In third grade, a boy named Wayne told me I had fat arms. I thought, “I have arms?” I was blissfully unaware of my body, in the way that kids are. They inhabit them comfortably, unencumbered by them, until someone ruinously whispers the message in their ear that whatever their body is, it isn’t good, or perfect, or right, and sticks a pin in that bubble.
Wayne popped my bubble of unselfconsciousness. It floated away in a haze of smoke that same year as my pediatrician, smoking a cigarette, told my mother that I was gaining too much weight. She was told to put me on a diet and exercise regimen. Unlike other suburban Gen-X kids, I didn’t play soccer on Saturdays, or any other team sports in school. I played violin and I read. Sure, I took ballet, but according to the doctor, that didn’t seem to count as exercise for someone with my body type and passion for food.
I pretended I loved ballet.
My lithe, tiny-limbed sister was a promising ballerina, however, and because she had to be taken to classes 4 days a week, I was dragged along. I squeezed my thick little legs into tights and pretended that I loved ballet, because all little girls love ballet, yet I’d stare longingly across the hall into the adjacent gymnastics gym. I stared and wished it was ME flipping and tumbling, athletic, strong and brave. I didn't want to turn out my feet and suck in my belly while the mean Russian ballet teacher hit us with her big stick and told me I wasn’t allowed to eat bread or potatoes.
I was a chronically unathletic kid, and looked the part with my nerdy style. I’d hide under the gym bleachers when we played basketball. Since I was never encouraged by my parents to learn or participate in sports, other than the punishment of gym class, I assumed I was genetically destined to avoid them, or so I always believed.
Later on, in high school, I started biking seriously and doing yoga. I ditched the ballet for the much-freeing, and less body-shaming, worlds of Modern Dance and jazz. In Modern, you don’t have to be a feather-light bird because no one is making you balance on the end of a single toe-digit, or be lifted up by a sweating man in tights. Meanwhile, jazz is all about sticking out your tush and wiggling your fingers — so freeing!
I shook off the thick body I'd always had, but never ejected her wounded psyche from deep inside me.
I became a gym regular in college, but as I hit my thirties, I started getting more serious. Running, once an unthinkable activity for my child-self, became a release, an activity I loved. I ran headlong right through my thirties. Even if I was just trudging, not sprinting like a sleek pony, I was into it, and I started adding miles. Three miles became five, the treadmill odometer passed five, then six! I started joining races, running in the back of the pack with the other 37-year-old women. Eventually I ran a 10k, then a ten miler. I finished my first half-marathon, and then another! I could hardly recognize myself, yet there I was, finally about to run the New York City Marathon in full, a race I’d watched and cheered for decades. To do it before 40 was the goal, and I ran it 3 weeks before my 40th birthday. It was exhilarating and exhausting.
That race cured me from running for years.
To mix it up, I started taking boot-camp and crossfit-style classes, and when, at 45, my full-time job and I broke up, I suddenly had my days entirely free to move my body. I started developing muscles — real, defined muscles — and a strength and endurance I never knew I had. F*ck, if I’m this strong and fit at 45, what could I have been at 14? How could I have missed all those pain-free, flexible decades? Damn, I really could have been a gymnast after all.
I turned 50, and a swanky new fitness club opened a block away. As a present to myself, I left my chain gym and joined the sleek place. They offered boxing, and I was curious. I put on the gloves, and found my sport. Boxing is magic. It is release and meditation and catharsis, and I came to the altar just weeks before the 2016 elections sent the world into a brutally ugly spiral. It was the best non-medical, brain-altering substance I’d ever had. All women should box.
I don’t want to hit or be hit, I just want to hit.
It’s about clearing my head, focusing, and just punching. Raw, sweaty, punching. The most primal act for us animals sans fangs or claws; thrusting your arm forward, twisting your hip toward something bigger, harder, and scarier than you. Fighting back is what it’s all about. I’m punching away the past; the teasing, the shame, the ballet teacher, the diets and the designer jeans. I’m punching away the 70’s, the 80’s, and everything I was afraid of back then.
I’m also punching into the future, breathing and pushing forward, fighting to stay strong, healthy, and relevant. When did my generation hand over the cool mantle? I’m almost 52. I don’t feel like an adult, yet I’m perimenopausal. How did we all get so old suddenly? These questions swirl in my mind, so I hit the bag for them to stop. Just me, the bag, and my wildly-ripped 52-year-old arms.
Screw you Wayne from third grade. I’m punching my way through the darkness that was and onward towards the light of 2020.
Gen X hits back, hard.
by Erica Wides