Fat Pilates Teacher
This was a phrase I heard a lot the first two years I began teaching Pilates. It’s, 2010, and I’ve just completed a year-long, 600+ hour training program; I’m forty years old, down over ninety pounds since 1997, and in the best shape of my life. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, more energetic than I’ve ever felt. Pilates—like writing—is a passion, one I love teaching.
And, yet, there’s that phrase I keep hearing: Fat Pilates Teacher. And it’s not coming from other people. It’s coming from inside me.
It would creep into my head when I compared myself to many of the petite, former-dancer teachers who are my colleagues, my friends, my mentors. My body didn’t look like theirs. I had big hips and boobs, and at nearly six feet tall, I felt big.
It would come out of my mouth when someone asked me if I had a dance background. Oh no! I’d tell them. I’m a writer—it’s all about the metaphors for me! I can’t dance, I have no grace, no coordination, that’s why I don’t look like the other instructors…I’m the Fat Pilates Teacher. It was a crazy quicksand neural whirlpool that pulled me down, negated my hard earned body and drowned my self-esteem.
I had started a weight loss journey in 1996. After losing sixty pounds I was shocked to discover a love of running, but kept experiencing stress fractures that were sidelining my workouts. One day I Googled “Bone strengthening exercise” and Pilates came up. I found a local studio that offered a first class for free and after one hour I was hooked. A few months later I knew I wanted to learn to teach it. I had no plan in mind except that I knew I wanted to practice it for life; Pilates was helping me tune in to my body in ways I hadn’t experienced before, and I wanted to help others feel that too.
My colleagues would poo poo when I complained about being fat. And the truth is, at 5’10 and 174 pounds, I wasn’t. And my body was telling me that, telling me I was strong and fit and attractive. But I was five pounds up from my “goal” weight of 169, and I’d been overweight for so much of my life, I couldn’t silence the “other” voices I’d heard for so long. The girl in 7th grade gym class who came up to me as I stood near the soccer goal and said, “You know, you’d be kinda pretty if you weren’t so fat.” I took it as a complement. The boys in 2nd grade who sang the Hefty bag song at me, “She’s tough enough to overstuff!” The boys in 5th grade called me a beached whale as they came upon me sitting alone in an auditorium and staged an elaborate harpooning show while I felt myself impossibly large and shrinking too, like some cosmic event of the body. How could I feel both so enormous and so small at once?
And how, decades later, could I be in great physical shape and still be dealing with this noise inside myself?
Because the fairytale ending—one the media sells us—wasn’t real. Weight loss wasn’t a magical panacea for years of body image problems. No one showed up at my house with the gift of lifelong body-lovin’ all wrapped up in a delicious, fat-free, fiber-filled dark chocolate bon bon which, once swallowed, sits in the colon for life, giving off rainbow sparkles of confidence and self-esteem. The truth is the scale does not jump up and high five us every morning we remain at our “goal” weight; getting strong and fit can start to feel like ‘regular’ life pretty fast. Outward looks don’t always reinforce good habits or diminish bad ones.
I’ve been teaching nearly six years now, five as Prenatal and Postnatal Pilates specialist. I no longer hear “Fat Pilates Teacher,” and I’ve learned to value my body in new ways, but at times I still struggle with self-esteem, with my weight, with my appearance. In a world where the female form is simultaneously revered, attacked, judged and regulated, I think most women are challenged to find a voice from within our bodies that we trust and believe.
I’ve come to believe this: satisfaction with our bodies—body positivity—isn’t a noun; it’s a verb. And we have much work to do, because gaining body positivity means getting past the outside noise, learning to understand the language our bodies use, and help them to be loud enough to be heard over the din.
There is, as I write this, an eleven-year old girl who is trying to learn to hear her body. She is one of five kids, a twin, and the daughter of friends. She is a beautiful, creative, willowy girl who, when I saw her in early January, still looked like a model child out of one of those black and white Calvin Klein ads, blonde and gorgeous. And about three months ago she dropped to less than 70 pounds, her heart rate falling to 30-40 beats per minute—cardiac arrest threat. She was diagnosed with an eating disorder and her family’s whole world has been turned upside down. While she was at a facility specializing in ED, her father spoke of the “thing that has a hold of my daughter” as something evil and insidious, cracking gallows jokes about wishing the characters from Supernatural (a family favorite) would come exorcise the demon.
For a few days after Elle’s mom contacted me, I was a wreck. I have known the twins since birth. They were preemies and I recall holding them in the hospital—so small that even weeks after birth their bodies fit between my wrist and the crook of my elbow. We lived in the same apartment building and the twins, around aged two, would crawl up the four flights to my apartment, stand up and walk in silent and wide-eyed, making a beeline towards my stereo where we enacted a ritual of my putting on Kylie Minogue’s Fever album.
Tracks one and two were always pressed for a few bars, and the girls responded each time with a decisive “NOOOOOO” twisting their bodies as if to shake off the tune. Then track 3, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” would come on, the tin-can heartbeat of the percussion bursting from my small speakers, and their bodies would explode in dance, arms flailing.
The girls were different even then, one preferring tutus, the other a bit of a tomboy, and their dance styles were different too. One girl spun in circles, arms wide, the other jumped side to side, fists bunched. It was joyous to watch, to be a part of, and looking back on that makes it impossible to imagine how years later, one of these girls would no longer be able to distinguish the reality of her healthy, beautiful body from the perception that it was too big, too fat, too present.
Do you wonder which girl it was? The “girly” girl, or the “tomboy”? You might. And it wouldn’t be unusual to wonder, because we want to make sense of these things, to look for reasons, to dissect and say “There, that’s the key!” but with EDs the truth is we don’t really know. Sometimes EDs runs in families, but there isn’t enough evidence to suggest it’s genetic. There are psychological, environmental and social factors that contribute, according to most specialists, but even those factors are hard to pin down. Two factors are certain, according to just about every expert: 1. EDs most often affect women, most often during puberty, and 2. They seem to be linked heavily to Western culture which bombards us with media images for women’s bodies that are—for most—not a realistic reflection.
I think we are born with an innate respect, if not love, of our bodies. Babies do not suck in their guts when they inhale, concerned about looking fat in their diapers. Children move and play with abandon, celebrating their bodies by using them. Our concern with outward appearance is learned; our connection to our physical selves can be nurtured, built, destroyed and damaged. By our teens, many girls only feel conditional acceptance of their bodies. We will be happy with them under certain circumstances. “When I lose ten pounds…”, “When I get down to #”, “When I fit into that ____.” Our body acceptance is almost always linked to external forces and appearance, and even when young women get healthy body experiences, that outside noise is ever present and challenging.
Your “Best Self” is a media cliché. I wonder, does our “Best Self” allow for imperfections, for fluctuation? Can we still work positively toward changes in our bodies without demolishing ourselves for who we are in the present? We had better learn to, because if we can’t allow for those, we are on the chase of our lives. Our “Best Self” is like Road Runner, and we are Wile E. Coyote, constantly dropping off cliffs and making face-plants against walls in pursuit of something unattainable.
Feeling Listening Seeing
In order to “hear” your body, one must first feel it. Americas, regardless of gender, aren’t very good at this. We are a society of still-lives, spending too many hours hunched over computers, car wheels and phones; we are “couch-surfers” and “armchair warriors.”
The last few years the news has been rife with scientific articles about how sitting is killing us, how the average person sits six hours a day. Many of us use technology (Fitbits, iphones, apps to shut off social media) to help us move more, even as technology (TV, Netflix, video games, social media, the internet) challenges us to do this. Our brain chemicals and the way we feel—happy, sad, lonely, depressed—can be influenced by how many “likes” our Facebook posting got, or how much email just overflowed our inbox. Most of our jobs—whether they be sitting at a desk all day, or standing behind a counter—do not account for the fact that our bodies might need more than what we allow. We desperately need more physical movement and a connection to the body that technology cannot replace.
Right now my body is telling me I need to lose some weight. I don’t state this as a negative, but as something I have learned to hear without judgment. I feel how my body should be, and I know the extra pounds are inhibiting me from some of the physicality I am capable of. I know how it got there. Two wonderful things happened last year: my Pilates business picked up, and I fell in love. Schedule and lifestyle changes challenged my good workout and eating habits. I stopped listening to my body in certain ways because I was focused on taking care of my increased work load, enjoying eating out more, and choosing time with my boyfriend rather than early morning bike rides. Now, with my supportive partner’s help, I am working to find ways to build in new healthy habits and routines and find compromises I can live with.
That said, I am still a strong, healthy body. My body can do some amazing things: bike a hundred miles, learn to surfboard, have glorious orgasms, and more. I try to focus on “fat” as a noun, not an adjective. After all, cheese is fat and I love cheese; how could I hate a part of myself?
My weight loss journey was the beginning of learning how to catch my internal messaging, to pay attention to what the voice inside my head was saying, and if it was detrimental to my success or self image. But Pilates taught me how to feel my body, and the importance of mindfully being in it.
My first experience in a Pilates class was wonderful. There were metaphors. I love metaphors! (Can you tell?) “Make your body like a canoe,” my first teacher said as I attempted my first “100s” exercise. “Imagine a dozen people are standing in the belly of your boat, feel their weight, how your ends bow up and out of the water.”
My writing skills came in handy as a Pilates teacher, as visual cues are one way to help a person feel their body. Tactile ones work as well, and sometimes the best way to help a person feel something is to use my hands on them as feedback. Pilates emphasizes breathwork; learning to breath fully, and learning different breath patterns help you to relax when you need to, get energy when you need to, and fully oxygenate your brain while you are working physically.
I tell many of my clients that learning Pilates is like discovering all the relatives you have in a large, extended family; you may have communicated well with a few, others you dislike talking to, and some you didn’t even know existed. Imagine learning to have great communication with every member of your body’s family. Imagine how that would change the way you workout, the way you sit at work, the way hear your body talk.
Of course, Pilates isn’t the only way to get there. Many forms of exercise can also increase our connectivity, but so can practices like meditation and activities like dancing. The point is consciously “being” in the body. I think organized sports and group exercise classes are great, but for some it can add to a sense of concern about outward appearance, or a focus on competition that might make it hard to hear your body. One thing that has helped me greatly is a better understanding of anatomy.
Anatomy Saves Me
A lot of my female clients won’t look at themselves in a mirror. They keep chins tucked, or heads turned, eyes down; some even close their eyes when working. Sometimes I think this is because it’s easier to feel when not challenged by what we see. I try to teach them to see their bodies through movement, like I have learned to, look for the invisible lines of energy inside them that speak through bone and muscle, tendon and fascia.
Pilates has taught me another way of using the mirror. I look at anatomy, the architecture of how we are built for movement. Yes, I see my nasolabial folds; I see the wrinkles of my forehead, lines between my eyebrows. I am forty-five years old; Jimmy Hendrix would be able to tell I’m experienced by looking at me. But when I am working out and looking in the mirror I shift from surface markings; I might look at my collarbone.
Collarbones are beautifully twisted spirals, rebar lifting our upper torsos. Mine was hidden for many years beneath extra weight, and when it made an appearance it was like a fantastic creature emerging from the depths of a Scottish loch; I’m always happily amazed it has stayed surfaced. My collarbone shows the width of my shoulders and this, in turn, lets me see a sense of my posture while feeling how my arms connect to my ribcage.
I look and feel for the energetic lines sliding up my spine, the sides of my neck, nudging up behind my ears. I feel my shoulder blades lift when I inhale, slide down when I exhale; I imagine them connected to heavy wings to help engage the muscles beneath.
I look at my legs. I lie on my back and extend a leg into the air, gauge the tightness of my hip flexors by the grip I feel there; I look at the bulk of my quadratus femoris, the teardrop shaped muscle falling from my knee up my thigh; it is strong and prominent and I flex it just to see it. I note my slight knock knee, the curve of my calf; I reach thru the instep of my foot, feel a stretch in the hamstring, make a cleaner body line inside my leg that implies energy, work, journey and growth. And it feels good.
Our bodies have purpose. All the parts. No part of your anatomy is there just for “looks.” If there is an aesthetic there in what you see, that is beside the point. You are free to wonder if the beauty you see—on the surface, in the design, in the movement—is intended, but that is between you and your God. Your arms are there to hold, grab, touch, push. Your toes are there for balance, to aide in propelling your movement. Your clitoris is there for one thing: pleasure. It is the only part of the human body designed solely for pleasure, so please make use of it regularly.
These movements of my body speak to me, tell me what I need to stretch, strengthen, and rest. I hear my body talking, just like it now does if I sit too long, or spend too much time in a car. Try this: Lie on a floor for ten minutes and allow yourself to listen, to feel. Your body will tell you things. Twist and roll and move, like you would if you were a kid. You once heard it tell you to do silly things, like spin, or roll down a hill, or jump off something you probably shouldn’t. Put your ego aside, and listen.
It took time, but I see people differently now, and so I see myself differently. Bodies are made of beautiful spirals and curves. Our pelvis makes an infinity shape as we walk. Our feet are twisted springs to help us move against gravity with less impact. Skin is like fabric, it drapes in certain positions to help me see what is happening underneath.
I sit on a bus and see posture, mobility, or shapes and energy lines. A tired spine groans at me; a stiff neck whines. I look at bodies and want to make pain and tension go away; I think of moving people, giving them visual, aural, tactile cues to help them sit up taller, feel the stretch of their spine after a long day, not because I want to change their physical appearance, but because I want to make them feel good.
When I extend my arms wide I see the soft hanging flesh beneath my upper arms that just didn’t snap back after a 90 pound weight loss. This used to bother me, but now I focus on muscle. It turns out, after six years of Pilates, I am graceful, strong, and coordinated. Look at the width of my arms. Look at the beauty of that line, wrapping around a tree that isn’t there, hugging. I’m this big, and I’m finally okay with that.
But sometimes I slip.
One day, after I take a weekend workshop with a master Pilates instructor, there is a photo posted on Facebook of the workshop. It is a circle of instructors around one person demoing a leg exercise, and I remember doing that exercise and wrongly think the body I am seeing is myself. I don’t see the perfect form, I see the circle of people watching, and I think protectively, reactively. I see the thigh in the air and feel vulnerable. It is my thigh and it looks thick, fat. My legs look fat, I think, and then I see myself in the photo, hunched over a notebook in the corner and realize the thigh is not mine, but the master teacher’s, and there is nothing at all fat or thick about it. It is entirely fine, average sized, strong. And I know it was a strong leg because I recall being there, and know this instructor’s body as lean and fit. This shocks me. To think I am still susceptible to this kind of dysmorphia. To think it was cued by a photo and the idea of others watching, judging. I still have work to do to get past the external voices, the Noise.
The Noise is directed at females. If your job doesn’t inhibit your freedom of physical movement, don’t worry: some other message out there is directing you to stop listening to your body.
It might come from the media, which sells a certain body ideal we can’t get to—be it size, color, gender conformity, age, etc.
It might come from advertising which tells you to lift, tuck, suck, shape, mold, erase, etc. into something else, because clearly what’s there isn’t good enough.
It might come from your government, whose elected officials who are often confused about the powers a vagina has, differentiate between types of rape, and make decisions on abortion options.
It might come from the healthcare industry which fixes dollar amounts on services so that a c-section pays a physician less than a natural birth, and determines what a body is worth to heal. Additionally, the healthcare and medical industries are mostly male-run, and in recent years many large hospital groups have been bought by religious organizations that impose their values on physicians; both these factors have shaped how the bodies of women are treated.
I was shocked two years ago when my long term ObGyn told me we would have to “determine a reason” I was on birth control that she could put down on her forms, since a Catholic group had bought out her hospital and forbid physicians from prescribing birth control for the purpose it is named.
The Noise is everywhere. Every time I hear another news story about a campus rape. Every time I hear another bill passed limiting a woman’s right to choose. Every time I pass a magazine promising body happiness through a diet.
Working with pregnant women has made me very aware of the lack of agency they have over their bodies. “Why didn’t my doctor check me for a diastasis? For the strength of my pelvic floor?” many ask me when I teach them about their bodies, how a diastasis (splitting of abdominal tissue) might lead to back pain or herniation, how a weak pelvic floor can cause incontinence, sexual dysfunction, and even be a factor in organ prolapse. My answer is this: the medical industry focuses on the delivery of a healthy baby; the mom’s health—physical, mental and emotional—is secondary, if thought of at all. A female friend ObGyn agrees with me: if men had babies, we’d be looking at a very different healthcare industry.
If men had to carry babies, you can damn well be sure no man would go without breastfeeding guidance, a doula, all the food he wanted when he got to the hospital (up until just this past year most hospitals wouldn’t let a woman eat anything once she checked in while in labor); every procedure involved in cutting near his sexual organs would come with a twelve page form where he specifically indicated his informed consent, unlike many c-sections and episiotomies. You can be certain a man who found he was peeing himself when trying to back to his regular activities after birth would be immediately sent to a pelvic floor specialist, and no one would tell him “Oh, that just happens after you have kids,” and there would be more than just one doctor’s visit (at the six week check-up) in the year after birth. If men had babies, the healthcare industry would be making sure things down below were not just ‘still there,’ but stellar.
The Noise is all around us, and it’s varied in theme and form, but here is what it is saying: if you were born with a vagina or identify as female, your body is not your own. Your body is pleasurable, but mainly for others. Your body is dangerous, as it causes others to lose control. Your body is sacred because it can bear children, but clearly others must regulate this for you. Your body has less value, therefore we can pay you less than your male counterparts. Your body isn’t worthy.
I think about my friend’s daughter, I’ll call her Elle. Seventh grade. When I was eleven I faithfully read the Seventeen Magazine Back-to-School issue every fall, looking at the models on the cover and I’d hope that this year something about how I looked would be miraculously different; that I would look like those girls I saw in ads, in magazines, in movies, in music videos. I never did. Or maybe I always did but I couldn’t see it.
About a month ago Elle’s dad said her body dysmorphia had not so much “turned a corner” as it was peeking out from the shadowy edge of one, suspicious of what she saw there. The reality of her health, her life being threatened, is at odds with the voice in her mind that says she is too big, too much, must disappear, the reality that this voice isn’t really her.
I disappeared the opposite way for decades. I hid behind the food I used as comfort, avoiding feeling what my body was telling me—that I was full, satisfied, enough—avoided seeing myself by wearing large loose clothing in beautiful colors, patterns and fabrics. I saw the fabric, the color, instead of me. This was my costume, my fake skin. I could touch a cashmere sweater and it felt good, so I didn’t have to pay attention to what was inside it and how it was feeling. But at times I did feel it, and it was often painful and uncomfortable to be significantly overweight. When I bent over to try and cut my toenails I couldn’t do so without becoming out of breath because my body was too large to bend that way—too much flesh between my calves and thighs; too much flesh between my legs, my breasts and belly to make easy breathing possible. I did my best not to hear my body, and I succeeded for a long time.
I look back at both these girls—Elle and myself—with sadness, with compassion, with hope because I know change is possible. A lot of my writing students struggle to find the value in their own writing voices; they try to sound like someone else, someone more “writerly” and miss the power and honesty their most natural voice brings to the page. I look at my teen self and Elle and wish those two could hear their real selves and see the girls they really were and are. Elle is eleven years old and some programming is running in her head that she is not right, can’t be right. Was the noise in my head that different? I think not, except now mine is quieter, less consistent, but only because I am older, because I’ve worked so very hard to find the voice of my body.
I’ve learned how to talk to myself more positively because of my own bodywork, and because of my clients. It’s much easier to learn to shift your own negative messaging when you practice helping others do so. I work at this every day. I offer a profound thank you to my clients, many who have been with me for years. You have taught me through your work, through your trust in me, how to better love my body and myself.
It’s not always easy, but I’m getting better at it. And I have to. For Elle and all the other women, girls, women identifying and women born. For myself.
Elle is going home next week to begin outpatient care. Next month her entire family will enter a program to help them cope with her eating disorder. She has gained weight and been eating independently. A couple weeks ago, her father updated friends “… for the first time she has made a distinction between herself and the eating disorder…becoming aware that reality is different from her perception… she got to go outside for the first time in almost two months, it was dark and she said it was a little scary because you forget how big the world is.”
And I understand. The world is big and scary, and loud, and women can feel so small and unheard. We have a lot of work to do, and it can seem overwhelming. All of these forces from the outside affect us, and we do need to work to make external changes, but I don’t think we can wait any longer. I think about Elle, and wonder what I can do for her; I feel helpless. So I’m advocating something more personal.
To change our world today—the rape culture, the unequal pay, the media saturation of some static ideal female image—perhaps we can start to make changes within ourselves. We can lie on a floor and feel. We can learn our anatomy. We can touch ourselves and learn our bodies. We can meditate, masturbate, dance, exercise, and move—just for ourselves. These are butterfly wings, I realize, but I believe they can create a wind.
To be in your body—despite the Noise, despite the fact that we aren’t always feeling good, healthy, comfortable—is to revolt. To learn to be in your body is to defy what tries to take our power. And perhaps if we keep practicing listening to our bodies, others will hear them too.
Marcia Brenner teaches writing at Columbia College Chicago, and Pilates at Frog Temple, where she is a Pre and Postnatal specialist. She has published short stories, essays, novel excerpts, and is an editor at Ms. Fit Magazine. She believes every body has a story to tell through words, language and movement.