Sometimes a truth previously unknown to you flies from your mouth. So it was when I heard myself say, “I don’t work out to shrink my body, but to expand my life.”
I revisit this periodically. It reverberates, continuing to reveal truth in ways unimagined back when I first said it, two decades ago.
That was with the editor of a now-defunct magazine, Mode, a fashion magazine which featured representatively-sized women. Then, as now, fashion magazines mostly feature the unrealistically sized, not typical, woman (who, if white and 50, according to the CDC — which bundles stats by age, race, and gender — weighs 170 pounds, at 5 feet one inch tall).
I’d sold Mode an article on bellies: our ambivalence, our shamed suck-it-in reflex. Yet I also discussed taking belly-dance, and that the belly is the mythic seat of emotion (“I knew it in my gut”), and power (the moon-round globe in which members of our species germinate). .
The editor liked my story. Wanted more. We kicked around ideas. Then I proposed becoming Mode’s fitness editor.
I could see her mulling this over. Would the idea fly with Mode‘s audience? Could they relate to fitness as a positive, not shaming, topic? The editor was herself (oddly), thin, muscular; perhaps in her heart of hearts, she wondered if a larger woman could even be “fit”?
I could feel, too, her considering me, scanning. Did she think, “Good writer, yeah, but would her size and shape be motivating to our readers, or would she lack credibility?” I wonder now (a quick Google just turned her up teaching spin and yoga in California): I look good, and people always tell me I radiate energy. But I’m neither buff nor heavy.
I did not and still don’t fit the image of those who work out.
Yet, since my early 30’s I’ve remained a dedicated exerciser. I’ve stuck with it pretty consistently, despite episodes physical (broken leg) and situational/ emotional (three deaths of people I loved, five years of eldercare; much work-travel) that could have put me off it, and at times nearly did.
Why? Because my life is better, happier, expanded — emotionally, physically, intellectually, and even perhaps spiritually — when I take care of the body, which St. Francis of Assisi called “Brother Ass.”
I love my healthy donkey body less for how it looks (though these days I like that, too) than for all it does. And for all it, like all donkeys, carries.
Of course I want to care for this loyal physical self. Of course it serves me even more willingly when I do.
That’s why I was able to say what I did to that editor. Why my words were succinct, cogent, as if I’d said them many times.
I hadn’t. But I ‘d lived them.
I revisit them periodically. Most recently on Facebook: I reposted Amy Tan‘s fitness journey after age 60.
I said Tan was a “… woman after my own heart: I’m 63, devoted to working out not to shrink the body, but to expand the life. On the same path: physical and creative self-love, resilience, reinvention.”
Along with three buff pictures (chin tilted slightly with an I-earned-this show-offy defiance one could not help but be charmed by), Tan wrote, “I made a plan to … prove to myself that age doesn’t mean that everything ‘goes downhill…’ despite chronic disease, a history of broken bones, unrelenting shoulder pain, and early signs of osteoporosis…”
She concludes with zesty, cheerful braggadocio, “This is what (I) look like after my workout… I can lift my suitcase and put it in the overhead compartment of a plane. Working out … makes a big difference in strength, balance, and endurance. I am now 64. ”
Upwards of 250 people, mostly women, commented. Many mentioned my “expand the life” words.
I think the reason this jumps out at people, and jumped out at me when it first escaped my mouth, is: it goes to the core.
I think we all know subconsciously that motivation doesn’t work if based in negation. It has to elucidate what you want to move towards rather than away from.
And sticking with fitness activities requires motivation.
Working out takes time, effort, energy. It requires we shift, every time; interrupt whatever fascinating, important, urgent thing we are doing, to focus elsewhere.
It usually requires we change clothes, locations. It has elements of discomfort, awkwardness.
Exercise, it turns out, informs the lives of many writers. Unsurprisingly: writing, a rarely-comfortable calling, also requires motivation.
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, enough to take action: that’s the price of success. In working out, writing, life.
That Mode column never came to fruition. But my words stuck with the editor. My front-of-the-book mini-bio in the issue with my article read, “Crescent Dragonwagon writes cookbooks, children’s books, and poetry. She works out ‘to expand the life, not shrink the body.'”