PSA: You Don't Know What Anyone Else's Body Can Do

Friday, April 19, 2019

In January, gyms fill up with newbies who've made New Year's resolutions to get healthier, to get fit, to lose weight. I used to work at a gym, even when I didn't work out at said gym, so I'm familiar with the January rush: people who don't know how to use the machines but want to, & all the regulars who impatiently wait for the influx to die down. (P.S.: I have a lot of feelings about said impatience of said regulars, but that's for another day.)
When it comes to gyms & January, this is a known trope. I get it.
But I really got it, in a personal way, the first week of January 2019, as I stood in the lobby of my cycling studio waiting to take my first class of the new year. Regular readers may recall that I started riding last April, to serious struggle, but grew to love it & began proudly counting down (err, up?) to my 100th ride. There I was, awaiting class #82, & I made eye contact with a thin, fit girl standing against the wall alongside me.
"First ride?" she asked, smiling at me, & though I don't think she meant to sound condescending, she did - because I was about to take my 82nd ride. Most definitely not my first.
I smiled back, faltering. "Oh, no, I've been coming for awhile," I responded, & she nodded, eyebrows raised politely, & turned away awkwardly.
Let's admit what happened here: She thought I was new, not just because the gym is full of new folks after the first of the year but because the new folks are expected to also be fat folks, & of course, fat folks can't possibly be people who already work out. That girl looked at me, in all my 200-lb. glory, & she thought, "Oh, how nice, this overweight girl is trying to get in shape in the new year. I should give her some encouragement."
So she did. Except it was not encouraging.
On one hand, good for her for begin the kind of gym regular who wants to encourage newbies - & yet, at the same time, screw her a little for looking at my particular body shape & assuming she knew a damn thing about it or what it could do.
I've been thinking about writing this post ever since, but I finally sat down to bang it out after yesterday's ride, my 110th(ish?), after which a stranger said to me, "It gets easier!" This person presumably looked at me, fat & sweaty after a difficult class, & thought, "Oh, this poor fat girl is trying to get in shape. I should give her some encouragement."
Yet, again, it was not encouraging. Yet again, it was hurtful & awkward.
What I wanted to say was "After 100 classes, it has gotten easier, actually," or "Hey, I just did a really tough ride & it is totally appropriate for me to be sweaty," or maybe even "It's not supposed to be easy." Someone on Twitter suggested that I should've responded, "When does it get harder?" (SAVAGE.) And yet, all I did was mumble the same refrain: "Oh, actually, I've been riding for a while."
So here's the thing, & I'm gonna say it REAL loud for the folks in the back: You cannot tell a damn thing about a person's body just by looking at it. Not mine, not hers, not his, not that body over there, not that body over there, not nobody's body except your own damn body. Period.
Part two: Because you cannot tell a damn thing about a person's body just by looking at it, you should not make assumptions (especially out loud) about what people's bodies can or cannot do. 
After my January knee injury, I took a month off of riding. When I returned, I was self-conscious of what others would think of me when they saw me ride: subbing push-ups for tap-backs, opting out of jumps, never hitting the dial to turn up the resistance. Would they think, "That fat girl isn't even trying"? I wished I could wear a sign: "I CAN USUALLY DO THIS, I'M JUST INJURED."
I started to think about all the ways judge other people's bodies, too.
I look at a thin, seemingly fit girl who can't keep up, & I feel secretly smug to be out-riding her. I watch somebody mess up the beat & feel amused by their inability to get it quite right. I wonder why that person rides in the back, or if that person should really be riding in the front, or how many classes he's been to or what kind of cross-training she does.

One day, I rode next to an older guy whose knee was in a brace. "Coming back from an injury?" I asked him (which seemed like an OK comment to make, because, again, he was wearing a brace & massaging his knee before class, as I was). He said yes & that the brace helped a lot during the ride; after class, I asked for the brand of his mobility brace, thinking maybe I'd get my own - not only because my knee needed it, but because then at least people would know that my knee needed it.
I never did get the brace, but I all three of those experiences got me thinking: Does it matter? Did I really have to wear a visible sign of injury in order to operate at the level my body needed from me at the moment? What about all the times people have no way of conveying why they're operating at the level they are?
And, wait a sec: Why does it matter to anyone else what level other people operate at?
Maybe you're slow in class today because you did a crazy-hard workout yesterday, & you're recovering.
Maybe you can't hit  those tap-backs because it's your third class in a row this week & your body is kind of spent.
Maybe you're not at peak form because you were in a fender-bender yesterday & everything just fucking hurts.
Maybe you are at peak form & the way you're riding right now, which looks "off" to someone else, is infinitely better than where you were when you began.
Maybe you lost 100 lbs., or you gained 100 lbs. Maybe you used to be a marathon runner, but then you developed a thyroid disorder. Maybe you're healthy & muscular, but you used to be anorexic.
Maybe it's your first class back after giving birth. Or having a miscarriage. Or an abortion. Or a car accident. Or the flu. Or cancer. Or falling on the damn ice on a snowy January day.
Maybe you're off the beat because you can't stop thinking about a loved one who's in the hospital, or a job you just applied for, or your pending divorce, or your kid's grades, & those constant thoughts are throwing you off.
Maybe you just got laid off or your dog just died or your boss just yelled at you or literally any myriad life issues that can manifest themselves physically, even if they have nothing to do with your body.
Maybe it's your first class, or your 100th, or your 500th. Maybe someone thinks you're better than them, or worse than you; maybe they're thinking that they'll never be like you or that they're glad they're not you. Maybe someone thinks you're too fat to be 100 rides in, or too fit to be so bad at the ride.
And also maybe it doesn't fucking matter
Maybe you showed up & rode through & pressed on, regardless, & other people's bodies just don't matter because you've got your own body to focus on instead.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for community, for motivation, for encouragement. If the person next to you is actually new to class (like, you just watched the instructor set them up on a bike for the first time), say, "Welcome!" or end with "Great ride today!" Heck, maybe just introduce yourself.
Whatever we do, let's be sure we encourage each other in ways that don't also actually tear one another down. Let's check ourselves when we catch ourselves assuming other people's abilities (or lack thereof) based on the way their bodies look to us from the outside. In short, let's all be kind & ride hard, but let's stay in our own lanes - on our own bikes & in our own bodies - while we do it.

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