Written by Morgan McGrath
I stretch my sports bra over my head and break out into the weird dance that is trying to flatten a not-so-flat chest. This is my hell. I cannot breathe. I snap it into place and a small part of me dies, knowing that I will inevitably jiggle out the side or slip out the bottom. That’s what happens when girls like me try to work out.
I walk into the Union gym and begin to prepare for what will be a physically, but mostly mentally, exhausting 30 minutes. I hop on the first treadmill and try to blend in. I actually like running; sometimes a girl’s just gotta blast Britney Spears and sweat it out. I casually glance over to the other treadmill only to have all my confidence shot to hell. This chick has been running for eight miles. She has been going for an hour and looks like a delicate feather and I haven’t even started and I have boob sweat. EIGHT MILES. Hell no.
I pop my earbuds in and try not to notice the way my thighs jiggle every step I take. That’s the thing about working out at Davidson: I am constantly surrounded by classically beautiful bodies. It reminds me of this time in middle school when I worked my ass off (not literally, it was still pretty big then too) to make the field hockey team. After a summer of hard work, I made it as a defensive player, and honestly I was pretty good. I felt so accomplished until one day when I was running down the field and the best player on my team jogged up to me and told me I might consider getting in better shape. Confidence gone. Not that anyone at Davidson ever directly discourages me from working out, but it is hard to not compare myself and feel judged by the thin girls because I have struggled with healthy body image for as along as I can remember.
At this point of my workout I am pouring sweat. Meghan Trainor comes on my Spotify and I audibly groan (maybe from the music, but maybe from the physical exertion). The word fat makes people uncomfortable because it seems so harsh, like an attack, so people like Meghan Trainor package it prettier by saying curvy or plus- size. But here is the problem with that: society had defined curvy to just be another mold that so many girls can’t fit. If I am “plus-size” I need to be curvy only in the right places. “All the right junk in all the right places, *wink face.*” What is “right junk,” and where are the “right places?” Are you telling me that the only worthy body (that isn’t thin) is one with big boobs and a big butt? And while I am on it, why the hell is it “cute” or “quirky” when a thin girl eats fries, but when I eat them, I get major side eye that says, “Classic fat girl going for the fat girl food.” That seems as unproductive as all these photoshopped models that people have such a problem with.
I press shuffle.
My mind drifts to the time I told a close friend about my eating disorder and she acted surprised. I could hear her internal dialogue: “She had an eating disorder? But wait, she’s not underweight.” Having people tell me how great I looked after I started dropping weight freshmen year was confusing and satisfying in a sick way. It was as if I had gained their respect — I finally took control of my life and lost weight — I was en route to fit the mold! But here’s the thing: during my battles with food, my control had actually spiraled out of my hands. I had no control.
I glance across the gym and see a guy lifting weights. I instantly become self-conscious. My face is bright red, my hair is a sweaty mess, and my shirt is dripping: not hot. I catch myself, and tell myself I do not need to be hot for him; I can be hot for myself. I want to believe it, but a lot of the time I don’t. Sometimes I feel like being super smart and super beautiful are just givens at this school, and I can only validate how great I am when I leave campus. The scariest part about all of this is I used to think that if I got male attention, they were doing me a favor that I had to repay. They didn’t have to dance with me, but if they did I should probably make out with them. I was letting everyone else validate my unhealthy body image and skewed perception of self worth, and that’s not how I saw Davidson going.
I look down and see I’ve run three and a half miles. Tomorrow I might only make it two, and yesterday I made it four. Today I worked out because I wanted to, not because I felt pressured to. I hop off the treadmill, deciding that I don’t ever need to run eight miles to feel fulfilled.
* * *
I don’t think I will ever get to the point where I think, “Oh I genuinely like my stomach.” But I think that’s okay. I don’t even think I need to love my body. It’s ridiculous to say that we need to love our bodies. Everyone has problems with their bodies, we are humans and we are flawed and we will perceive those flaws in healthy or unhealthy ways, but that decision is ultimately ours. The girl on the treadmill next to me does not get to influence how I feel about my body, nor does Meghan Trainor, nor do the guys that may or may not give me attention. Since freshman year, I am mentally and physically healthier than I was. Healthy body image is not a continuous struggle anymore, but it is a continuous dialogue. I have decided that taking care of myself is so much more important than letting other people define my worth. It just is.
This story originally appeared in Facing Perfectionism, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina.