A facebook buddy of mine just joined the gym. She is reporting all of those mixed-gym feelings I always get when I go through a gym spurt — trying to feel motivated and proud but also feeling like I’m giving a presentation to my colleagues and I neglected to put on pants first. Gym anxiety can be tough stuff.
My friend’s recent status updates reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago about an experience at the gym. So I thought I’d share it with you all, dear blogmuffins.
Once upon a time I became obsessed with a woman in my Pilates class. I thought about her all the time. I waited for her to show up. I watched her every move and was ready to respond at the slightest provocation. And then one day she wasn’t there anymore.
When I told people about her, I found myself speaking in breathless tones, as if I had just spotted Gwyneth Paltrow on the street and she’d had wrinkled, soggy toilet paper hanging out of the back of her pants. Starstruck but repulsed.
“Are you sure she’s anorexic?” a friend asked. “Maybe something else is wrong with her.”
“Sure,” I said. “Maybe she was just liberated from Auschwitz and decided to come to the LA Fitness so she could bulk back up.”
My mother informed me that her father, who died from blood cancer before I was born, had been just skin and bones his last few years. Perhaps the girl had cancer, she said.
“Do you think grandpa could’ve taken an exercise class?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” she said. “He couldn’t even lift his head off the pillow.”
As far as I was concerned, I had my answer.
The first time I saw the woman, I was sitting on my sticky mat waiting for class to start. I was looking at myself in the big mirror and doing the usual comparison of my shape to the other girls’ – fatter than that one in the black and pink fitted tank top, but thinner than that one in the baggy T-shirt…
Then the anorexic walked in. She placed her mat on the floor directly in front of the wall-sized mirror and began stretching.
I tried not to stare, but it was hard. Everything about her appearance was just wrong in the context of a gym.
In a room of people dressed in various concoctions of workout clothes, this girl wore a baggy, white turtleneck topped off with blue hospital scrubs. Even with both shirts tucked in, the drawstring on her pants looked like it could’ve wrapped around her body three times.
Her distorted features wiped away any clues to her age. She could’ve been 19 or 40. The angles on her face were so sharp I imagined that she could pop a balloon with the tip of her nose. Her long, auburn hair looked dyed, dried, almost charred. Tired and abused, it resigned itself to be gathered in a low clip at the back of her head.
I watched as she started stretching out. In her freakishly skinny state, every action looked slightly exaggerated because there was nothing to soften the angles of her limbs. Even her baggy clothes couldn’t keep her from looking like a marionette. In a way, I think I would’ve felt more comfortable seeing strings attached to her too-long arms and too-long legs. Thinking that her tiny, overtaxed body had to power her movements made me nervous.
The heat and the sweat from the previous class still hung in the air. I wondered about the turtleneck. Was she was cold because she had no body fat to keep her warm? Or was the big shirt meant to conceal? The top of the garment sagged a little, allowing just a peek at a neck that appeared so brittle it didn’t look as if it could support her skull.
I looked at my classmates as I, too, began stretching. No one else seemed to be looking at the woman. The instructor walked in, right past her, just like she wasn’t there. It was like the Grim Reaper had just joined the class and no one could see it but me. I half wondered if the girl was really there at all. Maybe my brain was lashing out at me, rebelling from years of self-abuse relating to food and figure. No, I was never anorexic, but food had long been my drug of choice.
The teacher announced that we were going to warm up.
My eyes got wide and I felt my heart beat faster. The instructor was going to let this girl take the class. Just let her. Couldn’t she see that it wasn’t safe? What about professional responsibility? What about liability – could the gym get sued if the girl didn’t survive the class?
My adrenaline kicked in and I suddenly had an impulse to rescue the girl the way a firefighter would pull someone from a burning building. I wanted to run to her, scoop her up in my arms and bolt through the gym to the parking lot. I would tell her, “It’s OK. You’re safe now. You don’t have to go in there anymore.”
But I had seen enough after-school specials growing up to know that merely taking the girl away from the gym – feeding her, telling her she wasn’t fat – wouldn’t fix her. It wouldn’t help her any more than it would help me to have someone advise that I should only eat when I’m hungry. I hear the words, I know what they mean, but I don’t know what to do with them.
Throughout the class I watched her. As the exercises got progressively harder, as I began to sweat and strain, I kept waiting for the anorexic to collapse. But she didn’t. In fact, she did the hardest variation of each movement. She even used all the optional weights.
At one point we had to lie on our backs and raise one leg in the air. The girl’s pant leg rode up. I allowed myself one shameless, gawking look. I looked so hard I could’ve probably counted every bone and vein through her over-stretched skin. The leg was impossibly narrow, with a small bulge where her knee bone resisted any demands to retreat further into the skin. Her bare foot looked proportionally huge – like a flipper – anchored at the bottom of a leg that wasn’t much wider than the narrow end of a baseball bat.
When class ended, the girl remained in front of the mirror, continuing to exercise, while the rest of us packed up.
As I was getting my things together in the locker room, the anorexic came in. She went to the mirror and pulled a brush out of a massive, fuzzy, animal-print pocketbook.
I had an urge to get closer but I wasn’t sure why. I considered going up to the mirror and brushing my hair, too, so I could make small talk. I didn’t know what I’d say. Maybe I thought if I could speak to her I would magically come up with the words that no one else had been able to find – the right verbal recipe that would make her eat. Or maybe I was just being voyeuristic. What was in that purse anyway? Were there laxatives in there? What about a toothbrush to cram down her throat to make herself throw up? What does an anorexic need when she’s out and about?
I loathed myself for thinking these things but it was too easy to dehumanize her. She didn’t look quite human.
When I went to class the next week, I watched myself in the mirror while I waited for the anorexic to show up. I thought back to the first time I took the class, when I dreaded the thought of standing in front of my own image for an hour. But I decided then that maybe that was the best thing for me. Cold, stark reality would force me to work hard and sculpt this potato of a body into shape. I put my mat right in the front, so I’d have an unobstructed view of my spudly self.
Then I saw something I never expected. Standing against the backdrop of the other girls, I looked more like them than unlike them. At 33 years old, I discovered, for the first time, that I was a woman. There, in a virtual police lineup of females, I was recognizable as one of them.
To say this was revelation wouldn’t be overly dramatic. I’d spent a lot of time thinking that I wasn’t good enough, hiding, apologizing for my flaws. A real woman, I thought, didn’t have a belly that got all squishy like dough when she sat down. A real woman didn’t have thighs that rubbed together. A real woman could wear a bikini without being an eyesore. So as far as femaleness went, I’d always figured that I was in the ballpark, but only in the stands. Turns out, I’d been on the playing field all along – in the game without knowing it.
I wondered what the Anorexic saw when she looked in the mirror.
When she finally came in for class, she was wearing scrubs again but no turtleneck. Instead, she wore a neck brace.
I considered putting my mat right next to hers. I wanted to see if she really had a lot of eye makeup on, or if the bluish color around her eye sockets was from her flesh getting thinner. I wanted to see if the whites of her eyes were still white. I wanted to hear if she got out of breath during the hard parts. But I stayed where I was.
A few minutes after class started, one of the guys from the front desk came in. He looked around for a moment, then spotted the anorexic and went over to her. Kneeling down, he whispered something. She listened, then got up quickly and followed him out of the room. She seemed unconcerned, but she walked quickly, as if to end the interruption as soon as possible so she could get back to exercising.
Then we, the class, turned our heads en masse to watch through the glass back wall as the anorexic walked to the reception area. The instructor kept moving – we all did – but every eye in the room was on the girl.
A moment later, the anorexic started back toward the classroom, trailed by the gym employee. Still walking quickly, she went to the side of the room and began digging in the pockets of her brown bomber jacket. She produced something – it was small, about the size of a member’s pass – and handed it to the staffer. Then she came back in and finished the class.
The next week, the anorexic wasn’t there.
I wonder what happened to her. I wonder if she joined another gym. I wonder if she ever got better. I wonder if she’s still alive.
I wish I could say that I learned a powerful lesson from seeing this girl, about self-love and abuse, about taking things too far, about distorted images. I would like to report that from then on, I stopped weighing myself, cut the tags out of my clothes and just decided to love myself, no matter what my weight.
But I still struggle, even after my own realization about my womanhood.
However, I have come to a certain awareness that those parts of my body that I lament are also the softest. And soft can be pretty good when I’m snuggling with my little girl or when I’m cuddling with my husband. I think my softness is one reason that they love me and want to be close to me. And if that’s true, then maybe someday I’ll be at peace with my softness and I’ll stop trying to force it away. Someday.