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A Fat Runner’s Path to Intuitive Exercise

by Lindsey Schuhmacher, MA

I like to run. I like the sharp, morning air in my lungs. I like when my breath finds its rhythm and all of a sudden it doesn’t feel like work anymore. I like how alive I feel afterwards, with fresh ideas swarming in my head and optimism lightening my step. It hasn’t always been this way. Like many people with disordered eating and exercise backgrounds, my relationship with running wasn’t always so simple.

I am fat. I have always been or identified as some form of fat. Even during the times when my weight dipped low enough to be at the high end of the “normal” range of the BMI, I felt fat. That is because I have grown up in a culture with an “ideal” image of health and beauty that I can never attain. The strange part is that I was at my least healthy, physically and psychologically, when I approached the ideal most closely and would regularly receive compliments about my looks and health. I was also repeatedly asked for advice about how other people could get to where I was. Looking back, I feel sad for myself and for those who wanted to emulate my negative behaviors.

In the beginning, I saw running as a way to lose weight. I thought if I just ran far enough, fast enough, often enough, that I would eventually become thin. It started in the seventh grade, when my family was struggling with poverty and substance abuse issues. I would go for long runs with my Walkman, blasting Janis Joplin’s “Another Piece of My Heart.” I was running away from my circumstances and myself.

As things got worse around me, and my family was living in a shelter, I joined the track team at my Junior High School. Every day I would run and run around the track, and walk several miles back to the shelter. It kept me away from a place I associated with shame and failure, and it began to shrink my body. It gave me a feeling of control when everything else felt like chaos. I didn’t know that I was setting myself up for a future of feeling more out of control than ever. Even worse, our culture values weight loss to such an extent that no one around me questioned my rapid weight loss or thought to check that everything was okay at home.

By the time I started college, I had already been through a few rounds of weight cycling – losing weight only to regain it and then double my efforts to lose it again. As a first generation college student entering a small, private, liberal arts college, my self-esteem was already in peril. Add to that having to eat every meal in a public space, where I felt that my body and food choices were a spectacle, and it didn’t take long before I embarked on another “body project.”

My college was tucked in the mountains, with a dirt track adjacent to the property. Running on that track every day was invigorating. It provided a break from feeling overly visible and different.  Unfortunately, it also enabled me to fall back into tired, old habits that felt new and healthy because once again, my body began to shrink. People began to notice how “good” I looked. I was asked for diet and exercise advice. I felt qualified to dole it out, too. After all, I had “achieved” a physique closer to the “ideal.” I did not consider how unhealthy the habits needed to acquire it were, and I did not imagine that others who embarked on the same regimen might not lose any weight. I certainly never imagined a future where I would enjoy running even if it didn’t lead to a single pound of weight loss.

But here I am. In the years since losing weight in college, I have gained, lost, gained, lost, and gained weight again. Each time I attempted to lose weight, it became harder and harder. Eventually, I stopped losing weight no matter what I did, including running. What had been my go-to method of shrinking had stopped working. At first I thought something was wrong with me, but then I discovered Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight, and began my journey down the long, twisting road to body positivity. It turns out that there was nothing wrong with me. There was something wrong with the idea that my body wasn’t okay to begin with.

These days I run because it feels good. I don’t worry if I have to miss a day because of weather, a sick kid, or if I just don’t feel like going. Occasionally, I wonder what the other runners think of me. Once I was running with my son in a jogging stroller, and a thin woman called out to me, “You’re awesome!”

“Thanks! You’re awesome, too!” I replied.

I don’t know if she thought I was awesome because I was out there trying to lose the baby weight (I sure hope not, because I wasn’t), or if she thought I was awesome because I was out there modeling the joy of moving my body, even if it doesn’t fit the conventional ideal, for my son. I sure hope so, because I was.

My life has changed in many ways since those first experiences running in junior high. Today, I am privileged to live across the street from a track. I am healed enough to continue to run, knowing that it won’t change the way my body looks, but that it increases my health and happiness. My two kids will grow up knowing what it means that mom has gone out to “exercise.” They will see my fat body as capable, strong, and resilient. That, to me, is awesome.

Lindsey Schuhmacher is an aspiring writer and an English and Humanities Instructor. She teaches the Portland State University capstone “Every Body Matters: Embracing Size Diversity,” a service learning course that looks closely at size discrimination and public health issues surrounding fat phobia. She is passionate about promoting body positivity and the principles of the Health at Every Size™ (HAES) paradigm. Lindsey also teaches English at Clark College in Vancouver, WA. Her academic interests involve writing, children’s literature, science fiction, rhetoric, philosophy, food studies, and fat studies. Lindsey has a B.S. in Philosophy, an M.A. in English, and is completing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a Health Studies Focus Award.

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