Running and body image

Feet in running shoes standing on the grass

I started running at the end of May because I wanted to improve my overall health. Back then, I couldn’t run for more than a minute at a time without getting winded. Last week, I completed my first unofficial 5k run in about 45 minutes. I still have to take some walk breaks on those “long” runs, but the point is that I did something I couldn’t have conceived of doing six months ago.

Running hasn’t been without its challenges. Between asthma, chronic migraine, and a bout of painful runner’s knee in June, it’s something of a miracle I’ve been able to keep running–and more of a miracle that I actually, really, and truly, enjoy it. I crave it.

There’s no doubt that running is tough. My gym-class-averse English lit nerd self always shied away from cardio, but there’s beauty in the rhythm of the breath, the strike of each foot on the ground. And the endorphin rush that hits after I finish a run is enough to get me through the day without wanting to stab anyone, which is another miracle in and of itself.

Which brings me back to the original reason I started. I never had too much trouble maintaining a healthy weight, and I never really cared if I had a little bit of tummy fat or how thick my thighs were (and they were thick, even at my skinniest). I practiced karate until I went off to college, and earned a second-degree black belt, so I also felt confident in my ability to kick butt and take names.

Then, in 2014, I started taking Prozac for chronic migraine. I gained nearly 50 pounds. People began asking me if I were pregnant, or when I was due. I had to buy pants in a larger size, and then an even larger size. My previously rock-solid self-confidence about my body evaporated. I still had confidence in my brain and my skills, but for the first time, I felt disgust over my own body.*

I never really fit the image of what the media portrays as the “ideal” woman. I am on the tall side and have always been curvy, especially in my lower half. My hips are wide and there’s no way in hell my skeleton can fit into any pant size smaller than an 8 or 9. I have those aforementioned large thighs and a big-ish butt with small-ish breasts. A super skinny size zero model I am not, and will never be.

But I let the lie that I should be that super skinny size zero model get to me. I bought into it, at least for awhile. I attempted to lose weight a number of times, but always failed, and always blamed myself. And sure, my eating habits were partly to blame, but it wasn’t a moral failing. I let the allure of easy, cheap processed food (especially pastries) get inside my head and let my eating habits backslide because I didn’t think I was worth it anymore, or because my head hurt so damn much I needed some sort of physical comfort, and food was easy. I was going to be chubby anyway, so why bother?

Then I started running. I’ve lost at least one pants size and a good 15-20 pounds since the beginning of 2018. And that’s great. But it’s almost beside the point. As the summer months went by, and I kept running, and running, and running, I felt a sense of amazement at what my body could accomplish, even with all those extra pounds. I felt physically powerful and empowered. I saw the harmful things I’d been telling myself about my body for what they were–lies based on an unachievable ideal that just made me feel crappy and didn’t help me achieve my goals.

My goal is not to be skinny, or attractive, or to live up to someone else’s idea of who or what I should be. My goal is and has always been to be the best damn writer I can be, and to achieve it, I need to be healthy. Not skinny, not pretty, not… whatever. I need actual health. I need to be able to hold down a job so I can pay my bills. I need to have enough energy that I can actually wake up early to write every morning. I need to manage my chronic migraine so the whole thing doesn’t fall apart.

Running has become a non-negotiable part of my wellness routine. It’s reminded me that my body is an amazing conglomeration of bone and blood and flesh that deserves to be cherished, not vilified. It’s reminded me that I absolutely can achieve my (realistic) goals when I apply myself. (I don’t mean goals like publication or getting a particular job that rely on other people’s decisions, I just mean goals that are in my control, like finishing a novel or sending a specific number of job applications.)

Ideally, I’d like to lose a bit more fat and put on more muscle, but I can honestly say at this point it’s not because I want to look better. I want to feel better. I want that post-run rush that fills me up for the rest of the day. And, yes, I want to run faster. But even if I knew I’d never lose another pound of fat, I’d keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It’s a huge difference–deriving self-esteem from what you look like versus what you can accomplish. Looks are transient. Talent much less so. My hope is that eventually, every girl will grow up in a world that values her smarts, her talents, her ideas, and her skills, not whether or not she measures up to the current unrealistic beauty standard.

These messages from the media about what women should look like–and that we should feel terrible about ourselves if we don’t live up to those standards–are so pervasive and so insidious that they affect all of us, men included. For awhile, I let myself get lost in them. Running helped me find my way out. It may not be your thing, and that’s okay, but I hope that you–wherever you are on the planet, wherever you are in your journey–will find the thing that leads you out of that mess, one step at a time.


*I feel compelled to point out that the minor embarrassment I’ve faced from being “overweight” is diddly squat next to the discrimination many fat people face on a regular basis. This is a complex issue, and I’m not the best person to delve into it. Here’s a conversation between Lindy West and Roxane Gay for starters, but I highly recommend the books Shrill by Lindy West and The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life by Wendy Shanker.

Missing Lexi

Me, Jaina, D.J., and Lexi at Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

I had a dream about Lexi the other night. My dad’s dog Neo was there, too, and they were both puppies again. We played tug like we always used to, and when I squished her she got mad at me (also like she always used to).

Neo was about a year old when we got Lexi, and the two of them used to play together in our backyard. Neo was a huge German shepherd, and he could fit most of baby Lexi’s body in his mouth. He would flip her over and she’d paw at his muzzle, grring at him. They both liked to dig holes, so in the summer Neo would dig a hole and Lexi would “help” by laying down in it. We had to say goodbye to Neo almost two years ago, so I like to think they are running and digging and barking with each other wherever dog souls go when they leave this earth.

Neo with his favorite ball. I couldn’t find a picture of the two of them together.

Lexi liked to dig right up until the end. Most corgis aren’t diggers, but Lexi sure was. She would paw at the dirt with reckless abandon, getting it everywhere, including all over her fur and nose. I’m not sure she ever had a goal in mind—sometimes if it was hot she’d unearth the top layer of dirt to get to the cooler layers beneath, but mostly she just dug.

The first month of not having her was difficult, but I’ve been missing her a lot these past few weeks. I’m not sure why it’s been hitting me so hard lately, but every little thing reminds me of her. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I still expect her to be on the bed between us. She would raise her head up and look up at me to make sure everything was okay before falling back asleep.

Jaina doesn’t bark when we get home. She’s always at the door with her ears back and her tail wagging furiously, but she doesn’t vocalize other than maybe a happy whine. Lexi always started barking as soon as she heard the car door shut—and she kept barking until she was good and ready to stop. My parents’ shepherds bark like maniacs when anyone gets home (including me if I’m visiting), so it’s kind of weird that Jaina doesn’t.

D.J. and I have been spending a lot of time with Jaina since June. Taking her for lots of walks, making sure she gets plenty of play time, spoiling her with trips to the frozen yogurt place, taking her out to dinner with us, things like that. I know there are moments when she misses Lexi, too. I brought Lexi’s bed down from the third floor, and I watched Jaina sniff it. I saw the recognition of Lexi’s scent in her eyes and body language, and then she laid down next to the bed for a few minutes.

I spend a few minutes with Lexi’s ashes every day, and trace the impression her little corgi paw made in the clay. I still can’t help buy cry when I think about her big round eyes imploring me for another treat. But even when I miss her so fiercely it feels like there’s a supermassive black hole in my chest, I’m happy, too. Happy that we got to share each other’s lives, happy for her companionship and loyalty, happy for all the adventures we had, the mountains we climbed together.

The intense loss I feel is an indication of how strong our bond was, how much we went through together. One of my college professors once said that grief never goes away—you just stop feeling it so strongly every second of every day. You still feel it, and it’s always there, but the time between moments of grief becomes longer the further away you get from it. But, it’s still there. That always rang true to me.

So I let myself have my time with Lexi every day, and I let myself cry, and I let myself miss her. It’s the best thing I can do for myself.

 

Every end is a new beginning

Lexi sitting by Lake Elizabeth in Allegheny Commons Park.

Monday, June 4th, we said goodbye Lexi.

Her life was full of things she loved, and we strove to maintain her quality of life right to the end. With degenerative myelopathy, there’s not really a tipping point. It’s a slow, steady progression that robs the dog of her mobility and eventually her breath. Although the disease itself is not painful, in the final stages of respiratory failure and esophageal paralysis, the dog suffers and the chances for a life-threatening complication are high.

Over the past two weeks, we noticed that sometimes she would try to bark, and nothing would come out. We noticed that she got overheated even in the air conditioning when it was in the low 70s outside. She was too weak to walk in her harness anymore. She flipped over a few times and couldn’t right herself. Her eating slowed down. She was less comfortable, or it took a lot to make her comfortable.

I spoke with our veterinary neurologist. She said, “I know it’s hard because she’s still Lexi, but from this point, no time is the wrong time to say goodbye.”

I looked at Lexi, and Lexi looked at me. Dogs can’t speak, but in that moment we communicated. She was ready. I was as ready as I was ever going to be. I called Lap of Love, an in-home veterinary hospice care and euthanasia provider. We scheduled the appointment. And then we went out and had fun.

D.J. came home, and we took Lexi and Jaina to Allegheny Commons Park. Lexi rode in my lap so that she could stick her nose out the window and smell the fresh air. It was a beautiful day–blue skies, not too hot, not too humid. Perfect weather for sniffing. Her body felt so warm against mine. She rested her head on my arm, and I wanted to stay like that forever. Lexi always sniffed with her whole nose, inhaling deeply and letting out big puffs of air–snorfing, as we called it.

We pulled her in the wagon around the Aviary and the dog park where she herded so many other dogs in her younger years. We walked around Lake Elizabeth. She sniffed the other dog smells, the duck and geese smells, and the green tree smells. We sat in the grass together, just sitting, just enjoying the presence of us as a family.

A selfie of the four of us.

Together, the four of us have hiked National Parks, climbed mountains, driven halfway across the country, explored the city, and so much more. We’ve cuddled in bed together, the four of us crammed into our queen bed, Jaina usually curled into a ball and Lexi usually spread out to her full length, taking up the most space of anyone even though she was the smallest. Lexi always knew when I was sick or hurting, and she would nudge me with her nose to distract me with her cuteness. She would also nudge us if she wanted pets or a treat–she was never shy about telling us what her demands were.

When an ambulance drove by the park, we all howled together, me and Lexi and Jaina. We took selfies and laughed. D.J. helped Lexi explore by supporting her so she could “walk”. Although she couldn’t pee on her own anymore, we expressed her bladder a little at a time so she could leave her scent around “her” territory, like she used to do during our daily park walks.

Lexi was too weak to use her harness anymore, but she could get around a little with more support from one of her human servants.

After the park, we drove to Starbucks and the dogs got extra-large pupaccinos. When we got home, we enjoyed a Feast of Cheese, and then we sat outside until the vet arrived.

Dr. Aspen was kind and gentle, and made Lexi’s transition peaceful and easy. We sat in her favorite spot by the table where I write, and I held her in my lap. I petted her ears and her head, stroked her fur, and kissed her nose. I told her how much I loved her, but of course she already knew.

Jaina smelled Lexi’s body at the end. We curled her up into a basket and wrapped her in a blanket, and the three of us walked her out to Dr. Aspen’s car. Jaina was sad, but she understood what had happened. She’s been a little mopey over the past week, but she’s not confused or distressed.

This week we picked up Lexi’s ashes. I still cry every day, usually many times every day. Jaina has been sticking to my side like glue. I suspect she is both sad herself and senses that I am sad, so we have been comforting each other.

The house feels so quiet and empty without Lexi. She may have been a short dog, but her personality was huge. She knew the sound of our car and would start barking her “welcome home” bark as soon as we shut the car doors. I set my watch by her–she was always on top of breakfast and dinner times, outside time, and bed time. Sometimes I think I hear her whining, but of course it’s a bird outside (perhaps a cat bird imitating her?).

Saying goodbye to someone you love is never easy. I don’t believe in heaven, and the Bible says animals don’t have souls anyway. I do believe that death is transition, that it is a beginning that comes after the end, but what form that beginning takes I can only guess at. If nothing else, Lexi helped me become who I am today, and my life would have been much different without her. I can feel her presence everywhere–not just in the physical spaces she inhabited, but in the deepest places of my soul.

I miss her. I miss her happy barks and the way she snored while she slept. I miss her corgi waddle and her perfect downward-facing dog stretches. I miss her grrs and her nudges. I miss the soft silkiness of her fur and holding her paw in my hand. I miss the cold wetness of her nose and the warmth of her eyes that saw me in a way no one else could.

I miss her, I miss her, I miss her. I know I always will. But she is my dog, and she will always be my dog. I wouldn’t change our life together for anything. I am full of joy and laughter and gratitude for the fourteen years we shared, even though I’m crying as I write this.

Every end is a new beginning.