What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I am an adult. I pay taxes. I vacuum, sometimes. I buy the fancy toothpaste. I do all those things a grown-ass woman should do, which now includes a reasonable amount of exercise on a regular basis. Yet, the second I get to the gym and hit that locker room, well — I'm in the locker room again.
As a kid, I was never pelted with tampons or subjected to boob-shaming by my peers after gym class. Sure, there was plenty of teasing and name calling in the halls as I was growing up an almost-but-not-really chubby kid before hitting an early puberty hard right around third grade. But, in the locker room, it was my own eyes that pried and compared and loathed what they saw in the mirror: a wonky, round girl jammed into school gym shorts that were clearly designed for the hipless. Things only got worse when we hit the soccer field and I watched my stick-thin classmates leap around like baby gazelles while I tried inventing a new way of running that somehow kept my butt from bouncing. Instead, I looked like I was practicing an elaborate pantomime of cross-country skiing. It did not catch on.
"Gymtimidation" may be the most irritating buzzword I can think of, but the phenomenon is real, and we've likely all been grappling with it since the moment we discovered other people had bodies, too. When I walked into Equinox a little over two months ago, admiring the gym that would help me help myself out of this fitness rut, I was a little "gymtimidated" (ugh, my kingdom for a new word.) The facilities were gorgeous (they have Kiehl's in the showers! For free! For me!), and the clientele, I had to assume, were better than I. After all, they were already coming here on a regular basis, were surely Zumba'd out the yang, and probably wore sports bras personally fitted by their best friend, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Oh yeah, and I was the one afraid of being judged. I grabbed a locker and carefully assembled my workout clothes on the bench so I could put them on as fast as possible. Hiding "behind" the 10-inch locker door, I jumped into my (new fancypants) gym wear, put my head down, and darted out onto the floor. Out there, all I had to worry about was being the chubby girl on the elliptical, and that was one shame I was ready to let go of. At least if I was on the elliptical, working on my body, I could hold my head high-ish. Forty-five minutes and 11 Beyonce songs later, I headed back to the locker room and realized, as ever, that I was a total idiot.
There were skinny women, and there were baby gazelles. But there were also a vast variety of female bodies, all in various states of undress — none of them trying to hide inside their lockers. It was another lesson in grown-ass womanhood: Life is not middle school, unless you want it to be.
You get to a certain point and everyone's body carries battle scars. It may be extra weight or stretch marks or injuries or handicaps. There are women in my gym with mastectomy scars, and they step out of the showers like it's no big deal because of course they do. What on earth do they have to be ashamed of? Looking down at my little belly, I realize just how much time I've spent frantically trying to hide it, and the rest of my perfectly functioning, strong, beloved body. As if it weren't all of those wonderful things, but just one awful thing: fat.
It wasn't so much of an "ah-ha" moment, but rather a one of "enough already." Enough with this needless locker-room shaming, which only exists in my head anyway. There will always be the fitness princesses wearing gym couture on the StairMaster, breaking a delicate glow of perspiration across their alabaster brows. But, I know their sneakers stink up their gym bags as much as anyone's.
Last year, I interviewed Tracy Anderson, who told me the most common things she hears from women is that they need to get in shape before they come to her gym. They're scared that they'll look shabby, and they won't be able to keep up with the celebrity clientele. "It's crazy to me!", said the master craftsman of Gwyneth's own butt. In that moment, I nodded in agreement, sucking in my gut so hard my face turned red — so crazy.
There are so many real things to worry about when you're fighting this battle with body image. You're already dealing with the nasty voices inside of you, echoing off the tile walls of your seventh-grade locker room. Don't project those voices onto everyone else in your grown-ass woman gym, because, in fact, they're not here to stare at you in silent judgement — they're just trying to get their cardio on, too. Just get in there and get in your zone. Stop hiding, keep your head up, and look around. I'll be the one with the tomato face, rocking the treadmill in a Les Mis T-shirt.
The Anti-Diet Project runs every week in January! Catch the next installment next Monday. Until then, you can follow my progress at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject on Instagram and Twitter. Photos by Amelia Alpaugh.
Reprinted with permission from Refinery29. Want more?