Our youth is a mixed bag of highs and lows. For all the frivolity, uninhibited by responsibility, there can be some game-changing, path-setting moments; those that flare up in the back of your mind, tinged with a flavour of regret, embarrassment and general awkwardness. Moments that make you glad not to have to do it all again. The moment you’re categorised as ‘cool or ‘uncool’ is one that particularly comes to mind; ‘the sorting hat’ IRL equivalent. It might come on the first day of school, or somewhat later. It might come from the peers that label you ‘geeky’ or ‘nerdy’, or the teachers that perceive you as hard-working or hard work. What’s certain is that our years of maturation undoubtedly come with the acquisition of stereotypes and expectations.
Personally, I was a geek and therefore not sporty or popular. The latter two sort of came hand-in-hand and any demonstration of academic ability was pooed-pooed as being the ultimate signifier of your inherent repellence. On rare occasions, you were both. That is sporty and academic, in which case you were treated as a demi-God, a blessing I experienced vicariously through one of my best friends. And these labels don’t mean you don’t participate. I was on the hockey team, played badminton outside of school and took regular dancing lessons. I could play sport, but I never excelled at it, and because I am perfectionist and require praise like a plant does water, it became a source of vexation for me. Reading, writing, crafting and essaying always came easier to me, and therefore indoor, sedentary skills became that which I honed.
Some of those stereotypes and confinements were unravelled at university. It’s a culture which moves along much more fluid lines, where I could glissade with relative ease from the student newspaper to dancing competitions to think tanks to acting and back again, and without anyone so much as commenting on my unsuitability for said activities. But it takes more than three years of abundant freedom and opportunity to extinguish such ingrained identifiers.
The fact that sport was more a source of humiliation (changing-rooms particularly haunt me as a place where snide remarks and dirty looks were able to fester) than of triumph had taken its toll on my confidence in myself, and of my confidence in my body.
It took signing up for a triathlon to reverse that. As soon as I moved to London I knew I wanted to ‘get fit’. There would be a plethora of classes in which to partake and the bittersweet anonymity of the city could in this case be a blessing. Unlike the university gym where you risked bumping into one-night stands or frenemies with a red, puffy face and your skin glistening with sweat, in London you could just get on with it amid a sea of strangers doing the same. But I needed an end game; a Kilimanjaro to climb. The kind of ‘oh fuck’ challenge that would motivate and frighten me in equal measure as its deadline loomed ever closer. That’s where the triathlon makes its entrance. It seemed as arduous as a marathon (maybe less so), without the chore and bore of all that running, so I signed up and haven’t shut up about it since.
I can sense your hesitation. ‘Getting on with it’ is a lot easier said than done. How exactly does one go from sofa bear to gym bunny? How does one prepare for a triathlon? I suffer from something called one-track-mindedness which means that as soon as I have a binding deadline or goal in place, I will reliably motor towards it. And I’m not going to lie, it requires hella’ time and dedication. You’ve got to clock in those hours. Sometimes that means getting up at 6am, or squeezing in a session after a 12-hour day at work. Sell it to yourself in whatever package works. I rather enjoy the invigoration of a run before work, or the solitude of a late-night dip in the pool. It’s stating the obvious to say there’ll be days when you point blank won’t be in the mood. There are days when your duvet will win its battle with the alarm. But if you can push through that initial groan-inducing reluctance, beyond the end-of-the-day, one-coffee-too-many sluggishness, I promise you it will get easier. It’ll become routine and you’ll start to feel worse when you don’t go.
My other tip? Embrace the vanity. In the sea of gym selfies and ab-spiration pics that dominate Instagram, it could be easy to land on the cynical side of the fence and declare this a symptom of a self-obsessed society. But in terms of providing motivation for sticking to a fitness regime, I’d say looking good is up there as No.1. Yes fitness is about more than appearance. It’s about pushing your body to its limit, getting strong, staying healthy – physically and mentally – yet the reason most people take up regular exercise is to sculpt, tone and hone their physicality. To look hotter than they did the year before. And where’s the shame in that?
Part of my ‘fitness journey’ (I’ll understand if you feel compelled to roll your eyes) has been about shedding embarrassment. Whether that’s in the changing rooms when women of all ages, shapes and sizes are happy to de-robe in your presence, or standing in front of a mirror and taking a photo of yourself without prefacing it with ‘just taking a cheeky selfie’, I feel much more likely to shrug than shudder in these circumstances than I would’ve 9 months ago.
It’s a very British trait to blush and squirm in the face of nakedness. I couldn’t ever imagine parading around with the level of unashamedness that Ryan Gosling displays in Crazy, Stupid, Love. But I’m taking baby steps. And going to the gym has helped me to shed more than my clothes. (Which I admit I still do mostly in the private changing rooms). I feel less plagued by self-doubt and body hang-ups and I’m also less prone to stereotyping. And that’s not to say that I’ve molded myself into the Victoria’s Secret-cum-Kayla-Itsines template.
Going to the gym isn’t (or doesn’t have to be) the pastime of a particular sort of person. The gym is full of differing body types; from the overweight and seriously ripped to individuals missing limbs or suffering from disabilities. Just because I was never ‘sporty’ at school and I’ve certainly never ticked the ‘athletic’ checkbox in those questionnaires that force you to assess your figure and subsequently label it doesn’t mean I’m ripe for exclusion. In school, you’re forever judged on your ability – graded, tested, compared, rated. In the real world – at least in this case – you’re your own judge. You can do it if you say you can.
So I say embrace the vanity. Look at yourself in the mirror as you lift weights and squat, even if you’re just supposedly ‘checking your form’. Look at yourself in the mirror after you’ve gone for a run and see how those calf muscles are coming along. Take a look and learn to enjoy what you see. This doesn’t have to be about publicising your newfound confidence. I’m not suggesting you adopt Kim Kardashian levels of self-promotion. But if it means you’re more happy to be in front of a camera should the opportunity arise then that’s something worth celebrating.
And of course, the by-product to all of this self-obsession and self-improvement is that I can now write ‘Ran 10K in under 50 minutes’ on my list of achievements. That I can comfortably cycle for 60 minutes and plank for 3 (not so comfortable). Not all bodies are naturally gifted in displays of athleticism, but that doesn’t negate them from being capable. It will take practice and discipline and more sweat you ever thought yourself capable of secreting. But beneath all those labels, jibes and niggles there’s an untapped strength in us all. And hopefully come August 6th, I’ll swim, cycle and run beyond any expectations – sporting or otherwise – I had for myself.
If you’d like to sponsor this particularly bunny, you can do so via my JustGiving page!
I’m fundraising for WWF-UK here.
And I’m fundraising for the Alzheimer’s Society here.