Six half-marathons. Four triathlons. Countless 5 and 10Ks. Sixty days in a row of hot yoga during a two-month yoga challenge. Two trips to a Costa Rica surf camp.
If I heard someone else describe these experiences, I’d think, “Wow, this person must be an incredible athlete.” But those accomplishments are mine, and until recently, I would never have used the word “athlete” or “athletic” to describe myself. I’m not the only one to resist owning those terms. I have a friend who has completed multiple marathons but says she won’t call herself an athlete until she loses 20 pounds. Another friend goes to hot yoga five times a week but totally shies away from the term “athletic.” Her reason? Her abs aren’t as defined as her yoga instructor’s.
Instead of what you do, “athletic” has come to describe how you look—a sculpted core, defined biceps, and muscular legs. Of course, exercising tones muscles, but the automatic application of the term “athletic” to a well-sculpted body makes it hard for many women, including me, to feel comfortable applying the term to themselves. That’s really disappointing.
I remember when I was 8, noticing the way my stomach bulged against my racing swimsuit, so different from the lithe girls I competed against. Even though I usually got first or second place, all I could see was my pudgy frame.
“Will I ever look like Amanda?” I asked my mom, naming my best friend, whose parents did daily 5-mile runs. Even though Amanda and I finished at the front of the pack during swim meets, she was the one who looked like the swimmer, with her thin arms and long legs. We were the same height, but I weighed forty pounds more than she did, and deep down, I knew that people noticed that far more than our race times.
“Nope,” my mom said crisply. “Look at her parents and look at us. They’re athletes. We’re not.” The message was clear: It didn’t matter what you accomplished. It mattered how you looked.
The sad truth is that I believed her. Which was why I agreed with my fourth-grade gym teacher, who said I must have missed a lap when I was one of the first five in the class to complete a mile run. Skill didn’t matter. Looks did.
In middle school, I began actively trying to get skinny. I ate 800 calories a day, went to double swim workouts—one before breakfast, one after lunch—and did 500 crunches a day. By the end of the year, I looked like how I imagined an athlete should look. But my swimming times were the slowest they had ever been. I eventually gained some of the weight back.
I spent the next 15 years gaining and losing weight in true roller-coaster fashion, always trying to attain the athlete “look.”
But two years ago, when I was pregnant, I stopped working out entirely for the first time in my life. My doctor had suggested I skip workouts during my second trimester due to some bleeding that concerned her. And then, my daughter Lucy was born and I was thrown into new motherhood. I weighed less at my postpartum checkup than I had before I conceived. I decided to skip the gym permanently. After all, my weight was where I wanted it to be.
But my mood plummeted. I was cranky and exhausted and had difficulty falling and staying asleep. I was envious when I saw runners heading to the park; wishing I could be like them and terrified by how slow I’d be if I started back up.
Finally, when my daughter was 6 months old, I ventured into my apartment gym, parking the stroller next to the treadmill. I knew that my hiatus meant that I was more out of shape than I’d ever been before, regardless of what the scale said, and I was right. Eighteen months earlier, it was no big deal for me to polish off 12 miles before breakfast on a Saturday. Now, I was embarrassed by how much I gasped for breath after running five minutes.
Yet I kept going, red-faced and gasping as my daughter curiously looked up at me. After I ran, I went outside and lay on the grass, balancing my daughter on my legs as I carefully flew her through the air.
Even though she couldn’t yet walk or crawl, the glint in her eyes made it obvious: She was an athlete. And that’s when I got it. Being an athlete isn’t about the number on the scale. It’s how blood pumping through your body makes you feel. And I can’t wait to explain that to my daughter as she grows up.