I walked nervously into the carpeted studio, my no-slip socks already on per the notice outside the door. With a few minutes to go before class, the room was almost full. Legging-clad, pony-tailed women positioned themselves at comfortable intervals, carefully maintaining the boundaries of personal space but still within arm’s reach. I tugged at the straps of my new workout bra, eyes searching for a spot. There was space right in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirrored wall, next to the instructor. Ugh.
For years, I’d convinced myself that group exercise wasn’t my thing. Instead, I opted for sweating, grunting, and pumping on my own, earbuds securely wedged in my ears. I’d pushed myself physically this way forever, competing on swim team as a kid, playing tennis as a teen, pedaling furiously on gym equipment and running as an adult. I did take a weekly step class for a while at a large gym, but I was so self-conscious about how uncoordinated I was compared to everyone else that I often left feeling grumpy.
My exercise was all about beating time, hitting more winners, burning more calories, and covering more miles.
Despite my effort, I never felt like my body was working the way I wanted it to. I was a strong swimmer, but not strong enough to keep improving my time. I ran a marathon, but never achieved a “runner’s body.” Exercising in my own little bubble, I constantly compared myself to the popular ideal — the slim, toned women on magazine covers, the celebrities who insisted that horseback riding and weekly hikes in the Hollywood Hills flattened their abs and tightened their butts. I knew those photos were airbrushed. I knew those famous people weren’t telling the whole story. Even so, I couldn’t stop comparing myself to these made-up body images, believing I could at least get halfway there.
On my own.
Then I had two babies in three years. My body was no longer mine, not with babies nursing and nestling in all my nooks and crannies. I hardly recognized myself — rounded and soft, sagging in unexpected places, skin rippled and stretched. My body no longer looked or felt familiar. I knew my knees couldn’t take running on the punishing pavement anymore. My right hip hurt from carrying small humans all day long, and my abs were buried under a pool of loose belly skin. My running shoes gathered dust in the closet. I needed some kind of exercise routine, but with two little kids, going solo wasn’t an option. To be honest, new motherhood left me craving grown-up company, even if it meant sweating, snorting, and stretching in a group.
Walking into the studio that first day, I was uncomfortable and self-consciously focused only on myself. Staring into the mirror, I noticed how long my arms were compared to the woman next to me. I saw that my right shoulder was higher than the left, and that my wonky hip made my pelvis tip to one side. I tried to concentrate on the movements, but I couldn’t stop worrying about how I looked in a certain pose or how I couldn’t possibly imitate the lithe, young instructor because my body just wouldn’t move that way.
And you know what? I was right. My body did not look the way the instructor’s looked. When I let my eyes slide away from my own image in the mirror, I saw that it did not look the way any of the other bodies around me looked.
In fact, no one did mudslides at the same pace or held plank with the same form. No one draped themselves over their outstretched legs with the same length or depth. Some of us could bring our squats down to the floor while others went only halfway. Some of us moved as gracefully as ballet dancers while some of us awkwardly swept our arms above our heads and down again, doggedly keeping up. In a roomful of women all intently doing the same thing, no two bodies moved or looked the same way. But they all were capable, and beautiful, in their own right.
How amazing is that?
Witnessing the beauty and effort of so many diverse bodies made me giddy with relief. My body, with all its quirks and angles, uneven surfaces and jiggly pouches, fit in perfectly. I didn’t need to contort my body or run it ragged to achieve some impossible ideal. The body I had was awesome and deserved to be taken care of, not pummeled into submission. The body I had was strong and getting stronger every day. The body I had was already ideal and so were each of the bodies around me.
Seven years and one more baby later, I’m still going to my group exercise classes. I usually pick a spot up front by the mirror so I can see all the other women around me. Our unique, beautiful bodies work in tandem, but totally differently, and it is a wonderful thing to see. I leave feeling inspired and rejuvenated every time.
Group fitness classes have taught me that we are all ideal. Let’s never forget it.