For 20 years Michelle Thomas avoided sport and exercise. Until she realised she’d been avoiding her own body.
I’ve finally finished the NHS running podcast. It’s meant to take nine weeks to get you running 5k in 30 minutes. Last week, after six months of regular running, I ran my first 5k. It took 40 minutes. And I couldn’t be more chuffed.
Back in 1993, my school report said, “Michelle is eight years old going on 40.” I’m a ponderous, cautious, old-headed kid who doesn’t mix well with others my age. I live entirely in my own brain, in books, in stories.
I’ve no interest in the kinetic world – I want to move as little as possible. I really want one of those reclining beds for old people that I’ve seen in adverts. I quite like the idea of being an invalid. Having a body seems like a very tedious bit of life admin. I discover I’m fat when I’m nine years old. I am informed of the fact by a girl in my year: “Michelle, I’d be lying if I said you weren’t fat.”
It’s so unfair. I don’t like having a body. Other people don’t like my having a body. So I begin to pretend I simply don’t have one. I ignore it, try to disappear into the background as best I can, and keep my head down and buried in a book.
In my teens, I grow to fear and abhor physical exercise. I feel like a different species from every other girl in my year. The most popular girls are the sprightly, sporty ones (one of whom has such body confidence that she wears a blue and yellow Adidas three-stripe two-piece to our swimming lessons, like Sporty Spice).
Being that we’re in rural Wales, there are many, many girls who live on farms. Girls who can carry hay bales and fence posts. Girls who spend their weekends traversing acres of land to mend fences and tend to the livestock. Girls who complete the equivalent of one of those trendy Tough Mudder endurance challenges every weekend, summer and winter; staunch, stoic, strong, seemingly unselfconscious girls, who seem to understand that their bodies are tools. Machines. Equipment.
I dodge school every Monday and Thursday for about two months. It doesn’t feel like a lie when I tell my parents I have unbearable recurring stomach cramps – the anxiety is genuinely nauseating. The fear is carnal. The tears are real.
“I avoided exercise because moving my body meant admitting that I HAD a body, that I’d had one all along and that I’d been neglecting it.”
In hindsight, it’s not as if I couldn’t have performed the activity. I wasn’t very fit, but I was young and otherwise healthy. My body was perfectly normal for a girl my age – in my mid-teens I was a size 10. And it wasn’t the thought of engaging in physical exercise that terrified me. It was the thought of being watched and judged and found lacking. It didn’t occur to me that everyone in the class would be too busy doing their own thing to watch and judge me.
In my anxious and utterly self-obsessed teenage mind, I would be a target. I would be hurt, and in order to protect myself I had simply to omit that threat from my life by not engaging with it at all. Really, I was still pretending I didn’t have a body. It was easier than examining how I really felt about it. I disliked it intensely. I didn’t like the way it looked when it moved. I didn’t like the way it looked when it was still. When I dodged sports I’d sit at home and read and read and read until my brain was full as an egg.
Twenty years later, in 2013, I start running after a major depressive episode. I start running because I’m terrified. I’ve been bedridden for a week, crying because I’m thirsty and I can’t summon the energy to walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. I need a practical strategy to fix my brain. And I hate it. Leaving the flat feels like agony. I run for 60 seconds at a time, praying for respite. There are no endorphins, just numb relief when I’m finally allowed to go home and cry in the bath.
It took two belligerent, bloody-minded years for me to stop thinking of running as a chore. For the chorus of “this-is-BULLshit-this-is-BULLshit-this-is-BULLshit” to stop chugging through my head as I wheezed and panted around the neglected south London park.
I ran for a few weeks at a time, then stopped because it was too hard or I was too lazy. I never put my trainers on without seething resentment weighing me down. A lot changed in those two years. I left a promising but unfulfilling career as an agent to make flat whites and write. I went on holiday on my own. I lost 15 pounds – not a life-changing amount, but enough to feel the difference now that I’m not lugging it around.
“I’ve spent years telling myself I’m not defined by my body, in defiance of the signs and signifiers I’m bombarded with every day. The apparent primary goal of exercise is to get those abs – why should I want those abs?”
When I started running again six months ago, it felt different. It was no longer an endurance test. I no longer prayed for respite. It no longer felt as though I was punishing my body. I was nurturing it. I felt good after running, and not just because of the smugness – the fabled endorphins finally turned up, making my nerves crackle and my breath feel silky and cool in my lungs. It didn’t hurt because I didn’t push myself so hard I wouldn’t recover for two days. It felt like the opposite of the helplessness and hopelessness I’d come to associate with physical exercise. It felt like power.
I see toddlers in the park, roaring and rampaging and chasing squirrels and running with no destination and no impetus beyond ‘look there’s a leaf I must dance with it and what happens if I stretch my hands up in the air and go BLAAAAARGH this is fantastic I’m going to keep doing it BLAAAAAAARGH!!!’ It’s play. It’s instinct. They are learning how to be human and part of that means grasping the mechanics of the vessel they’re in. I must have done that once.
But when you’ve spent 20 years avoiding exercise because you abhor it, it frightens you and you’re terrible at it. It takes an enormous psychological shift to re-examine and overcome that fear. I’ve spent years telling myself I’m not defined by my body, in defiance of the signs and signifiers I’m bombarded with every day. The apparent primary goal of exercise is to get those abs – why should I want those abs? Why should I want to exercise? No thank YOU, cardiovascular health! Take your mental health benefits elsewhere! I’m not conforming to your body fascist beauty ideals!
I avoided exercise because moving my body meant admitting that I HAD a body, that I’d had one all along and that I’d been neglecting it. It’s like checking your bank balance at the end of a decadent month, but when you haven’t checked it for 20 years, and the balance is your life expectancy.
I try not to think about looking a particular way (a blatant lie – I’d love to have a flatter stomach and slimmer arms). But I think if I were the size and shape I am now and could run for an hour without stopping, I’d be delighted. I still grapple with the notion that I have to be good at running, that it’s not enough to just DO it.
“It wasn’t the thought of engaging in physical exercise that terrified me. It was the thought of being watched and judged and found lacking.”
Part of me still aspires to making my body look beautiful. To having grace. FINESSE. Of course what I really mean is that I wish I was more FEMININE in my movements. I want to be DAINTY. I wish to be a DELICATE WAIF-LIKE ETHEREAL FLOWER BUT I’M JUST NOT. I’m clumsy. I’m ungainly.
I dislike running with friends – people I’ve known and loved for years, because I feel I’m slowing them down. Because I’m still so conscious of the way I look, smell and worst of all SOUND LIKE when I run. Being seen sweaty, red-faced and frizzy-haired I can deal with (I post #honestworkoutselfies like this all the time). But wheezing and puffing like an asthmatic donkey is an indignity too far. It’s so ugly and so exposing. When I’m alone I don’t care. I put my headphones on; it’s just me and my legs and my lungs and the road and the sky.
According to the amazing, AMAZING This Girl Can campaign, two million fewer women than men exercise regularly because they’re concerned about the way they look. Two million women aren’t enjoying the mental and physical health benefits of gentle exercise because they’re afraid of their bodies. Our bodies are a tool. They’re an integral part of our life experience. They’re the connective tissue between our brains and our souls and all the wonderful things we have to enjoy in this world. If you neglect your body, you’ll only ever live two-thirds of your life.
For me, running is an act of self-love. It feeds my self-esteem – it’s a tangible demonstration that I care about myself enough to take an hour out of my day tending to something that belongs to me and only me. I’ve just signed up to run 10k for Mind next month, a charity that helps those suffering from mental health issues. I look forward to achieving that distance. But no more. Stick your marathons up your arse. If I need to travel 26 miles, I’ll get a bus.
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Blogger. Feminist. Person with manners. Author of Healthy, Happy, Hot (Unbound), https://unbound.co.uk/books/healthy-happy-hot