Finding inspiration in the locker room

Changing more than just your clothes.

I remember one of the first drawings I made as a child of which I was truly proud. It showed a woman on her lunch break having a picnic in the park. I distinctly remember filling the white paper with green grass, blue sky and the shady arms of an old maple tree.

I drew a red and white checker picnic blanket and I even added a plate with a half-eaten sandwich on it. I went so far in the narrative to have the woman lying down taking a break from eating and simply admiring the blue sky I had created for her.

As a grown woman now, I rarely take lunch breaks. Most days I bustle around like the other young career women around me, afraid to stop; the way I imagine sharks are afraid to stop swimming. Is it even fear that keeps you from stopping? Or not remembering how?

If I am ever able to sit and pause in the park, my mind wanders to comparing myself to the other lady-sharks around me who seem to swim so much faster than me. How do they do it? How did she get such lean legs? How did her hair get so shiny?

Meandering in and around each other in our circulatory sidewalks means we only see the results of our efforts that help us barely maintain such an outrageous pace. When we compare a person’s body to our own, we do not know the tools that were used to sculpt that form. We do not know the hours that went into its formation.

The efforts that go into my body’s form are probably pretty typical for anyone who enjoys working out. I bike or walk to work as often as possible (about 4 miles), strength-train at the gym 2–3 times a week, and do yoga on Sundays. Overall, this routine works pretty well for me. To be honest, right now I’m not getting the results I’m after, so I know I need to make some adjustments, but I can also be honest with myself that I’m working as hard as I can.

When I go to the gym, to get the workout I want, I usually have to get up around 5:45–6am. I don’t have time to space out or go slow in the morning. I have to hustle to get out the door, either biking into to work, or using public transportation (delightfully slow most of the time).

On the tougher days — when the winter is harsh, if I haven’t gotten enough sleep, or just feeling down — I find the hardest moment is entering the locker room.

Like any locker room, the women are in various stages of their morning rituals. I’m usually walking in around 8:15-8:30, and am always impressed by how busy it is. It’s a packed locker room with at least 50–60 women rushing around clearly having finished their workout, either independently or a class. This means they got to the gym at least by 7:15am, most likely earlier. This means they woke up at least by 5am or earlier.

And now they’re done with their workout, and next, they’re starting their work day.

Or maybe finishing their work day. One morning, I overheard one woman ask her friend “Just do the night shift?” The other responded, as she changed out of her nurse uniform “Yup! Doing my workout then going to bed.”

Holy shit.

When I take a moment to think about the work these ladies are putting into their form and their health, it’s humbling. I take pride in thinking about how hard I work, but when I enter the locker room and realize how much hard work has already been done by these women, likely while I was sleeping, I am inspired.

As I mentioned before, I’m still evaluating what’s working or not working with my current routine, so I have days just like anyone where I’m not feeling awesome about how I look, or frustrated by slow progress. As I change from my street clothes to my gym clothes, I notice little flaws and imperfections across my body: cellulite that seems a little bigger on my thigh than it was yesterday, arms that don’t look as toned as I remember, or a stomach that seems a bit more plump than it did last week.

However, as I finish changing, I inevitably have to move around a bit to accommodate another woman accessing her locker or trying to pass by. It’s impossible not to look upon her and feel the sting of envy and defeat. She doesn’t have the same cellulite I do, her tummy is so much more taut, and her arms drape across her belongings like a ballerina pirouetting in an effortless rehearsal.

Yet as I take a moment to think upon it, I come to realize she is as perfectly imperfect as I am.

Her legs are not in better shape, just in a different shape. They’ve run with friends in the middle of the night in the rain. Her arms are more toned than mine, but not smooth like stone; soft like a blanket to comfort those she loves. I don’t care that her stomach has more definition than mine; I just hope she uses it to laugh as much as possible.

After she passes, I realize I am now changed. Understanding the ingenuity that makes a woman’s body — all shapes and sizes — and the true hard work that goes into it is transformative. The clay we mold each day with our diets and exercise, as any good sculptor would concur, will never have the perfect smoothness we see in our minds. However, seeing the hand of the artist — in this context, ourselves — is a conduit for understanding the challenges we all experience.

We seek out the experience of hard work. We challenge our bodies to see what they can do.

We push. We witness.

We change.