The world, wide open
The journey to define our bodies is universal, shared by pro athletes, weekend warriors and everyone in between. Here, best-selling author and essayist Roxane Gay explores her physical transformation and reckons with her new body’s unexpected power
I have long had a complicated relationship with my body. As a child, I was awkward and unathletic and uninterested in becoming athletic. I was not a team player. I was a dreamer and something of an oddball loner. I wanted to spend all my time with books. My parents, understanding the importance of an active lifestyle, enrolled me in all kinds of sports — soccer, softball, basketball — but little of it took. The only sport I ever demonstrated any kind of aptitude for was swimming, which I loved because it was just me, trying to pull myself through the water as quickly and efficiently as possible. I loved pushing myself, seeing how fast I could get. I loved trying to perfect my form, cupping my hands just so, kicking my legs without creating too much splash. I practiced flip turns endlessly, trying to push off the wall at each end of the pool with as much force as possible. I challenged myself to stay underwater as long as I could before surfacing and beginning to stroke. Always, I tried to swim faster and faster. As I improved, I marveled at the progress I made. I marveled at the changes in my body, the newfound definition, the strength and power I felt. In the water, I was weightless and fast and focused. I was capable. I was everything I couldn’t be on land.
And then, at age 12, I was assaulted.
I learned what it means to be violated. I learned what it means to feel weak and powerless. Whatever tenuous relationship I had with my body disappeared. I loved reading and writing, and it was easier to live in my head than to live in the world where I wasn’t safe. My body became something that betrayed me when I needed it most. I still lived in my body, but I wanted nothing more than to escape it, and food helped me do that.
Three times a week, I work out with a personal trainer. Each session is 45 minutes long but generally feels like twice that. My newest trainer is Sarah. She has an impeccable body and a pleasant demeanor. She is kind and patient, always checking in with me about how I am doing, challenging me without trying to break me.
I have a general understanding of the exercises I should do at the gym. I know how to lift weights with the proper form. I know how to get my heart rate up and work out in the proper zone for the right amount of time. I have all sorts of gadgets and monitors to count steps and stairs and other forms of movement, like I am playing a video game as I move through each day, tracking my exercise and food and water intake. It’s nice to believe that technology might be what I need to discipline my body. But I need external motivation to work out regularly. I need some measure of accountability.
There is always a moment during my workouts when I do something I would have thought impossible, like holding a plank for 60 seconds or knocking out several sets at a higher weight than I’ve ever lifted before, or walking a little farther than the last time when we’re focusing on cardio. I am still miserable, but I feel connected to my body because I am out of my head and fully inhabiting my skin and blood and bones.
This past January, I had weight loss surgery, a sleeve gastrectomy, after more than 20 years of trying to lose weight on my own, more than 20 years of trying to make peace with living in a fat body in a world that stands in constant judgment of this body. I struggled with my right to take up space and hold my head high while dealing with the constant clamor of loved ones and strangers alike telling me to change my body, to fix my body. I struggled with every little physical thing while pretending such was not the case, as if I could imagine my way out of my body and into someone else’s better, smaller, stronger body.
After no small amount of research and internal debate, I made the decision. I made that commitment to myself. I hoped that by changing my anatomy, I would be motivated to change so much more — my relationship to food, my relationship to my body, my relationships with the most important people in my life. The surgery itself takes a matter of hours, and the recovery takes a matter of weeks, but changing the way you’ve lived for more than 20 years takes a lot more time. The first days after the surgery were, as I was told they would be, the worst: a liquid-only diet — broth and Gatorade and sugar-free Jell-O. As I advanced to soft foods, I realized I missed chewing, but it would be weeks before I could have food worth chewing. I had a lot of time to think as my surgical wounds healed, and I had no energy to do anything but stare at the ceiling and wonder whether I had done the right thing for myself, for my body. I didn’t feel physical hunger, but emotionally I was starving.
Once I recovered, I understood that I had to start exercising again to get my strength back. I found myself working out every day, with or without my trainer. That first day back was difficult, but I muddled and sweated my way through. As I’ve made progress and received support and encouragement from my trainer, I’ve felt something I haven’t felt in years — the focus and strength I used to feel when I swam. I want to push myself. I want to see what I am capable of doing, who I am capable of becoming. I am hesitant to believe this newfound discipline will stick. I’m not even sure discipline is what drives me. I’ve been down this road before of making progress toward a different body, but in the past I’ve always sabotaged myself as the reality of becoming smaller settles in and I have to wrap my mind around my body being smaller in the world, taking up less space, becoming more vulnerable.
To be clear, I do not love exercise now. I have never, in all my life, felt the fabled endorphins that exercise fanatics go on about. I dread going to the gym. I dread working out. Afterward, I feel sweaty and tired and I dread having to do it all over again the next day. It doesn’t get easier. It never has. It probably never will.
And yet … nearly every day, I change into my workout clothes and lace up my sneakers. I go to the gym in my apartment building or my hotel when I am traveling. I work out and hate it, but I do it. I am quite bewildered. This is not who I am. Or, this is not who I was. Sometimes I think I am powering through with sheer stubbornness. Against what, I could not tell you. I’m not even sure I know who I am anymore. For so long, I’ve obsessed over my body and its flaws. I’ve thought about my body as an obstacle. I have treated my body as a problem. I have treated my body as incapable. And now my body is changing, but more important, now I see my body is changing. I have a newfound gratitude for my body as it is, not as it could be in some nebulous future. I am better able to appreciate how, with my height and size, I have presence. Once, my body was weak and a group of boys took advantage of that, but my body survived. It has carried me forth for more than 40 years. That counts for something.
It is challenging to live in a body in flux. There is no normal. Everything is new. There are moments when I walk by a mirror or other reflective surface and I see how my waist is narrowing, how my legs are so very slowly slimming. Nothing is where it once was. My shape is shifting.
I am still fat, and often I imagine that the changes I see are a figment of my imagination, wishful thinking. I am developing stamina, nothing that would be notable to anyone but myself. It is becoming easier to move my body, walk through airports, stand for long periods. It is easier to fit my body in public spaces. I’ve gone to the theater for the first time in years and enjoyed a show. I’ve visited an art museum and walked from floor to floor, exhibit to exhibit. These are the smallest things, but they are also so much more. I’m starting to see what might be possible for me, and it is both exhilarating and terrifying.
I say my goal is weight loss, but really I’m trying to find my way back to feeling as strong and powerful as I did when I fell in love with swimming, as I did before I was assaulted.
The world that has been inhospitable to my body for more than 20 years, the world that has become so small, is suddenly opening up.