On eating, on athletics, on mentality. On food.
This week, I went out for an afternoon coffee with a coworker. As we were standing in line, as I always do, I peered at the baked goods. Then, I saw it: a peanut butter cookie half dipped in chocolate. It called my name. It sang to me. I tapped my coworker (let’s call her Rita) on the arm.
“Rita!” I said, “Look at that! It looks so good. Oh my god I want it.” Then, it dawned on me. I wasn't going to the gym in three hours — it was my off day. I could eat a huge 400 calorie half the size of your face peanut butter cookie dipped in chocolate and not have to worry about feeling my stomach churning and my muscles sending me off-kilter signals on the treadmill.
“IT’S MY DAMN OFF DAY!” I shouted. “I CAN EAT IT! IM NOT GOING TO THE GYM!!!! IM GONNA GET IT! YEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS.” (or something to that effect)
Rita turns to me. She’s puzzled. “But,” she says, “If you aren’t going to the gym, you shouldn’t eat the cookie.”
I, at this point, am holding the cookie. It’s mine now and I’m never letting it go.
“You aren’t going to the gym. You shouldn’t eat the cookie.”
For a second, I’m confused. And then I understand.
When I started college athletics, our nutritionist sat down with us and outlined specific rules on what we were supposed to eat. It went like this: 3 meals a day with x servings of carbs, x servings of protein, x servings of fat + 3 snacks a day with x servings of carbs, x servings of protein, x servings of fat. It was a lot of food, and there were no “restrictions” — our protein could be chicken or beef or tofu, or whatever, our carbs could be bread or rice or cereal, or whatever. Sure, we were encouraged to maintain a balanced diet, but really, we just had to eat.
I followed to the letter. I ate and I ate and I ate. I went to the gym and lifted, I did cardio, I worked out. I gained 10 pounds. My pants didn’t fit.
I felt amazing.
For the first time in my life, I felt like my body was a tool that I could use. I felt like I could do things. Pushups, dips, squats, jumps, lifting boxes, whatever. I felt amazing. On my team, you wanted to be strong, and fast.
Sure, not everyone wants this. Not everyone can go to the gym two times a day. But this is my story, and this was my way in. It’s not the best way, it’s not every way, it’s just mine.
Most women in our society are told to diet from the point where we can read the headlines of Cosmo in the grocery store checkout line until the day that we die. No carbs, only good fats, be like Gweneth and only eat 3 cashews on top of a single piece of salmon. Do light exercise in Lululemon and talk about salad, constantly.
This is where my coworker is coming from: calories in vs. calories out. Track it. Live it. Breathe it. Know it. Be low-grade worried about your body and your food intake every. Single. Day.
If 50 lbs runs into 75 lbs, which one wins? 75. Obviously. No matter how much 50 back squats.
It’s my senior year in college, and I’m trying to gain weight. It’s not enough for me to be strong, anymore. Physics has started to take its toll on me.
I eat until I am stuffed at every meal. I snack all the time. I’m somehow constantly feeling so, so full, but deeply hungry. I’m burning calories that I’m having trouble replacing because of my naturally fast metabolism and the amount I’m working out.
I get it, it’s not a problem women have. I can’t complain about trying to gain weight, even though I think about it day in and day out. It takes over my life. I think about food all the time. I eat all the time. I dream of peanut butter and apples. I feel sick. I see sandwiches in everyone’s eyes.
Over the course of late summer training and fall season, I manage to gain 3 lbs. Within three weeks of the season ending, it’s melted away.
“No,” I reply, “I can eat the cookie because I’m not going to the gym. I’m not trying to throw up in the middle of interval training because I ate a peanut butter cookie three hours ago.”
“Because I am not going to the gym,” I explain again,“I can eat the cookie.”
My junior year of college, I decide it’s time to really commit and eat vegetables. Not just have a salad at dinner, but eat veggies. Eat healthy foods, whole foods, foods that fuel my body.
For a while, it’s absolute torture. I hate greens. I hate peppers. I hate basically everything except for carrots and onions.
At the end of meals, I will force myself to eat my vegetables because they are good for me. I feel, simultaneously, like a parent and a toddler. “Just one more bite! Here come the green beans!”
It takes me about 6 months for my body to really feel different all the time. Something has re-calibrated. If I eat a bag of chips and try to hop on the stationary bike, I feel it. There’s a fine tuned machine assembling itself inside of me, a semi-elite athlete pushing through.
At the time, I’m riding the bench on a team full of national team call ups.
This cookie, man, this cookie doesn’t matter to me calorically. I would happily eat 400 calories of cookie, or croissant, or cottage cheese. It doesn’t matter in my numbers game anymore.
But it does matter in three hours, when I hop on the treadmill at the gym.
That is to say, it matters how my body feels. It matters if I feel energetic when I wake up in the morning. It matters if my body feels like it’s flying when I get my heart rate up. It matters to me that I feel strong and capable.
I realize that I am lucky. Although I am not immune to standing in front of the mirror and poking at the parts of myself that I’m unhappy with, I live in my body in a way that most people don’t. Right now, everything is fully functional. I am tall and relatively thin, although I still wish I were more of the former and less of the later. Strangers do not tell me to be healthier. Nobody comments what clothes are appropriate for someone of my size to wear.
Now, I think about what I eat because I care about how my body feels. And if my body feels good, I feel good.
This is a mentality with its own set of problems, especially in athletics. If I’m injured, all hell breaks loose. If I’m not as fast or as strong as I think I should be, I’m upset. Athletic training is a cesspool of unhealthy behaviors and thoughts, even in a whirlwind of healthful benefits. But that’s for another post.
For this post, I encourage you all to abandon the mind. Live, if however briefly, in the body. Understand how your food makes your body feel. Eat ice cream, and eat spinach. Eat potato chips, and eat a cookie. Make your own granola bars. Bathe in avocado. Blend frozen berries into smoothies that stain your lips and the front of your shirt. Wipe sauce from buffalo wings all over your jeans, wash the wings down with beer. Everything will fold together. The complex machinery will handle what you throw at it. Reject the three cashews. Sleep on a bed of raw meat. Never touch meat again. Experiment. Savor. Allow your body to be a body.
Allow your body to be a body and not a canvas, sometimes.