these and any other of a number of daily jabs at my attempts to be ok with the way I look happen, I try not to waste too much time worrying about it. Because I just climbed 11b after only two weeks back at the gym. And I was able to run a little farther this week than I was last week. And I broke my back five months ago, and watching my body recover from that put me a little bit in awe of it, and there are days when I feel strong and fast and it feels so good that it’s worth the big calves, and I would never compromise that strength by deliberately starving myself or exercising to over injury or avoiding exercise because I’m afraid of being “too muscular”.
We want to be skinny because we think it will make us happy. But I AM happy. Because I can do so many things that I love. Not everyone can. I recognize my privilege.
I think it’s possible that the more girls and women are encouraged to DO, the less we will worry about how we look. I hope it’s possible, anyway. Not one of my beautiful girlfriends or family members will ever grace the cover of a magazine (and what a shame), but they are ultra runners and mountain bikers and doctors and lawyers and poets and prophets and all the beauty that can be contained in a physical space, so who in their right mind cares what their waist measurements are? I sure as hell don’t. I just wish these women didn’t feel they had to either.
When the world went crazy last week over Renee Zellweger’s face (because that’s the important news), she responded (awesomely) by talking about her health and quality of life. I say, let’s just keep redirecting the conversation until we all realize how silly it kind of is, this obsession with women’s appearance.
My body might not be everything I wish it would be, but it’s the reason I can feel my heart race and smell snow coming in the air and get caught up in all the perfect moments and the hard ones, so I am learning to love it, even if I’m not very good at it yet.