I couldn’t believe I was crying.
I mean, sure - I’m a crier. It doesn’t take much to start the waterworks: elderly couples holding hands, heartfelt stories on the internet about people being nice to each other, or even just thinking about how much I love my cat all reliably do the trick. Most of the time, I don’t mind the fact that my body’s natural reaction to just about any emotion stronger than “meh” is the formation of two salty waterfalls against the backdrop of my face. These eyeballs, how they runneth over.
Sometimes, however, it happens at the most inopportune moments - and this was just such an occasion.
I was in a room with a handful of women, including Vanessa Leigh Aschmann, movement coach and Restore Your Core™ workshop facilitator. She was gracefully demonstrating movements designed to raise awareness of and target the core and pelvic floor muscles, and the other workshop participants were following suit, reproducing the motions fluidly, elegantly - as though it was easy.
Everyone except me.
I was sitting dejectedly on my embarrassing yoga mat (I’d realized that morning that it had collected half an inch of dust since I last put it into service, and it still looked suspiciously grubby despite my frantic efforts to wipe it down on the way over), feeling oafish and lumpy and no good and - quite literally - like the elephant in the room.
Don’t cry, I told myself. DO. NOT. CRY. Get your shit together. Crying will only make this worse. Which, of course, caused the dam to break, as nothing brings on a bout of sobbing more surely than thinking about how awkward it’s going to be once it starts.
Inevitably, the tears fell, and deep, putrid shame washed over me. It was bad enough that I couldn’t even stay on my hands and knees for more than a few seconds without terrible pain - now I looked like a crybaby to boot. If anyone somehow hadn’t noticed my inability to complete the movement exercise, they certainly would now that I was bright red and sniffling, shoulders quivering, squeaking like a nest full of newborn mice.
As has happened so often throughout my life, my inner critic chastised me, hands on judgmental hips, a judgmental frown on her judgmental face.
What the hell is wrong with you?
I wanted to run. To flee. Panic began to set in; I haven’t had a panic attack in years, but I could feel myself creeping dangerously close to the line. For a solid nine or ten seconds, I seriously contemplated leaping to my feet, grabbing my purse, and bolting out the front door without a word, leaving behind my yoga mat, my towel, and my dignity (as clearly I had no further need for any of these things). Fortunately, I was able to realize this urge for what it was - the latter part of my fight-or-flight response, going haywire at the emotional trigger - and forced myself to take a few deep breaths to try and stave off the feeling of impending doom.
If this sounds like a story about an awkward moment at a movement class, it is.
It is also so much more than that.
I can’t imagine this is a particularly fun position for any workshop facilitator to be in, but Vanessa navigated the situation beautifully. She didn’t call me out. She didn’t shout, “Hold up everyone, stop the class, Ali’s body won’t allow her to execute this movement and now she’s crying, let’s all focus on her” (which, although it sounds silly, was exactly what my catastrophizing brain was imagining, a scenario that invoked pure, butthole-clenching dread). Instead, she suggested, to the room at large, a variation on the particular movement that would produce the same results. Once I found I could handle the variation, I was able to calm down significantly and be present for the rest of the workshop.
In the days that followed, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, prodding the incident the way you might tongue a sore tooth. What had that been about, exactly? Why had it provoked such an intense emotional response?
I’ve known for a long time that I’ve had a contentious relationship with exercise. I’ve even gone so far as to dissect it by writing a whole book about my own experiences with weight cycling, body trauma, disordered eating, and struggling to love and accept my fat body. My life changed forever on that day in fifth grade, when a classmate told me I should lose weight. Gone was my carefree childhood, replaced with a frantic existence of forever trying to make myself smaller, so that I would be acceptable. Ironically, I was completely within a “normal” (whatever that is) weight range when that comment was made, and it wasn’t until I began dieting that I started gaining weight above and beyond what was considered standard for my growth. (There’s a long explanation for this that I won’t go into here, but there are mountains of evidence that prove long-term dieting actually makes people fat, instead of making them thin.)
Along with the dieting and food restriction, I used physical activity as a form of self-directed punishment throughout my life - my penance for daring to eat french fries instead of a salad (or, more truthfully, for simply daring to eat). Exercise, the way I saw it, was something you did in order to make your body smaller. It was something you did because you weren’t thin enough or pretty enough or good enough. It was something you did because if you didn’t, you would be disgusting and unworthy and unlovable.
I’ve come a long way in making peace with my body. I don’t always love her - but the fact that I love her sometimes is evidence of my monumental progress.
That day in Vanessa’s workshop clued me in to a mountain of baggage I’m still hauling around: baggage about what it means, to me, to move my body.
I began to wonder: when was the last time I experienced pure, unadulterated joy from the simple act of moving my body, with no ulterior weight-loss motive? I looked back into the past, and further back, and further still, until I realized, with great sadness, that this kind of joy had been missing from my life since I was ten years old.
Which means, of course, that for the last twenty-five years, I have been unable to access joy through movement, because movement itself is so wrapped up in feelings of shame, inadequacy, and - yes - trauma. It’s made me realize that movement is a profound emotional trigger for me, for two reasons.
First, it causes the diet culture narrative to play on a loop in my head - “Maybe I’ll lose weight and therefore be a better and more worthwhile person” - followed by an avalanche of shame that I am not already that better, more worthwhile person.
And second, it draws attention to my body. My own attention, and other peoples’ as well. I’ll never forget the time when I was using the leg press at the gym I used to belong to, and a fit, muscular man stared at me, open-mouthed, disgust written all over his face. I was so mortified that I left immediately, fighting off tears, and literally never went back.
When I move my body, people notice those movements, because they take up more space. They’re kind of hard to miss. Picturing all those eyes on me makes me feel awkward and ungainly and wrong. This only intensifies when I find I can’t comfortably execute the movement in question, which is exactly what happened in Vanessa’s workshop. They’re all going to notice the ways in which I struggle to move my fat body, and they’ll think I’m lazy and stupid and disgusting.
My own attention on my body isn’t easy to deal with, either. I have spent decades dutifully and happily dissociating from it, thank you very much, and fully connecting with it the way I must do when I am engaged in physical activity is an emotional minefield. I notice all the things I cannot do. All the spaces in which I cannot fit. All the rolls around my midsection and the width of my thighs. And while I use the tools I have accumulated over the years to remind myself that my weight does not dictate my worth and that my fat body is not inherently bad, so often, the thing I instinctively feel when I am confronted with the reality of my own heft is hatred.
Is it any wonder, then, that I so intensely dislike exercise?
Here’s the thing. I don’t believe everybody needs to exercise. Diet culture, of course, will tell you otherwise. Our society likes to intertwine fitness with a superior kind of virtue and morality, but I think all that is a crock of shit. I think we can be good people and not exercise. I think each and every one of us has the right to work out, or not work out, and that this decision has no bearing on our inherent value as human beings.
I do know, however, that the human body needs to move. To stretch, to bend, to flex. And I have been receiving signals from my body, in recent months, that she would like me to move more often - signals that have, predictably, caused me a great deal of anxiety.
Yes, I believe movement would be good for my physical health - but all the body-image-related trauma I’ve collected around it is harmful for my mental health. So what am I supposed to do? How do I protect my body and my mind? How do I treat them both with loving kindness, when doing so feels like an insurmountable either/or?
These were the questions on my mind when I reached out to Vanessa. Of all the people in the “movement” world, she was the one I felt comfortable bringing this up to - not just because we’re friends, but because she has shared with me her personal dedication to making her work accessible to every body. Tears spilled down my cheeks as I sent her the following message:
"This feels really vulnerable, but I want to make some changes. The last couple of months, I’ve been noticing sensations in my body that I don’t like, and I know they’re happening because I don’t move my body as much as it would like me to.