The last time I exercised for more than two days in a row was when I was a young teenager. I discovered that if I followed my mom’s Pilates DVD every day, I got rock hard abs — and that was incredibly motivating to me. Abs. And watching the numbers go down from 115 on the bathroom scale.
That’s what exercise was for, right? Dropping pounds and sculpting muscles for that bikini bod. Even as a skinny girl with no need to lose weight, even as a frumpy girl with shirts too baggy to reveal any abs, sculpted or otherwise, I’d internalized the way women talk about exercise: It’s about being attractive.
Pinterest is flooded with exercises that target chicken wings, cellulite, love handles, even double chins. Workout DVDs feature defined abs in bikinis and sports bras, with full-faces of perfect hair and make-up. It’s almost as if being healthy is secondary to looking attractive — attractive to beachgoers, attractive to wedding-goers, attractive to our significant others, and if we really want to be progressive, attractive to ourselves. Look great, feel great!
It’s not like I’m some paragon of feminist virtue in this regard. I did Pilates for the abs. I contemplated a bridal bootcamp in the months preceding my wedding. I looked up those cellulite-begone workouts. The only difference between me and the women who do them is not a valiant stand against the sexification of women’s workouts…it’s just laziness.
Laziness prompted by the fact that, frankly, if it’s a choice between being active and sexy versus lounging on the couch and being just average, I’d choose the latter. Plus, I was already skinny.
I had zero motivation to be sexy or skinnier, so I had zero motivation to exercise.
Then I became pregnant.
When I hit my third trimester of pregnancy, I learned that fit women generally have easier, faster, and earlier births. Sign. Me. Up. I stopped bemoaning my existence as a beached whale and started doing some YouTube pregnancy workouts. (This is my favorite series!)
You know how the instructors always call out dorky encouragement? Like, “How are you doing at home? You’re looking great!” (usually when I’m collapsed on the couch too winded to answer). Or, mostly, “We’re working on the sexy abs! We’re getting your beach body in shape!” And you know how every cardio workout is subtitled something about burning or melting or destroying calories?
Not in pregnancy workouts.
When you’re pregnant, you don’t have abs, or a beach body (unless beached whales count). You don’t have the energy to care how your glutes look in your jeans because the only jeans you wear are a hand-me-down, belly-band maternity pair a half size too big. In fact, you don’t really care how your body looks because you’re too busy complaining about how crappy your body feels.
And nobody cares about fat in the third trimester. You carry a baby around long enough, you deserve to indulge every single carb-loaded craving that comes your way. You deserve it.
In pregnancy workouts, the painfully chipper instructor doesn’t make beach body references or fat-burning comments. She talks about strength for birthing your baby or sculpting your biceps for lifting infant car seats. She praises you for doing something good for your body. She asks you to connect with your baby in utero as you breathe.
You come away feeling like your body can do anything — birth a baby, do a squat, get through this next set without fainting. It’s empowering. You come away thinking that your body is meant to do something, not just look pretty.
For the first time in my life, I felt motivated to work out, because the motivation was actually motivational. I wanted to be strong enough to lug around the infant carrier. I wanted to be fit enough to birth a baby in record time. I wanted to maintain that connection to my body — a body that wasn’t meant to be sexy so much as to be functional.
And then I gave birth. It wasn’t a spiritual, goddess-like experience that left me in awe at my body’s capabilities. It mostly just hurt like no pain I’d ever experienced, and the postpartum recovery has me too traumatized to ever want another biological baby.
But, the minute I could walk straight without my pelvic floor threatening to split open — that’s when the goddess, girl power awesomeness kicked in. It felt amazing to move — to bellyflop on the bed, to walk without pain, to kneel, to bend, to run (since when did I ever feel joy about running?). Being deprived of basic motor function gave me a new appreciation for abilities as small as tying my shoes. This postpartum period felt like a second chance at life.
I signed up for a YMCA membership and now go to classes five times a week, first thing after work. Instead of focusing on the postpartum belly flab still jiggling over my jeans’ waistline, I’m tapping into the strength, competency, and beauty of my body’s unimpaired motion.
Each day, I feel myself getting stronger and more functional — just like a woman’s body should be.