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  • Amy Stephenson

She's Not Running

Updated: Feb 26

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a tall girl growing up in an American suburb must be in want of a basketball team. It began there, a Police Athletic League, starting center, using whatever skills I’d picked up getting absolutely schooled on streets and in driveways by my older, better, and more competitive male cousin.


I had body mass and I knew how to use it. I was an okay shot and always nailed my freethrows, but mostly I was deadly in the paint. The thing I couldn’t do was run. Suicides made me actually want to die, my lungs quit way before my legs ever did, and no matter how hard I tried, running up and down that court never seemed to get easier. It was humiliating.


I kept it up through ninth grade, and by then I was so deeply ashamed of my adult woman thighs that I still remember the feeling of the too-small uniform clinging to my sweaty skin, the smell of the micro-mesh, i hated it. I was so humiliated by feeling humiliated that I never told anybody, and so I never had any adult to sit me down and tell me that being able to run a million miles isn’t necessarily that important and also that every adolescent girl looks weird in a basketball jersey and shorts.


My next foray into exercising came after I got my first job and used my paychecks to buy a gym membership, spending my free time after school biking across town to do step aerobics classes with middle-aged moms. I was 15 years old.


I use the terms eating disorder and body dysmorphia to describe my relationship with my body because they’re the easiest and most recognizable. Truth be told, exercise has caused me more anguish in my life than food ever has, at every phase of my life, in every state I lived in, whether I was poor or comfortable, busy or unemployed.


I love to exercise. I love the gross gym smells and the acidic tang of a torn muscle healing itself, I love when it all works together and you lift something so big it astonishes you as you’re doing it. Also, I hate and fear it. I have believed at different phases of my life that the simple routine of elevating one’s heart rate was my savior, my nemesis, my boulder to roll up the fucking hill, my albatross, a future career, and a thing I would never do again. It seems to have an inverse relationship to my happiness; the years I am isolated and miserable and drinking too much, I am exercising like mad. The years I feel okay, the years I stumble toward inner self-improvement and good solid relationships, it’s rare I ever see the inside of a gym. The worse I feel about myself, the shittier my self-esteem, the more likely I am to exercise to the point of compulsivity.


I am aware that even now, as I spend most of my time alone and have been climbing out of a deep depression, I have chosen once again to start a routine during the worst of it. I am sure this doesn’t bode well, but I also feel as though I should keep going.


See the thing about exercise (and dieting) is that you’re not really supposed to stop doing it. Even if you have a compulsive and damaging relationship to it. Smoking, drinking, gambling: when they take over you, you can just… stop. Flush the cigarettes, drain the bottles. If you try to stop compulsively exercising, you get to look at the floor while you lie to every doctor you’ll ever see about how often you do it in order to stop them from insisting you should be doing it more. My answer, for the last five years, has been “three times per week, 30-40 minutes per session,” whether it was true or not, and I have still been told, many times, that it should be more. “Try doing it five times per week,” they say with what I will always perceive as disdain, after watching me face away from the scale.


All told I have probably logged more hours in gyms than most people my age. Doctors don't care about that, though. Fashion doesn't either. Neither do the men who tell me to put down the pizza, or the well-meaning friends who implore me to try their dance gym or tire lifting routine or group park yoga because it's more "fun."


a gym selfie a day in 2008, when my BMI was still technically way too high according to literally every doctor

I have begun to post a selfie to my instagram stories after workouts, and despite thinking about it constantly, I have no idea why I am doing this. I don’t want to brag: I no longer believe the ability to spend 20 minutes jogging is something to brag about. I know that gym selfies from my friends start my internal engine of negative self-talk churning away, that a single sculpted muscle attached to a face I love can send me into a tailspin. I hope I am not having that effect on folks. I don’t even have visible muscles, not really. I’m just a person who spends her days alone taking pictures of shit, sometimes of herself, sometimes not. So, when I’m sweaty and high on endorphins and surrounded by mirrors and the impulse to capture the moment arises, I hit the little paper airplane and watch it go. I have tried to convince myself that I am simply documenting—after all, what’s the difference between a post-jog selfie and a plated and garnished dinner? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. I wish I did.


What I do know is that I used to post exercise selfies to prove to people that I was working on my body. I believed honestly that if people didn’t know that I exercised every single day they might think that I was okay with the way I looked, and I couldn’t let that happen. I would announce my gym routines like a ring of salt around myself: protection. You can’t hurt me if I do it first. You’ll never hate me as much as I hate myself. That’s what gym photos used to be.


They’re not that anymore. I no longer believe that I will stick with this routine, or any routine. I no longer believe that I will ever lose a single pound (really, I’m okay with that). I no longer believe that there is any point to exercise beyond trying to keep older age from being miserable.


I tell myself I am not trying to lose weight. And I believe it, but only mostly. Problem is, since I started recovery a few years back, I’ve become locked in a pattern: my anxiety balloons, I stop sleeping, I start to feel terrible and unproductive and tired all the time, and maybe my pants get a little tighter. I tell myself, truthfully, that some light exercise a coupla times a week could fix this. I start that, go on with it for a few days or weeks. And then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, I decide to challenge myself. I think about the time I "waste" taking it easy. I think about the second wardrobe secreted away in the back of my closet. So I go hard on the last five minutes, I head into the weight room, I force an extra day. Inevitably, I exacerbate the ankle injury, that pain moves around my body until joints in my hips and back and shoulders all hurt too much to keep doing it, it starts to feel too hard, I realize I'm thinking about exercising more or less constantly—the shower, while cooking, while working, while watching TV at night—I skip a day, I never go back. I try to make my brain stop the loop. A few weeks or months later, my anxiety balloons again, I head to the elliptical, I go around again. It has gone this way with every fledgling attempt to move my body since I stopped doing it compulsively.


In my clearer moments, I tell myself that this is okay, that each time I cycle through it I become more aware, that even if my efforts are halted and intermittent it’s better than nothing, better than never exercising. And by “better” I just mean that I want to be able to walk up stairs when I’m 80 and not have a heart attack by 40. My body, on the other hand, as reliable as it generally is, has been put through hell—a childhood spent gulping down second-hand cigarette smoke, years of eating terrible food and then years of eating no food, of starving myself and pounding on my joints, of working every muscle to exhaustion and skipping dinner again and again and again, of slim fast breakfasts and a dozen rum and coke desserts, of Payless shoes on concrete retail floors. Fifty- and hundred-pound gains and losses over and over again, wearing my heart and liver down. I have to listen to my body now, have to stop when it tells me to, or I'm defeating my own purpose here.


I have tried and failed to write about exercise on the internet so many times I’m too embarrassed to look back on what I’ve said. I used to have a gym blog, something I’m ashamed to admit. I thought, honestly and truly, that I could exercise my way out of hating myself, but at the end of the day I’m always that 12 year old running the wrong way down the court in a too-tight jersey: always humiliated by my shortcomings. No matter how much I’ve wanted it to, exercise has never made me a better person.


What I am, at the end of it all, I think I can finally admit, is obsessed with exercised. Obsessed with the way it makes my muscles and body feel. Obsessed with the weird cult surrounding it, obsessed with its little corner of wellness capitalism. Obsessed, even, with hating my struggle with it. Obsessed with my own obsession with it, of constantly trying to win this game of emotional chess I’ve been playing with it since I joined that first PAL team in the mid-nineties. Even then, I loved the game and hated the player.

It is 2019 and I am 34 years old I have no idea if I’ll be able to stick to my 3x per week light 20 minute jog designed to make me sleep better no matter how desperately I want to do it. Honest to god, I don’t know. But I can for sure tell you that if I quit, it won't be for lack of fucking trying.


supine: 1) (of a person) lying face upward. 2) failing to act as a result of moral weakness or indolence.

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