I was poking around for some information today when I re-discovered an excellent blog I had almost forgotten about--The Fat Nutritionist by Michelle Allison. I used to read it pretty regularly. It’s full of solid, common-sense information and it’s a great antidote to all of the demented weight-loss and food distortion insanity that permeates our culture. I particularly enjoyed this article: Food and Exercise are Not Matter and Anti-Matter.
I make no secret of the fact that I have always had, to varying degrees, a disordered body image and resulting food issues, but recently I’ve been thinking about this more in terms of my relationship to my physicality. I’ve never been particularly athletic, to say the least—I was tall and extremely spindly as a child and a teenager, and I always felt weak and ungainly. Despite the myth, being tall does not make one automatically good at basketball, and I found the entire sport horrifying. I’m totally uncoordinated, and even though I love to dance, most forms of it are completely unsuited to my body. (Comedian Aisha Tyler says that tall people can’t dance because our limbs are too far from our brains.) I’ve never been “powerful”—it takes me forever to build the most tenuous muscle—and even with daily stretching, I’m not still able to pull off the most rudimentary of yoga moves. In short, physically, I’m kind of a wash. However, I have always loved physical activity and have longed for and searched my entire life to find something—some sport or dance form or martial arts or other physical activity-that I could be really good at. At forty-three, I have yet to discover it.
At my last job, I worked occasionally with the amazing, (and recently deceased), Willie Austin, who was a world-champion power lifter who devoted his life to helping inner city kids get fit and develop physical and mental confidence. On a long commute up to Purdy one morning, I was talking to him about my struggles with fitness, and he told me that I had a strong body. I was shocked. Before then, no one had ever told me before that my body was strong. I didn’t know how to process that information, but I’ve held on to it like a tailisman ever since. This probably sounds naïve, but Willie Austin had enormous integrity, and I know that he wouldn’t say that to me if he didn’t somehow know it was true. Hearing this changed the way I thought about my body, so that over the years, I have been able to think about my physical activity framed from a place of my body’s power and capabilities, rather than what it can’t do, or can’t do well. There are many things that my body can’t do well, some due to a chronic knee injury, and some due to it’s natural limitations, but that doesn’t negate what it can do.
I completely understand why so many people who want to explore physical activity are intimated away from it. We live in a culture in that provides very little room for non-competitive, joyful activity for it’s own sake, rather than for competition or weight loss or body manipulation. Athletics, and even the chain-store gyms, are the reserve of the able-bodied, the thin, the young and strong. There are very few places for the overweight, the disabled, the injured, or the non-“naturals” to participate. Add to that the mindset that all physical activity must be in the service of burning off the consumption of food, and you have a perfect storm of class divide between the physical have and have-nots. There needs to be a place for those of us who can’t run marathons or lift 80-pound weight balls over our heads to express ourselves physically.
Swimming this morning with weights and a floatation belt, I had a rare moment of gratitude for my body’s power. I wasn’t ticking off in my head how much of my modest breakfast I was “working off”, or thinking about how I was going to achieve Thigh Gap with my scissor-kicks. Instead, I felt in the most visceral way possible the muscles in my legs working, my arms pushing through the water, my heart pounding, all of my limbs working in concert, and the meditation of pure focus on my physical self.