There's no obvious starting point for this one. I don't remember a moment of epiphany one way or the other, only brief glimpses of triumph and panic which have fed into this neurosis I'm forcibly shifting. Maybe it's in part the obsessive nature of my early relationship with it that has made the last few years such a challenge. I'm talking of course about the gym - that hallowed realm of sweat, anxiety, and the smell of metal that you can't get off your hands. I still have to take a deep breath before walking in sometimes, like I'm heading to an interview and need to take a moment to put my game face on. There's something about exercising publicly that makes me more uncomfortable than most uncomfortable things I can think of (and I have a good imagination). Reasons? So many. It's the performance anxiety; people can see what I'm doing, what if I do it wrong? It's the music; why do they give you the option of plugging headphones into all the equipment and choosing a radio station when they're going to pump something loudly over the house speakers? It's the constant presence of the opportunity for self-criticism. And it's the mirrors - what is with the excessive number of mirrors?! I'm not weight-lifting, I don't need to check my form from three different angles. I definitely don't want to spend half an hour observing my own sweaty face bob up and down as I battle through the cross-trainer moderate aerobic program, trying not to accidentally make eye contact with other gym-goers. Maybe they're just as paranoid as I am that everyone else is judging them, but probably not. Inexplicably, in the back of my mind I am always fighting the idea that at any given moment someone might realise that I don't belong, that I don't actually know how to use some of this equipment, that I'm making it up as I go along. At least that's how it feels, even though I have actually been inducted and regularly working out for over two years now. I remember when I first went to the gym it seemed like a very exciting grown-up thing to do. I was seventeen; my parents were in charge of a boys' boarding house at a school and we lived on site, so automatically had access to the school gym. Not being a natural athlete and with no one to force me into it, there wasn't really a sport or exercise routine I had got into in my teens other than netball. I only took up running at sixteen out of boredom while camping, when I would jog barefoot around the field in the drizzle and enjoy the visceral blood-pumping experience of it, revelling in my solitude. The gym in contrast was a big shiny adventure, full of challenges and companionship - I tended to go with my mum or new friends from one of the girls' boarding houses. It was a different story once I actually joined the sixth form there. It quickly became apparent that the gym was a battlefield of adolescent posturing and perfection-obsessed youth, as time and again I heard gorgeous specimens bemoan physical faults I couldn't even spot, discussing diet plans while burning off as many calories as possible in a session. I was there to try and get fit (at this stage I was always at the back on my D of E expeditions) and while I had been losing weight, it wasn't my primary objective when it came to the gym. In fact I honestly can't remember ever consciously thinking that I was at the gym to lose weight, but steadily it became more than a healthy habit and more of a necessity. I wanted to go every evening, and if I couldn't there would be this latent frustration bubbling under the surface. The weight kept falling off and I felt powerful, like I had mastered my own body, but even while my gym obsession continued I caught the glances of my peers bouncing off the mirrors. What was wrong with me now, now that I was thin? What were they looking at? I never lost the paranoia. Getting back into the gym after three years of university and the corresponding three stone weight gain took a lot of courage. It helped that the one I joined was usually empty of other people, and the staff there were the sweetest and didn't make me feel like an idiot, but now I've had to move to a busy gym it's almost like starting all over again. The fact is I might never feel entirely comfortable with it however much I learn to love the skin I'm in, or however many times I tell myself that it doesn't matter what other people think. My continued mantra of 'this is for me and my body's good only' might need to be on my lips every time I step in, every time I take that deep breath to walk through the door. But that's okay, as long as I don't give up. In conclusion, I'd like to share a very short creative piece I published on my old blog last November when I was tackling running again. It sums up my recent feeling and experience of exercise, and I hope anyone undertaking the same challenge can find the sense of triumph and overcoming that results from facing our demons.
Just Watch Me
A dull yellow stain was spreading through the cloud over the hill. Birds trilled their matins into damp air and their music hung in the vapour, exhorting the expanse, laudate. Dew seeped through the webbing of her trainers. Heartbeat in time with her feet, the ground gave way to each footfall like sponge. She was heavy; she felt her weight in each stride yet she didn't slow. She was a force, a power. Her weight was behind her, not against - this wasn't about diminution, this was about strength. The constant grey was breaking into slivers above and the trees were pulling themselves upright. Skyward was the aim of each living thing pushing out of the earth and she wouldn't look down, wouldn't give her detractors the satisfaction. They might not understand the complexity of it, the duality. That it is possible both to accept and to improve; to be and to do things considered mutually exclusive. Her breath came sharp as the hill rose to meet her, demanding a tribute of pain which she gave gladly, and laughing inside she hit the crest and made herself its conqueror. She planted her feet and her flag. I can do this. Just watch me.