I don’t deserve my body / it may not be perfect but it works for me / and I can walk and I can see the sky
—Lori McKenna, “The Deserving Song”
I haven’t been in a locker room in decades—since I first realized my two feet could connect with trail, concrete, or asphalt in a healthy way for the price of a pair of running shoes. But this morning, at the gym where I do therapy for my back, I went back to scary high school phys ed class. The snaps in my yellow uniform always gaped at the bust. The bloomers left crinkled imprints in my thighs.
I have never been proud of my body, never celebrated its accomplishments or its appearance, except for a few lean months at ages 34 and 40 and one nine-mile run. At 46, it’s not even on the same planet as perfect, and it does not work for me just yet. I can’t pick up my underwear when it falls on the floor. I have to sit to get dressed. I can’t lift more than a gallon of milk or walk a quarter of a mile. And forget touching a trail; uneven footing makes me feel as though I am walking en pointe.
Movement is hard enough. Now add an extra dozen pounds, brought on by an antidepressant (one that’s supposed to decrease appetite, naturally) to my unexercised, flabby, nonworking body, and—you can see where this is going. Last night, because it was the very last minute I could wait, I tried on last summer’s swimsuit—or tentini, as my sister likes to call hers. I looked in the mirror long enough to be sure private parts stayed private but not long enough for the image to burn my retina. When I recovered, I took a bath. My daughter came in to brush her teeth, and I asked her to close the shower curtain. For the first time in months, I couldn't fall asleep, too ashamed of how I looked—no slack granted for four months worth of lying around with back pain.
This morning, before my Healthy Back class at the gym uptown, I hobble into the women’s locker room and hang up my coat. Though I stare intently at the row of coats and the plentiful hangers (the kind with full-circle holders, so they can’t be stolen off the rack), I can still see naked women from every corner of my eyes. A woman my age is in a half slip and stockings at the sink. Another strolls from the shower to her locker. Still another stands at the bench arranging her clothes, her gigantic dark nipples like dinner plates dangling from her chest. Young and old, fat and thin—mostly thinner than I—all these women are moseying around in various states of undress, not one of them hurrying or hiding behind a towel. Not one of them seems to possess a modicum of self-consciousness, as if walking about without clothing in a large room with other naked women were not a deranged thing to do.
I am both modest and modest about my modesty, shamed into folding my clothes neatly and carefully, so I don’t look like I’m as embarrassed as I am by the way I look, in a race to hide myself. But I don’t want, even for one second, to be a flash of puckered thigh in someone else’s peripheral vision.
Poor body image and depression can accompany one another down that dark road and keep you from doing the very things that would improve your body and lift your spirits. It’s not so easy to get over yourself. And I didn't at first. When I am introduced to the instructor, I break down—partly with fear and partly with relief at finally doing something about my circumstances. I’m going to have to suck it up and suck it in as best I can and not let my brain spoil this for my body.
In a class of five, I am likely the youngest and the least fit. But once I make that mental note, it dissolves in the 92-degree water. For one liquid golden hour, I stand in neutral spine, walk, hang in traction, and perform exercises called “square box” and “dead bug,” And when I get out of the pool, I don’t feel the usual crunch of my spine bearing down on my tailbone as full gravity returns.
The locker room, to my chagrin, has magically refilled with new naked nipples and bare bottoms, and it’s time to face my scary semi-public nudity. But while I sit to take off my suit and put on dry clothes, I see, out of the corner of my eye, one of my classmates. She is not naked but is instead carrying her clothing into one of the small private shower rooms, where she changes.
Each fat Tuesday and Thursday, that’s where you’ll find me.