I went running tonight. I haven't been in about a week, which means I felt it. I'm still trying to learn how to run as an adult, and it isn't easy. I keep telling myself that it isn't about the results--I don't care how much I weigh or what I look like--it's about how I feel.
But that's not honest. If I'm being honest, I would have to admit that body image is something I struggle with. It's an old struggle. When I was about 14 or 15, my school, a conservative Christian school, went on a retreat (think camp, but in the middle of the school year). All of the girls were hanging out one evening when one of my friends, J, commented that I had a nice ass, for a white girl, and she was going to teach me to shake it. Now remember, conservative religion, dancing wasn't something I knew a lot about, but who doesn't like to dance? My god, this is sounding like "Footloose" or something.
After 20 minutes or so, my friend laughed and admitted defeat. I might have a nice ass, but I couldn't shake it. "You're just not sexy" seemed to be the consent of the girls, but they all made sure to remind me that I was funny and cute. And this is pretty much what I stuck to through high school. I was funny and smart and, on a rare occasion, pretty or cute, but I never felt sexy.
Fast forward 10 years and my friend, M, asked me if I would take salsa lessons with him. Since my daughter's birth, I had been trying to get back in shape, and salsa seemed like a fun way to begin. We went to the lessons and to my great surprise, I didn't suck. I wasn't great or anything, but I learned quickly, and more importantly, I was having fun. When I moved up to the second and then third group, we started switching partners. This gave me pause. I wasn't nervous dancing with M; he would love me no matter what, but these strangers might judge me based entirely on my shitty dancing skills. I know it's absurd to worry about how well you are dancing at a class teaching you how to dance, but that's what I was doing. M tried to reassure me, but I didn't calm down until a man told me he waited to learn the moves until he was dancing with me. When I asked him why, he very nicely told me because I clearly knew what I was doing. Thanks, friendly man at dance class. After going to class for a few months, I asked the instructor about a move I continually struggled with--it's a move designed to move your hands from one position to another. His response was simple: this move is sexy, and you don't do sexy. Loosen up more. This might shock you, but this advice didn't help me loosen up.
A few months later my schedule changed, so I had to quit taking salsa classes. Since I enjoyed salsa, I started taking ballet at my college. It was a class of about 20 women. The women had a wide range of age, body types, and strengths, but for two hours each week, we came together and learned how to control our bodies. I was learning something new about my body: I liked dance. I liked the way it made my body feel, and although I never deluded myself into thinking I danced amazingly, I did feel like I was improving. One of the last steps we learned in class was the "pas de chat" or step of the cat. One day, I was jumping around feeling silly and fun, when one of my friends made a joke about less stepping more dying "of the cat." It wasn't meant to hurt me, but it did. It didn't matter that moments before I was enjoying myself and my point was not to look attractive, as soon as it was pointed out to me that I was NOT attractive while performing this move, I felt guilty for not being attractive.
So back to the whole running thing. I enjoy running at night. I like it for many reasons, but one of the reasons I like running at night (and I don't like the gym) is because at night people can't see me as easily. I like the anonymity because running makes me feel good in much the same way that dancing does, but just like dancing there are too many judgements involved when someone's gaze (mostly male) falls on me. It's no longer about the activity or the health aspect or even if I feel sexy. It's about how other people perceive my body and its sexiness. As soon as I am visible, my feelings no longer matter, but invisibility isn't good either. I deserve my space on the sidewalk and dance floor, but I can't seem to overcome my own insecurities about my worthiness on these spaces if I'm not running well and looking good. How can I overcome my fear of visibility? Or more importantly, how can I retain my good feelings in the face of a world that does not always agree?