Beach Bodies

I haven’t really been writing a lot recently. More accurately, for awhile this winter, I was writing a LOT. But it was freelance work that resulted in me being paid money, which you have to admit takes precedence over writing a blog that hardly anyone reads.

But aside from that, what I have mostly been doing in my free time is exercising. I’ve been taking classes at the gym with my friends, getting strong and having kind of an awesome time doing it. Like, I have actual, discernible muscles in my arms. I can do a push up. A REAL push up, with my knees up and my nose all the way to the ground. I’ve been squatting and planking and even doing a class with the word “turbo” in it.

The reason why I have been exercising so much goes all the way back to last year, which I refer to as The Year of Pestilence. After spending roughly half of the winter in my doctor’s office, she finally sat me down and said, in a nice doctorly way, that my immune system is shit. She put me on vitamins and supplements and probiotics. She also told me that regular exercise is key to building stronger immunity.

This suggestion felt a little unfair at a time when I had gone from running half-marathon distances to being barely able to wheeze my way through a mile. But I took her advice and I made it a priority to be regularly active.

At this point, I can’t really comment on the effectiveness of regular exercising on boosting the immune system. I am currently on a break because I am battling bronchitis. Again. I can hear the rattling in my chest as I write.

But here is what I can say about exercise: it makes you stronger and more fit. It is good for you emotionally as well as physically, especially if you do it with friends. It’s a good thing.

We certainly hear enough about it, especially around this time of year when “bathing suit season” is looming on the horizon.  Everywhere I look, someone is pushing a 21-day this or a 30-day that. Words like “new you!” and “transformation” and “life-changing” are only outnumbered by words like, “Get a beach body by June!” and “YOU can have THIS body too!”

You can have “this body,” (someone else’s body, in point of fact) if only you take the following steps. You can “sculpt” and “tone” and “food system” yourself to an idea of perfection embodied by someone else.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong in encouraging and helping people to be fit and to eat healthfully. We need to care for our bodies if we want to keep them around.

What I find so disturbing is the message that we should be so dissatisfied with our own flesh that we need to force it into someone else’s mold.

Because here’s the thing. You won’t ever have any body but your own body. You are what you have right now. You can work to make it stronger and healthier. But at the end of the day, it will still be the same body that has brought you through life from the day you were born to this very moment. That is something to rejoice in, not reject.

And I think the message that we need to transform our bodies, that, with work, we can reshape ourselves into someone else’s proportions is a dangerous one.

Because, why should we strive to be what someone else is? Why aren’t we good enough in the skin we have? And who is it, really, who gets to decide what a “perfect” body is? Why does the message always have to be that we need to make some sort of fundamental change to be our best?

When I see these claims — that the perfect body is hiding somewhere under the skin I already have, that all I have to do is carve it out of myself — I get frustrated, not motivated.

I also get angry, because these are the messages that my daughters are going to grow up hearing. Their little bodies, perfect in every way, amaze me every day with what they can do. And someday they are going to hear the message that those bodies aren’t good enough. They are going to be told that they really should be striving to have the body of someone else, someone who is, ostensibly, better than they are.

I’m not OK with that. I made those bodies — those bodies are miracles. And it really bothers me to know that someday — in the not-too-distant future — they will be made to feel as though their bodies are less than miraculous.

I also know that the loudest message of all will come from me, and how I treat my own body.

So from now on, my “beach body” will be me, wearing a bathing suit, on the beach. It will be the same body that I take with me on runs, the one that carries my children up to bed, the one that I have relied on all my life. Sometimes, it will be strong and fit. Sometimes, it will be rattly and sick. But whatever it is, it will be mine.

In action: Plus-size model Robyn Lawley (far right) is joined by other curvy women in a new swimwear calendar retaliating against society's obsession with super-slim bodies - here the bathing beauties strike a pose for July

These are bodies. They are on a beach. They are beach bodies.

Locker Room Bodies

Between my return to running and my daughters’ swim lessons, I have recently been spending a lot of time in women’s locker rooms. And during this time, I’ve observed a few things about the locker room subculture: Mainly, that the older women get, the more confident they seem to be in their own skin — and in nothing but their own skin. Also, women who exercise together talk to one another. We talk in the showers and in the toilet stalls. We talk while toweling off, while adjusting our undergarments, and while applying deodorant. We just talk.

Once, while I was dressing my three-year-old after her 11 am swim lesson, an elderly woman wearing nothing but beige underpants started a conversation with me about modern methods of preschool swim instruction.

“My granddaughter in Ohio puts life vests on my great-grandkids when they swim in their pool! I just don’t hold with that kind of nonsense,” she told me. “You just throw ‘em in. That’s the only way they learn! They don’t use those vest things here, do they?” She paused for a moment, and then continued talking. “Don’t mind me, now, I just have to blow dry under my bosom. I find that they get a bit chafed if I just let them air dry.” And sure enough, she lifted each breast, waving the hair dryer underneath and around it.

At that moment, the thinking part of my brain froze completely, leaving my socially awkward self without a working filter. Words came out of my mouth. I started describing in detail the horrible sores my daughter got as a newborn from her diapers and how we, too, had to blow dry her private bits whenever we changed her. My elderly friend just looked at me funny and finished her blow drying.

Why yes, I did just use the word bosom in a sentence. Does that make you uncomfortable?

“Why yes, I did just use the word bosom to refer to my breasts. Does that make you uncomfortable?”

* * *

I don’t do very well with locker room talk, mostly because I am shy around naked people. So when I find myself in a crowd of women in various stages of undress, I tend to do a lot of quiet observing. And in addition to noticing how freely other people seem to behave in a situation that makes me distinctly uncomfortable, I have noticed something else as well.

The women I see in the locker rooms are fit. They work out. They swim. They pump their bodies and they Zumba and they lift. They are active, and they are real.

But none of them – not one of them — possess a body that would be featured as is, with no retouching, in a fitness magazine. There are curves, and lots of them. There are smooth and generous curves, wrinkled curves, and lumpy curves. There are bodies with angles and planes, and there are bodies with definition and obvious strength.

These are beautiful bodies, but not one of them resembles in every particular the tanned, toned, impossibly long and lean examples our media gives us of what women who are “in shape” look like. And yet, these women are the most genuine examples of what it means to be living a healthy, active lifestyle.

It would be easy for me to give in to the temptation right now to rant about how the media flaunts utterly unattainable standards of what women’s bodies should look like. There is no question that the images of what is perceived as the definition of feminine beauty that we see in print and on screens are rarely anything other than airbrushed, elongated, and enhanced images of women whose profession is looking beautiful. It is hard not to get angry that these false images have so much power in our society.

But I am not going to go that route. Because we women are smarter than that. We are stronger than that. We are better than that.

We don’t need the glossy pages of magazines to tell us where our beauty lies. We have the power to decide for ourselves what it means to be fit and healthy — and beautiful.

Images are just that – images. They are as deep as the paper they are printed on, and last as long as the time it takes to scroll past them on your computer screen. But we are real. We run, and walk, and dance, and lift, and stretch, and we have careers and we mother children and we tend to relationships and we live. Above all, we live.

Some of the women I see in the locker room are marathon runners who wear double digit sizes. Others are tiny and toned, with a padding of extra skin around their stomachs as a reminder of the fact that they made another person. Many of the women are elderly, with bodies that will never be firm and young again. All of these women inspire me. And even though they probably don’t realize it, all of these women are beautiful, in their realness and in their strength.


Dance Like a Chicken and Fly

Over the last few weeks, I have been spending every Monday morning taking a Zumba class at our gym. I have to say that I am not a dancer, and I never have been a dancer.

All of the action shots my parents took of my during my childhood dance recitals show me off to the side, moving to my own rhythm, apparently oblivious to the fact that I was supposed to be participating along with several other girls in a routine we had spent the last six months practicing. When I was 7, my dance teacher politely told my parents that she didn’t think I was really getting anything out of my ballet and tap dancing experience and that it would probably be better for them to invest their money elsewhere. Unfortunately, remedial coordination classes don’t exist, so we added my failed dance career to my failed soccer career and limited my extra-curricular activities to Girl Scouts.

But these days everybody is doing Zumba and I figured that, if adults with no previous dance experience from countries all around the world can pick up the Zumba moves, then by God, so could I.

My first few classes were embarrassing. I spent the entire time trying to get my feet to do something — anything — that remotely resembled what the instructor was doing, and using vast amounts of concentration to ensure that I didn’t kick anyone or fall down. There were arm movements too, but that was so far beyond my capability that I just let them do whatever they had to do to keep me from falling into a heap on the arena floor.

But after a few classes, I began to feel a little more comfortable. My arm flapping became considerably less noticeable, and I stopped praying for the occasional breaks for running in place or squats that our instructor adds into the work out. I even managed to keep up when Claire, from Desperate English Housewife in America, subbed for our usual instructor and added in this twitchy, hip-shaking move that she made look totally sexy but which had me feeling like my hips, and only my hips, were having seizures.

I was becoming increasingly comfortable with the moves, and I had finally started to think that I was getting kind of, well, good at it. I was concentrating less and smiling more and at the end of the workout I was feeling almost as high as I do after a good run.

But then, summer camps began, and the basketball arena where the class is normally held was handed over to a bunch of sweaty kids. We were shuffled over to a much smaller studio, where there is an entire wall of mirrors.

My friends, they say the mirror don’t lie, and they are right. Watching myself do Zumba was like watching a train wreck. I didn’t want to see it, but I couldn’t stop looking, and the end result was horrifying.

You know that scene in Frozen, when the Duke of Weselton leads Anna off for a dance, and then proceeds to perform dance moves so ridiculous that it can only be comedy? That’s what I looked like. I mean, I was doing what everyone else was doing. At least, I was attempting to do what everyone else was doing, but my execution was significantly less controlled and coordinated. And while I am sure that everyone else was sweating too much to notice me, I noticed myself and it was weird.


But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop taking the class. I’m not even going to stop watching myself look like a fool. Because although I felt like an idiot, I also got a lot of amusement out of the whole experience.

I think that one of the greatest gifts life can give you is the ability to laugh at yourself. When you can see the ridiculous in your own actions and find the humor in your own shortcomings, you are rewarded with an endless supply of entertainment. We all pave the roads of our lives with the stupid things we do. Laughing at them makes the going so much easier.

But more than that, when you can recognize and laugh at your own absurdities, you often end up having much more patience with the faults and foibles of others. You judge everyone less and you relax more. You become a better person without even trying.

So next Monday, you will find me at the gym in Studio 2, dancing like an overdrawn cartoon character with a smile on my monkey face.