Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Body of Work

I am done hating my body. Most of my 40-plus years have been spent criticizing, hiding, and abusing it. Not wearing the clothes I like because I don't think I "can." Or because the clothes I like don't adequately hide the parts I hate the most. Missing out on adventures because I was too self-conscious to wear the required clothing. Missing out because I was too self-conscious to take the clothing off. Feeling guilty about eating. Sneaking food. Bingeing. Restricting. Exhausting a massive amount of energy worrying about it, trying to control it, beating myself up over it.

Enough is enough is enough. One of the biggest gifts triathlon has given me is that inch by inch, mile by mile, it has brought me into happier relationship with this body that makes it all possible. This glorious, strong, tough, resilient, perfect body. It's almost imperceptible, but the self-loathing trickles away with every workout, every race.

So I find myself here at Lake Placid, ready, willing, and able to take on one of the world's toughest endurance events. A race that I already know I can finish, an accomplishment I have already achieved. I wear my Ironman bracelet with pride, and I walk around this town wearing my Ironman athlete bracelet with pride, and I feel like F*CK YEAH, MAN, you're DAMN RIGHT I'm a freaking Ironman. This body and I can do any goddamn thing in this world.  

And at exactly the same time: holy shit, I am the biggest female athlete here. I am the only one with cellulite. No one here has any extra body fat. I feel enormous. I don't even look like an athlete. No one thinks I'm here to race.

I tell this voice to shut it. When I hear her shout, I consciously cancel her message with words of love for my calves, my thighs, my butt, my round tummy. But she's persistent, and loud, and she keeps coming back. The cognitive dissonance is compelling, and the intensity of this convergence leaves me thinking that I must be on the cusp of a major breakthrough. I am ready to shut that voice down for good.

We (women, especially) are bombarded with messages about how "flawed" our bodies are. We are expected to conform to an exceedingly thin standard to achieve real beauty. We are supposed to exercise and diet to achieve a beach, summer, or bikini body before we dare to let our wobbly bits show. No no no no no. My tummy wants sunshine on it, and I give exactly zero fucks about whether you think I have a good enough body for a bikini. Which is not entirely true, but it's my platform and I'm practicing it until I don't feel one bit squeamish about it. 

In a wonderful post in her "Go Kaleo" blog, Amber Rogers writes

Listen folks. Cellulite is not a ‘problem’. It is not a flaw. Cellulite is a normal function of the way women’s bodies store fat. 80-90% of women have cellulite to some degree. Lean women have cellulite, healthy women have cellulite, vegan women have cellulite, paleo women have cellulite, celebrities have cellulite, body builders have cellulite, bikini models have cellulite, women in isolated cultures who still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle have cellulite, women with access to unlimited amounts of plastic surgery have cellulite. Most of the women reading this have cellulite. You’re not flawed. You’re normal.

(I encourage you to check out the whole article, for a clear and simple anatomy lesson and an inspiring message about body acceptance.)

I belong to a Facebook group started by Amber that provides a forum for discussing these issues. One of the traditions of the group is for members to post photos of parts of their body that they feel good about, or bad about, or ambivalent about, as a way of gaining perspective, developing some appreciation for themselves, normalizing our diverse body types, and correcting the radically skewed body image ideals that pervade our mass culture. I thought it was a little weird at first, but over time, I've found it to be one of the most emotionally moving, powerful, effective, and healing aids in my own path toward self acceptance. To see all these normal women's bellies on Tummy Tuesday, for example--to realize how widely reality diverges from the ideal, to read about their own fears and insecurities, and to hear about their own victories and confidence, their efforts to love themselves wholly and completely and without condition: yes. I want that for all of them. I want that for all the daughters. I want that for myself.

I was delighted this week to see that the cover of Women's Running Magazine features a beautiful athlete who does not conform to the typical size/shape/body composition standards of mainstream athletic pop culture.

We so desperately need images that represent us in all our shapes and sizes, that allow us to be strong and fast and brave and tough, whatever that looks like. I'm also a member of a women's triathlon group on Facebook, and every so often someone will post something about looking so horrible in race photos. Some chime in to offer support, but the bulk of the responding comments are from dozens of other women who think they, too, look terrible. How they bulge out of their spandex, how their faces look drawn, how their cellulite shows, how fat they look, how bony their knees are, how old they appear. 

It crushes me. My heart breaks for all these sisters. Of course the photos are unflattering -- we are breathless, in motion, working hard, wearing spandex, concentrating. I deeply appreciated champion runner Lauren Fleshman's decision to publish "real" photos of her body in contrast to her "perfect" runway shoot. 

Why are we even thinking about this? We are strong and capable and winning! We are goddesses and badasses. Stop it, just stop! But here's the thing: I am the worst among them. When I get link to a photo gallery from a race, I rush to find my own photos, and I'm a nervous wreck as I do it. I literally hold my breath while I click though to find out how disappointed I'm going to be. I sort through to to find a photo that I think is flattering enough to share to celebrate my accomplishment. If I'm lucky, and maybe with some cropping, I can find one I'm OK with sharing. Even last year's Ironman! A whole gallery of photos of me smiling while achieving the most badass victory of my life: and I was OK with sharing 4 of them. In the other 10 or 12, I couldn't see through the fat to simply celebrate the image of this strong, happy woman achieving a peak experience.

So I'm going to do something really hard right now. I'm going to post a photo from a recent race that I consider OK to share, even though I'm not thrilled with it. And then I'm going to post the one that horrifies me. I mean HORRIFIES me. Without editing and without further comment.

Yesterday while I was in the changing rooms at the Mirror Lake swim area, I heard some girls using the vending machines just outside the door. I imagined they were about 11 or 12 years old. "I'm actually getting food for a bunch of people," one said. "God, I would feel so gross and guilty if I ate this much food." 

NO! I wanted to shout. NO! Do not feel gross, do not feel guilty. Eat to feed your growing body. Do not explain yourself to others. Do not apologize for your choices. Do not hide. Love yourself, child. Let us all love ourselves, just as we are.

So tomorrow I'm going to stuff my big Athena goddess body into a teeny tiny spandex race kit, and I'm going to spend 140.6 miles in front of some 30,000 spectators. My legs are going to swell, as they do every day, and my various parts are going to jiggle and wobble and bounce, and my cellulite is going to be really pronounced in some of the photographs, and I am going to be jealous of some of the women out there, and that voice is going to try to tell me I don't belong, that I'm not good enough. But I am pushing that voice way away, into the deep woods of the Adirondacks, because the only voice I'm listening to tomorrow is the one I hear at the finish line, the one that says,

Shannon Thompson, of Camden, Maine, congratulations! YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!


  1. Shannon, my dear, dear friend Andy, a now an eight-time Ironman, put me onto your blog and I love it! I find it highly entertaining, real and inspirational.
    As a fourty-something mother of four and a now a marathoner, I say, you know what?: I grew FOUR people from this body, I fed FOUR babies from this body, once I fed TWO at a time. I run 25-30 miles a week. I ran a marathon, and will soon run another. My body is not air-brushed. It is by no means perfect: has wrinkles, stretch marks and jiggles when I run, but MY GAWD IT'S GOOD ENOUGH. This wonderful body, running, and looking at trees and flowers and breathing. (In-out-slow-it-down-keep moving.) F@ck ya! It's good enough. It's*good*enough.* How about: many, many thanks for this amazing body of mine. Moving. Breathing. Moving. And everything in between. It is many-fold more amazing than she who never make it off the couch...So, I say, have a cup of shut the f@ck up: a BIG ole cup. Ya. A bikini. Or whatever I want, inclusive of an extra scoop of ice cream. Shut-up all ya y'all. My amazing body. It's good enough and bless it.

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