Sometimes, you go to the place where you make your art, and something beautiful happens, and you refine it, and it sits like a flower petal, just subtle enough that everyone is happy, and you feel like a “good girl.” But there are times when you sit down to your craft, and your family looks at you with a certain, knowing look, and you bare your teeth, and you shout, “What?” and they walk away, very quietly, so as not to disturb the hornets. For some reason, this one feels like a bit of both.
I started the day with a workout. My kids sat on the couch, watching me—my boy and my girl. I am turning 40, and I know I need to keep this body strong. Plus, I want to. Strong bones, strong muscles = strong girl.
The program I bought works for me because: 1) I can do it at home. 2) It is short, just 30 minutes long. 3) I know my body, my limits, and where I try to cheat. 4) It will help me run and ski and yoga longer and stronger, and these are my true loves.
This brings me to number 5) I have a strong mind. Why do I need a strong mind to be successful with an exercise program? Is it commitment? Willpower? No.
It’s the weight loss marketing pitch. It’s the seemingly innocuous things the exercise celebrities say, again, and again, and again. It’s my awareness of how they affect any of the number of men and women I love, who have body image dissatisfaction or self-doubt. It’s their effect on our children. And it’s how they are a total miss, for many of us, yet it is language that just won’t die: calories burned, body you’ve always wanted, lose the weight and keep it off.
For me, these mantras don’t fit, because calories burned is more of a problem than a benefit. When I am actively exercising, I must eat more, and very intentionally, or my body will not get strong. Instead, it will take from itself, weakening the very foundation I am trying to build, and making me irritable and uncomfortable in the process. So, I have to tell my children, pointedly, “Look, Mommy is making an extra egg today because she made new muscles.” Otherwise, they think the strong lady is supposed to be making me lose weight.
And I don’t pretend my body is some type of clay, to be sculpted into “the body I’ve always wanted.” (Incidentally, this is because I can’t make myself into Lucy Liu, nor the dynamically thick and curvy women I tend to admire.) Nope, I am a tall, skinny white girl…no curves, quite ordinary. When I bend over to pick up my kids’ legos, or do a headstand in yoga, the belly skin that used to hold my big gorgeous babies just hangs there, flabby and herniated, in all its postpartum, no-nonsense glory.
These are truths I accept. Because they are truth. My daughter, and son, though, are children. They don’t know that the strong lady’s words are innocent enough, until they have fed all the ravenous rats of our own self-doubt. They are just listening to her, until I say, “Um, no, mommy doesn’t want to lose weight. Some people do, and that is their business, but mommy just wants to get strong, so she can ski and run and lift you guys in the air. OK? Understand? Different goals for different people.”
Mid-workout this morning, I was again regretting my decision to let them watch my workout DVD. Selfishly. Because when the hard work of scissor crunches and ignoring seemingly innocent body-shaming, merges with the hard work of parenting, my workout has officially become a shit show.
Alas, they need to know what I know, about these words they are hearing. Fine. They need to understand it is only getting strong and staying active their momma is after. And I need to be fierce about teaching them to ignore the rest of that talk—regardless of the shape of my body, or the bodies they will grow to have, or the bodies that anyone else in the whole wide world might be carrying. They need to know that stuff is not our talk.
So, this morning in my living room, I chose to sweat, and joke-whine about workouts being torture, and diligently match the weight-loss mantras, every single time, with my own protective counter-mantras, for my kids. “Don’t care about calories, I care about strong.” “I don’t care about the body I want, I love the body I have.” Out loud, militant, with a smart-mouthed smile. Every Single Time. I even started to believe it more than I already do.
And what happened next? I may as well have had the Liberty Bell there, in my house. Listen, and let freedom ring, because mid “poor me, these crunches suck,” my little daughter stood up on the couch and shouted out, “You might hate it now mommy, but you won’t hate it when you are strong!”
Part II. Today was also her dance recital.
She has been working hard, with her dance teacher, to figure out how dance fits into her life. Her father and I taught her, if you don’t love it, and it doesn’t bring you challenge or joy, don’t do it. She knows I will gladly redirect the funds allocated for any activity she wants to quit toward legos, hot chocolate, or my own fancy skincare products. For sure. So she has our support, emotionally, financially, and in time and transportation, and she has space. She will figure it out.
I have worked hard staying out of this one, because dance is one thing that I could get super weird about, if I don’t keep myself in check. I did not take dance as a child, because oddly enough, there was no dance studio in the 80’s in Rock Springs, Wyoming. (Mom, Dad, if there was one, please, for the love, just pretend there was not.) I forced dance in, wherever I could, and in my comical, awkward way, I kept that love alive.
Because I need it. It gives me back a piece of my soul that sometimes goes missing. When I dance hard, and then I look in the mirror, I know myself again. When I watch dance, I am quiet, and still, and if you know me, you may have just spit out any beverage that was in your mouth, because I am rarely either of those things.
Despite this truth, my daughter’s relationship with dance is none of my business. It is easy to insert ourselves right into our children’s affairs, in non-beneficial ways. So, I have worked to understand her teacher. Because of this, I trust her teacher. I honor her teacher. And thus, I can stay out of it, and I have. Which is why I was torn when I caught myself getting involved yesterday.
It all started with a “cheater chasse.” And it came out just like that, “I think you are cheating your chasses, and you are also not getting low in your bounces.” She smiled, so I continued. “You are strong, but you don’t trust your body. Your routine is two and a half minutes. You can give two and a half powerful minutes.” She continued smiling, so I followed with, “And your arms are strong too, you can hold them up. Pretend baby owls are perched there and you have to keep them safe. Hard AND soft, that’s dance, right?”
She smiled bright, and sheepishly said, “I know.” Then, she adjusted. She was listening, so I told her about stability of form, and how her young body is just barely learning to do these things. I reminded her that a pirouette is not natural, at all, but neither is riding a bike. I reminded her to use her trunk. “Be a tree first, then twirl out, with integrity, and then, into grace. Make it strong; it will get pretty later on, if you want it to. Just like in bike riding, the wobble will fall away one day.”
And I told her that when she’s unsure, and she feels more like one of those baby owls, to remind herself that no, she is the tree. I reminded her that when her guts start to crawl, she can take a deep breath, and store it right in those same guts, and sink into her strength. I reminded her that she doesn’t have to do any of it.
She wrote down a few words, and practiced holding those baby owls, and then got into costume. She danced with strength and joy, for her teacher, her community, and her little family, but mostly, for herself. And I sat, quietly, and watched her be her own little bad ass tree, full of baby owls and not giving a damn if she was being watched or not, and I was totally mesmerized.
Today, we were both strong girls, here beside our two menfolk—and all four of us? Happy.