Stretch Marks and Striations

I started off the year as most people do – with grand goals of fitness for the months ahead. Predictably, this lead to the purchase of a shiny new gym membership and a stretchy set of workout clothes. And, in order to use these things, I discovered the need to set my alarm clock extra early each morning. No biggie, I thought, since mornings have always been my most productive time of day.

For the first week or two of this fit renaissance, I made the rounds on gym equipment that I hadn’t used in years. Machines so moldy and old in my past recollections, I had almost overlooked their nuances of form. But, eventually, it all caught up with me like the proverbial bike-riding that one never forgets. And so I was back on track. Working out religiously. Emphatically. Daily.

Then, after a few weeks passed and my schedule became more routine, I saw her and was totally taken aback. You know the one. Every gym has someone like her. The fanatic. No – the hopeless, beyond-help, driven-by-demons workhorse who comes in like a ghost and imprints her bony structure on your memory. Forever. There is a word better suited to frame her frailty. Anorexic. And that may not be all she is as a person, nor the entire sum of her life; but, for the moment, that’s all that exists in the obvious line of sight.

When I first laid eyes on her, I had to really work hard not to stare. But I could see from a mile away just who she was and what she was battling. Plodding along on the elliptical machine, she moved nowhere, traveling in a circular motion of angst. Slowly. Weakly. Almost begrudgingly. But she toddled along with a dire sort of need only evident to someone who had been in her place before. And all I could think was “I used to be her. This used to be me.”

During my years in high school, I was a girl who thought erroneously that numbers were all that mattered. Obsession over grades, SAT scores or allowance money quickly morphed into a compulsion with weight, inches, and meal portions. I deemed certain dress sizes taboo and set very specific standards for my new-found quest of self.

As all things do, it started off small enough, innocently enough. I felt a little flabby and wanted to lose the slight jelly belly I had gained from eating ice cream all summer. In truth, my little roll of fat was nothing more than an average teenage ripple, something that would most likely even out over the course of puberty. However, in my head, this bulge seemed immense. And I felt like a cow. So, I figured if I just workout out and stopped eating sweets, I would get toned in no time. Then my life would be perfect! What I didn’t count on was the fact that losing weight would become addictive.

Upon shedding a couple of pounds, the difference was seen right away. First came the compliments. People started to notice. Then came the smaller clothing sizes. The feeling of accomplishment. Soon, it took a turn into constant monitoring and using the almighty scale to gauge happiness or despair. Gain a pound – cry and deprive. Lose a pound – rejoice and deprive some more. The spiral had formed and the framework for my misery was unfolding.

Soon enough, it was all-consuming. Each day, like clockwork, I would wake at 4 a.m. in order to get in two hours of working out before school. Once I returned home, I would manage to do another three hours of exercise after that, followed by two more hours after I pretended to go to bed at night. Often, days like these were fueled by nothing more than a cube of cheese, a handful of grapes and a children’s multivitamin, some of the rare morsels of food I would allow myself.

At my very lowest, I was 79 pounds of flesh and bones. I measured a 19 inch waist. I could count every rib. I bruised at the slightest touch. I gripped handfuls of falling hair in each bath. And I could never, ever get warm. I was fading fast. And I was almost beyond help.

How I got out of that mess, how I came back from those depths, was ironically through the help of my local gym. I turned it all around by getting into bodybuilding. Working out in public, rather than in the secrecy of my room, was the very check and balance that I needed. I became accountable for my choices and had stepped out from the shadows into the spotlight of humanity. Soon enough, the people at the gym knew me. Watched me. Kept tabs on my increasing size and applauded my new-found strength. And that was the empowerment that I needed to pull myself out of such a terrible place.

Though I never became a Miss Olympia, lifting weights taught me the importance of finding balance in training, gaining weight healthfully and understanding my body’s need for rest – all things I had lacked in my anorectic days. Yes, the gym was my salvation and I had always regarded it as such. So, seeing a fellow comrade-in-arms fall into this trap right under the nose of everyone seemed so frightening. So scary. Like being robbed in the middle of the day, right on a bustling street. How could this happen?! And as questions piled up in my mind, I wondered, could happen to me again?! Was this happening to me again?

The next day, I woke up at 4:30 a.m., my chosen alarm time, with the intention of getting in a morning workout before the day began. However, stopping dead in my tracks, I decided it would be more useful to stare at my naked flesh in the mirror instead. Oddities like these moments are the very things we keep so guarded from others, but I am discussing it now only because it lead to an important realization.

As I looked in the mirror, I saw some fat around my belly, the kind that is hard to work away after you’ve had children. I noticed the lines of stretch marks around my waist and hips, remnants of two successful pregnancies, an ordinary run of puberty, and, perhaps even a summer where ice cream ruled supreme. I saw ribs, or rather, an absence of their obvious shape. Instead, there was only skin, smooth and even, with no indentations or sharp angles. Just flesh without the presumption of bones.

There were also muscles in my arms and shoulders, things I had effortlessly kept toned through the years by carrying my children. There was a faint scar on my finger where I had burned myself when baking cookies with my daughter. And there were infinite freckles caused from the countless outings we had taken to the park or the beach.

It struck me that our bodies carry way more than weight. They carry memories. Each scar, each imperfection, and every ripple of cellulite is just a contribution to our fondest (and sometimes, most horrible) of recollections. But, by themselves, that is all they are. Just memories. Just the past somehow surfaced on the present. Like a shell washed up on the beach.

After I took a cleansing shower and cleared my head, I got dressed and firmly knew the answer to a question I had earlier feared. Could I be morphing back into the anorexic girl of my past? Quite clearly and with a resounding tone, I looked in the mirror at myself and said “No!” I knew, because of my children, husband, household and duties, I had way too much to live for to do that. And, also, way too much to do!

No longer afraid of seeing myself in someone else’s pain, I returned to the gym the next day with a new outlook on my goal. I would not return to my former self, I would only resume in the quest to be my better self. Not hating the flab. Not running from the struggle. Just basking in the moments of my awakened youth. Rejoicing in the ability to move, flex, run, and feel like the living, breathing, imperfect person that I am.

As expected, when I walked in, she was there. In typical form. On the same elliptical machine. With the same wan face, looking ambivalently at the day before us. I would like to say that there was a poignant moment where our eyes met and the world became a little brighter, but there wasn’t. It was just more of the same. Peddling to nowhere.

Wishing thoughts were like water flowing from one stream to another, I would have liked to let her know that there is more to life than counting calories, steps and the ticking hands of time. That there is so much beauty from letting go and allowing life to be messy and full of surprises. But, of course, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t partially still admire her striations and overt bones. There will always be a part of me that remembers those things in myself, missing them, holding a fondness for such bitter memories. However, for today and hopefully all others, I prefer my stretch marks. They remind me of my present state and the greatest gift of all – my kids. I work-out for them. Because of them. And to keep up with them.