Part of our series on our body and body image at midlife.
When I forget my membership card at the gym and the young person behind the desk requests my ID I think, I’ve been a member of this gym longer than you’ve been alive. Isn’t that enough?!
And it’s probably true. I’ve been exercising at the same small gym for over 23 years. I’ve seen it grow from one room to two floors, from simple step classes to pole dancing and cardio tai boxing. And it has seen me evolve from an energetic, erratic 20-something to a more measured and self-accepting 50-year old. Someone who understands that for her, there is an essential relationship between exercise and body image.
When I consider the years I’ve spent in this house of sweat and spandex, I know it’s been about more than exercise.
Even after I moved 30 blocks away, I continue to return to this familiar location, this club of which I’ve been a member longer than my marriage or any job I’ve ever had. It’s where I’ve crunched, spun, climbed, and burpeed to an acceptance—and even an enjoyment—of the body I live in. When I consider the hours, months, and years that I’ve spent in this house of sweat and spandex, I know the total is about more than exercise. It’s about the evolution of my relationship with my body and how it changes with time.
There are a bunch of us long-standing gym members. The coterie of gray-haired men who rib each other and argue about movies more than they work out; the perpetually bubbly identical twin whose sister was also a member at one point; the guy who is on the stair climber every single day, head down, body dripping with sweat. The machine alerts the climber to milestones: “You have reached the top of the Taj Mahal!” “The Eiffel Tower!” He’s been to the moon and back.
It’s a scrappy gym, unlike the fancy ones I’ve tried with scented towels and celebrities. There was a short period when Matt Damon started working out at my gym. He did rigorous exercises with an imported trainer near the stretching mats. The gym was aware of his presence. We dressed better and did more stretching. But he soon disappeared, leaving us to our thin towels and anonymity.
My Early Days of Exercise
When I got my first studio apartment in my 20s, I joined this gym, one block away. At first, I frequented the treadmill where I saw the first plane collide into the World Trade Center on the TVs hanging from the ceiling. I did lunges and lifted free weights near the grunting heavy lifters. I got comments: “How’d you get those glutes?!” I took these remarks as a reaction to some freakish quality of my tight, truncated muscles. “It’s a body type,” I would say dismissively. And it’s true.
Looking at photos of myself in a bathing suit at age six or seven, I can see the blueprint for the body I would grow into. There’s slight definition in my arms and legs, even then. My legs have always been muscular and short. I was told I’d be good at gymnastics and swimming.
Inconveniently for my body image, my mother was vocal about her admiration for dancers’ long, lean legs.
Inconveniently for my body image, my mother was vocal about her admiration for dancers’ long, lean legs. I don’t remember her commenting on my body other than to point out a sway back. She didn’t place a high value on the power or back-handspring potential of my limbs (not to mention the ease with which I could slide into economy class or fold into a neat hide-and-seek spot). And I didn’t much either. I coveted the legs of my long-limbed friends and of Brooke Shields in her Calvins.
I was told I had “thunder thighs” in high school. I imagined being able to remove the muscles from my legs like excess clay on a sculpture, if only a little here, a little there. I swam for a year in high school but drifted into drama and never returned to organized sports.
At the beach with a friend one summer, a woman pointed out my definition. I used my familiar line, “It’s a body type.” My friend later asked me, “Why don’t you just say, thank you? You work hard and it shows.” I hadn’t considered it.
Moving My Body Through Motherhood
In my 30s, I became a climber on the Stairmaster, a regular on the exercise bikes. In my late 40s, I spent more time on the elliptical and tried to incorporate dynamic stretches. I skipped pole dancing but took an occasional spin class.
Compared with outdoor hikers, I’m a lab rat in a maze.
My daughter is 10. Her legs are long, like her father’s. I think of how my late mother would have admired them, their elegance and shape. I admire them, too, and tell her so. But I’d like to think that if her legs were shorter and more muscular that I’d admire them just as much. I’d tell her how powerful they can be, how able and strong, however ill-suited to skinny jeans. I’d celebrate with her all the places those legs can take her.
I have friends who disparage the gym, the boring machines and the dull, indoor environment. I can’t argue that gyms lack yoga’s spiritual aura. The gym doesn’t have martial arts’ ancient traditions and color-coded achievements. I’m not training for a marathon, an Iron Man, or even a long bike ride. Compared with outdoor hikers, I’m a lab rat in a maze.
Body Image and Exercise: Making Peace with Midlife
But I imagine that all of us, the sweaty climber, the cheerful twin, and the regulars I’ve come to know over the years, are negotiating with body image and exercise (and their own bodies) the same way that I am. We are shaping our physiques the best we can and adjusting to the never-ending transformations of age. We’re not thinking of this gym as the unglamorous, musty sort of place it can be. We return again and again to this familiar club that has always accepted us to spend time with the body we inhabit, to make it move and strain toward its limits. And to enjoy and revel in what it can still do.
We are shaping our physiques the best we can and adjusting to the never-ending transformations of age.
A couple things I can still do: a steady cartwheel and a forward-facing split. Those two moves can elicit notice from even my tween daughter and her friends. “You’re really flexible and strong,” my daughter said not too long ago. My response was a simple, “Thank you.”
It’s likely that my daughter will have her own grievances about what, in her estimation, is not “enough” about her beautiful body. I hope she can find a healthy way to work it out and make peace with her body sooner than I did.
In the meantime, I’ll be at the gym.
Rachel Talbot is a filmmaker and writer living in New York City. Her films include Easy Riders, Raging Bulls about Hollywood in the 1970s and the Emmy nominated special Live from New York: The First Five Years of Saturday Night Live.