Archive for September, 2019

Self-regard in naked pics

The White Mountain Milers Half Marathon is an end of summer race technically, but a shoulder season one this far into New Hampshire. The weather is unpredictable. Two years ago, I’m told, it poured. Last year, it snowed. This year’s race fell on a day with temperatures pushing eighty. I run races to keep my husband, and now my son, company. They both are drawn to organized running events for different reasons: one for a source of motivation and a reason to get off the couch, the other out of a deep competitive drive that goes almost rabid sometimes. He doesn’t like to be beaten, and for now, I am still faster than he is–a dry crust that sticks in his throat, I can tell.

We ran together, all three of us, for the first six or seven miles until I began to pull away. On a long run, you find a lot of things to keep you going, shifting sources of purpose, small mental games.  A few miles in, I often get a wave of conviction that I cannot, in fact, do this. Or that I do not want to, or that there is no point to it. It happened this time as I made a sharp turn that led into a minor climb. I thought suddenly of a picture I’d taken of myself after a workout. Holding my phone up to a mirror, I was naked from the waist up, looking straight at the lens, a sheen of sweat on my sternum catching the bathroom light. I had sent it to my husband, but since then, had pulled it up for myself half a dozen times. I thought, as I ran, “you’re doing this so you can look like that,” but the thought sounded hollow, like no reason at all, and I left it alone.

fullsizeoutput_2238The race course is familiar to me, and I have run and biked the route before. I got through a couple hundred yards cataloging all the times I have traversed certain sections of road, remembering particularly the time I got lost while cross country skiing and emerged from the woods five miles from home without my phone. I walked back in my boots, my skis over my shoulder as the light died and I tried not to get panicky. I could see that scene so vividly that I looked across the road at where I’d slogged in the gritted gray snow, and I nodded to my own ghost.

I don’t generally have any particular time goal for my races, or any plan to try and place. I just see how hard I can push myself and stay this side of vomiting by the end. Around mile eight though, I realized I had started to try and pick off certain runners, targeting and then passing them. There was a theme to it. I passed plenty of male runners of all ages without a thought. One I followed for a while, a fit, sixty something guy I named Baldy McCalves in my head. I passed him too. I passed women my age and older, but was indifferent to those. It was the young women, uniformed in capri leggings or Nike shorts, halter tanks over cute sports bras with complicated strap patterns, shoulder tattoos. I began to invent a complex social hierarchy among them, with status indicated by the height of their high ponytails. They are known by many names: “VSCO girls,” “basic bitches.” They are an age and type familiar to me in my work as a college professor. One after another I passed them, imagining them as my quarry. Then I had one in my sights, a hundred yards ahead, who I took for their queen. She’d elevated her pony so high she’d instead made it into a messy bun. She wore heathered gray tights and a matching sports bra. I gained on her, closing the distance, and then passing, noting, and inexplicably hating, her neon yellow earbuds. I left her behind, not looking back, and her footfalls faded behind me. The runners were strung out across the remaining miles and there was no one left within sight to pass. Feeling sheepish about the elaborate and weird campaign I’d waged against a bunch of young women all out doing exactly the same thing I was, I thought about something that the voice in my meditation app had said a day or so ago. I was meditating on difficult relationships, on people who grate, and aggravate, and the man said that often, these feelings come from noticing something in someone else that we recognize, and dislike, in ourselves.


The expression of someone interrupted mid-post-race-waffle.

I filed through the catalog of women I’d passed in their cute running clothes, as I’d sneered internally at them for wanting to be looked at. But hadn’t I done the same? Choosing the most fitted, scoop neck running shirt I own? Had I not considered how it might look in photos? Had I not also stood in front of a mirror taking naked selfies to send to a man? Of course, the voice in my meditation app was right. He always is. I thought again of that picture of myself, about the hollowness I’d felt in thinking about it as a goal in itself. To run, to lunge and drop into pushups a hundred times, two hundred, in a dank summer basement, only to be looked at, was shallow. But there was something else, something unshallow I felt whenever I looked at it. I admired myself aesthetically, to be sure: the shadowed declivity between my oblique and my hip bone, the corrugated ridges of my abdominals, the muscled shoulders held square to the mirror. It was an honest picture, taken to be looked at, but un-posed. I had not arranged myself to flatter or suggest, I had not taken and deleted several others first. I had looked dead on at myself and taken it as I stood.

At mile twelve, I had begun to fear I could not continue. A short but grueling rise had me briefly walking, hands on knees. Tides of bile rose and receded in my throat, and strange tingling rills ran up the nerves of my scalp. A race worker near the final turn pointed to a fit man with veined calves ahead of me and shouted, “Get that guy! Beat him!” The fit man made a vague wave backward as if to concede, and I passed him too, willing myself not to vomit. I thought of the picture again, only this time, I knew what it was for, the picture, and the body it depicted. I wasn’t running so that my body would continue to look like that. I was running because I had constructed my body to run. I look at that picture again and again to remind myself of my capacity, of the strength and speed in this beloved, maintained machine that almost always does whatever I ask of it. Until the final turn, I’d been following my own shadow, fuzz-edged in the slant morning light. But the chute to the finish line faced into the sun, and as I hit that straightaway, I cornered until I could not see my shadow image anymore at all, and crossed the line alone.

Read Full Post »