If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini and don’t take it off until you’re 34. – Erma Bombeck
On January 9th of this year, I participated in an early morning telepresence meeting in California. Telepresence is essentially a high- tech video teleconference, where people physically located in many different sites can hold a virtual meeting and see each other and interact as if they were all sitting all together. You’re on TV. So of course we bankers dress up in suits for such an occasion.
As the primary presenters, my co-worker and I sat front and center. When we arrived in the room, there was one very big problem. The temperature was probably something close to 90 degrees, with heat blowing down on us like the gates of Hell had torn open. I began to instant message various administrative assistants, putting out the mayday for someone to contact maintenance to lower the temperature. (In today’s corporate expense environment, no one is allowed to directly control the temperature of the room they’re in. Clearly this is orchestrated by men.) My co-worker and I stepped out of the room briefly, flapping our jacket fronts to cool off. We looked at each other and instantly knew what the other was thinking. “I’ll die of heat exhaustion before I take off my jacket,” she said. “Amen”, I responded, and meant it. Nothing short of a California earthquake and the need for cloth strips as a tourniquet could make me take off my jacket in front of my business partners, and particularly on TV. It is absolutely never going to happen. I was strangely comforted that my co-worker viewed the situation in exactly the same way. It made me like her even more.
I think the last time I remember liking my arms is 1984. Back in 1984, I had – and probably always will have – ridiculously sturdy, football-worthy shoulders (Thank you, Mom). However, those nicely toned, tanned arms attached to those solid shoulders in the picture above look pretty damn good in our vacation girls’ line up, Florida, circa 1984. But today, alas, that is not the case.
Today, I only bare my arms at the beach. Even in the heat and humidity of a Charlotte summer, I rarely wear anything sleeveless. And absolutely never at work. Never, ever.
For Nora Ephron, who wrote I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, it was the neck she hid instead of the arms. She wore turtlenecks to hide those tell-tale signs of aging. “The neck is a dead giveaway. Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to do that if it had a neck.” I haven’t looked in the mirror lately and hated my neck, but that’s probably because I can’t get past the arms.
But I am tired of that. I am also tired of other things about my body. I am tired of missing my waist, tired of seeing a muffin top when I wear jeans. I am tired of not being able to wear half the clothes hanging in my FOUR stuffed closets. I am tired of a go-to wardrobe that is predominantly black, sprinkled with dark grey and navy blue.
And most of all, I am tired of listening to my own negative self-talk. Every day, when I get dressed, or when I look at myself in the mirror, I say terrible things. I won’t repeat them here, but I bet every woman reading this knows what I am talking about. They are not nice comments. Very, very, far from it.
I have read all the literature about the pervasive damage of female negative self-talk. We women are masters at this particularly evil habit. I have taken classes and joined on-line communities, where we talk about how to be kinder to ourselves and how to cultivate self-love. I have even had some amount of success over the last year, learning how to better balance work and leisure, learning how to feel less guilt about taking down time for myself. But despite all that reading and discussion, if I am honest, I just can’t buy it. That popular post-50 female mantra, “Love who you are at this moment. Love your body as it is today. Be kind to your body,” etc., just sounds like a cop out to me. My taskmaster inner critic wakes up and gives a cynical sneer, hissing in my ear that a better mantra might be “Do or do not. There is no try.”
So it is time to put up or shut up. Facts are facts. I am not who I want to be physically; I know I can be better. I can’t turn back the clock and return to who I was at age 25 or 30, but I can certainly be better than who I am today. It’s time to either do something to bring to reality the vision I have of who I should be now, or it’s time to just shut up, accept, and stop the negative self-talk. It’s wearing me down.
There is a lot of evidence that says that even clearly skinny, fit women indulge in negative self-talk. Yeah, okay, right. I’m no psychologist, but I am willing to bet that, unless those women have deep-seated problems, they don’t do it as often as those who are not looking so good. Or maybe they do. But – and it’s an important but – they put on their clothes, they fit great, they move easy in them, and, most importantly, I bet that they are ok with wearing sleeveless shirts.
As a general rule, I hate exercise. Exercise, that is, where you are just doing exercise and nothing else. I get bored – really, really bored. I come up with all kinds of other things I would rather be doing. Now, I have no problem walking for hours with a camera in hand where there is great scenery to photograph. And I don’t mind a treadmill if I have a good book to read or a movie to watch. But unfortunately, walking as a singular method of exercise is just not cutting it for this 54-year old. It’s not creating transformation. And transformation is what I want.
So on March 1, I began a long term relationship with a personal trainer. I plunked down a check for $1500, and took the plunge. It’s been two weeks and 6 visits so far. Twenty four hours after the first visit, where I lost count of the leg squats I did, my thighs screamed and buzzed like a transformer hit by lightning. After the second visit, my arms were so weak, I could barely lift them to dry my hair or apply mascara. I limp and I groan and I bitch, but so far the money commitment has shamed me into keeping my appointments.
One of the trainers is a sweet, 25-year old kid named Josh. I am definitely old enough to be his mom. While I’m working out, he and I talk. He dropped out of college to play in a band full time, because the money was so good. It was a great lifestyle for a while, and he smoked a serious amount of weed. But as the money increased, he noticed that his band buddies began to escalate to more serious drugs, and he opted out. He made the commitment to get in shape, and informed me that he hadn’t smoked weed in 1 year, 3 months and 2 days. He said he now gets a much better high from running, or working out, and that high lasts all day instead of the short term high he got from weed. (I hope my two boys are taking careful note of this.)
He is big on interval training, at least I think that is what it is called. He makes you do 40 sets of exercise A, and then directly move to 20 sets of exercise B, then 30 sets of exercise C, and then REPEAT A-B-C, and then REPEAT again. It is grueling. On Saturday one of the components was sit-ups. These are serious sit-ups, not those wimpy crunches. I’m talking old fashioned PT-type sit-ups where someone stands on your feet and you come all the way up, arms crossed against your chest. In the second cycle, I just kind of broke down and said I didn’t think I could do it, tears springing to my eyes. He asked me what was wrong. It was hard for me to describe the feeling. I seethed with anger, with humiliation, with grief for the memory of the past me– of a time when I could have easily done 50-75 of those with no problem.
Poor guy – must be hard for a 25-year old to deal with the all the emotional baggage of middle-aged, out-of-shape women. But he handled it like a prince. Here’s what he said: “Can I give you a tip? Don’t think about what you used to be able to do, or you will get frustrated and angry, and you will come to hate the experience of exercise. Instead, think about how great it is that you are here now, how much you have done TODAY, what you have accomplished here and now, and just enjoy the moment.”
At the time he said it, I was busy trying to suck in air, wipe the sweat from my eyes, and insure I didn’t let the tears expand into a full blown sobbing session. My pride hurt as much as my body. I considered saying “F-you!, F- this!”, and aborting the session. But he’s so nice and sincere, I just couldn’t do that to him. He would probably get a bad rating if I walked out. So I finished the blasted sit-ups, albeit very slowly, and with several rest periods in between.
On my drive home, I kept thinking about his words. His little “tip” really stuck with me. My God, his message was awfully similar to those post-50 women self-love messages I had been disparaging for the last 2-3 years. But now I had a concrete experience to really understand the practical application. If I think only about what I was, what I used to do, the anger, disgust and grief will impede my progress and drag me down. I have to let the baggage go now, or I will not move forward. It was very simple, very clear. If I keep looking back, I will hate it. If I hate it, I won’t go. If I don’t go, I won’t get better. Very logical.
I did not expect such a life management revelation from fitness training, and certainly not from a 25-year old. But there you have it.
Coincidentally (or maybe not), earlier this week I had come across an excerpt from Brendon Burchard’s The Charged Life. Here’s what I read.
“What if a person’s bad choices or low self-image needn’t be tied to the past? For even if you wade backwards and seek the dark crevices of yesterday, what will you do after the visit? You will at some point have to swim back to the stream of Now, to stand upon the shores of today, to rest and sit down and decide who you want to be, how you want to treat others, what you want your life to be about from this moment forth. Isn’t that the aim of all therapies that glance backwards anyway? The only goal of any helpful and responsible therapy is ultimately to bring the patient back to today, to help him or her develop agency and responsibility for their lives today, to make better decisions and create healthier habits for themselves today. There is no joy or learning or growth in living in the past forever. All progress is made in beliefs and behaviors enacted….today.”
It’s not going to be easy to cease the negative self-talk, to let the images of the past go, but it’s required for health now – for health and progress TODAY. And if today-focused thinking yields to better arms and sleeveless shirts, so much the better.
I sure hope it will.