When I was a very little girl, I wanted to be a dancer. There are photos of me packed like sausage meat into strained black lycra, carroty hair in a home-cut page boy, chubby satin-clad foot not so much pointed as angled forlornly towards the floor.
I devoured books about ballerinas. I plotted my application to the Royal Ballet School. I dreamed of my debut at Covent Garden, all tutu and rapturous applause.
Luckily for all concerned, we moved house away from any chance of ballet classes when I was seven, and the dreams died away. It was only as an adult, looking back at the photos, that I could smile ruefully at the suddenly glaring disconnect between my remembered self-image and what must have been painfully clear to anyone looking on.
I can’t remember the first time that I started to perceive of my body as something to wish otherwise. I do remember being proud, for quite a lot of junior school, of being the tallest and the biggest; of being able to beat some of the boys. Bookish by nature, I was never that keen on sport, but I ran and rode my bike and played out, thinking no more of how I was made than what it let me do.
At some point, though, I became aware that my extra height and my added strength were no longer envied. I started to stoop. I chose clothes that draped and flowed, in the catastrophically unsuccessful hope that they would somehow make me look smaller, more fragile. I stopped eating in the presence of other people, deluding myself that they would see me as more delicately girl-like.
A small coterie of girls in secondary school was sporty, an even smaller group of one or two managed to be both sporty and cool. A natural lack of aptitude and a substantial dose of bullying met head-on with a new-found aversion to being thought unfeminine, and I (usually fake) limped through my teenage years with excuses to get out of netball or hockey or cross-country running, lingering, when the notes and the weekly periods didn’t work, on the touchlines hoping not to be noticed.
By the time I went to University, almost six foot tall, overweight, and trying desperately to be invisible in shapeless clothes and a face hidden by hair, the thought of doing exercise was as likely to occur to me as that of admitting to liking Take That. Exercise was for Other People: a strange subset of humans who felt compelled to sweat in public. I was too busy perfecting self-effacement through emerging only in darkness and drinking myself into oblivion.
At some point (after the Guinness and snakebites abated, strangely enough) the weight started to come off. I made my peace with being tall. I started to eat a bit more normally, but there was always a niggling urge to reduce a bit more, occupy a bit less space. I’d make self-deprecating remarks about being in drag if someone complimented me on a special outfit. I’d try not to stand next to women who were much smaller, because the sense of ungainliness would linger for hours.
I was diagnosed with a joint condition, and a tiny bit of me air-punched (feebly) – I always knew exercise wasn’t for me. I wrote myself a note and opted out of PE for good. And I made sure that everyone knew I couldn’t lift; couldn’t run; couldn’t do anything particularly physically demanding, despite my size. I felt, in a dark, twisted way, that the discomfort and the small degree of enforced weakness bought me back some of the femininity I’d somehow forfeited by being tall and broadly-built.
I’m ashamed of myself, now.
Perhaps it’s my age, perhaps it’s a zeitgeist thing, but it’s become harder and harder over the last few years to keep excusing myself from physical activity.
Friends started to run, and post their times on Facebook. People I’d always thought of as One Of Us started to talk about gyms and footwear and personal bests. Perfectly normal mums from the school gate would jog past the house of an evening, pink and sweaty and not very fast, but doing it nonetheless and not apparently suffering from some form of personality transplant when I spoke to them next. I admired, and sighed, and waved my precious get-out-of-running-free card, but slowly, because my joints were getting worse.
Then friends who really did have more serious physical problems than me started doing it, and the foundations of my contented state of inactivity started to shake a little. I would have got up off the sofa, but my back was killing me.
And then, in September, back from our summer holidays, we joined a gym. We wanted to get the children swimming and my husband (who had been one of those naturally sporty people before being corrupted by a job, children and marriage to a couch potato) was approaching a milestone birthday and was, if not in crisis, determined to regain some of what the sedentary, sleepless years had stolen.
I could tell you of my nerves before my induction. I could tell you of my first impressions of the inside of a fitness studio and the jangling terror of walking into a class. I could tell you of the cringing mortification of wearing clinging, Sainsburys-fresh workout clothes and spanking new trainers; of the wheezing, creaking ache of my body after a pitifully few minutes’ work. You can probably imagine them all.
Did you think I was going to tell you of a transformation? Of a dramatic before and after; of talents discovered; of a life changed? Sorry.
I’ve learned that I am not, and never will be a runner. But I have learned that I can power through kilometres on a cross trainer, upping the level and the time each week, turning a blind eye to the clash between my dripping beetroot face and orange hair in the mirror. That I can cope with a Pilates class which a few months ago had me giggling hopelessly at the seeming absence of any muscles in my body. That I like feeling a sense of my own strength.
My personal bests aren’t medals for races, or times beaten, or in the gym at all. They’re the fact that I can stand up from the floor now without hauling myself up against something. They’re the feeling of power in my arms as I rest my hands on the steering wheel rather than hanging on limply. They’re the quiet awareness of capabilities I didn’t know where there: a confidence, a completeness.
I still ache in my bones, and sometimes they’ll still flare and stiffen and swell. But I can feel now the rest of my body knitting and bulking to take some of the strain, a whole clever system of support I’ve denied for my entire adult life. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to value my body again for what it does, rather than how it looks.