Friday, March 31, 2017

#strongblackwoman


I was always thin.  Too thin in my teens and early twenties.  To compensate, I ate everything I could get my hands on.  Double cheese grilled cheeses and french fries dripping with mayonnaise, ketchup and relish were a daily affair.  I hate(d) water, so instead I chose McDonald's chocolate milkshakes and 7/11 Big Gulps (Pepsi).  At night I would cook up my version of sloppy joes in a sauce pan (burger meat, cream sauce and lots grated jack and cheddar cheese, served on an english muffin, slathered with butter and mayonnaise). My school backpack was always filled with M&M's, Baby Ruth bars and Hostess cupcakes.  I ate and ate and ate and I couldn't gain an ounce. My ninth grade English teacher was the first to diagnose my seemingly dire condition (when I confessed to her in tears that I must, as everyone always joked, indeed have a tape worm, and therefor be dying).

"There's nothing wrong with you, Laura. It's just that you have a really fast metabolism, Honey. Lots of people would kill for it, let me tell you!"

Kill for this?!  But I look like a skeleton!  Why would anyone want to look like this?

I didn't believe her.  I tried desperately to make myself look bigger by wearing multiple layers of tight clothing or baggy clothes that hid my skeletal frame.  Sometimes I felt like I looked okay when I wore two pairs of size double zero Sticky Finger jeans at the same time.  But the true test would come every day at three o'clock when my friends and I had to cross in front of Stubbie's Pool Hall to get from Berkeley High to the local Orange Julius.  The older men hanging out in front would always issue out long, slow, appreciative whistles to every female in the vicinity.  I, on the other hand, (while trying my best to stay hidden in the middle of the pack) would get the occasional "Hey Slim - Yo, yo yo! Say, what's your 'thick' friend's name there with those Levis on?" 

When I was 14,  I started praying (to a God that I wasn't sure existed) to grant me curves like the ones my friends were all getting.  I cared nothing about being healthy or strong.  I just wanted to one of the girls who got the "Stubbies" to whistle.

"Please give me boobs, please give me hips, please, I'll do anything..."

At 16, when I finally started to fill out at bit, I was dismayed to find that my metabolism didn't seem to be slowing down at all.  Yes, I was very pleased with my new bra-size and pants-size (34 B! Size 2!) But, if I skipped one meal, if I failed to eat one of my "in-between-meal-cupcakes" - I was down 3-pounds by morning.  I decided to go back to God.

Please, I'll do anything if I can just hit 120 pounds by my 18th birthday. 

When I woke up on August 27, 1982, I stole in to our small, communal, upstairs bathroom, slipped off my pajamas and slippers and knelt on the floor.  Instantly the cold, water-stained, octagonal tile made angry red lines on my bare kneecaps.  I whispered a quick prayer and then stood up and stepped on the scale, fastening my eyes on my image in the mirror of the medicine cabinet.  

My face looks fuller!  Maybe I'm up this morning!

I bit my lower lip as I waited for the needle to settle in the dial before I looked down.

117

I stepped off, bitterly disappointed.  

This is never going to end.  No matter what I do, I'm never going to have the body that I want.


*  *  *



My wedding was 4-months away.  I had my dress (actually a corset-top and a princess skirt), invitations had been accepted and the guests had made their entree-choices.  I weighed a glorious, hard-won, 124 pounds.  My body was the closest that it had ever been to what I'd prayed for on the floor of my bathroom almost a decade earlier.  Shelly, my maid of honor, was sitting with me in my PR office while I sorted through versions of the seating charts that my wedding coordinator had created.

"Do you ever work out?" Shelly moved a shock of silky, brown hair out of her eyes.  Everyone always asked if we were sisters.  Some people asked if we were twins.  But while my hair is medium-length, coarser and curly, she always wore hers short and straight.  Her thin nose also has a sprinkling  freckles that I've always envied.  Our complexions almost match, but she is a little more golden while my skin has browner undertones.

I looked up at her with a puzzled expression. 

"No!" I answered with a head-shake before looking back down at the chart.

What a silly question!  Why would I work out?  I might lose some of this weight!

"Oh," she said.  Her voice was full of something that I couldn't identify.

I put the chart down and grabbed a handful of M&M's.

"Why?"

"I was just thinking," she said, her eyes warming with appreciation.  "Your arms are so toned.  They'd probably be ridiculous if you worked out."

I stopped chewing and looked at my arms with new interest.  They were so long and slight!  I certainly didn't see anything special about them.  I bent my right arm at the elbow and straightened it back out.  An oblong muscle popped up on the side of my upper arm and then disappeared seamlessly back into place. But even when I relaxed it completely, I could actually still see some of the curvature.

Hey! She might be right.  I can still see the outline of my biceps and my deltoids even though I'm not flexing. I guess they are pretty toned...

I'd never really thought of my thin limbs as an asset before.   And although I must have known it on some level, it had never really occurred to me that people actually worked out to get stronger.  In my mind,  people only exercised (or worked out) to lose weight. And goodness knows I didn't want to lose ANY weight!

Hmmm.  I have the whole summer before my wedding.  Maybe I could join a gym or take a class for a few months...

We committed to going to Billy Blank's 6:00am Tae Bo class 5-days a week.  She and I had never experienced such fanaticism before.  Women, geared up in cut-off "Tae Bo" t-shirts and spandex booty shorts, shoved each other aside to jockey for one of the coveted front-row spots.   I, on the other hand would slink to the back of the class and when I was sure that no one was looking, would sneak around the corner to rest my hands on my knees, take big gulps of air and guzzle Gatorade (I still wasn't fond of water).  Often instead of returning to class,  I'd pretend to use the bathroom (flushing twice if anyone came in).  I might have looked like an athlete, but I was in horrible shape.  Who knew?  I was winded, sweaty and sore every day that summer until my wedding day.  I hated it.  

I can't wait until I get married so I can stop this masochism. I'm never working out again.


*  *  *



"I know who you should get to train you," said Brian.  He'd called me back after we'd just gotten off the phone moments before.
"Huh? Train me?"
What gave him the impression I was looking for someone else to train me?
"Yeah, someone to work you out.  I saw her training Angela Bassett down on Ventura Boulevard earlier today.  She was making her do walking lunges on the sidewalk."
Oooh Angela Bassett!  What's Love Got to Do with it!  Now, she has some arms!!
"But I have Jessica," I protested.
"Jessica?" He laughed. "Come on Laura, be serious."
But I was serious.  Sure, sometimes Jessica showed up hungover (sometimes still reeking of tequila) and sure, last time she'd fallen asleep on the workout bench during my work out (Brian had heard her snoring from the kitchen).  And yes, more often than not, I got a cancellation call from her (in fact, I'd grown to count on it), but replace her?  With someone who makes people work out on the street?!?
"Okay," I said.  I had a growing sense of alarm in my stomach. My voice got very small.  
"I'll call her. What's her name?"
"Chariesse," he said.  "She's a badass.  Wait till you see her."



Badass was an understatement — this woman was an agile, strong, elegantly proportioned, energetic, enthusiastic, for-real, for-real athlete.  For 12-plus years, Chariesse subjected me to the special brand of torment that she'd invented and perfected.  For my part,  I would show-up for my scheduled 1-hour private workout two or three times per week.  I looked pleadingly at the clock the whole torturous time, hoping for any chance of escaping her practiced eye.  When she turned her well-toned back to take a call or change the music, I would immediately skip to a higher number (if I was counting reps).  I would try to engage her in conversation during my incredibly short rest breaks in the hopes that she would forget that the hour was ticking by.  But she was never distracted, she never forgot about the time, she never let me rest until every nano second of that hour was gone.  She also had all of these cheerfully annoying "inspirational" sayings that she would literally sing out when I felt my legs giving out from under me:

"Mind to muscle!"

"Is ANYTHING happening here?!?"

and

"Are we feeling good about ourselves?"

Two amazing things started to happen as she and I continued to work together:

First: I started to receive compliments.  A lot of compliments.  People who barely knew me would cross the room to compliment my arms or my posture.  That was a first for me.  No one had ever before complimented me on how STRONG I looked.

Second: Chariesse and I started to become friends.  Despite the fact that while in her studio, she was still the dungeon master and I, the hapless victim.  Outside the studio she and I innocently began to talk and vibe.  She trained me through the years leading up to my going to treatment.  She trained me during those tender, early recovery years and through my divorce. And it was with the help of her support and friendship that I began to navigate the strange, new life that I'd been given.

So although I still didn't like working out, I very much liked the company and camaraderie that she and I had developed.  And I was finding that I also really liked how my body looked and felt.  When it came time to move out of the home that Brian and I had shared for over a decade,  I found that I (much to the mover's amazement) was able to lift my heavy living room chairs without much effort.  When Chariesse took me to a running track to train, I found that I could run for a whole mile without my lungs exploding out of my chest.  I decided that if all I had to do for the rest of my life in order to feel this good, was to eat healthy food and train with her, then so be it - I was down.


*  *  *

"My trainer moved out of state, so I'm looking for another place with a similar set-up to train."
I was sitting in the chair across from Joe Garcia at Arena Fitness in Encino.  And although I was heartbroken that Chariesse was actually gone (long story -- but suffice it to say, she was presented with opportunities/obligations that required a major move), I found myself in the peculiar position of actually wanting to continue training even though she was no longer around.

Here I am at age 52 (with two almost-grown kids).  I am still on the thinner side, although no where near what I weighed in my twenties (my new median weight is somewhere around 135 pounds). I am now someone who finds that my legs and arms start to get soft when I skip a week of training. Who would have thought that I would become someone who gets anxious when I don't have all of my training sessions lined up for the month?


But don't get me wrong.  I still don't like working out (I find"hate" to be such a strong word).  I still look at the clock the whole time and cheat on my reps whenever I can (sorry Max).  I still try and take advantage of my rest periods and I still have to psych myself into showing up for my sessions every single time. 

I stubbed my toe.  Is that a good reason to cancel?

I once heard Oprah Winfrey say that she psyches herself up for exercise by telling herself that she can do anything for an hour -- This has become my daily workout mantra ("I can do anything for an hour, I can do anything for an hour...").

Scottie joined Arena too and sometimes he and I work out together.  It's nice, actually.  We give each other high fives and cheer the other along.  Sometimes I look over at him when we're on the rowing machines during our "cardio portion" and admire how strong and fit he looks and I see him looking at me and admiring me right back.  My trainer, Max, is giving me more and more weight progressively (and I can actually lift it)!  At 52, I think I may truly be in the best shape of my life.

I heard Maxine Waters respond this week to Bill O'Reilly's jibe at her ("I didn't hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig").  Maxine fired back something to the effect that he couldn't bring her down with his insults — "I am a strong Black woman and I cannot be intimidated.  I cannot be undermined." All of this created a Twitter storm and suddenly a new hashtag was born: #strongblackwoman)

Scottie snapped a picture of me last week during one our workouts.  I was surprised to see that I looked so focused and strong.  And what's more, I am a strong Black woman, in precisely in the way that Congresswoman Waters meant (and I'm very proud of that).  But I'm also strong physically.  And I intend to continue building and honing that strength.  My physical strength is now maybe one of my favorite things about myself.

Note to 14-year-old Laura.  It gets better.

Arena Fitness, Encino California March 2017


































2 comments:

  1. Yes, Yes Yes. 52 and better each day.... keep it movin! Now you have inspired me to get to the gym, because I too feel better about myself when I feel strong. Time to do that thing for a hour.

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