exercise un-culture


Written by Haley Jakobson     

      At 17 the most physical efforting I’d ever done was turning 300 pages of a book in a three hour sitting.
      I was always uncomfortable in my body. I don’t mean self-conscious because hello that’s a teenage given, I mean that there was a constant shifting from either foot to lessen the bloat in my belly or incessant tapping of my knee to ignore how restless my unprocessed heart was. There was this buzzing world under my skin that would itch and prick and felt sticky and stuck and I could never feel my feet and over-feel my head and the disconnect was unbelievable now but then it was the only thing to believe. It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand, overwhelmingly, that discomfort was my baseline and I knew nothing but it.
     Cue senior prom and a gym membership. And thank god, because I didn’t know the word relief until my feet padded the floor of that locker room. It doesn’t matter that now I can count the number of ways I started teaching my body to hate itself, because it is also coupled with the first time I could breathe. I didn’t know it, but I was shedding the sweat and sludge of adolescence and reclaiming a body so lost in trauma as my own again. God did I have zero words for that, nilch nada nothing a brain so starved for emotional understanding all I knew was that I wanted to look skinny in my prom dress and that’s about as evolved as my soul was at that time. No matter that I was making muscle from the inside out, that my smile was brighter and my mind far quieter, that I could feel my fucking feet and stand in stillness too. Freedom and ecstasy and endorphins and the thrill of sliding my fingers down a strong belly inside the waist of my denim shorts with the thrill of certainty that a boy would want to do the same, which is loaded in itself, but should not be surprising. I am just repeating a well-shrugged mantra, that our bodies were never ours to begin with.
     But remember that we remedy that head-shake with the knowledge that our life’s work is to reclaim them. It is not a task fairly asked of us, but it is the task at hand. This is all to say that the catch-22 of the quest for embodiment is that it often comes after the diet-and-exercise-culture-trauma we are assigned first. Because in our society the relationship between exercising as physical necessity for wellness, as a bodily duh-lightbulb-human-right-animalistic-intuitive-need, automatically comes hand in hand with surface changes of the physical form. And we are taught that that is far superior from the inside-out totally-transformative journey that is healing bodies through movement. I see it like clockwork in other people because I saw it in myself. The inability to separate the endorphins and mental clarity and strength and metaphorical sweat-vomiting of un-useful pain from the pounds lost, the tone, the shape, the inevitable compliments. And then the cycle begins - the self-competition, expectation to only “improve” from here, hunger for validation and ruthless punishment when we do not progress. How dare we go back? More fit, more healthy, more “body positive” branding, no backtracking or cheating or relapsing. At the very very least we must maintain, how pathetic and disgusting if we don’t, how sad and very disappointing we are if our body is not a machine remote controlled by an idea in our head we thought once and then became the only god we prayed to. A whole new self-hatred forms, different than the self-pity of being out of shape, because the self-care movement is a quick and easy excuse to cover guilt and shame and signs of disordered eating and obsessive exercise. “It’s self-care,” we say, as we demand the sculpted sports illustrated versions of ourselves. As we introduce an unrealistic image of our body to our brains because we live in a world where it is an unhad thought, a truly foreign and bizarre concept, to shake hands first with the form we have been given. There is a lot of talk about “being in your body” in my world. That began in acting school and only continued when I became a yoga teacher. I have had so many hushed conversations with women as they admitted to me that they have no idea what that means. And I am not the expert, I promise, but I do believe because I went so fiercely from one direction to the other, that I do know the difference.
      Because my before-prom gym days turned into my every day, five mile runs and no days off, calorie counting apps and weight loss disguised as veganism. Spiraling, spiraling. The compliments! The cheerleaders! The crash that would come. A shin-splint. A mono diagnosis. A raging depression. Because what should have happened (although there are not really shouldn’ts when your life unfolds the way it is meant to be read) was that moving my body meant feeling feelings that had been stored inside it. The lonely of childhood, and the grief of an abandonment and the unwarranted anger from a loved one and then the big one, the grand slam, the paralyzing and shattering wound of a rape all trapped in the flesh of my hip and the swirling of my belly. The undoing begins there, in the brief moment a teenage girl is granted as her body seizes the opportunity for healing, and the moment ends as soon as the words “bikini body” are screeched on the loudspeaker of ungodly expectation. 
      And so she may, like I did, get re-routed for years. But my universe intervened and rejected it all. And I think one of my callings is to shatter it for you the way it got shattered for me.  It took a long time to understand why I sobbed during my mandatory ballet classes in college. That the full activation of my body, without crumpling fingers or a hunched spine would expose all the ways I had learned to cut off from the full expression of myself. Because they don’t tell us that being your authentic self means you have to re-live the gut-wrench of every way in which you got de-railed from that right. 
       When I move my body now, I cannot unknow each way it tries to limit itself because it was ravaged by hurt and that became the standard and the standard is comforting even if it is bad for you and yes your refusal to stretch all the way through your fingertips is because something in your life told you that you were not allowed to take up all the space that you deserve. Something as simple as that had my face drenched with a wet anger. 
And it changed my life forever. 
      If that concept is as bizarre and confusing to you as it was to me, know that it is not in our life’s curriculum or pre-prescribed destiny to understand it. But if it is something you’d like to learn, if your body is something you’d like to study, as sorrowful as it is that that isn’t a no-brainer or the given, know that your life’s class is waiting for you. 

I’m happy to share notes. 
May we never graduate.