Monday, January 12, 2009

Exercising (sic) demons

I was a fat kid.

It's hard to explain the difficulty I have in saying that, since I think I'm also a fat adult, and still have an intense fear that if I call attention to it, I'll be inviting scorn from, well, everyone. A psychologist friend once told me I had the most screwed-up body image of anyone he'd ever known, since I imagine I'm a whale even though, rationally, I know that I'm within the normal weight range for my height, I work out regularly, and don't suffer from any eating disorders, thank god.

Still, in my heart of hearts I worry that if I confess that Greg H. used to call me "Hungry Hippo" in 7th grade, you'll all wonder why you didn't think of that nickname yourself, and will never address me in any other way again.

Weight's on my mind these days since I'm feeling like a slug, post-holiday and in the midst of these dark, gloomy January days that make me want to eat a diet composed exclusively of carbs, nap, and move as little as possible until spring, when I fear I'll be too large to squeeze through the door to enjoy it.

I feel grateful that at least I genuinely enjoy exercise. Like, I kind of get nutso if I can't at least go for a long walk every couple of days...and even that doesn't really do it for me most of the time--I need the elliptical machine, or an aerobics class, or something more strenuous.

It almost feels like a betrayal to say that, since I grew up in a household where athleticism was positioned as the opposite of intellect, and the received message was that smart people don't sweat, and they sure don't enjoy sweating. Where does that idea come from? It's a peculiar kind of snobbery, one that ultimately is quite literally self-defeating. I'm glad that some rebellious part of myself insisted on raging against that belief, though I wish I'd done it earlier and more often.

In hindsight, there are so many things I would have loved to do--taking more dance classes, for example--for the sheer love of movement. But when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, being "active" meant being an athlete--i.e., participating in competitive sports, which I have always loathed. Until I took a cycling class for my last high-school phys ed requirement, it never occurred to me that gym could be anything other than a trial to be endured.

Even now, I cringe at memories of trying to memorize the difference between man-to-man and zone defense in basketball, and being pissed off at aggressive boys who'd charge halfway across the volleyball court to hit a ball they figured some girl would miss.

Fortunately, it seems that physical education and educators have wised up to this problem, and many school gym programs (if they haven't been cut entirely) focus on wellness and finding activities that every student can enjoy. What took so damn long?

As gym-teacher Phil Lawler says in the article linked above, "After age 24 less than 3 percent of the population uses a team sport as part of their normal physical activity....So we mastered all these skills, for what?" I'd be interested to know what percentage of people participate in a team sport before age 24, since I suspect that figure is still fairly small.

What gym teachers--and the rest of us--need to tap into are the activities that reconnect us with our seven-year-old selves...running 'til you were winded in a game of hide-and-seek, or swimming all afternoon on a summer day, without even thinking that what you were doing was "exercise."

And increasingly I'm adopting my mom's view, that instead of waking up and dreading something I have to do that day, to be glad that I still can do it.

[Post script: An ex-boyfriend (emphasis on "ex") took one look at the above photo and said, "You look like an English schoolboy!" Did I mention he's an ex-boyfriend?]


Joe Knapp said...

Interesting that gymnasium originally meant a place of both book learning and physical education. As for me, I always got C's in phys ed and didn't let it worry me too much, because it didn't really count, as you say, being on the opposite end of real education.

Christy said...

I love this post, and also hail this news about revised approaches to gym class (also the bane of my existence as a kid!) When your gym teacher's name is Mr. Click -- you remember him well, don't you Rose? :-) -- you figure you'll have nothing but trouble, and you're right.

Hey, that 7th-grader is cute as a button!!

Catherine Zoerb said...

It's about time they did something about gym. I hated gym and hated playing sports. I hated those aggressive boys and the gym teachers who let them run all over the less competitive girls and boys. Gym class was a trial to be endured, and the second I did not *have* to take it, I quit.

It took quite awhile as an adult to realize that I did not have to join a team or be competitive to get fit. I enjoy exercising as long as I'm not in a team setting.

I'm bad at teams in general, come to think of it. Any type of group work has always made my eyes bleed.

Jane Kokernak said...

I love this post too.
I too was a chubby child (or "pleasantly plump" as my mother called me), and, like you, I am still a chubby child, even though -- by looks and the actuarial charts -- I am a fine weight for my height.

You inspired me to write a post today about a GREAT gym teacher. I was lucky, I guess.

And I've never thought of myself as an athlete, even though I've always played sports, been active, rode a bike, walked, etc. Guess what, though? This year, 2009, is the year of the athlete. And that would be me.

Rosemary said...

I think it's fascinating that all of us have become "athletes" in our own right as adults, in one way or another...just goes to show you that even the most scarring experiences can be overcome!

Christy, could Mr. Click do an 8-day, 40+ mile-a-day bike trip across Maine? I don't *think* so.

And Catherine--I'm with you: the minute sports get competitive, my brain just shuts down. Seriously--I can almost feel the door slamming.

And Jane--bless you. You put it exactly right: I'm still a chubby kid, and probably always will be, regardless of what the numbers look like. That's the image I imprinted on, and that's the image I have to work with.

You all have inspired *me* to write a follow-up post to this one, which I'll put up shortly!

Michael said...

1) I had no idea that you, a beautiful, self-possessed, confident woman, had a self-image problem. You either hid it well over the past 20 years or you're actually over it.

2) As a kind of sissy-boy in junior high, I dreaded my all-boy gym class as I just wasn't much good at anything (except wrestling--hmm...). In high school, it was less intimidating because it was co-ed and we did a wider variety of activities (badminton, gymnastics, broom hockey). Any changes in the gym curriculum would certainly be a good thing for society as a whole, I think, not just girlie-girls and gay boys.