I wrote this essay four years ago, but after seeing “I Feel Pretty” this weekend, I felt compelled to post it on my blog. "I Feel Pretty" is a feel-good movie about a woman struggling with insecurities about her appearance. In this film, Amy Schumer, through her humor, poignantly promotes the idea that confidence stems from how we choose to view ourselves despite the cultural standards. Confidence is key.
At 61, I’m still working on that myself.
I notice her as I place my tote bag in the locker. She’s sitting nearby on the edge of a wooden slat bench waiting to go into spin class: Early thirties, about forty pounds overweight. I take a seat beside her.
“Ugh! My hairclip. I always forget something,” I laugh, trying to establish connection. She gives me a blank stare and a weak smile. She doesn’t want to engage.
She diverts her eyes, tapping her bike shoe on the grey cement flooring. I get it: she wants to get into the dark room, do the workout spin and be done with it. I know that look; I’d had it, too. I was overweight myself years ago, begging to be invisible, wishing that forgetting a hairclip was the biggest challenge at this venue. If only she knew.
I feel her eyes on me as I juggle my water bottle and bike shoes, dropping one of my socks, then the other. I bend down to fetch them as I make my way over to the bench. Even at the age of fifty-seven, my movements are effortless now in a slim body.
Suddenly the door to the workout room opens with a whoosh. A stream of bodies in sweat-soaked spandex pushes past. This spinning studio is in West Hollywood. As my mother would say, “it’s a tough room to play.” Actresses, models, svelte young men and women, and buff actor-types are regular spinners. Even the aging business men and women are toned and sleek.
This is Los Angeles. The capital of image. And, this spinning studio is one of the places where many of them work hard to maintain it.
But there are also those who come here to spin, trying to change their bodies, to shed the extra weight, and to get healthy. It’s a safe place if you aren’t ready to embrace your curves. The lighting is low. You can take a bike in the back row, or tucked away in the corner on the side. Other bodies can block your reflection in the mirror. You can be invisible no matter your size.
We stand to enter class. I go to bike 26 and begin adjusting the seat. I keep thinking about the woman on the bench. She’s close to me. Bike 42, in the corner by the door.
It isn’t easy coming here. It’s a tough cardio workout for even the most athletic. My eyes go to the small raised platform where the instructor sets up her bike. The first spin class I took here was with her. She shared her story with that class at the end of the workout. “I used to weigh 220. Every day I fight it.”
I place my towel over the handlebars and approach the instructor who’s testing her microphone.
“I just want to tell you that I think it’s great what you do, telling us about your weight loss and the challenge of keeping it off.”
Her smile grows bigger. Her teeth are straight and white. Fingering her long hair, she thanks me.
“You see, I was fat,” I say. “Years ago. And….”
She steps back, sizing me up. “Oh my god, but look at you now! How big were you?” she asks. “I would have never guessed. You look great!”
“I was 167 at my peak. And, I’m barely 5’3. I did Weight Watcher’s. That’s how I lost it.”
“I never weigh myself,” she cuts in.
“Me nether!” I reply. “Except at the doctor’s office.”
“When I get weighed there,” she says, “I look away from the scale. You never get over it. I go up and down five pounds either way,” she adds.
“Oh, yeah, me, too,” I sigh. “Going out to dinner. I can’t resist the bread and butter. But I’m not going to give that up. I just plan around it, cut back in other ways. It’s a way of life.”
We rush our conversation before class begins. We’re kindred spirits, uniting with sound bites common to those of us who have experienced the battle.
“I’ve kept the weight off for forty-two years,” I tell her. “And it’s still an every-day thing. It does get easier, though.”
“Really? It’s just been four years since I lost the weight. Wow. 42 years.”
“It takes discipline. Healthy food. And, exercise is key. Helps keep me in balance. But, you already know that.”
She quickly surveys the room; it’s time to start. She focuses back on me. “I’m so glad you came up to me today,” she says. “What’s your name?”
She gives me a hug. “Heather….Thank you.”
I head back to #26 and hop on. Normally, I’m in my own zone just trying to make it through the class and the arm moves. Today, though, my eyes wander. In the first row are the regular advanced riders with “cut” bodies displaying lots of bare midriffs. Every one of them is able to follow the instructor, spin for spin, beat on beat with the music.
In row two, I see another woman around my age working it. She is holding strong, peddling hard; her over-sized t-shirt is covered in sweat by the halfway mark, while the trim man next to her in cycling shorts and tank top, reaches for his water in the holder below. He’s in his own world pumping up an imaginary hill. Just then, the instructor gets off her bike and skips around the room to generate more energy. She passes me and presses a hand on mine gripping the handlebars.
At the end of the forty-five minute class, the instructor leads us in a quick stretch. “Clip out and extend your right leg on the handlebar,” she says, reaching up. This is when she tells her weight loss story in a few short sentences and encourages people not to give up. But this time she says more.
“Someone came up to me before class.” She gives me a quick glance and a nod. “She shared her journey with me, her success and her struggle with weight. If you have a story,” she says, “if you struggle, or if you just want to share. Don’t be shy.”
The instructor nods at me again and smiles back. The young woman on bike 42 sees the exchange. She knows it’s me.
After class, in the tight changing space I bump her, the woman on the bench – the woman from bike 42. Her arm is sweaty and slick. Her face is flushed from the workout. “Excuse me,” I say. “Sorry.”
She glances at me as the area fills up with more sweaty bodies. Someone else bumps her. But she ignores them.
“No worries,” she says to me. Her smile isn’t weak this time. It’s warm and genuine. “Tight quarters,” she adds.
“Yeah,” I say. But this time I’m the one diverting my eyes. I don’t want her to see the redness from the gathering tears.
As soon as I get in my car, it’s safe to let the tears flow. Why am I crying? What is this feeling so deep in my gut? It’s been years! Was being fat that bad? Was the struggle to lose weight that painful? I don’t know if I’m crying for the woman on the bench or because the instructor merely understood and championed me. She acknowledged the struggle, acknowledged my success.
I’ve been thinner for a much longer period of my life now than I was ever fat. How does the overweight mindset still cloud my vision?
Perhaps it never goes away. Or, maybe it’s a gift to be able to understand. Or, perhaps it’s still there so I have something to share with someone out there in the dark.