“Wow,” he said, “You exercise a lot, right?” He was looking at my legs. We’d been dating for a week after meeting in Maths for Non-Majors, and he was years older and had very defined biceps, because he definitely went to the gym a lot. But I didn’t.
I had never gone to the gym, even once, in my whole life. I was just thin. I smiled, kind of proud. I was nineteen. I’d been praised for being thin since I was a kid.
People do that a lot. You’d be surprised. Maybe you wouldn’t. Grown women told me they were jealous sometimes. It confused me at first, and then I brushed it off, a little embarrassed, but eventually I felt relieved. Especially as I became critical of other aspects of my appearance, I felt thankful that at least, at the very least, I was thin.
People looked at me and saw health.
“Do you run?” guys always asked.
“You can eat whatever you want,” girls sighed, regret in their voices.
I did eat whatever I wanted. And whatever I wanted was mostly pizza and other junk food. All of my interests involve sitting on my butt. Painting, writing music, writing stories. Very little of my work, through university and after, has required me to so much as stand up.
When I moved to New York City, I was out of breath by the time I got halfway up the steps at my subway station. And there were a lot of steps. This isn’t great, I thought. But I’d been told so very many times, right after responding, “Nope, I don’t go to the gym,” “well, you clearly don’t need to!” It was stuck in my head without examination that going to the gym, exercise of any kind, was for people who “needed to.” Which means, of course, people who worry about their weight.
“Your pulse is very high,” one doctor told me. “You need to exercise for an hour at least four times a week. Cardio or aerobic.” The words passed through me and the idea had disappeared by the next day.
My husband, a big, burly guy, has one of those BMIs that makes him feel like he’s failing. “I am technically obese,” he keeps explaining to me. He works out often. He can run for miles, and he looks good while he does it. When we were first dating, he asked me if I ever went running. “No,” I said.
“Do you want to?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, playing it cool. I dug up some little exercise-related shorts that I used as PJs sometimes. Off we went, into the warm, blinking city night. I flew down the sidewalk, feeling buoyant for a block. He trailed behind, setting a steady pace.
“Whoa!” he called after me, “You’re fast! I can’t keep up!”
I smiled to myself, feeling the slightest bit concerned about him. Maybe he really wouldn’t catch up. Maybe I would have to slow down to accommodate. I didn’t know, because I never ran. Maybe I really would somehow be a natural at this, despite the challenge of the subway stairs.
Several blocks later, I was panting and pain blossomed in my belly. My throat stung and I tasted something iron-y and alarming. My lungs had, I was pretty sure, begun to collapse. I fought to keep going, embarrassment chasing the pain.
He caught up. He slowed down. “You okay? Do you want to take it a little slower?”
“No, no,” I gasped. “I’m good!”
I was far from good.
“We should stop,” he said, gently, a few minutes later, and I flopped gasping onto a bench. He laughed, not unkindly. “You really don’t run,” he said.
“I really don’t,” I wheezed. I’d been saying that all along, since people started asking, but I’d never fully experienced the meaning behind my glib disinterest in all forms of exercise.
I have since, I’m relieved to report, questioned the casually ignorant logic of “if you are thin you must be healthy.”
When you poke even a little hole in it, a number of unfortunate, ugly prejudices about beauty tumble out. In a culture that has welded thinness to attractiveness, where girls’ and women’s physical appearances are prioritized above our other characteristics, the assumption that someone is “better” in practically every way by virtue of their slimness creeps into our reactions to other people and ourselves.
The goals of healthfulness and thinness have become tangled, and magazines continuously shout about weight loss and dieting, hardly bothering to disguise them under the banner of “getting fit.” “Fit” and “thin” have become incorrectly synonymous, and the wrongful combination is messing with everyone’s heads.
Of course, fitness and thinness can and do go hand-in-hand. But not for everyone, not all the time, and sometimes, in some tragic cases, thinness lies at the extreme opposite of health. By imagining that being thin is the same as being healthy, we ignore the very real need for naturally slender people to take care of their bodies in ways that improve their function rather than their façades. We also implicitly and often explicitly suggest that anyone who is not thin is automatically unhealthy and/or cavalier about their health. This is just plain wrong.
“Your pulse is very high,” a new doctor told me, recently. “Can you walk more?”
“Yes,” I said.
I am walking more.
As a matter of fact, I was walking yesterday with my husband, when I mentioned this piece to him.
“Want to run?” he said immediately.
We broke into a jog, maybe looking a little silly in our jeans.
I took it slow, glancing over at him. He was as graceful as ever, his stride light, his back straight. We talked as we went. I am pleased to report that I made it more than a few blocks, easily. When we slowed back down to a walk after a brief while, I was only a little out of breath. A serious runner would’ve found this display ridiculous- embarrassing, but I was kind of proud. It was a start.