On the Playground: Fighting the Fear of Movement

By | August 21, 2009

I’m not sure if kids still play kickball these days, but when I was in elementary school, kickball was the game (its only real competition on my elementary-school playground was foursquare – as an aside, you can only imagine my wild-eyed joy when, in the course of researching this post, I discovered that my adopted hometown of Boston has adult leagues for both kickball AND foursquare) . For those unfamiliar with it, kickball is essentially played like baseball, except instead of a baseball there’s a big red rubber ball, and in the absence of a bat, you use your foot. Everybody loved kickball, myself included. I was always a mediocre kickball player, better at kicking than running or tagging people out, but was never so bad (or just unpopular) that I was ever last picked for a team, in spite of usually being one of the bigger (both in terms of height and weight) girls in my class. At this time, I wasn’t even close to appearing fat by most reasonable standards, but I was a large kid, and I weighed a lot for my age, according to the basic height and weight charts doctors used at the time (this before we had the BMI, which just took those old charts and added math to make it seem more sciencey).

During recess at my elementary school – and this was long enough ago that Beth Ditto’s new-wave-heavy Evans collection would have been on the cutting edge of fashion then as well – one of our particular playground traditions was to arrange a pickup game of kickball. I don’t recall how we selected captains (likely some variation on one potato, inka binka bottle of ink, or not-it) but someone would always have to volunteer to keep score – ideally someone who wasn’t actually playing (kids with casts were often relegated to scorekeeping) and had no investment in the game’s outcome.

At some point in the fifth grade, I stopped playing kickball and started volunteering to be scorekeeper. It was rare that anyone would argue over the scorekeeper role, so once I began to take over that task, it wasn’t difficult to avoid ever playing kickball again, while still contributing something to the game such that I wouldn’t get picked on for non-participation. And though I wouldn’t make this connection until many years later, this happened right around the first time my pediatrician started hassling my nine-year-old self about my weight. I am extremely fortunate to have a treasure trove of handwritten journals beginning when I was eight years old, so I can pretty clearly chronicle my descent from happy active child to embarrassed self-conscious Fat Kid.

The sum total of this being: I stopped playing kickball not because I was bad at it, or because I couldn’t do it or couldn’t keep up, or because of social issues with other kids playing, or any other reason a typical child might avoid a particular activity. I stopped playing kickball because I thought I was fat, and Fat Kids didn’t play games on the playground. The bulk of Fat Kid energy, as I understood it, was expended in actively avoiding outdoor games and sports, because Fat Kids sucked at games and would get brutally tormented by their teammates for screwing up and losing them the game (and this would indeed happen to me later in my life, during every volleyball unit of every PE class I’d ever take; volleyball was and continues to be my team-sports nemesis). I’d already seen this behavior in the PE classes where everyone was forced to play: a not-fat child could make a mistake or miss a catch and her teammates would be bummed, but they’d generally just pick up and move on. It was just a mistake. If a Fat Kid could made the same error, it was always because they were fat, and them being fat meant they sucked. I’d seen it go on for pretty much my entire school-age life. I knew how it was. So being informed that I was, myself, a Fat Kid, by an authority so impressive as a doctor? I wasn’t going to play unless I had to. I would avoid physical exertion at all costs so as not to leave myself open for attack.

You see how that worked out?

What’s shocking to me now is that I had this all figured out – that I just knew it – even in primary school. The fact is that it’s nearly impossible to not absorb these messages about health and weight, no matter who you are. It is inconceivable that a child who lacks the critical thinking skills to adequately process these assumptions about body size and ability would be able to resist them. This is why I have a deer-in-the-headlights reaction whenever I hear anyone bemoan the “epidemic” of “childhood obesity”. Let children be children. We can pathologize their bodies later.

As an adult, I spend a much greater amount of mental energy thinking about and analyzing cultural messages about fatness and health than your average bear, and I am still prone to absorbing the relentless train of fat-equals-unhealthy information even against my will. I recently joined a gym for the first time in several years (my motivation was that I miss lap-swimming, which is the one form of exercise I’ve never tired of since learning to swim as a tiny tot). It’ll probably surprise some of you – those of you who think I’m totally armored against this crap – to hear that I am prone to what I think of as Gym Panic. It’s true, even though I first started working out at health clubs long before I hit my teens so it’s hardly a matter of it being an unfamiliar environment (actually, it’s probably because I first started working out at health clubs long before I hit my teens). Though I enjoy exercise, even decades later I associate gyms with hating myself and ruthlessly punishing my body for failing to be thin no matter what I did. Going to this new gym for the first time, for a tour and inevitable sales pitch, was a huge effort for me; I even dragged the long-suffering Mr. Fatshionista along for moral support. In the parking lot before going inside, my heart was pounding like a jackhammer.

Turns out I was impressed by the facilities, and the happy ending to this story is that I signed up and have been attending pretty faithfully since then. I still, invariably, have to deal with persistent bolts of anxiety as I’m driving there, as I walk in, and as I change in the locker room, but usually once I’m actually doing my work I relax a little (I am hoping with time I won’t have any anxiety at all, though this may take a few months). On Tuesday of this week, however, I upped the ante a bit.

Until that day, I hadn’t used an elliptical exercise machine in years. If I had to put a number on it, I’d guess it’s been at least three years since I’ve elliptical’d with any regularity, and possibly more. What I remember of my elliptical experiences was that I found the movement both more challenging and more interesting than tromping away on a treadmill for a cardio workout. I remember needing several tries to get the hang of the exercise and the balance required, and I remember the slow progress of building up from breathless and agonizing fifteen-minute stints, to being able to happily fwoosh away for forty-five minutes with relative ease. And I remember that by then, I really enjoyed it.

I was sort of dreading getting back on the elliptical horse, as it were. I had nightmarish visions of myself wheezing and huffing away pathetically, but I couldn’t see any other way to overcome my imaginary ineptitude except to just do it and work my way back to the elliptical comfort zone I once knew. If that meant having to be a sweating heaving fatass flinging legs and arms on a ridiculous stationary contraption, then so be it. And frankly, t’s never a bad thing to have myself taken down a peg once in awhile. I can use a little humility. So off I went, yoga-capri’d and tank-topped, gingerly mounting the elliptical like one might a skittish pony.

And to my astonishment, I was fine. I didn’t wheeze or flail. It took maybe five minutes, but very shortly the balance and knack of it came right back to me (like riding a bicycle?). I did sweat profusely, but I often do that while standing still on a warm day (my family represents a rich legacy of heavy perspirers). And I went on for twenty minutes without worrying that I’d shortly be requiring the services of a paramedic. After three-plus years of separation, I felt pretty good to be able to take to it again so easily.

I also felt like an asshole.

I felt like an asshole for not believing in myself, and for having such a skewed understanding of my fitness and abilities. I was sincerely scared. I was honestly, truly afraid that I would step onto this machine to find I simply wouldn’t be able to do it, and I almost couldn’t bear the idea of failing, although even if I had failed, I would have survived it and gone on to try again another day. In spite of the fact that I am a fairly active person in everyday life, I had no doubt in my mind that this sort of exercise would be impossible for me. Some part of me still internalizes the idea that there are things someone my size simply cannot do, that simply by virtue of being so damn fat I must necessarily be out of shape. I wholeheartedly believe that weight is not the sole or even the most important arbiter of health and fitness; but just believing that as an abstract or distant concept is not enough to affect me on a personal level, not until I bring myself to climb aboard the elliptical train and get a first-person accounting of what I can and cannot do.

And I remembered when I stopped playing kickball; I remembered when I first learned to associate exercise with fear and self-loathing. It’s twenty-three years on, and I’m still struggling to overcome it. I doubt all fat kids have my experience – at least I hope they don’t – but this story does remind me of the way an unquestioning acceptance of the conventional wisdom about our bodies and our health can have far-reaching consequences.

For my part, I just have to keep remembering that no matter how afraid I am, it’s always worthwhile to try.

Comments are closed.