Monday, November 14, 2011

I am the 26%

Today the blond at the gym told me that I have twenty-six percent body fat.
It wasn't my idea. I joined a gym recently because there's one near my house, and because for months I've been dancing with the idea of something to supplement my yoga practice. I like yoga. I like that the names of poses are in strange Sanskrit words I often misspell, and that they're often named after animals; I like that in a good class the poses the teacher invites us to do feel intuitive, and despite being not always easy, somehow still accessible, and like there is a lesson for life stored in each one; I like that my body feels like a guide, a temple, a playground and a teacher; I like that on a good day in class, I don't spend a lot of energy comparing myself to others, or to some imaginary standard; I like that yoga was a spiritual home for me when other, more traditional worship centers became threatening.

The gym is not like that. The gym is full of people in man made fabrics and full faces of makeup who tangle with complicated-looking machines; the gym has acres of bicycles that you can't ride anywhere; the gym plays loud music with hard beats and heavy bass at levels damaging to your hearing; and the staff considers "pushing to your limit" and "giving 110%" and even that old classic, "feel the burn" to be good things.

Yoga is church. The gym...the gym is like having junior high gym class in a steel factory.

A free trainer session came with my membership, and because I didn't say Thanks but No Thanks, and partly because I was curious, I took it. It was fine, I guess. She gave me some exercises to do that required minimal equipment. I was willing to do them because I'm not afraid to look stupid anymore. I felt them working while we were at it, and now almost two hours later, I know that I will have to return to my mat this evening and stretch in order not to wake up sore tomorrow. The exercises I can do on my own; I can return to the gym, after swallowing the bile of terror that grips me whenever I walk in the door, and hop around and sweat and gasp rather like an asthmatic steam engine, and know I'm getting my heart rate up, building strength and working my lungs.

But the body fat thing. That part. That part felt like my mother saying, "Jessica, you know if you lost five more pounds, you'd have a perfect body."

I'm the kind of person who, if you measure something about me and tell me it's lacking, then whether I care or not, I'll do what I can to correct it. The actual process of measuring my body fat wasn't nearly as humiliating as I expected. I had to stand up, extend what looked like an old game controller for N64 out into the air from my shoulders, and squeeze the handles until the machine beeped back a reading at me. No biggie. But then her words of how 26 isn't so bad, but 30 is obese, and you're obviously not obese, but I can help you work on that if you want and 18-21 is what's considered ideal and yadda yadda. This is when the voices took over and it became hard to listen. One said, Jess, this is bullshit, you know you're healthy, it doesn't matter what your body fat percentage is. Don't be freaked about this. And the other voice said, Shit, Jess, you knew you weren't in great health, and now you have proof, you need to have your ass in this gym daily until you can tighten up and tone in and slim down and feel like a better human being. That five pounds my mother oh so delicately suggested that I lose (repeatedly between 9th grade and um, 2009) has dogged me all my life. Keeping or losing the weight is something that I now know would not have made my mother love me any more authentically for who I am, instead of for what I make her think of herself. I've had enough therapy to recognize the voice of the part of me that says lose the weight is the same voice that told me to get good grades, dress a certain way, go out for these activities and be this good a girl, young woman, student and professional--all in pursuit of a relationship that was never possible.

So the CNN article says it's important for me to know my body fat percentage and to pay some attention to it, in order to make healthy choices and prevent myself from becoming one of the 2/3 of Americans who are overweight or obese. The calculator, which asked me to measure my (gulp) neck, waist, hips and height, puts the number even higher. But what does this mean? Does it mean that the lifestyle choices that I make to stay (emotionally and mentally, as well as physically) healthy aren't enough, and I need to be making more commitments? Does it mean that the impossible ideal of women's bodies that's plastered all over every ad I see, isn't that far off from what we "should be" in order to be healthy?

Or does it mean that some young woman who's just trying to do her job stepped on the place where my body issues cross my mommy issues?

If I am truly at risk for diabetes and heart disease, and this number bears it out, then I want to make some choices that will be good for me. But if this is just a tool by which gym personnel can quantify their clients in order to create goals and make strides, then I'd rather not keep an eye on the body fat percentage machine. I'd rather just do what will someday help me do an unsupported headstand, or help me jump back into chaturanga dandasana, or help me really feel like I'm surrendering in a seated forward fold, and not just like I'm mostly sitting up and barely moving from my pelvis at all. Another thing I love about yoga is that being goal-oriented is not the point. The point is to notice and reflect without judgment: something I'd love to teach the body fat percentage-machine. And my mother.


Julie K. said...

First of all: as the person whose best friend you became shortly after your mother starting hounding you for those 5 pounds, I must say that I have always admired your body. I want you to be happy with it the way yoga has made you happy with it.

Another thing is that I just don't believe either of those sources for your body fat number. Gyms thrive on making people feel inadequate, so what if that machine was rigged or biased? And Livestrong's calculator might not know how ripped you are from practicing yoga for years - so perhaps it doesn't give you an accurate read either.

Plus-and-also: these numbers ignore how much of one's body fat is brain fat. I bet most of your body fat is brain fat. And brain fat, we all know, makes you smarter. Seriously. It insulates your neuron fibers so your brain signals travel faster.

Elizabeth said...

Of course, this doesn't answer any of the questions that you posed here, but I'll say it anyway because it is the truth: I think you are one of the most beautiful women I know!