I’ve started going to the gym again. Because it’s January. Because, when I run for the train, I feel like the tin man from The Wizard Of Oz. Because all this talk of pensions and a broken NHS is making me think more about prevention than cure. And this has meant unfolding my body, making it move, trying to get it going again, like starting my mum’s Citroën 2CV on a frozen January morning.
Since my beach holiday in June last year, I’ve been able to avoid my body. I avoid looking too hard at it in the mirror as I get dressed each morning, my eyes squinting and skimming over the bits I’d rather not see. My limbs have been buried under layers of corduroy dungarees, jeans and jumpers. For all those months, my body has felt packed away and neatly stacked in the back of the shed, like garden furniture in the winter months. I haven’t needed it. I haven’t noticed it. And in the depths of winter, I haven’t been able to imagine ever needing it again.
Until, that was, I ran for the train and thought I was going to throw up and my boyfriend’s teasing turned into mild concern. And so I dug around for my old Nike running trousers, my battered running shoes and a T-shirt big enough to hide the body I’m reacquainting myself with. I’ve tried to jump-start my engine, oil my stiff limbs, wake up my muscles.
And so, at the local gym, watching Loose Women without the sound and blasting Carly Rae Jepsen into my ears, I’ve started to unfold. On treadmills and cross-trainers and bikes, I’ve unpacked myself. Like an old man trying to get out of an armchair, I’ve lifted myself up, stretched myself out. I’ve felt the power of my feet carry me. I’ve felt the strain in my calves. I’ve noticed my hips loosen and swing. I’ve stood red-faced in front of the gym mirror, marvelling as the sweat falls off my elbows, as it sticks my T-shirt to my back, as it drips along the back of my knees. I’ve heard my heart beat so loud I’m sure people must be able to see it.
The imprint of my jeans on my stomach skin becomes a challenge; my roll of tummy becomes potential. My red sweaty face is energy and hard work and change
And, as my feet have pounded, minute after minute after minute after minute, I’ve begun to marvel at my body. Not at what it looks like, but what it can do. Even when I've packed it away and left it discarded, like a toy a child has got bored of, for seven months, it still moves me. It still works hard, really bloody hard, to push me along – a steam engine powering heavy, stiff me. And stretching out feels euphoric – like that first stretch after a really long, deep sleep, but bigger and bolder, from a sleepy yawn to a lion’s roar. And I’m not fit or fast or furious, but I can feel my skin and my shape and my hips and my bum and my waist and my shoulders and my neck. I’ve realised my body is there again. And, in turn, there’s something wonderful about seeing, for the first time in a long time, the shape of me as a woman – the weight of my hips, the curve of my boobs, the heaviness in my thighs.
And those are the same bits of my body that I’ve been avoiding – the bits I’d hidden or tried to forget. And they are especially apparent when girls in leggings in the gym slink around me like black cats, their sleek frames all flexible and fit and athletic. Yet, even when I see them, it doesn’t take away from the ache in my calves or the pull on my stomach muscles. And so, when the mirror should be hardest to look in – and don’t get more wrong, it’s still hard – it’s actually becoming, for the first time in seven months, rewarding. The imprint of my jeans on my stomach skin becomes a challenge; my roll of tummy becomes potential. My red sweaty face is energy and hard work and change.
And somehow it’s easier to face that growing bulge. Somehow it’s easier to digest that I don’t have my 25-year-old body that glowed off a diet of white wine, crisps and spag bol. Somehow it takes the sting out of realising that your body isn’t how you intended it to be. And while we can all buy the right clothes, read the right books and watch the right films, we can’t quick fix our bodies to fit the identity we want to convery. I’m all for the body-positivity movement and not prescribing a body type, but I’ve been in body denial – I’ve pretended it’s not even there. I don’t want a body that looks “right”, but I sure as hell want a body that feels right – that doesn't splutter and splatter like a second-hand car, but one that moves and flows and glides around the city, powering me along. If in my twenties, my body was about short shorts and crop tops and boys and sex, in my thirties it’s becoming about power and strength and health and reliability and energy.
Women have been made to feel their bodies are public property – open to be controlled by external forces, judged by strangers, expected to live up to impossible ideals, sexualised and objectified by middle-aged newspaper editors. And I think I opted out of that whole dialogue by simply stepping away from my body – hiding it, ignoring it, avoiding it. Yet that is wrong. No, my body isn’t how I want it to be and, yes, I’m ready to work to get there. But, in the meantime, my aching limbs and my stretched muscles and my streaming beads of sweat are glorious.