Sunday, January 30, 2011

Head Games

A visitor to this blog made a comment this week that really touched me. First, because I'm thrilled that anyone is patient enough to read my ramblings, but also because she was so gut honest.

She wrote about feeling like she was being judged when she went to the gym, because she's pretty overweight. My post was about how much I respected the very overweight man I had been next to at the gym that day. I'm glad she could see that not everyone thinks negatively about an overweight person who's brave enough to exercise in public.

So I decided I'm going to share my philosophy about 'what people think'.

I've had many years to feel like I was being watched in public. For most of my childhood I had a twisted foot that hid in my shoe. As long as I didn't get crazy, and try to wear sandals, or walk barefoot, it wasn't too hard to hide it.

Once I got married to a man who judged me on the 'content of my character' and not the deformity in my shoe, I was able to relax a bit. He loved and accepted me. What the people in public might think didn't seem to matter so much.

Then, in my third pregnancy I was fitted for a leg brace. My wise midwife suspected my intense fatigue was caused by hauling my uncooperative foot around, not so much by hauling the baby belly around. She was right. I welcomed the support that came with the ugly plastic brace.

But it meant I could no longer hide my disability, especially in spring and summer months. I refused to wear long pants, just so people wouldn't see my brace. I'm a very warm bodied person and I don't like to be hot. I get crabby when I'm hot. So I wear shorts whenever I have the chance. To make it more interesting, I happened to be working part time at a Joanns Fabric store, smack dab in the middle of 'the public'.

I had to learn how to battle the stares and suspected stares that came my way when I was on such public display.

That's when I came up with my own, custom made 'public judgment philosophy'. It goes something like this:

People are going to look. For whatever reason you might be different, people will look. Some will be subtle. Some will not. Kids don't even know what subtle means. So the ball's basically in your court.

Ironically, very few of the people who look, or those who try to hide their looks, will ever have a verbal exchange with you. Most will walk on, thinking whatever they're thinking. And you won't ever really know what they're thinking.

So this is where you get to choose. You can choose to think the very worst. You can imagine they are ridiculing you, pitying you, thanking God they aren't you. Or you can choose to think the opposite.

Now that I have a prosthetic leg, people have even more reason to stare. My kids love walking ten feet behind me in crowded public places (like county fairs) and counting the number of people who do their double take after I've walked by. They think I won't know. They don't know I have my own posse, watching them.

So I do what works best for my mental health. I assume they are intrigued by my leg. I assume they are curious, as I still am when I see someone with a prosthetic arm or leg. I assume they respect me, for my journey, whatever it might be. And I assume they are indeed thanking God that they are not 'like' me, which means they are being grateful for the blessings they've been given.

I walk on, head held high, knowing I'm doing the best I can with what I've been given. And unless they give me specific evidence to assume otherwise, I instill only encouraging, caring thoughts into the heads of those who stare.

To my friend who battles the feeling of being judged for her weight, especially in an athletic setting, like a gym, I offer a challenge. The next time you go, play the mind game I play. Assume that every person who looks your way is on your team. They are all people who feel for you, and respect your struggle.

Assume they all hope the best for you.

I know that's what I was thinking, the other day, when I was riding my stationary bike next to the overweight man. And if I'm thinking it, I'd bet that many others are too.

I know for a fact my sister Terry would be cheering you on in her head, if she saw you. And she's a really fit person, who runs marathons. There are many of us out there. People who respect another man's (or woman's) journey and wish them well.

And let me share just one more mind game I play, that might help you out a bit. It doesn't apply to what others think of you. It applies to what you think of yourself.

Many times when I'm on the bike and feeling pretty soft and pathetic, I make a decision to sit up tall. I roll my shoulders back a few times and reboot my mental picture.

I'm 100% sure a fit woman lives inside of me. I've seen her before. I've lived in her body before. So I do a mental picture of her, still there in my core. She just happens to have a little extra insulation that's keeping her from coming out. So I sit up tall and pretend she's already busted out.

I pull in my abs, roll back my shoulders, take a deep breath, and pedal even harder, feeling that other me from the inside out. Sometimes I even close my eyes. It's easier to imagine myself as the person I will be, once I reach my fitness goals, when I'm not distracted by gym mirrors. I imagine that strong me, that 30 pounds lighter me, riding tall on the bike, and for a small bit of time, I can be that me. It's all in my head. I'm telling you, it works for me.

Take it from a one legged woman who's not the skinniest girl in the gym. People are going to look. And they are going to have opinions. As a gift to yourself, always imagine that those opinions are the most positive kind possible. It doesn't hurt. And sometimes it helps a whole lot.

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