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.

 

Stupid Girls

I was flying solo last night while my husband was out of town, so I decided to take the kids to Chick Fil A for dinner. We ate and then the girls went to play in the playground area while I finished my dinner and cleaned up our table. After a few quiet minutes of peaceful time to myself, I was startled by the noise of my older daughter bursting through the playroom door. She rushed over to me, indignant, but also clearly suffering from hurt feelings.

“Mommy!” She shouted, “This boy just said that I am a stupid girl! He said I was singing my song wrong and that he didn’t want to play with me because I am just a STUPID GIRL!”

I was pretty angry. I followed her into the play area and had a little talk with the boy who had upset her so badly. I explained that what he said about my daughter was untrue and that it had hurt her feelings. I told him that he could help make it better by saying he was sorry. But even though his big brother was backing me up, the little boy was unrepentant.

So I turned the conversation over to my daughter instead and we started talking about all the things that are true about her.

“You’re not a stupid girl at all,” I told her. “You are a very smart girl. You are a smart person. And you are funny, and fun to be around, and really, really creative.”

“Yes,” she said, “and I am nice and imaginative and I got two prizes in camp today and I am a good big sister.”

But even though she knew all those things to be true, the insult the little boy had thrown at her still rankled. She couldn’t let it go. She brought it up repeatedly last night and it was still bothering her this morning.

And every time she mentioned what had happened, she always said the same thing: that she was upset because the boy had called her “a stupid girl.” She has been bullied before by another student in her class, and while the experience was very hurtful, she never dwelled on what the child from her school said to her as much as she did on being called a stupid girl.

***

My daughter had a new experience last night, and it was one that I always knew was coming. For the first time in her six years of life, she was exposed to the fact that there are people in this world who add the word “girl” to insults with the goal of making them more offensive.

The little boy who said those hurtful words was just that – a little boy. I know he probably had no real concept of what he was saying. Insults get bandied around playgrounds like balls at a tennis match and most of the time the words kids use to hurt each other are empty of any real meaning. This morning my younger daughter was mortally offended when my older daughter made eye contact with her and said “nah-nah nah-nah.” She sensed the intent to insult, even though the words her sister used were nonsense.

But still. There was something more to what that boy said, whether he was aware of it or not, and my daughter is perceptive enough to have felt that there was an extra barb in what he said.

Because it is undeniably true that in our social lexicon, the word girl – and all of its synonyms — are often used to convey criticism.

“You run like a girl.”

“You fight like a girl.”

“You kick like a girl, throw like a girl, hit like a girl.”

“You cry like a girl.”

These are not generally meant as compliments.

During football season, when people want to denigrate a member of the opposing team, they come up with memes of players in tutus and post them all over Facebook:

Oh, I get it. It’s the whole whiny little girl thing. Ha! Ha, ha. I’d forgotten how funny that is.

We imply that men are weak or cowardly by calling them pussies – and we’re not referring to cats. Men who are strong and imposing are “manly men,” while men who are more meek and subdued are “girly men.”

Even among women, when we say someone is “girly” we aren’t remarking on her strength of character, or her intelligence, or on the fact that she has the body parts required to build another human being. We are implying that she likes shopping, and pampering, and makeup, and pretty things.

The implied negative connotation we have connected with the word “girl” is prevalent enough that Always – that’s right, the feminine products company – has released a video highlighting just what people mean when they use the term “like a girl.” It’s worth watching.

***

My daughter got her first taste of this social phenomenon last night, but thankfully she still doesn’t understand just how deeply rooted it is in our culture. The truth will dawn on her eventually. My hope is that, when it does, she remembers this: that she is the only person who defines who she is. And that what it means to be a girl — or to do something like a girl — means nothing more or less than to be her best self and to do what comes naturally to her with courage and confidence.

And one more thing – you know the song my daughter was singing that the little boy found so annoying? It was my daughter’s cover of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It went like this:

Twinkle, Twinkle, you’re my star
And I love just what you are.
Up above the world so high
Like a heart up in the sky.
Twinkle, Twinkle, you’re my star.
And I love just what you are.

When it comes to being her best self, I can’t help but think that she has a pretty good start.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Trotting Turkeys

This is *not* what I looked like

Last week, I volunteered at my daughter’s elementary school turkey trot. All of the 400-plus students in her school participated, from Kindergarten to fifth grade. The fourth and fifth grades were expected to run a full mile, which meant they had to make four long laps around the baseball fields behind their school. Third grade ran three laps, second and first grades ran two, and the kindergarteners only had to run one.  The girls ran first, and then the boys.

I was stationed way out at the third corner of the makeshift track. My job was to motivate the students and to keep them from cheating by cutting across the baseball field backstop.

I was away from the main action, with the starting line not even within shouting distance. I wasn’t recording time or congratulating the kids as they passed the finish line. But even though I wasn’t in the thick of things, I was in the perfect position to observe. And as an observer, I noticed some interesting things.

First of all, 9- and 10-year-olds excel at making it absolutely clear when they do NOT want to do something. They thrive in situations that give them the power to do this passive-aggressively, and they (silently) rejoice when the planets align and they can passive-aggressively display their supreme disinterest while also managing to exert some level of control over the adults in their lives. And in an elementary school turkey trot, boy, do those planets align.

I called these kids the “walkers with attitude.” These were the kids who Were. Not. Running. It was enough that they condescended to stroll, slowly, and in groups. But run? Oh, no. Oh no, no, no.

Let me tell you, it is painful to stand in the corner of a field on a cold fall morning and watch a group of kids amble at a snail’s pace over a 1 mile course. Painful. After almost 20 minutes, when the slowest of the slow were still only on their second lap, I’d had enough. I started to run. I ran up to them as they approached me, and I made them run with me for about a 100 yard stretch. Then I would run up to the next group, and escort them. This strategy was actually more effective than you might expect, and I even got some smiles from kids as they approached me saying to their friends, “ok, we HAVE to run here.”

Still, there were a few who weren’t having it. And oh, the looks they gave me. I don’t envy our teachers.

Then there were the runners. These kids were impressive.  Where the other kids started off sprinting, they paced themselves. They ran consistently and intelligently and showed a level of discipline that I, who have always loved to run, didn’t understand until I was in high school. The most memorable of these students was a 5th grade girl who could teach much older, and much more experienced, runners a few things. She was so good that, out of all 6 grades, she was the only girl who had ALL the boys in her class cheering for her.

Which brings us to the helpers. The girls. The girls who danced and cheered for the boys who were running. The girls who slowed down so their friend with asthma didn’t have to walk alone. The girls who turned around when they were finished to walk with their friend with Down Syndrome, who needed someone to hold her hand.

These were the girls who brought out my feminist ambivalence. The girls who made me WANT to shout “You don’t HAVE to do this! That’s why I am
here! Run your own race! You can be fast and powerful! RUN!” But who, instead, made me feel proud and hopeful in the knowledge that the helpers of the future, the people who will keep our world together, are growing up to be exactly what we need the most.

If the walkers and the runners and the helpers are the groups who stood out the most to me, there were two individual students who I will remember above all: the smeller of roses and the cheetah.

The smeller of roses was a kindergartener who came in dead last. (Just after my own daughter, the talker, who took advantage of the situation to hold her teacher’s hand and chat. But that’s another story.) This little girl started off walking, and walked the whole way. She was totally unmoved by peer pressure. Unlike the older kids, she wasn’t walking to prove anything. She was walking because it was a nice afternoon and there were things to look at. Things like the pale pink bead she found and showed me after the race. While the other kids were taking advantage of some post-race playground time, this little girl was proudly telling me about the beautiful treasure she had found during her walk around the field.

And then there was my cheetah. My fourth-grade friend who came up to my post walking, with “attitude” written all over his face. But as he came closer, I noticed that despite the stony expression on his face, he was crying.

I asked him if I could run with him, but his response was a hard NO. No, he would not run. He hated the turkey trot. He always came in last. I tried telling him that of course he would come in last if he didn’t at least try to run. He wasn’t having it. The tears continued to stream down his face.

His anger and frustration and tears continued to his very last lap, when finally another mother and I walked with him, to encourage him to run at least the last 100 yards of the race. We tried to get him talking, to get him to focus on something positive rather than the negative feelings he was experiencing at that moment.  After a few minutes of denying interest in any topic whatsoever, he finally broke down. “I like The Wild Kratts. And I like cheetahs. When I run, I want to feel like a cheetah. But I don’t. I don’t feel like a cheetah. I’m too slow. So I don’t  run. I can’t run.”

So the other mom and I each took one of his hands, and instead of running like cheetahs, we ran like turkeys. And all three of us crossed the finish line running.

It Got Done By Me

Or, Stories From Before the Finish Line

My last post was my pre-race post, and now I’m returning from the other side of the finish line. I took on the Baltimore Half Marathon, and I won.

At least, that’s what I told my daughter who, when she saw my medal, said, “Mommy!!! You got a prize! Did you WIN?” So I said, “Well, sort of. Aren’t you proud of me for running so far? I ran a really, really long time, but I could do it because I worked super hard.” And then she said, “Well…I’m proud of you if you won, mommy.”

So of course, I said, “Heck yeah I won!” Finishing the race is winning the race, at least in my book.

This is how my race day went:

5:00 am – 10:04: OH MY GOD CAN WE JUST GET THIS THING STARTED ALREADY?!

10:05: CRAP, it’s actually starting!

10:06: I think I need to go to the bathroom.

Mile 2: I’m passing people! This is awesome! People are being passed by me! I am so FAST. If I were a Pony, I’d be Rainbow Dash. What I mean is, I basically have wings on my back.

Mile 3: I’m really concerned about this whole bathroom thing. What if I really have to go? What if I pee myself? What if I get trampled trying to cross to the side of the course where the porta-potties are?

Mile 4: Ha! Look at that sign! It says, “Smile if you peed a little!” That’s so funny! Wait — I was smiling but that doesn’t mean anything. IT DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING!

Mile 4.5: I love Baltimore so much! Yeah, we may be running through streets I’d be kind of scared to walk through during the daytime, but where else does the homeless population come out to cheer on their city’s runners? You guys ROOOCK!

Mile 5: Oh, a hill. This isn’t so bad. I don’t know what people were talking about when they said there were some bad hills in this course.

Miles 5.5 – 7: OH GOD IN HEAVEN WHY? WHY DID YOU CREATE HILLS? IT’S BECAUSE YOU HATE ME, ISN’T IT? Admit it, the earth isn’t one continuous flat surface because YOU HATE ME!

Mile 7: Ok, that wasn’t so bad.

Mile 8: We’ve been running on a flat course for awhile now. It’s kind of boring. I like a little elevational variety in my runs. Variety is a good thing.

Mile 9: Seriously brain, did you just say you like “elevational variety.” I HATE you.

Mile 10: Am I still running? I think I may have just fallen asleep. Maybe I was in the zone? Can I go back? Things are starting to hurt.

Mile 11: I thought it was all supposed to be downhill after mile 7. This is NOT downhill.

Mile 11.5: Just keep running, just keep running, just keep running…

Mile 12: Oh look! A woman is handing out water! Or is it Gatorade? I don’t know what it is but I should definitely drink it… Wait a second, is this beer? It is! It’s Natty Boh! I love Baltimore. Oh wait… it’s BEER. I can’t drink beer. I have celiac disease…

Mile 12.5: If my intestines explode before the finish line because I just drank a cup of liquid gluten I am going to HURT somebody.

Mile 13: Where’s the finish like? Why can’t I see the finish line? Why are people WALKING this close to the end? Seriously people, I’m not stopping if I knock you down.

Mile 13.1: I DID IT. I ACTUALLY DID IT! THE WHOLE WORLD IS WONDERFUL! I LOVE LIFE! I LOVE HILLS! I LOVE EVERYTHING! Now give me some water and my medal before I collapse.

Me and my medal

Like my glowing green goddess shirt? I do!

T-23 Hours

It’s 10:00 am on Friday, October 11. By this time tomorrow, I will be 15 minutes into my first half-marathon race.

I have spent the last five months preparing for this event at the Baltimore Running Festival and now my training is officially over. I ran my practice 13.1 miles three weeks ago, and I did it with minimal suffering. Two weeks ago, I set a long-distance personal record in a 9.3 mile race, and then I did it again in my final training run.

I’ve spent the last few days stuffing myself with carbs and protein. I’m hydrated to the point where I have had to bring up the savant-like mental map of local public restrooms that I developed during my pregnancies. My iTunes playlist is almost complete.

I have my race bib, my energy drink coupons and freebies, and my all-important (neon green) race tee shirt.

And yesterday afternoon, I completed my final prerace workout, a gentle, core-stretching and -strengthening session of Pilates. Oddly enough, after 5 months of some pretty challenging runs, it was this last, non-running workout that served as the best reminder of my most necessary race-day accessory: a strong, focused mind.

Actually, I suppose this reminder really came courtesy of my children, who were both home and awake when I finally got a chance to squeeze the workout in.

While my five-year-old yelled questions down to me from her bedroom upstairs, my two-year-old was busy helping me get the most out of my exercising. She started by adding extra weight to my moves — she sat on my back while I was trying to plank and on my legs when I was trying to lift them. When that got boring, she sat on my head.

Then, she must have decided I wasn’t properly accessorized for my workout because she brought a cowgirl hat for my head and a necklace for my arm. After that, she turned her efforts to ensuring I was properly entertained, hauling a bag of board books over to me and dropping each one on my chest.

Finally, she asked for an apple, which bought me a few minutes of peaceful core crunching before she climbed out of her booster seat and came over to deposit some “gis-gusting” apple skin on my face.

Through all of this, I somehow managed to keep the important part of my  brain focused on my workout. I isolated muscles and maintained (mostly) proper form. Moreover, I successfully ignored the best efforts of a two-year-old to distract me from my purpose. Talk about the eye of the tiger — I was the eye of the hurricane. Or something like that.

This is why we moms are so good at endurance events. We’ve done pregnancy. We’ve done labor. We’ve done hours of pacing with colicky newborns. We’ve done endless playing with annoying musical toys. We’ve done Barney and Caillou. We can ignore the toddler human, which is possibly the most annoying force on the planet. If we can get through all that, we can fly through a couple of hours of running.

Race day is almost here, and I’m feeling good. My body is strong; my mind is stronger. I’ve got this.

The Philosophy of Running, Butterflies, and Coporophagia

I’ve spent the last few months training for the Baltimore Running Festival Half-Marathon (that’s 13.1 miles for the non-runners out there), and this past weekend I had my longest run yet – 11 miles. It was an important marker for me; I’ve been getting over an injury and my last few runs left me feeling like the walking dead the moment I crossed the 10-mile mark.

So this weekend’s run was a big one and it required as much mental energy as physical endurance to keep me going. I started off well, reveling in the outrageously beautiful weather and in the fact that I was alone. As in, all by myself. As in, WITH NO CHILDREN. It was kind of awesome.

But by mile 8, I was starting to hurt. I could feel the strain of the run in each and every individual muscle of my legs. My stomach was cramping. My eyelid started to twitch as I repeated to myself – “you can do 3 more miles… what’s 3 miles… nothing, that’s what it is… absolutely NOTHING…. OMIGOD 3 MILES IS FOREVER AND I’M GOING TO DIE.”

I had to dig deep, but I kept going and soon I was on one of my favorite paths, a gently-sloping downhill trail surrounded by woods. The sunlight peeked through the leaves of the trees, creating dapples of light and shadow on the ground around me. I lengthened my stride; my spirits soared.

It was then that I noticed a blue-winged butterfly keeping pace with me just over my shoulder. I watched as it fluttered past me and then landed on the ground a few steps in front of me. As I passed it, I slowed down to get a closer look and I saw that it was sipping the sweet nectar of… dog droppings. Seriously, the butterfly was feasting on a pile of crap.

I had never seen a butterfly do this before and I found myself wondering if I had just been graced by a visit with the Andrew Zimmern of the Lepidoptera world. But then, I kid you not, a small, white moth came by and joined the feast.

My mind was blown. I watched my blue-winged friend flit away to the grass next to the path, maybe for a nice post-meal nap, I don’t know, and then I took a few pictures with my phone to remember him by. Then I popped my earbuds back in, cranked up my ultimate power running song – Bohemian Rhapsody – and soldiered on through the rest of my run.

But when I got home, I had to do some research. And that’s how I learned all about butterflies and coprophagia. Apparently, while butterflies enjoy the nectar of flowers, they are unable to get the nutrients they need, for reproduction especially, from these sources alone. So, they eat poop (as well as rotting carcasses), which provide nitrogen, sodium, and other minerals.

Where am I going with this? I don’t really know. The optimist in me sees an uplifting message in the fact that the butterfly, which has long been a symbol of new life, of the resurrection, of the salvation of mankind, derives its sustenance from excrement and dead things. Albeit prosaic, there is a metaphor in here for the way we use – in fact, rely upon – the crappiness of life to grow.

The pragmatist in me says that, if you happen to be running, and you see a butterfly landing on the concrete in front of you, watch your step. Chances are, you are about to step in some wild creature’s toilet.

Naptime?

Watch your step!