Her alcoholic father had burdened her with a negative body image. She finally got fit when she let go of the past.
- Posted on May 26, 2020
I pulled into the Gold’s Gym parking lot, but I didn’t get out of the car. Michelle, a mom from my daughter’s middle school, had invited me to spin class. “Come as my guest,” she said. “Grab a bike. See if you like it.”
No big deal, right? Except I hadn’t been to a gym in more than 15 years and was terribly out of shape. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to exercise and take better care of my body. But every time I thought about it, something kept me from taking that first step. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
A perky gal in her thirties sashayed past my car, wearing fluorescent purple leggings with a matching print top. She looked as if she’d stepped off the cover of Shape magazine. I slunk down in my seat and pulled my ball cap over my eyes. Scowled at my baggy gray sweatpants. She’s everything I’m not, I thought. Slender. Beautiful. Confident. Not to mention 20 years younger.
Everything in me wanted to throw the car in reverse and return to the comfort of my home. But Michelle had texted that she was on her way.
I’d actually been thinking about going to the gym ever since last Thanksgiving, when someone posted a photo of me on Facebook. I stared in disbelief at my thick waist and thighs. The extra folds around my jawline. Dear God, is that really what I look like? I quickly untagged myself from the post.
The truth was, I’d hated my body ever since I hit puberty. I was curvy when the models in all the magazines were flat-chested and Twiggy-thin. It didn’t help that appearances were everything to my father. He worked out regularly and was proud that he cut a fine figure with his narrow hips and broad, muscular upper body. When I was little, back before he and Mom divorced, Daddy liked to flex his arms like a weight lifter and bid my younger sister and me to hang from his biceps.
As a sales rep for a clothing line, Daddy went to fashion shows and rubbed shoulders with gorgeous models. He made no secret of the fact that I didn’t measure up. When I went away to college, he sent me notes pushing me to lose weight, telling me how unattractive it was to be a size 12. Once he even offered me $500 (a lot of money in 1980) if I lost 40 pounds. His note explaining the bribe ended with “Size 8 bottoms are best.”
Those words had made my heart ache. Here I was about to become the first person in my family to graduate from college, but he’d made it clear that wasn’t what mattered. I longed to have the kind of father my friends had, someone who loved and accepted me for who I was.
After college, I landed a job as a television news reporter. I managed to lose the weight Dad had wanted by practically starving myself. (Because the camera adds 10 pounds, I even took up smoking after a colleague confided that it was her secret to staying thin.) Still, Dad never once said he was proud of me. When I was named weekend anchor, I sent him a tape of my first broadcast. “Who watches the news on the weekends?” he said.
In the mid-1980s, someone gave me a copy of Jane Fonda’s workout videotape. I was hooked. I put on leg warmers and a headband and felt the burn with Jane. Later I joined an aerobics studio. I spent a decade working out. No matter how slim and in shape I was, I didn’t feel good enough. I desperately wanted love, but deep down I didn’t feel as if I’d find it.
It’s no wonder I went through some bad relationships. Until I found Michael, the kindest man I’d ever met. He loved me the way I’d always yearned to be loved—unconditionally. We married, and when I got pregnant at age 40, it was a good excuse not to work out.
I visited Dad’s house when I was five months along. “You’re getting fat,” he said. I wasn’t even wearing maternity clothes yet. I expected him to be thrilled that I was giving him his first grandchild. That was the last time we saw each other. He died three days later.
As I got older, I came to understand that Dad was an alcoholic with a traumatic childhood who was desperately unhappy and unable to show me love because he’d never experienced the unconditional love of a parent. Now, 15 years after his death, I couldn’t have been happier about my life—a strong marriage, a wonderful daughter, a fulfilling freelance writing career, the centrality of my faith—yet I still couldn’t be happy about the woman I saw when I looked in the mirror.
I saw the woman Dad saw. Not pretty enough. Not skinny enough. Not good enough, period. In other words, me.
So here I was in the parking lot at Gold’s Gym, hiding in my car. My eyes followed the gal in purple as she strode through the gym doors. Was this the closest I’d come to working out in so many years because I feared I’d never measure up to women like her?
Now that I thought about it, that attitude wasn’t just about going to the gym. In almost every situation, I compared myself to the women around me. And I always came up short. Most women were younger, prettier, more successful, more active at church, better mothers, kinder, more patient—you name it.
Michelle tapped on my window. “Ready to ride?”
I smiled weakly and followed her into the gym’s cycling studio. Two rows of bikes formed a semicircle facing a mirrored wall. Great, now everyone can judge me.
I threw my leg over the bike next to Michelle’s and pedaled slowly to warm up. I peeked at the mirror, cringing at my ungainly self. The instructor dimmed the lights. Woohoo! At least no one would be able to see me struggling. Sweat poured down my forehead. My legs burned. Pride kept me pedaling. I didn’t want Michelle to know how out of shape I really was. An hour later—spent, breathless—I hobbled off the bike. My thighs felt like noodles.
The next morning, I lay in bed, moaning, my muscles too sore to move. My phone buzzed. A text from Michelle. “You’re gonna love Donnie’s class today. I’ll save your bike.”
My bike? I’d planned on spending the day recovering. But I couldn’t have Michelle thinking I was a wimp. I made it through the class. Barely.
Three weeks in, I was still just making it through class. I was constantly sore. I hadn’t lost any sort of weight. I wasn’t experiencing any exercise high. I was going through the motions, wishing I were home already. If I missed more than a day, Michelle texted me, asking where I was.
My M.O. was to hop on my bike, get the class over with and get out. As if the workout were a punishment.
One morning, after I’d wiped down my bike and left the spin studio, I spied a familiar silhouette on the weightlifting floor. Narrow hips, broad upper body. Biceps big enough for kids to hang from. My breath caught.
The man turned. I saw his face in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Of course, it wasn’t my father. Dad had been dead for 15 years. His death was tragic: He had died in a fire, and because so many of his problems were unresolved, he never found peace. His alcoholism, his self-hatred, his emptiness, his struggle to love and be loved.
But I still carried him with me, didn’t I? His expectations. His disapproval. Then I caught my own reflection in the mirrors. That’s what kept me from working out for so many years—my negative body image. Dad was gone. It was time I let all those damaging remarks—that I needed to look a certain way to be accepted and loved—go too.
I stared at my reflection and imagined how God saw me. How he saw every one of us in the gym. He wasn’t judging us by our appearance. Our fitness level. Our career success. Not even our kindness or generosity. He loved each of us perfectly in our imperfections, not because of who we were but because of who he is.
On my way out of the gym, I passed the woman I’d seen on my first day, who’d seemed so intimidating in her confidence and color-coordinated outfit. I caught her eye and smiled. She smiled back. Both of us were there to stay healthy. We weren’t so different after all.
I’ve been a regular at the gym for three years now. I’ve taken up strength training and kickboxing too. I try to work out four times a week. Sometimes I miss a day or gain a few pounds. I don’t beat myself up. What matters is that I’m getting fit physically, mentally and spiritually, and learning to love the body God blessed me with. And that’s good enough.
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