"I grew slightly addicted to the high of picking heavy things up and putting them back down. The only numbers that mattered [were] at the end of the barbell"
I used to find strength in disappearing.
The growing hollow under my eyes, the concave spaces created by increasingly protruding ribs—as an Orthodox Jewish teenager chafing at communal standards clearly delineated by ancient texts, I wanted to create my own. While descending rapidly into my eating disorder, these signs were proof of my power. Anyone could pick up a cookie, I reasoned; few could put it down. What greater strength could there be than to paint a portrait of your inherent fortitude by whittling your frame into a walking statement of modern art?
"Portrait Of A Girl With Bones," or something.
I thrived on that feeling. In the rough, uncertain sea of adolescence, it became my anchor. I tracked this misguided interpretation of strength by morbid markers: shivering in 80 degree weather, increasingly blue nail pads, and the downy softness of hair creeping up in curious patches in an attempt to warm shrunken limbs. With each visible sign of my diminishment, I felt stronger. But there is only so much decreasing one can do before she disappears entirely. While I found a certain Dickensian beauty in wasting away, I was also fairly convinced I did not want to die. Amid the fog that was my enervated brain, I found a small light that grew steadier as it channeled me back toward health.
I clung unwaveringly to it through the hospital stays, months of therapy, and steps back and forward. I eventually achieved a tentative kind of normalcy—obsessive thoughts about my body were always present, but relegated to the sidelines. I maintained it throughout college, working, marriage, giving birth to two amazing children, and then through my divorce at age 28, which brings the CliffsNotes summary of the past decade of my life to a close.
Divorce is still a fairly atypical phenomenon in my Orthodox Jewish circles—if not new, not as widespread as in the rest of the world. "Can't you be a little more boring?" sighed my mother. My children spent a few days each week and every alternating weekend with their (very excellent) father. For the first time in years, I had sporadic pockets of time where I was not engaged on the front lines of childrearing and had hours of free time at my disposal. I spent many weeks engaged in the national pastime of newly divorced women: glumly spooning ice cream into my mouth while watching Lifetime and offering halfhearted asides toward the terrible actresses on my TV. "Don't trust him!" I called through gobs of cookie dough. In the back of my head, I knew it would be more productive to get off my butt and do something. But I was content to let that idea come to me in its own time.
Then, one day, my friend introduced me to a fellow who happened to be the buffest Orthodox Jew I had ever seen. As a general rule, my people are known more for their brains than their brawn, and I unabashedly stared at his bulging biceps. The fact that he bucked convention made me perk up; I feel a special kinship to fellow rebels. He mentioned he co-owned a gym nearby, which emphasized strength and weight training, CrossFit-style. "You should come by for a workout," he suggested.
I laughed. Despite years of on-and-off exercise, a moderate stroll on the treadmill was as intense as it got. I had little upper body strength to speak of and lately, I'd been getting winded just lugging all the ice cream from my car to my front door. Me, lifting weights, sumo squatting, and kettle bell-swinging? It was ludicrous. I was tired just thinking about it. Still, I did have those free mornings and evenings. And my repertoire of Lifetime films was running low. So I gathered my nerves and stopped by the gym one cool morning, just to check the place out.
That was a year ago. I've been going ever since.
To say I was initially intimidated would be an understatement. The gym was populated mostly by men with overdeveloped muscles, all expertly using equipment that looked to me like quasi-Medieval torture devices. Sports games played on an endless loop on the big-screen TVs, and the room was filled with male-centric banter, alternated with grunts. I was completely out of my element. But I took a deep breath and started from the beginning: self-consciously stumbling through foundational stretches and movements like squats, sit-ups, and shoulder presses until I could do them unassisted. When my trainer showed me something I didn't understand, I asked him to show me again. (I took a lot of water and adjusting-my-ponytail breaks.)
Having mastered the basics, I grew eager to take it further. I graduated from five pathetic push-ups to twenty solid ones. I got just a little closer to the bar while attempting to complete a pull-up. I began to see definition in my biceps and stomach. I went from pushing the sled with three 45-pound plates to four. I went from jumping rope for ten seconds before falling over in a heap to doing a full minute and a half. Each tiny gain was a victory. The morning I did a 170-pound deadlift, I felt like I could conquer the world. My vocabulary, too, grew with my biceps: I learned words like snatches, canons, and swole. And then some other terms unrelated to exercise not fit to mention here (did I mention it's mostly men who frequent this gym?).
I grew slightly addicted to the high of picking heavy things up and putting them back down. I developed the beginnings of a modest two-pack. When I flexed, actual muscle popped out. When a colleague couldn't push open a heavy door, I gave it a try—and it opened. I stopped running for cover in embarrassment every time I visibly sweat through my clothes. I lost count of the calories I was ingesting each day because, frankly, there were too many of them to track. I was hungry all the time and fed myself, for the first time in years, with unreserved gusto. Food wasn't the enemy, but a delicious tool to propel myself to stronger, faster heights. The only numbers that mattered weren't on a scale, but at the end of the barbell.
That I'd be drawn to yet another form of body modification is not curious. Clearly, I get my kicks from seeing how much I can test my body's limits. One could suggest that this focus on my body, despite years of enjoying mental and physical health, is not the wisest pursuit for me. But, this time is different:
I'm addicted to the way I feel, and not the way I look.
I'm addicted to being able to carry my toddler with greater ease, not watching the number on the scale drop lower (in fact, the number has only crept up with each pound of muscle I gain).
I'm addicted to being at peace with occupying space in this world, not trying to take up as little room as possible.
That's the message that the media communicates to us in overt and subtle ways, isn't it? That no matter how much work's been done on behalf of feminism or how far we're leaning in, we aren't doing our due diligence as women if we don't take great pains to inhabit the smallest of physical spaces. Weight training has enabled me to finally, wholly, reject this warped paradigm. I'm only one of many women who once suffered from an eating disorder and have now channeled those distorted perspectives into healthier body-centric outlets.
I did tentatively tiptoe into the world of macros and supplements and the most boring meal plans I'd ever seen—and confidently galloped my way out. The cult-like obsessive counting of calories, protein, carbs, and fat so that every item of food was reduced merely to what it could do for your muscle gainz was clearly not a healthy outlet for me. As much as I'd love to know what it feels like to have a true six-pack, it's more important that I'm being healthy in the best way for me—which is to not let it overtake my life.
That's not to say I don't spend an embarrassing amount of time lifting my shirt in the mirror to whisper sweet nothings to my tiny baby abs, or wish I was more comfortable showing skin so I could proudly display the results of my hard work. I suppose that 12 years of a yeshiva education is a hard thing to shake, and thus, I will never quite wholeheartedly embrace a bikini (you win, rabbis!).
It's also not to say I am completely absolved of all lingering body image issues. I recently ran into a friend's mother who kept telling me how great I looked and all I could think was that this same woman used to tell me how terrible I looked when I was really skinny. Of course, it must mean I'm now just the opposite. This is a classic disordered perception and I was disappointed I hadn't shaken it completely yet. But I moved on because I don't really care about projecting things to other people anymore. That's the beauty of CrossFit-style training: the only person I'm competing against is myself. Each day brings a challenge to try and be stronger than I was yesterday. The only one I'm accountable to is me—not other people or the scale I once worshipped. It's nice to look hot, but it's more important to feel empowered, healthy, and fabulously alive.
And this new focus on how I feel rather than how I look? I wouldn't trade that for the most rock hard abs in the whole world.