DeenaByrne.com
Author.Traveler.Eater

Fact

I've written a bunch of nonfiction essays as an as-yet unpublished collaboration with my sister I wrote several years ago. Read on and let me know what you think!

Body image

I have been a proponent of fitness ever since my high school dance coach insisted I pull my pants higher to hide my stomach bulge, an area I affectionately referred to as the “donut” of pudge around my belly button. Prior to the usual shame-fests that ensued before each and every game and competition, I had never given my midsection more than a moment’s consideration. As my team members each sported effortless washboard stomachs and weighed in at scarcely more than 100 pounds, I was toting around a stomach “donut” and tipped the scales at maybe 110 pounds. I knew this for a fact, unfortunately, because the girls would always compare numbers during the free yearly physicals sponsored by the school. One of my friends bragged that she needed the children’s blood pressure compress to fit her slender arm, and the other girls looked on in envy. I took the opportunity to take a pen to the paper and shave five pounds off my weight. It was a minor alteration that did little for my overall self esteem, but I felt strangely better in doing so. Considering my experience, always feeling like The Fat Girl on a team of skinny minis, it’s no wonder dancers are commonly driven to eating disorders. Disclaimer: I have never actually been inducted into the Fat Girl’s Club, but I am simply a young female stewing in society-driven insecurity.

Though I have never been, and probably will never be, rail thin, I lived comfortably in a little girl’s body until age 17. Midway through junior year, I became “womanly” seemingly overnight. My dance coach started buying me medium tops to accommodate, and I looked on enviously as the rest of the team still sported extra smalls. For a while I was in denial of my new physique, squeezing into old undergarments, and therefore creating the dreaded quadra-boob time and again. I shamefully admit to still shopping in the kid’s section during this time, ambitiously squeezing into a girl’s size 10 top once—not one of my finer moments, as the graphic print on the shirt became stretched beyond recognition, and the garment clung to me like a racerback version of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France jersey.

Although my body was pretty set on emulating a thicker-waisted Jessica Rabbit, I longed to be lanky like Olive Oyl. For a short while, I entered into a tête-à-tête with nature, armed with the desire to whittle down to a double zero like my fellow dancers. At my family’s chagrin, I refused to eat anything containing fat, claiming I no longer enjoyed the fat mongers, meat and cheese. As my fellow dance team members gorged themselves freely on greasy chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks, I resorted to plain lettuce salads with only fat free dressings. I remember once craving scrambled eggs after dance practice, and first balking at the fat content, then abruptly putting down the plate and walking away, shaken due to my close call. This diet was unrealistic and unhealthy, as it was severely restrictive, and, let’s face it, kind of blah. On an actual healthy note, I started an exercise regimen, striding away on the stair stepper and elliptical machine, spending oftentimes up to two hours doing cardio daily. My body agreed with the exercise, choosing to become athletic and toned rather than slim and lanky. As my metabolism increased rapidly, I loved that I was able to eat more often with fewer negative results. Olive Oyl was turning into an improbability (screw you, genetics), but slender Betty Boop loomed on the horizon.

Although I make no bones about my high school insecurities, I was blessed with a few rare instances when I briefly stepped outside of my body to realize I love it for its natural shape. I had the most significant of these rare moments as my teammates and I were baking away in the tanning beds one day. Such a practice was encouraged by our dance coach, although I won’t begin to delve into the detrimental affects of tanning beds or her condoning of such a practice. Rather, I choose to focus on the way I saw my newly developed adult body that day.

As I stood in front of the mirror, checking out my blotchy, somewhat orange hued tan, I realized I was actually a petite girl with few unsightly areas, rather than the blob I often imagined myself to be. I was lean and toned, with the tight skin common to jailbait such as myself. During this brief brush with sanity, I recognized that mine was the only body I would ever have, and I better get used to its supposed flaws. Exercise helped with overall shaping, and I could wear control top tights under my dance pants, but I was stuck with my thighs for life, so we had better learn to live together. I was blessed to have been born with all my limbs, when others are not as lucky, and everything provided a significant function to keep me going strong—except, maybe, for my appendix, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyways, this love fest was rare yet monumental in my search for body love and acceptance.

During college, I had neither the time nor energy to maintain such a restrictive lifestyle. Do not mistake my reluctance for acceptance; however, as it was more like I was unhappy with my physique and unwilling to change it. It was as if I took one step forward in high school, yet a giant, rather ungraceful leap back in college. With a newly-discovered cooking ability and sporadic exercise routine, I constantly found myself at odds with my belly “donut.”

When I studied abroad in Italy during my junior year, I didn’t help matters by inhaling carafes of white wine and boxes of margherita pizza on a daily basis. Other students on the trip started jogging every morning, led by a trip sponsor with a rock-hard runner’s physique and affinity for waking up before dawn. I viewed the runners as overly ambitious and concerned, and regarded them with the same dismay as I did those who tried to budget and forgo meals in favor of fun. I congratulated myself for my ability to consume jars of Nutella with little concern to cellulite, and I viewed it as a weakness when others allowed fear to interfere with the gastronomic experience. Of course, my judgment likely arose during the one time I ran and overexerted myself, feeling my body strain in defeat against my ambitions. I happily returned to my Nutella, and snubbed exercise for the rest of the trip. At which point, my belly “donut” had ballooned to a surly mass, backed by a gang of stubborn love handles that stood in crafty opposition against my will. Those three moved in during the remainder of college and basically avoided eviction even post graduation.

Immediately afterward, I took those three and did the dreaded reverse move from my independent adult condominium to my childhood room—I was then officially part of what sociologists call “the boomerang generation.” And though I enjoyed having virtually no responsibility and surrendering all control of my well-being to my parents once again, I understandably felt just the tiniest bit claustrophobic. Therefore, I took up running to assert some form of low-grade independence. Most weekdays, I would drive myself to my favorite lake and happily jog the three miles around, accompanied by a continuously evolving workout mix of mostly techno versions of Whitney Houston and Madonna. Considering I spent the rest of my days tagging along with my mom, Chihuahua style, it was a weak substitute for actual independence. Nonetheless, I was determined to take my freedom where I could get it.

It had been four years since I exercised regularly, and, though I could probably attribute my unawareness to childhood insecurity, I don’t remember noticing a difference in my shape nearly as rapidly as I did that summer. Running seemed to agree with me, and I eagerly drove my body to Destination: Toned once again. My “donut” quaked in fear as I began to develop a first time line down my stomach, and the coveted abdominal muscles brewed just beneath the surface.

I was home for a mere month before making the move to New York, at which point, my three unruly tenants were metaphorically bubble wrapping the last of their things in conjunction with me, physically doing so with my breakables. I was, inconveniently, hooked on running, which I viewed as necessary to keep my three unwelcome house guests at bay.

Initially, my life was far from stable in the city. In fact, I was a glorified nomad as I bounced from sublease to sublease, desperately searching for the ideal apartment. While I devoted myself to job and apartment hunting, I filled the rest of my days with a conquest to build my winter wardrobe. As I walked from store to store, exploring the city during my quest, I unknowingly dropped a few pounds along with my New York inhibitions. The girl who at first arrived thinking it was dangerous to take the Subway any time after dusk whittled down in time for that season’s new skinny jeans. My smaller body drew acclaim from encouraging friends and family, so I was determined to get back on the treadmill to keep the extra pounds at bay. Vanity and my newfound exercise addiction simultaneously reared their ugly heads, and my rationale was a poor match for those two. I looked to join a gym within two months of my grand move, prior to having any sort of job or apartment security. My rationale must have taken the day off.

I talked to the maybe seven people I knew in the city, which included my four co-workers at the small boutique public relations agency where I interned. I was curious if any of them went to the gym, and was surprised to discover that, aside from my boss, not one of them seemed to even have given the idea prior consideration. My boss admitted to paying an exorbitant amount for his membership, mainly because the locker room was decorated in an upscale Brazilian wood and they offered a variety of trendy classes that he had yet to attend. My $6.75 an hour would not allow that, so I considered other options.

The other intern and I went on an expedition one day at lunch, and met an overly friendly gym employee on our way. The intern was of the homosexual persuasion, so not knowing for which team this employee played, we both decided to work our charms to try and score a cheap membership. The employee gave us the grand tour, and explained the classes in great detail.

“Ohhh strip cardio,” said the other intern, examining the class schedule. “Could we go to a trial class?” He asked the employee. I laughed and squirmed a little, as I could see the employee considering the idea, his attention focused on me. He was obviously into the ladies, which could only help my case. He agreed to the proposition, and then suggested we have a seat as we discussed rates.

The typical monthly membership fees were somewhere in the mid $80 range, but the intern and I promptly shot that down. I, instead, began a campaign to convince the easily swayed employee to grant us a corporate discount. This was, of course, beyond ridiculous considering our company was neither any more corporate than we were employees. He hesitated, but agreed that he may be able to offer such a thing if we could get another employee to sign up. We said this was a definite possibility, and left him with our phone numbers and happily accepted our free passes to attend strip cardio that week.

Less than five minutes after we left, I got a call from an unknown New York number on my phone. Again, all seven of my New York friends knew I was at work, so I answered the phone out of curiosity.

“I can get you $70 a month, and that includes access to all of our city locations,” said the employee, who was obviously swayed by my charms.

“Deal,” I agreed, eagerly relaying the information to my co-worker.

And so, I schemed my way into a gym membership that is, relatively speaking, affordable by city standards. Though I’m pretty sure the other intern and the one employee we convinced to join dropped their memberships after less than a month, I rode out that sweet deal for the entire year. My bank account and abs, which single-handedly destroyed my “donut,” have never been more grateful.

Flash forward to present day, and my affinity for exercise has become ingrained in my weekly routine. I often try to go to the gym or to a dance class three to four days a week, and if life gets in the way, I’ll substitute the gym with walking home. I enjoy the physical act of exercise, as I will often run up the subway stairs for the instantaneous rush I get as I pass people. More importantly, though, I love noticing the little ways my body rewards itself for all its hard work. After just a couple of days of dance or running, I start to notice my calf muscles and the line I develop that runs the length of my thigh. Though I openly judge guys who arrogantly admire their forms when lifting, I admit to a lesser crime—sneaking the occasional glance at my arms as I run. I watch them proudly pump away and can’t help but notice the significant muscles that build from my cardio. As I turn to get into the shower post-gym, I cast a backwards glance at my strong back, resisting the urge to wink and whistle in admiration.

It ain’t all roses in my older, wiser age however, as my aforementioned trouble spots tend to grow when I neglect to tend to them. I will always be into eating healthy, restricting certain things from my diet, and exercising until the end of my days. Despite brief moments of body bashing, I am quasi-comfortable with the body I’ve been allotted. I’ve come a long way, baby.