My personal hell is not working out. Which is why, for one week, I did exactly that: I’m forbade myself from exercising.
For many people, going to the gym is a chore, and finding the time and the motivation to exercise seems impossible. For me (and, I suspect, many other —often silent— exercise-addicts), it’s the opposite. If I try to go one day without busting my ass at the gym, I feel a crawling, overwhelming panic. It starts in my stomach and creeps up into my chest, where it tightens and strangles, and finally works its way into my brain until working out is all I can think about. I’ve never wanted to be a Fitness Nazi. My body just won’t let me be any other way. Or so I’ve always thought.
I’ve been compelled (and it is a compulsion) to work out since I was in my teens, which just so happens to be right around the time I developed an eating disorder. And while I’ve spent many years conquering the eating disorder voices (they’re still there; I just tell them to shut the fuck up most of the time), I’ve never bothered to challenge the ones that demand that I workout until I can barely move every single day.
Truthfully, I have never challenged the voices because I didn’t think they were bad. We are a culture obsessed with fitness and health, as the backlash against America’s obesity epidemic has resulted in a social media onslaught of workout motivation. This is fantastic and incredibly helpful for those pursuing a stable, healthy life, but the “fitspo” revolution is incredibly harmful for someone like me, who never feels like she’s fit enough or cut enough or skinny enough.
My biggest hang-up has always been my abs. I do every ab exercise under the sun but as soon as I log on to Tumblr (or wherever the evil Fitspo-dwellers may lie), I am presented with an image of a girl with a 6 pack, or, heavens, sometimes even an 8 pack, and I immediately hate myself. I certainly don’t take the time to appreciate my body for the time and effort I demanded of it; my abs will never be good enough. My body will never be good enough.
There is a definitive line between being healthy and being obsessed, and the latter offers absolutely none of the benefits of the former. If you work out in order to maintain the proper level of health and fitness for your body, you’ll have increased energy, improved mood, and mental clarity. If you work out excessively, like me, you’ll be exhausted all the time, constantly injure yourself, feel irritable and anxious, and find yourself unable to live in the moment and focus on having fun instead of planning your next workout or comparing yourself to every other body around you.
It may sound extreme, but I’m not exaggerating. I’ve sprained my right ankle six times in the past year, at least. I lost count. Every time I sprained it and a doctor told me to take a week to rest my ankle and not exercise, I smiled and replied, “Okay,” then rolled my eyes as I headed to my car because clearly the doctor doesn’t know ME and I am SPECIAL and of COURSE I can still work out, idiot.
The devastating side of all this is that I know I’m not the only person who struggles with this. I know men are susceptible, but since I am not a man, I am focusing on the devastating pressure women endure every second of every day to be smaller than we are. I believe the focus on reducing our physical size goes hand-in-hand with society’s desire to diminish female power. If women are diverting all of their time and energy towards their appearance, they can’t devote that power to making their voices heard. In a nation that still devalues women, that suits those already in power just fine. The poem “Shrinking Women” by Lily Myers articulates this unacceptable predicament perfectly.
I don’t want to be a shrinking woman. I want to be a strong presence, I want my voice to have an impact. I want to fill up a space with my energy.
So I challenged myself to go a week without working out to confront the voices that demanded that daily exercise is necessary and focus some of that brainpower to actually improving my life. And the results were exactly what you’d hope. The first couple of days were unbearable. Working out was all I could think about. By day three, I was making rationalizations with myself in my brain, trying to convince myself that I could slip in just one little workout and it wouldn’t hurt. It was agonizing. But gradually, the pressure to exercise began to slip away, and I found myself feeling lighter, happier, and more energetic.
By the end of the week, nothing monumental had happened to me physically. My body looked exactly the same, and when I went to work out that first day back, I found I hadn’t lost any of my former strength; in fact, I felt stronger, and my recovery time was greatly reduced. It was a relatively trivial experiment in the grand scheme of things, but to me it was extraordinary. I found my inner strength and I finally had definitive proof that it was okay to take it easy when I felt myself growing weak and skip a workout (or two, or three, or seven). More importantly, I was reminded of the fact that my attention is far better spent improving my own life and the lives of others.
From now on, I will use exercise a means to better myself, not as a way to abuse myself. I will not be another shrinking woman.
You have to listen to that little voice. If it’s not happy now, it never will be, and no one is going to defend it except for you.
There’s a popular blog post that’s been floating around the Internet lately. It’s been popping up every hour or so on my Facebook newsfeed, and as things are slightly strained in my relationship at the moment, I turned to it, hoping that it might bring some clarity to me. It’s titled Marriage Isn’t For You, written by blogger Seth Adam Smith. Go ahead, take a look. I’ll wait.
Done? Good. Thanks for coming back and not wandering off to look at the latest Buzzfeed ode to corgis. (Dammit, I’ve lost you again.)
Smith’s article is very nice. It’s inspiring. It’s sweet. It’s been coated with chocolate and dusted with powered sugar and rolled around in rainbow sprinkles and wrapped delicately in pink cellophane and tied with a glittery purple bow. It’s clean and simple. Nauseatingly so.
Yes, I would argue that this bit of uplifting motivation is a bit TOO saccharine. Reading it, I couldn’t help but hear the overly emphatic voice of the preacher of my childhood evangelical Christian church, pacing the stage with mic in hand, pausing dramatically for applause, smile stretched just a tad too wide across his face (no offense meant here, religion-wise, but I hardly find it a coincidence that Smith is quite outspoken about the fact that he’s Mormon). Sure, Smith makes some excellent points. You have to be selfless in love. You have to want the other person to be happy. You have to put his or her needs first.
But YOU and your happiness in a relationship are equally important. I mean, if Smith was filled with “paralyzing fear” about getting married, that’s kind of an enormous red flag, is it not? It makes me wonder just how long his marriage is going to last - and I say that with all the hope in the world that his relationship lasts for life, that he’s taken his own words to heart and is truly happy right now.
When things in your relationship are going south, people who mean well, like Smith’s father and then Smith in turn, are going to offer their well-intentioned advice about how relationships take work and how you’ll go through ups and downs and how love is worth fighting for and blah blah blah. If that kind of generic fluff was enough to magically cure Smith of his “fears and anxieties,” then I doubt they were really anything to be too concerned about to begin with. If Smith were truly doubting his own happiness, it would have been a problem not so easily dismissed with a few platitudes about love. Because although some may deem it “selfish,” love really is about you, as well.
Like I said, I’m coming at this from a personal place, as love is at the forefront of my mind these days. Or rather, love is not the subject I’m worried about; how to make a relationship that is undeniably overflowing with love work is what I’m really concerned about. Because a relationship can have all the selflessness and care and maturity in the world, and sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes you have to ensure that YOU are happy, too. And no one can make you happy except for you.
Yes, your significant other should be doing everything within his or her power to love you well and make you happy. But that’s never going to be enough - sadly, no matter what he or she does, your partner actually does not even possess the ability to make you happy. That’s all on you.
If you’re not happy in your relationship, that’s a problem. If you are experiencing REAL “paralyzing fear” (as opposed to Smith’s apparently rather tepid nervousness about the act of marriage) in your relationship, that’s a feeling that won’t go away simply by trying to love the other person more. In fact, I would argue that trying to do that will cause you to venture into Dysfunctional Land, which is populated with disappointed and empty souls who feel like all they do is give and give while their hearts remain empty. You can’t fix a relationship just by giving more to the other person. Yes, it may help, particularly if you’re acting like a truly selfish bastard, but you really have to focus on yourself. Once you are happy, you might find that all the other pieces to your fractured relationship fall back into place. Or maybe you’ll realize that it’s not a puzzle you want to put back together at all. Either way, you being happy is the key to viewing your relationship with clarity.
You should be getting as much from a relationship as you put in. And sometimes, even when both parties are giving all the love they can possibly give, it will still not go quite the way you want it to. Real relationships sometimes have problems that have nothing to do with how little or how much you’re actively loving the other person. Sometimes life is just fucking hard, and sometimes pains that run so deep we’re not even consciously aware of them rear their ugly heads, and sometimes, for reasons we can’t even identify, despite your best efforts, you might find yourself simply unhappy.
When that happens, forget all the bullshit advice people will try to give you. Know that they offer their thoughts out of love and concern, but know that anything they say also does not matter. No one can speak to the specifics of a relationship except for the two people in it. If you’re like Smith and all you need is someone to gently slap you on the wrist and say “you’re being totally selfish,” then congratulations - you never really had a problem to begin with. But if that’s not the case, and you are genuinely concerned about the state of your relationship (whether you’re about to get married, have been married for twenty years, or just had your first kiss) then turn inwards. Listen to your heart. Pay attention when your gut starts screaming. Because marriage, and love, is actually about YOU.
Love should make you happy. Love should make you feel safe, and fulfilled, and complete. Love is supposed to be a beautiful and wonderful and precious thing.
If life has twisted and turned in ways that have distorted that love into something confusing and painful, then something much bigger is at stake, and you need to take the time to figure out what you want. Maybe you’ll find you want to keep that love. Maybe you’ll find that your love is no longer what it once was, and is perhaps worth letting go. Either way, it’s okay. The right choice is whatever is going to give you peace, whatever will calm that storm in your heart.
Don’t lose yourself in love. Give as much as you can to it, but also make sure you’re getting everything you need from it in return. Smith makes a couple of lovely points in his article, but fixing a broken love is usually not as simple as just pouring more love into the other person. Don’t worry - you’re not necessarily doing something wrong if you feel like your relationship is crumbling around you. It doesn’t mean you’re not loving the other person well enough. It just means that right now, that love isn’t doing what it should for you, and that’s worth examining.
Because love, marriage, life itself - those are all for YOU. Make sure you’re giving yourself the best.