Editor’s Note: Shaunta is back! And this time she is sending a message to her younger self, about regrets and growing up, and also the difference between an athlete and an exerciser.
If my life was reduced to data and stretched out in a timeline, there would be several delineating markers. Before and after my parents divorced when I was eight. Before and after my father went to prison when I was fifteen. Before and after I found out I was pregnant when I was twenty.
And there would be one, between my father going to prison and my high school sweetheart knocking me up, marking before and after I was an athlete. That one would be at year sixteen. The year when being quietly obsessed with my weight devolved into a full-blown eating disorder.
When I was an athlete, I trained twice a day with my club team. I swam before school and after dinner. Between school and dinner, I ran with my high school’s cross-country track team. I rode my white beach cruiser to and from school and all of my practices. I was a perpetual motion machine.
And then one day, near the end of my junior year of high school, I stopped swimming and running. My dad had been gone for six months, and the time of trying to pretend like nothing would change was over. My step-mother let me know that I either had to find a job, or I had to stay home with my younger brothers and sister while she took on a second job. I knew she was right, and I wanted to do what I could to help my family. Work or child care, either way there was no more money or time for sports.
I went from five hours a day of training to spending four hours a day, five days a week, sitting in the back office of an Olin Mills photography studio, trying to sell portrait packages to new parents. The sales crew made calls off lists of names and phone numbers sent from local maternity wards. This was 1987 and I earned something in the neighborhood of three dollars an hour, plus a small commission for each sale.
After a spring and summer spent working instead of swimming and running, I tried to put on a jean skirt my mom sent me from California for my first day of my senior year. I could barely fit it over my hips, much less zip it up.
I vividly remember putting a quarter into the scale in the back of the Albertson’s grocery store near my house. It was located in the pharmacy, next to the blood pressure machine. The little paper it spit out said I’d gained twenty-five pounds. I can still feel the way my stomach turned to cement when I saw those three little numbers: 1-7-5.
Years of feeling fat suddenly smashed headlong into actually being fat. The bathroom was right there, and I locked myself into it before I broke down in front of the old people waiting for their prescriptions.
“You’re not fat yet,” my step-mother had said to me since I was eight-years-old, “but if you’re not careful, you’ll end up like your mother.”
It had finally happened. Fat had caught up to me. I was like my mother.
In a family with nine children, it’s common for each child to take on a persona. I had always been the athletic one. Now I was the fat one. I slipped that on like a suit that finally fit.
If I could somehow skip back down that timeline and say just one sentence to 16-year-old Shaunta, I wouldn’t warn her about that boy she just met who she would marry and have two babies with before he broke her heart. I wouldn’t tell her to stay in college when she gets there so that she’s not still trying to graduate at 42. I wouldn’t give her the plot to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and tell her to start writing.
I’d tell her: Don’t let anyone take being an athlete away from you.
I gave that part of me up so easily. For the next two decades, I was an occasional exerciser and most definitely an ex-athlete. Any time I went for a run or rode my bike or joined a gym, it was with one purpose in mind. I exercised to get smaller. And usually, when I did exercise, it was to the point of injury in an effort to punish myself for my inability to stop eating.
There is an important distinction, to me, between being an exerciser and being an athlete. It doesn’t have to do with skill or speed or ability. It has to do with intention. An exerciser might be very good at what he or she does—the elliptical, step aerobics classes, even swimming or running. But if that person’s only goal is to manipulate the shape of their body, they are an exerciser. There’s nothing wrong with that. It just is what it is. I was an exerciser for a long, long time.
An athlete has a training plan and works toward an athletic goal. I want to be able to swim 3000 meters in an hour, so every time I get in the pool I swim a little further. I use drills to help me swim more efficiently. I’m more concerned with my form than the number of calories I burn. I want to be able to squat 135 pounds, so every time I hit the weight room, I lift a little heavier, squat a little deeper. And both of these work together, so that swimming makes me stronger and lifting makes me a better swimmer.
Maybe calling myself an athlete is a mental game. Maybe it just keeps me going to the gym. Maybe I’m fooling myself by thinking there’s a difference between measuring my success on the scale and measuring it in meters swam or pounds lifted. I’m not sure it matters.
Being an athlete isn’t about the shape of your body, or winning, or even ability. It’s about having a desire to improve your skill, a competitive spirit (even if you’re only competing against yourself), and a goal to train toward. It’s about choosing to be an athlete in defiance of what society or your own preconceived ideas about athleticism tell you. I call it being a Defiant Athlete, and in addition to making exercise far more fun, it gives me a little shot of being a rebel.
I can’t go back and tell my 16-year-old self that letting go of being an athlete would be the one thing she regretted when she got close to middle age. But I can recapture what I never should have let get away in the first place. And I believe that even a person who has never considered themselves an athlete before can be one if that’s what they want. I write about it often in my HAES newsletter, and it is a pillar of my work toward becoming a healthier, happier person.
Shaunta Grimes is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation. She lives in Reno, Nevada with her family and a pretty yellow dog named Maybelline Scout. Visit her blog or check her out at Fierce Freethinking Fatties. Every Tuesday she sends out a Health at Every Size newsletter called The 100 Day Experiment. If you’re interested in receiving it, please click here and enter your email address. Subscribers get a free copy of Shaunta’s Anti-Dieting primer.