My school report says “Michelle is eight years old going on forty”. I'm a ponderous, cautious, old-headed kid who doesn't mix well with others my age. I live entirely in my own brain, in books, in stories. I've no interest in the kinetic world – I want to move as little as possible. I really want one of those reclining beds for old people that I've seen in adverts. I quite like the idea of being an invalid. Having a body seems like a very tedious bit of life admin. I discover that I'm fat when I'm nine years old. I am informed of the fact by a girl in my year:
“Michelle, I'd be lying if I said you weren't fat”.
It's so unfair. I don't like having a body. Other people don't like my having a body. So I begin to pretend I simply don't have one. I ignore it, try to disappear into the background as best I can, and keep my head down and buried in a book.
I fear and abhor physical exercise. I feel like a different species from every other girl in my year. The sporty girls, naturally, (one of whom has such body confidence that she wears a blue and yellow Adidas three-stripe two-piece to our swimming lessons, like Sporty Spice). Being that we're in rural Wales, there were also many, many girls who live on farms. Girls who can carry hay bails and fence posts. Girls who spend their weekends traversing acres of land to mend fences and tend to the livestock. Girls who complete the equivalent of one of those trendy tough mudder endurance challenges every weekend, summer and winter: staunch, stoic, strong, seeming unselfconcious girls, who seem to understand that their bodies are tools. Machines. Equipment.
I dodge school every Monday and Thursday for about two months. It doesn't feel like a lie when I tell my parents I have unbearable recurring stomach cramps – the anxiety is genuinely nauseating. The fear is carnal. The tears are real.
In hindsight, it's not as if I couldn't have performed the activity. I wasn't very fit, but I was young and otherwise healthy. My body was perfectly normal for a girl my age – in my mid-teens I was a size 10. And it wasn't the thought of engaging in physical exercise that terrified me. It was the thought of being watched and judged and found lacking. It didn't occur to me that everyone in the class would be too busy doing their own thing to watch and judge me. In my anxious and utterly self-obsessed teenage mind, I would be a target. I would be hurt, and in order to protect myself I had simply to omit that threat from my life by not engaging with it at all.
Really, I was still pretending I didn't have a body. It was easier than examining how I really about it. I disliked it intensely. I didn't like the way it looked when it moved. I didn't like the way it looked when it was still. When I dodged I'd sit at home and read and read and read until my brain was full as an egg.
I am through to the final round of auditions for a prestigious drama school. The audition is before a Shakespeare scholar – a man who knows every letter of every word Shakespeare has ever written (and quite a few that he may not have). I've chosen Cleopatra for my monologue because she is a Strong Woman (I have recently become a staunch supporter of Strong Women). I sit and watch Mr Scholar tear strips off participants who stand beautifully and speak beautifully, but aren't really engaged in the meaning of the words.
(It sounds obvious, but an actor really should understand the meaning of their lines. I auditioned for a Shakespeare play IN WELSH once where a boy recited the line “you kissed me once, on the lips” and pointed at his forehead).
I am abrim with anxiety, but I can't wait to perform for this man – I know that I know my shit better than anyone else in this room. I know THEIR speeches better than they do. I know I can withstand any interrogation about any editorial revisions (some classical works vary very slightly from edition to edition – a “thee” when there had been a “thou”, that kind of thing. This bastard had memorised every edition of every edition. But then, so have I. As I say, I know that I know my shit).
I know Cleopatra too, as best as a 19 year-old Welsh lass can. I know her pride. I know her churlishness. I know her sorrow. (I'm not saying I'm the lost Judi Dench of my generation. Although I could be. We'll never know. I'm just saying I worked hard.) I begin my audition. I keep my voice steady, my tone rich. I move around the space as I've been directed to by my drama teacher (“using the space” is VERY important in THE THEATRE), drawing imaginary pentagrams with my feet, keeping my mind's eye on the faithless Anthony, goading him, taunting him with (my)Cleopatra's beauty.
“Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brow's bent,
none our parts so poor but was a race of heaven...”
“NO. NO. NO. YOU'RE MAKING YOUR BODY LOOK UGLY”.
My breathe stops. His words are suspended in the air like icicles. It takes me a fraction of a second to compose myself, to ask cheerily “OK! What can I do to change that?”. I don't know how he responds. I just know the horror – the dry, inevitable horror – of having my fears confirmed. The thing is, he didn't say that my body IS ugly. It's not. Everything's in the right place, and everything works. I am MAKING it look ugly. I'm holding it wrong. Moving it wrong. Shaping it in a way which is aesthetically disagreeable. I am pretending to be the most beautiful woman who'd ever lived (can we agree not to examine that too closely, please?) and I'm failing because I can't even PRETEND to be the right kind of beautiful. And it didn't matter how well I know the play, how hard I've worked, it didn't matter that I'd lived with those stories in my heart and those words in my mouth for months. I'm not able to do what I yearn for because I didn't know how to make my body look beautiful.
P.S. I didn't go to drama school, but for a few years I remembered the names of those who did, and kept a very casual eye on how their careers were progressing. They're not up to much. So in a way, I win.
I start running after I experience a major depressive episode. I start running because I'm terrified. I've been bed-ridden for a week, crying because I was thirsty and I couldn't summon the energy to walk to the kitchen for a glass of water. I need a practical strategy to fix my brain. And I hate it. Leaving the flat feels like agony. I run for sixty seconds at a time, praying for respite. There are no endorphins, just numb relief when I'm finally allowed to go home and cry in the bath.
It took two belligerent, bloody-minded years for me to stop thinking of running as a chore. For the chorus of “this-is-BULLshit-this-is-BULLshit-this-is-BULLshit” to stop chugging through my head as I wheezed and panted around the neglected South London park. I ran for a few weeks at a time, then stopped because it was too hard or I was too lazy. I never put my trainers on without seething resentment weighing me down. A lot changed in that two years. I left a promising but unfulfilling career as an agent to make lattes and write. I went on holiday on my own. I joined Slimming World, and now I'm no longer lugging around an extra 15 pounds. When I started running again most recently, it felt different. It was no longer an endurance. I no longer prayed for respite. It no longer felt as though I was punishing my body. I was nurturing it. I felt good after running, and not just because of the smugness – the fabled endorphins finally turned up, making my nerves crackle and my breathe feel silky and cool in my lungs. It didn't hurt because I didn't push myself so hard I wouldn’t recover for two days. It felt like the opposite of helplessness and hopelessness. It felt like power.
I see toddlers in the park, roaring and rampaging and chasing squirrels and running with no destination and no impetus beyond “look there's a leaf I must dance with it and what happens if I stretch my hands up in the air and go BLAAAAARGH! This is fantastic I'm going to keep doing it BLAAAAAAARGH!!!” It's play. It's instinct. They are learning how to be human and part of that means grasping the mechanics of the vessel they're in. I must have done that once. But when you've spent 30 years avoiding exercise because you abhor it, it frightens you and you're terrible at it. it takes an enormous psychological shift to re-examine and overcome that fear. I've spent years telling myself I'm not defined by my body, in defiance of the signs and signifiers I'm bombarded with every day. The apparent primary goal of exercise is to get those abs – why should I want those abs? Why should I want to exercise? No thank YOU, cardiovascular health! Take your mental health benefits elsewhere! I'm not conforming to your body fascist beauty ideals!
I avoided exercise because moving my body meant admitting that I HAD a body, that I'd had one all along and that I'd been neglecting it. It's like checking your bank balance at the end of a decadent month, but when you haven't checked it for thirty years, and the balance is your life expectancy.
I try not to think about looking a particular way (a blatant lie – I'd love to have a flatter stomach and slimmer arms). But I think if I were the size and shape I am now and could run for an hour without stopping, I'd be delighted. I still grapple with the notion that I have to be good at running, that it's not enough to just DO it. Part of me still aspires to making my body look beautiful. To having grace. FINESSE. Of course what I really mean is that I wish I was more FEMININE in my movements. I want to be DAINTY. I wish to be a DELICATE WAIF-LIKE ETHEREAL FLOWER BUT I'M JUST NOT. I'm clumsy. I'm ungainly. I'm strong and I'm stoic, and it might take another two years but I'm going to finish the NHS couch25k podcast. It's meant to take nine weeks. So far it's taken me 140ish. Slow and steady and all that.
According to the amazing, AMAZING This Girl Can campaign, two million fewer women than men exercise regularly because they're concerned about the way they look. Two million women aren't enjoying the mental and physical health benefits of gentle exercise because they're afraid of their bodies. Our bodies are a tool. They're an integral part of our life experience. They're the connective tissue between our brains and our souls and all the wonderful things we have to enjoy in this world. If you neglect your body, you'll only ever live two-thirds of your life. For me, running is an act of self-love. It feeds my self esteem - it's a tangible demonstration that I care about myself enough to take an hour out of my day tending to something that belongs to me and only me. I'm currently working towards running 5k. I'd like to get to 10k eventually. No more. Stick your marathons up your arse. If I need to travel 26 miles I'll get a bus.