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.