Medical professionals are so fond of telling us that regular exercise is great for our physical and mental health, but for a lot of us that's about as much use as prescribing chamomile tea to a chronic insomniac.
There's a huge amount of privilege involved in being able to take regular exercise. Factors that make it difficult or impossible to exercise might include: disabilities and pain conditions; long working hours; family/caring commitments; lack of access to safe or appropriate spaces for exercise; lack of access to specialist equipment or clothing; lack of interest in exercising.
For me, it was all about being fat.
Fat, clumsy, and socially inept/uninterested/anxious. PE at school meant the enforced social interaction of team sports; it meant a whole new world of things to fail at, which for a swotty kid like me wasn't so much a welcome reality-check as absolute devastation to an ego reliant on being-top-in-everything.
My body just isn't built for the stuff they like to make you do in school. It's large, and fleshy, and impact like running and jumping makes it reverberate painfully. My breasts are large and mobile, and have been since my early teens; I've yet to find a sports bra that can stop shoulder-stands from being a suffocating experience.
So physical activity in school was painful, physically and mentally. I welcomed the release of university, where I'd never again have to enter a communal changing room, or wear uncomfortable nylon clothing designed for a body type very different to mine.
And university was great! Along the way I discovered goth-dancing and theatre and live-action role-play - not to mention sex and kink - all things that involved what I've now come to know as moving my body in joyful ways. But it's taken me a long time to realise what all these activities have in common, and even longer to understand how that relates to my mental and physical well-being.
Because for me, from a very young age, the word 'exercise' was indelibly connected with physical and mental pain. When GPs and friends told me that it would make me feel better - my lived experience said otherwise. Or, perhaps I believed them, but considered that the amount it might help alleviate my panic attacks or increase my skill at fighting with a foam sword to be a minor consideration compared to the scale of the pain that exercise caused me.
I retreated to thinking of my body in that Holmesian way, as 'a life-support system for a brain'. Never mind that I was studying for a degree in Psychology & Physiology, and so knew exactly how connected body and mind are. Never mind that I could see the positive effects on my mental health when I'd been goth-dancing or LARPing. I was free of the tyranny of exercise!
And - that's fine. If that's still where I was today - it would be fine. This post is categorically not about shaming people for whether or how they engage with the concept of 'exercise'. It's about my personal experience of coming to feel at home in my body, and for me that's been about moving my body in joyful ways. (For other people I've spoken to it's about clothes and presentation, or it's about scents and tactile sensations - there's no 'right way' to feel embodied.)
Because, the thing is - nobody ever told me that was what exercise was meant to be about.
- Exercise was - giving up trampolining because it was hurting my breasts, and I was thirteen years old and didn't know how to articulate that to anyone.
- Exercise was - giving up swimming because of how devastatingly vulnerable it felt to take off my glasses and bra.
- Exercise was - running painfully in the cold and the mud, being shouted at to "think about my bikini body".
And, in the end, when my parents had tried all kinds of food restriction without success - exercise was a punishment for my fatness.
I had all this pain piled up on me, and I never even noticed because I'd internalised the message that being fat meant I was lazy, so of course I didn't like exercise!
When in fact, what was going on was that none of the options I had for moving my body were joyful.
Now, I've started going to a gym every week. I can't quite even believe that I'm typing those words, they feel so alien! Nothing's changed about the physical or mental aspects - I still can't face the idea of team sports, or impact sports, or communal changing rooms - but it just so happens that I've found something that works for me.
I've found a group of women who do powerlifting. It's incredible: a women-only gym session where the only weight-talk is about loading up bars to lift! Like live-action role-play, every week that I go back I find that I have levelled up a little bit - I can lift a little more, or my form's a little more solid or smooth. Like sex and kink, it floods me with hormones and endorphins. Like theatre, it's a skill that I'm constantly acquiring, and it makes me feel accomplished when I notice how far I've come.
But the fear is still there, every step of the way. I went to a few yoga classes, because increased flexibility would have been useful for a lift I was struggling with; and the instructors never once acknowledged that the things they were asking people to do simply weren't possible for my body. My belly or my thigh would get in the way, making it impossible for me to complete a posture, long before joint flexibility became an issue; and while instructors would offer accommodations for bad backs or bad balance, I was offered nothing. I tried to raise this with one instructor; she completely missed my point, and spent some time telling me how practising yoga regularly would help me to lose weight! That's right - if I keep doing the thing that it's impossible for fat people to do, I'll become un-fat!
Because it's the constant undertone whenever I put myself in the public gaze in an exercise-space or in exercise-clothes: "poor sad fatty". Or maybe a patronising "good on her, at least she's trying". The absolute and unshakable cultural certainty, whenever I'm in the public eye, that of course I want to be thinner, that of course every piece of food I eat and every piece of physical activity I do or don't do has a moral value based on whether it reinforces or undermines my fatness - like the Daily Mail dividing the entire world into things that cure cancer and those that cause it.
So it takes a huge amount of mental effort for me to get through the door of the gym every week, to put on that lycra and socialise with those women who do team sports and so remind me of traumas past. I do it, because I love lifting; if I didn't, I'm not convinced it would be worth it.
It's taken a decade of independent adulthood for me to get to this point, this miniscule level of comfort with engaging directly with physical activity rather than sneaking it in through clubbing and performing and commuting by bike. I wonder how different my life might have been if PE teaching at school had gone easy on the shaming and the punishment, and instead focused on helping me to find joyful ways to move my body?