Mental Health October: Exercise and Body Image

In the summer of 2008, I was on vacation with my family at Disney World. After a long day at the parks, I spent every moment we had in the hotel room watching the Beijing Olympics. This is when I fell in love with watching gymnastics!

I remember watching Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin and the rest of the women’s team absolutely destroy their events – doing flips! spins! splits! tumbles! the rest! (I don’t know gymnastics terms!) I was enthralled! I wanted to be as strong as them, fly through the air like them, be as confident as them, the whole thing!

While watching one night, one of my family members commented on how chubby the girls looked. Why were they wearing leotards when their legs were so fat? If they worked out so much, why weren’t they all skinny?

My brain started short-circuiting. They’re some of the strongest athletes in the world! It’s all muscle! They responded, Eh, is it worth being so strong if they look so chunky? I wouldn’t want to look that heavy.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to reckon with these conflicting values. Do I want to be strong and healthy? Or do I want to look thin and “beautiful”, according to traditional values?

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Isolation Tool Kit: Moving My Body

And before I start going down the rabbit hole of health, I have acknowledge the obvious: I’m young and generally healthy! I’m incredibly thankful to have a job that lets me work remotely, indefinitely, for the same amount of pay! I’m not a BIPOC, so while my stress levels have gone up recently, they’re nowhere near as high as they could be! I live with my loving boyfriend and generally skew introverted anyway! Isolation definitely suited me in many different ways – but time still takes its toll!

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The Opposite of Laziness

When I was in college, I juggled many different activities at the same time – a full engineering courseload, complete with weekly labs, reports, and problem sets; a supervisor position at my work-study job; executive board positions for different clubs; dance practices; maintaining friendships; sometimes going on Tumblr; the list goes on…

After college, for about a month, I had a part-time job at a quick service restaurant, and literally no other commitments besides applying for full time jobs. For the first week, this was fine – I hung out with my other newly-graduated friends, watched movies on the couch, read “The Opposite of Loneliess” by Marina Keegan, and ate fried chicken for dinner every night – it was my right! I worked hard for my degree and the opportunity to finally relax! Naturally, while it was okay for the first couple of days, I was worried that I’d become restless.

I eventually got a full time job that I settled into pretty quickly. I wasn’t going to breweries on early weekday afternoons anymore (darn!), but my life was starting to look structured again. I went to work, came home, made dinner, went to sleep. Go to work, go home, make dinner, go to sleep. Go to work, go home, make dinner, go to sleep. Rinse and repeat.

Months went by. I would catch up with college friends, who would ask, “What’s new?” I would answer, “Literally nothing!” And mean it!

For the first few years out of college, the variation in my schedule came from running. I would always have another race on the horizon, and with every race came a training schedule, and every training schedule changed workouts from week to week. I got in shape, earned a few medals, and, perhaps most importantly, learned the importance of a hobby in keeping myself busy and entertained despite the monotony of a 9-5 job.

Though I loved – and still love! – running, it too was also bound to get repetitive after a while. I longed to try new things, meet new people, continue growing as a person. As stressful as college was, I was constantly challenging myself and learning, which made everything feel worthwhile in the end. After six (!) half marathons, as much as I do love running, I was starting to feel stagnant. (Seeing minimal progress in my running definitely had a part to play, but that is another essay for another day.)

At the end of last year, I had had enough and decided to do something about my lingering fear of complacency – I signed up for a sketch comedy writing class. Financial incentives – that is, paying for races – had been a great motivator in the past, so I ponied up the tuition fee and got to writing. At the end of that class, I realized that my acting skills were not up-to-par and decided to start taking improv comedy classes. I loved my first class so much that I’m currently still working through the school’s curriculum!

Earlier this year, I also found a group called the Junior League of Boston that sounded like it would fill another one of my unmet “spiritual” needs – doing community service. Joining the group would also mean meeting lots of new people, which definitely didn’t hurt! I ponied up an even bigger fee to join this group, not really knowing what it would be like but excited to find out.

As all this happened, I continued running. Over the summer, my boyfriend coached me through training for a series of 5K races with the intention of lowering my time. Though I ultimately did not reach my goal, I improved a lot as a runner and was inspired enough to sign up for – and gain entry to – the Tokyo Marathon in March 2020.

Are you tired reading those last three paragraphs? Because I’m tired just thinking about the next few months. More improv, more writing, more community service, meeting so many more people, all on top of trying to train for a freaking marathon! in Japan!

While I am excited for what the coming months will bring, part of me is worried about overloading myself like I did in college. At that point, growth came with its own growing pains, like a crushing amount of stress and pressure and, inversely, not a lot of sleep. (To explain my current sensitivity to caffeine, I like to think that my inordinate coffee intake during this time flipped some sort of switch in my brain, as if to say, “No more! Ever!”.) I’m worried that I will burn out again, but have to keep a big, bright smile on to hide this darkness from all the shiny new people that I’ll be trying to make friends with. (Sounds like college!)

Well, just like college, at this point, the only way out is to simply push through. If anyone needs me, please look on my couch – I’ll try to be there as often as I can!