Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Athletic Bodies

I never dreamed I'd have an athletic body. I was a gym-class-fearing child, to the point where I would purposefully fall down stairs in the days leading up to the dreaded gymnastics unit; breaking an ankle seemed better than having to attempt to do a cartwheel in front of my classmates. I saw nothing wrong with sitting down on the playing field during T-ball games (to this day my parents swear I asked to join the team, and I can only assume that I was being ironic at an extraordinarily tender age); my favorite day of tennis lessons was our end-of-summer party because I got to stay on the sidelines and eat the racket-shaped cookies my mother had made for the occasion. Running The Mile—which I saw in my head like this:

—felt like torture, and I had to do it every year from grades 6-9, and I played sick every year until I realized I’d just have to do it on a day when the rest of the class was playing touch football or something and therefore able to watch me run The Mile, which was even worse.

I thought that way all my life—a singular aqua aerobics class my final semester of college notwithstanding, in order to "round out my course load"—until 2002. I'd broken up with a boyfriend, and it was one of those breakups that makes you wonder if you will ever be okay again, where being alone feels excruciating because you’ve cried all you can and you don’t know what else to do. Being on the subway felt okay for some reason, and since I wasn’t so despondent as to just ride the rails all day with no purpose, I took the opportunity to travel to gyms in the farthest reaches of all five boroughs to take advantage of their guest passes. (Plus, then I’d get really fit and toned and lithe and show him!)

The first time I entered a gym, it was in the Bronx, which I’d specifically chosen because I didn't know anyone who lived in the Bronx, so nobody I knew could possibly witness my fumbling around with the machines. I sat down at every machine in the place and read the directions so that the next time I went to a gym that would presumably not be in the Bronx, I wouldn’t look like a total fool. I stayed there for four hours.

Guest pass after guest pass, I worked my way through the city, and after a couple of months I realized that it was helping in ways beyond dealing with the breakup. My mood was improved, for one. My body, which hadn’t felt particularly out of shape before, began to feel...better. Like things were just working right. I was gaining confidence by knowing how to use the machines and free weights, and to my surprise I was finding that I was quickly able to up how much weight I was lifting—and, in fact, that I was lifting more weight than most of the other women on the floor.

And then there were the muscles. I had enough fat on me that it wasn’t visible for a while, but I could feel my arms getting more and more solid every week. Shaving my legs suddenly invited hazard because there was now a sharp little tennis ball where a soft calf had previously been. I distinctly remember looking at myself in the mirror while washing my hands and freaking out because there were these things moving in my chest, these ripply creepy-crawly things underneath my skin—and realizing that was my upper pectoral muscles, which I’d never actually seen before. I mean, I was no Colette Nelson, and you probably wouldn’t even have looked at me and called me “buff.” But I was distinctly more muscular than I’d ever been, and I’d even say I looked more muscular than the average woman of my age.

It turns out that my body actually is rather athletic. I still can’t catch, throw, or hit a flying object (gym-class phobia sets in even if a coworker tosses me a pen), and I would hesitate to say that I’m even in particularly good shape. But I’m reasonably fit; I can run a few miles without stopping; I lift weights. I even did some somersaults a few years ago when I went through a krav maga phase. Compared to the kid hurling herself down the stairs in 1983, I’m Mary Lou Fucking Retton. And when this fact hits me—when I am energized instead of exhausted after a run, or when a fellow gymgoer asks me to spot him, or when my doctor tells me that my heart rate is in the zone of conditioned athletes—I feel the type of gratitude and relief you can only feel when you realize that something negative about yourself that you’d accepted as truth is, in fact, not.

So the first time I saw “athletic body” in the “dress your figure” pages of a women’s magazine, I got excited. Finally, someone was acknowledging that not all women who work out are doing so to lose weight—and, hey, maybe I’d finally, once and for all, learn what kind of figure I actually had. But when the advice focused on “creating curves,” I was confused: I'm not particularly busty, but lacking curves has never been my problem. In fact, since muscles generally are not shaped like squares but instead are gently sloping, I probably have more curves than I did before I started lifting weights.

All the arguments I've made before about "dressing for your figure" apply to "athletic." For starters, it’s meaningless: Some magazines use it to mean “broad-shouldered and thick-waisted,” others use it to mean “big thighs, little hips,” others use it to mean “naturally slender and small-breasted.” The one thing they always say is to “create curves”—something I don’t think, say, Jennie Finch or Gabrielle Reece ever worried about. (Webster’s does lists mesomorphic as one of the definitions of athletic, and while I’m appropriately skeptical of constitutional psychology, the ectomorph/mesomorph/endomorph typing comes in handy when discussing basic body types. But that’s not usually what’s being discussed on these pages, and within those classic types there’s enough cosmetic variation that it doesn’t really belong on a “dress your body”-type of page anyway.)

But the “athletic body” deserves a bit of special treatment. For unlike being an apple or an hourglass or whatever, being athletic is something you choose. You might not be able to choose how your activities shape your body, but you choose to be athletic. And while I understand that you might not always want to be showcasing your body, I also don’t know of any female athletes—professional or just gymgoing ladies—who seem to try to conceal what their activities have brought them. You don’t see swimmer Natalie Coughlin covering up her developed shoulders as Rent the Runway would say she should (“detract from wider-built shoulders” with a one-shouldered dress, they advise); you don’t see Lisa Leslie trying to cover her rippling muscles when she’s on the red carpet.

From Athlete by Howard Schatz and Beverly Ornstein

More important, though, the idea of the “athletic body” ignores the enormous range of sports and the athletes who play them. Different sports work better with different bodies, as beautifully photographed by Howard Schatz in Athlete, a collaboration with Beverly Ornstein that depicts the enormous range in athletes’ bodies, from high jumper Amy Acuff to gymnast Olga Karmansky to weightlifter Cheryl Haworth. And even if we make room for the prototypical body of each sport, as Ragen at Dances With Fat—whose blog roots are in showing the world that a 284-pound dancer is, in fact, a dancer (she's won three National Dance Championships)—asked us last week, “When did being an athlete become more about how a body looks and less about what it can do?”

And, at its heart, that’s what ails me about the “athletic” body type as shown in women’s magazines. I don’t lay claims to be an athlete. But learning that I could develop muscle and look “athletic” was enormously empowering to me. I have worked hard to be able to do 40 push-ups (okay, I haven’t done 40 push-ups for a while, but I could at one point, I swear!), and the muscles that come with it are emblematic of that growth. Yeah, yeah, I struggle with body image like everyone—but my “athletic” build isn’t among those struggles. (In fact, when I look at my hard-won muscles and have a negative thought about them, that’s evidence that something else is going on that I need to examine.) My body does not do anything extraordinary; in fact, it just does what it’s supposed to do. But my athletic body is a triumph over so many painful memories: defiantly munching cookies during my final tennis lesson because I was afraid I’d look foolish on the court, pretending to twist my ankle during the 50-yard dash on field day so I didn’t have to suffer the indignity of coming in last, teachers asking if I was okay when my face would still be beet-red 30 minutes after gym class.

Listen, I can’t say I “love my body,” all right? But I love what athleticism has brought to me, and I treasure the ways it’s visible on my body. My athletic body doesn’t need anyone’s fashion advice. It doesn’t need anyone’s categorization. It does not need to be dressed around, typed, or even acknowledged. It just needs to move.


  1. I love this post! I too dreaded The Mile in gym class. I was fast, though! I recall getting a 5:47 in the 6th grade! But as I grew boobs I started shunning sports...I realized I got attention for more than just being a fast runner and I did not like that attention by grade 9.

  2. Oh man. I nearly hurled EVERY time I ran THE MILE. Still not a runner, but far more of an athlete than I ever was growing up and loved reading your musings on tapping your own natural athleticism.

  3. Amazing post. I am dreading the gym slightly less after reading this. In junior high, the other girls and I used to walk The Mile--our goal was less than 20 minutes (if I recall, that just meant we had to redo it and make it in less than 10, so...unwise choice). And everyone still asks me if I'm OK 30 minutes after the gym due to my face and my ENTIRE BODY remaining beet-red for quite some time. My tennis experience: I was 13, went to the "Scrambled Eggs" neighborhood doubles meetup, did so poorly and was so beet-red that the instructors thought I had heat stroke and insisted on driving me home (I begged out of the hospital). I knew I was fine but gladly accepted the escape!

  4. Cameo, 5:47?! I guess you just wanted to get it over with quickly--wish I'd taken the same approach! Seriously, that's awesome--and it also speaks to the intersection of sports, confidence, and puberty that your bustline became a part of not wanting to play sports.

    Sal, I was thinking of your post on body confidence at the gym (which I saw I'd posted a broken link to, and is now fixed)--I too feel pretty confident at the gym, and it sort of amazes me that as an adult I'm finding all sorts of power from a place that scared the hell out of me less than 10 years ago (and that I would have thought you were insane if you'd told me as a kid that I'd go into willingly).

    Beckett, my gym teacher finally made an exception for me because the rule was that if you finished it in more than 10 minutes you had to redo it, but I really did run as much as I could and usually came in around 12. They could tell I was trying, though. The stereotype of the gym teacher is of a total hardass but I think to be any good at it you've probably gotta be pretty compassionate... I love your "heat stroke" opt-out! Ha!

  5. Can I say how much I hate when any article's penultimate "athletic body" advice is to "create curves"? I'm not going to share exact measurements, but given that there's a 13-inch difference between my bust and waist -- and just shy of 17 inches between my waist and hips -- I'd say that "creating" curves is the least of my dressing concerns.

    And while I understand that you might not always want to be showcasing your body, I also don’t know of any female athletes—professional or just gymgoing ladies—who seem to try to conceal what their activities have brought them.

    This is also very true for me. A key point in valuing my body's athletic endeavors was when I no longer began to prioritize socially approved aesthetic at the expense of function. Not that I pay zero attention to beauty standards, but there is now a line when inhibiting my body as it wants to be feel like a greater infringement than crossing a social taboo.

    Finding clothes that fit my already existing curves? More likely.

    And yet, this is my athlete's body.

    This is the body that runs a mile faster now than I could in 5th grade (when I was already larger than average and self-conscious of it).

  6. I love this essay so much - thank you for writing it.

    I've been fairly athletic throughout most of my life but I only started to really see how far I could take it in the past four years or so. In that time, I watched as my body changed and became more muscular and more capable and stronger, which has been very exciting and empowering for me. I get a thrill when, say, I see a candid photo of myself and realize my delts are nice and big, or when I see video of me doing something rather minor and noticing the way my back muscles contract and relax. I really enjoy having a muscular body, and I'm not all that interested in disguising it (or "creating curves," whatever that means).

    Anyway, one of the things I've noticed ever since I started attending road races and triathlons is that, like you said, there is no set look for an "athletic body." I've seen competitors with bodies of all shapes and sizes, and it would be hard for me to say that one person is athletic while another person is not, especially if they are both completing the same event. It's like it totally erases the point of what it means to have an athletic body by focusing on the way the body looks and not what the body can do.

    Anyway, great post. I'll be sharing it over at my blog.

  7. Tori, I love how you put that: "my body as it wants to be." I used to bemoan my thighs because they were big. And it turns out they were just aching to develop their muscles a little more--I do still have big thighs, but I know what's in them, and they don't trouble me nearly as much as they used to.

    Fit and Feminist, I've been enjoying your work from afar and I'm glad this resonated with you! I feel like "seeing how far we can take it" is a nice subversion of "seeing how thin we can get"--it's a different way of challenging the body, but it hardly takes a feminist to see which route is preferable.

  8. About a decade ago, I was swimming on a pretty regular basis. I was astounded to be passed up by women who were older and larger. They would swim lap after lap...and it was my first clue that looks were no indicator of fitness.

  9. Terri, something that Dances With Fat has written about comes to mind here--she'll regularly run into people who say that she obviously isn't "really" a dancer or isn't "actually" in shape, despite seeing the evidence right in front of them. They experience the cognitive dissonance and reject it wholesale, whereas you allowed it to be a clue that your (widely shared) assumptions might not be absolute truth. Interesting when we can identify the moments that lead us to challenge our own assumptions...

  10. Having known you in HS, Autumn, I loved reading about your transformation in the gym. Now *I* want to join a gym again.

    I was never very athletic either and besides always getting hurt, I had some rather bad PE/sports experiences growing up. In middle school, I actually received an F in PE due to lack of athletic skill/ability versus effort. It was my first bad grade. (grading on skill is probably illegal now ...)

    Yet I have had small tastes of that which you write .... In college, I fell in love with my bicycle simply because I couldn't afford to drive a car and developed definition in my skinny legs for the first time and, of course, being empowered through learning and now teaching self-defense. But I still hate the gym and the thought of other people watching me work out, especially lifting weights. In HS, I fantasized about looking like Linda Hamilton in T2. That's not ever going to happen if I don't act on it and I'll never move past those childhood traumas! Definitely food for further thought.

  11. Andrea, I went from drama geek to jock! (Okay, not really, but waaaay more than I would ever have dreamed.) And it's funny--I think because of your climbing, I think of you as someone who's athletic. Linda Hamilton arms can't be far off! (I mean, not really, but you know what I mean.)

  12. 5:47 mile time in the 6th grade??? I'm guessing that you were 11 years old? That time would put you amongst best 11 year old girls in the world, even today.