Mothers. They’re so … tactful. I was a few days into the visit with my parents in June when my mother asked something that had clearly been on her mind for most of them.

“So… why don’t you have a flat stomach? I mean, with all the exercise stuff you’ve been doing…”

For the record, this is me:

Look at that belly! And you dare to call yourself a person who does exercise stuff!?!
Look at that belly! And you dare to call yourself a person who does exercise stuff!?!

I gave her the short answer (“diet”), but it was one more reminder that people who don’t do “exercise stuff” and even most of the people do have pretty much no concept of just how much goes into turning a body into what you see in magazines or on TV. Everybody (with the possible exception of my mother) has seen that Dove timelapse cover girl video, and everybody knows that everything in the media is photoshopped to death, but it’s almost impossible to internalize the idea in the same way that we’ve been forced to internalize the concepts of body perfection that constantly surround us. Those photos and fashion shows capture a single moment of a person’s life and looks. They have spent weeks dieting and dehydrating to create that look for that single moment, and an army of wizards have removed the few remaining flaws.

I’m going to go on a brief tangent here. My last year of university, I wanted to do an internship. One of the prerequisites to get credit for internships was a certain GPA. Now, I was more or less a straight-A from high school through my first two years of post secondary. I was tied for the top of my class in Grade 12, and I won the department scholarship when I got my diploma in year two of college. By year six, at my third post secondary institution, I had let things slide more than a little. I hated the place, and I just wanted to be done. The previous semester I had taken a class back at my old school that was my only A that year. I had actually failed a class the semester before that because I hated it so much and basically refused to do the final assignment. Now, I knew that they knew that I had taken the other class, so I sort of assumed that they would have my grade for it. Turns out no, I had to get my old school to send over my transcripts again. So for the GPA calculation for my internship application, they were using my worst year of school ever, and not even counting my top grade. It did not meet the minimum GPA criteria.

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Does anybody sense a metaphor coming up? That model on the cover of Shape magazine, she is me in Grade 12. She just shook the principal’s hand, and is holding up the Governer General’s award with her classmate. You, feeling bad looking at her? You’re me eight years later, in the worst semester of my academic career, hamstrung by post secondary bureaucracy, unmotivated and uninspired (a great combination for art school). And you’re also me when I got my first zit. Or my 500th. And you’re me when the boy I liked said “Thanks, but I’m not looking for a relationship right now” and started dating somebody else a week later. And you’re me every time I’ve eaten an entire pan of brownies. And you’re me the one time I drank so much I threw up. But her? Nope, she’s just one moment, at the top of her game. You cannot compare yourself, your body or your entire life, to the best moment of somebody else’s. They will always, always come out on top.

So … why don’t I have a flat stomach? The other short answer: I do. Sometimes. When I accidentally hit the right combination of foods for a day or two. When I bother to stand up straight. When I get my “fitness model” pose just right. When you look at me from the front, or the back, or at any angle other than directly side on. When you take into consideration the fact that I’m actually trying to house a full set of intestines plus a uterus in my lower abdomen.

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The other other short answer: What the heck sort of standard do you go by? Great googly moogly, woman, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in my life! I can do many chin-ups, I can hold a headstand until I get bored, I can outwrestle most of the boys I train with, and jeepers, 2007 me thought it was hard trying to buy shirts that fit a D cup, you should try shopping with boobs and shoulders like mine…

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“Oh,” my mother-in-law and countless other women say, the ultimate compliment, “have you lost weight?” Nope. Rather the opposite. I’m 5’9”. From 18 to 24 I meandered from about 150 to 160 lbs as I finished growing up. Now? 175. Srsly. I’m about 5% body fat off from where most internet experts deem “athlete” mode, but see above re: D cup.

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Which brings me to another memory that has been chasing itself around in my brain lately. I overheard a conversation between a couple of guys sitting in front of me in English 11 or 12. They were two of the popular kids, generally athletic, on the basketball team and whatnot. I don’t remember the details, but they were discussing lifting weights and trying to put on weight. I think it was the first time I had ever heard anybody put forth the idea that adding pounds was not only okay, but actually healthy and desirable.

It’s hardly an original idea that links women’s obsession with dieting, literally taking up less physical space in the world, being quiet and passive and background things, with the Great Overbearing Patriarchy and continued proof of the need for feminism. But somehow, somewhere, some way, I managed to escape that particular behaviour. I am the ultimate introvert in addition to being a nearly picture-perfect Cancer, so I’d pretty much rather throw myself under a bus than leave my comfortable little nest or do something that might possibly inconvenience somebody else. However, I take up as much space as I damn well please, mentally and physically.

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I’m sure there were many tiny moments that added up to my bizarrely uncritical attitude towards my own body, but that moment in English class was undoubtedly one of them. Who knows, without that matter-of-fact normalization and approval of weight gain as a result of exercise, maybe I, too, would worry about “bulking up” and becoming unfeminine when I do my exercise stuff. Maybe I would have panicked when the scale started to go up, even as my pants got looser around the waist.

Earlier this year, I almost fell off my wagon of sanity. I would love the chance to hop in a cage and crush somebody like Ronda Rousey into a nice little pancake. But I’m almost 30, and time can run out quick on that sort of thing. So I picked up my training, and for about three months performed a supervised experiment to see if I could get down to competition weight. We didn’t make huge changes, mostly just added another day or two of workout to my usual weekly schedule, and tried to eat a lot more vegetables.

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It was awful. The highest normal weight class for women’s fights is 145 lbs, occasionally there’s a 155 lb match. The big names are mostly fighting at 135. In order to not kill myself with dehydration, for a 145 bout I would need to get down to a steady weight of not much more than 155, preferably without losing very much muscle in the process.

I got halfway there. The diet was fine, the extra work load was fine, but I couldn’t stand the required obsession with my weight. I’ve never been one to turn down a brownie, but after a couple of months all I could think about was what the scale would say in the morning. Finally I told Randy I was going nuts and we called off the experiment.

Afterwards, all I could think was that some women are in that mindset all the time. For their entire life. They always turn down the slice of cake at the office birthday party. Or the Girl Guide cookies. Or the french fries.

Or they eat it and feel like a horrible person, and eat nothing for the rest of the day. I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know why. I don’t understand the motivation. Or the projected sense of superiority for having the strength to “resist” it.

Just eat the damned cake and be happy.

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