As the child of two nurses, I was an active, healthy kid outside of school. I took swimming classes since before my first birthday and the pool was my favorite place to be all summer long. I was always enrolled in either dance or gymnastics. My primary forms of transportation were biking or rollerblading (well, as a child of the ’80s, I started with roller skates.) I even played baseball and basketball with my brother and boy cousins. All of these activities were for fun. No one cared how well I did. It was never a competition.
Gym class, however, was a different experience. There the boys taunted, “oh my God, you suck!” at any missed swing, throw, or catch. I was always among the last to be picked and the first to be blamed for any losses.
But the worst thing about gym class wasn’t the bullying or the sexism or even that universal childhood trauma known as dodge ball. It was that goddamn yearly Presidential Physical Fitness Test (now known as the President’s Challenge.
Every time that came around, I wanted to die. I was a perfectionist sort of kid—I got A’s on every academic test but I couldn’t even pass this stupid physical fitness challenge. Sure, I could do the sit-and-reach because gymnastics and dance had made me flexible, and while I didn’t enjoy sit-ups, I could manage them. But the running and the upper body stuff was impossible for me. As a result of many skating mishaps and twisted ankles, running hurt. Since running hurt, I didn’t do it, and since I didn’t do it, I did not have the endurance for all those loops around the playground that made up the mile run. I always ended up walking, which put me in last place and at the mercy of my evil classmates who stood around the track after they finished, singing, “Stephanie’s a slowpoke!” I’d wiggle my nose and swallow repeatedly, trying not to cry. I never received any sympathy from my gym teachers, who stood, holding their stopwatches, looking bored and impatient. They seemed to think that this was either a) character-building, or b) what you deserved if you couldn’t meet the physical challenge. In seventh grade, I actually ran one lap and faked a bee sting to avoid the humiliation.
I couldn’t fake my way out of the upper body testing, though: push-ups, pull-ups and rope climbing. For me, this just meant rope burn or dangling from a bar, my arm muscles and hands throbbing until I fell. I could never do a single pull-up and I was constantly told that my push-up form was wrong. No one took the time to help me do it right; I was just given a big fat F in the upper-body strength department.
I realize that the Presidential Physical Fitness Test was intended to address the health issues of the increasingly sedentary, fast-food eating, and video-game playing youth of America (as promoted by this Reagan-era Public Service Announcement. But instead of providing individual guidance and encouragement for all students, the tests were administered in a way that cultivated a competitive attitude which bordered on bullying. The tests made this healthy girl hate being active, made her feel like a failure. I’d been raised by a feminist and taught that—just as my poster of Smurfette in the President’s Office proclaimed—“Girls Can Do Anything!” But I convinced myself that one thing girls could not do was develop upper body strength. Dancing, gymnastics, and swimming were the only sports I would ever be fit for, so when I got to high school, those were the only gym classes I chose.
However, because I was such a perfectionist, I felt an emotional need to improve at all these things I had failed. My mother bought me a Rosie the Riveter poster when I was sixteen. When I ended a psychologically and sexually abusive relationship that made me hate my body, I’d stare up at Rosie’s flexed bicep, wanting desperately to feel that kind of strength, but feeling like I had never learned how to attain it.
I know I’m not the only woman who experienced this. My friends Beth Ellen, Elisia, and I regularly meet up at a neighborhood dive bar to knit. We bust out our own lamp—a classy one with a beaded shade and a wine bottle serving as its base—so we can see our work since the only lighting in the joint consists of neon beer signs and television sets. We stake out a corner table, keeping an eye on the hockey or baseball game. One night talk of New Year’s resolutions led us to reminisce about how those Presidential Fitness Tests made us feel. I shook my head in awe of Beth Ellen’s goal to run a half-marathon and admitted that even though I enjoy my elliptical now, running still reminded me of those Fitness Tests. “Me too!” both Beth Ellen and Elisia exclaimed, and we went on to vent about how we believed we were weak because of the strength tests. It took years for us to shed our personal stigma and find ways (that we actually liked) to feel active and strong.
In talking about it, we came to realize some points that helped us move on from these negative feelings about our fitness struggles and achievements. After a self-destructive period in my early twenties that involved a bad relationship and lots of drinking, I decided I wanted to feel stronger, healthier, and more active. I remembered what I’d been good at: sit-and-reach, and to a lesser degree, sit-ups. I’d enjoyed dancing, so I was reasonably flexible, had decently powerful legs, and I believed I could have a strong core. So I took the classes at my gym that focused on abs, legs, and buns, which lead me to Pilates. Pilates has a holistic approach, including planks and push-ups and upper-body exercises. Unlike my gym teachers, my Pilates coach provided modifications and adjustments to work around my weaknesses (bad shoulders and poor posture) and build strength. I still do push-ups on my knees, but my form is right, and when I roll up my sleeves and flex like Rosie the Riveter, I can see my developing arm muscles.
Another technique my knitting pals and I agreed on was to find exercise buddies who “got it.” Maybe we have fitness hang-ups from the past, but we’re serious about exercising to feel strong and good about ourselves, not to fit some glossy magazine image of that polished, skinny, buff girl. When I joined a gym by myself, I quickly found excuses not to go, but when I joined with two co-workers, we all stuck with it. Both were women around my age and shared a similar struggle with fitness. We went to classes together, and when we couldn’t get a move and felt ridiculous doing it, we laughed. We also complimented each other on getting fit and looking “hot”— reaching our own personal fitness goals. That experience completely erased those memories of gym class mockery and replaced it with fun and shared success.
My friend Elisia needs competition to get her motivated to exercise. Framing fitness as a healthy competition takes the “gym buddy” concept to the next level. Despite my experiences in gym class, team sports were a blast when I was playing them with my cousins as a kid. As grown-ups, we might have friends or family members who help make games like kickball and softball fun again, instead of the tortuous experience we might remember from our youth. Taking part in these sorts of friendly matches is a great way to start getting active again without joining a gym or a league.
My friend Beth Ellen takes a meditative approach to fitness. She runs, outside whenever she can. It’s her alone time where she escapes all the busy-ness of her life and can empty her head. Doing something like this—or swimming, or biking, or yoga—allows you to build physical strength and take care of yourself emotionally.
I have found that identifying my weaknesses doesn’t have to lead to excuses. My bad ankles and knees do make it hard for me to run, especially outside. I started using an elliptical, first at a gym and eventually I bought one for my basement. It’s in front of my TV. On it, I get my daily dose of melodrama, General Hospital, which is how I bribe myself to do cardio. I also don’t really like lifting weights, but want to keep building upper body strength, so I do kickboxing DVDs that incorporate weights and a lot of punching. This allows me to exert my aggression after a bad day while still working my shoulders, biceps and triceps. Pairing my exercises with something I enjoy makes it feel less tedious.
The best part of all is when I look at the poster of Rosie the Riveter, which now hangs in my office above my desk. Now I feel as strong as her. Would I be able to climb a rope in gym class now? I don’t know, but I don’t really care because I’ve created my own personal set of challenges and I work towards meeting them on a daily basis.