For the 5th Grader Who Said “I Can’t”

“NDI will be holding auditions this Spring for their big annual show!” exclaimed my teacher. I perked up when the announcement was made and thought, Here’s my chance.

NDI, or the National Dance Institute,  visited my school the previous year to teach us some dance basics. I hadn’t caught the eye of any of the instructors the first time (the way some of the other, much thinner girls did, damn them all), so I was determined that the upcoming audition would be my chance to shine.

I practiced, you know, once or twice. But my mind was ready. I showed up to the gym with butterflies in my belly but with hope in my heart, as I took my place on stage with the rest of my classmates. I spun, I jumped, I twirled. I’d NAILED it!

When the cast list came out, I anxiously waited for everyone to get out of my way so that I could see my name in big, bold letters on that page. Then, tragedy struck. My name wasn’t there. My initial denial gave way to utter horror as I realized that I hadn’t made the show and that I wouldn’t be spinning, jumping, and twirling in front of anyone. I slinked off to read one of my Babysitter’s Club books in the library and wallowed.

I was shattered. This was the first major heartbreak in my 10-year old life (well, that’s if I don’t count the time I found out my elementary school crush and love of my life had moved on to some other girl with long wavy hair, cooler clothes, and no belly and round cheeks. Betrayal!) . I looked at myself in the mirror and then at my peers and told myself that I could never have made it because I was just too chubby, too uncoordinated, and I would never be athletic or graceful enough to make it to a national dance show.

I watched my friends rehearse and share stories about all of the new kids they were meeting across the city while they prepped for the show. I ignored them and tripped my way through gym class, hating every second that I was forced to stay on the sidelines while everyone else giggled and had fun running around.

When the show came and went, I congratulated my friends who performed and focused all of my energies on what worked for me: studying. I became the best bookworm and student that I could possibly be and spent nearly all of my time on school. The weather warmed up and I stayed in and read every single Babysitters Club, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High or Goosebumps book I could get my hands on, instead of swinging on monkey bars or playing tag like everyone else.

Getting lost in my homework and books allowed me to forget about any dreams I had of being one of the ‘cool’ kids who could jump higher and run faster than me in every gym class or in the yard. I was never going to be the sporty type, and that was just fine with me.

It’s funny to look back on my ten-year old self and realize that so much of who I am today was shaped by my experiences as a chubby, insecure kid. I applied this “school always, athletics never” mentality all the way through high school and college, eschewing any kind of exercise or team sport as “just not me.”

One of my adult relationships brought this into sharp focus. He tried getting me to be more active and after my initial hesitation, I decided to go ahead and try. All too soon I realized that I was trying for the wrong reasons. It was like 5th grade all over again. I wanted so badly to be athletic because I thought that if I ran three miles a day or whittled my stomach down to a six-pack of abs, then I’d finally be accepted.

Who cares that I was attending one of the top universities in the country? Who cares that I had twisted my priorities and made these choices because of a guy and not for me? That NDI audition would never matter again if I got this right and somewhere deep inside of me that still burned.

The relationship failed and I fell with it. Body image dysmorphia and disordered eating kicked in and my weight went up instead of down. I admitted defeat and took a defensive approach to exercise. I didn’t work out, so what? Love me for me damnit!

But I didn’t love me for me. I let myself get wrapped up in all of the reasons why things were not working out the way I wanted instead of working on changing my distorted perceptions of who I was and what I could accomplish.

That all changed four years ago when I decided to stop telling myself that I couldn’t be physically fit. As hard as I knew it was going to be, it was harder to accept that I’d held myself back for so long because I thought I’d needed to be the best, when really all I needed to do was try. People change right? So why couldn’t I?

Losing the weight and learning about nutrition was extraordinary. I started this blog and met others who were in this world of health and fitness and felt welcome. My career goals shifted and I began to envision a future that would celebrate my new self and all of the things I embraced these last few years.

But nothing changed my life more than weight lifting and strength training.

Okay, that may sound strange after my somewhat long and drawn out history here. Where did strength training come from?

The truth is that even after I’d started losing weight through exercise and healthy eating, I was still a bit disconnected to the idea that I could be athletic. In some ways, I would never truly belong until I found the right physical outlet.

I tried running, even blogged about it a few times, but eventually I’d get discouraged and quit. Yoga and pilates were great but it didn’t give me the burn I wanted so badly. I still hadn’t joined a gym because I was always too scared to make the investment when I knew how inconsistent I was with exercise.

The truth is that I wanted to do something that would give me “cred,” which I felt like I couldn’t get from doing yoga, pilates, or workout DVDs. Running seemed like the right thing because I mean, who doesn’t want to run a marathon these days? There’s an aura surrounding the runner that’s almost mythical. I wanted that runner’s high and I remain fascinated by people who truly love running.

I had to admit to myself that I was getting caught up in the wrong things again. Much like the “girlfriend” or “best friend” labels that I’d lost myself to, I was searching for something else to add to the mantle. “Runner” or “athlete” had a nice ring to it and those titles seemed unattainable for so long.  I was still locked into the pattern that whatever I was doing was in service to some ideal that I thought I’d shaken off.

This wasn’t on my mind as much when I first started lifting with my personal trainer, Natalie, seven months ago. I’d watched her videos from her power-lifting meets and thought this would be a great introduction to Crossfit, which was my intended goal (Crossfit equaled ‘cred’ in my mind then). We started training and I’ve never looked back.

Each week I’m poised to take on a new challenge in the gym in a way that I still struggle to do in my personal life. All of the thoughts I had about what I was capable of achieving were thrown out the window once I started doing lifts that previously seemed impossible. Even now, all these months later, I’ll find myself waging that battle in my head, saying no, I can’t do this. And somehow I manage to shut that voice up by proving that yes, I can, and I can beat my own records too.

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Perhaps the greatest byproduct has been my new image of beauty. I’ve spent most of my life wishing I looked like someone else. I wanted to be taller, skinnier, tighter, learner, prettier, curvier; whatever I wasn’t, I wanted. And it was usually the same image over and over again, and she looked like whatever the media told me was the ideal.

Now I look at my physical transformation from strength training and I realize that there is no one ideal. That women can be more than just faceless skinny models with the same body type. Women can be strong. They can be powerful and contrary. They can be athletic and fragile. They can be intelligent and silly. We can be all of those things and more and we need to let ourselves off the hook about not meeting society’s expectations of what a beautiful woman looks like.

There’s a fire in my belly now and a strong desire to be the best I could possibly be at everything, not just school or writing, but in all the areas I told myself I couldn’t possibly do in the past. The excitement that drove me to spin, jump, and twirl for NDI when I was ten-years old for the pure joy of it, is what’s driving me now. Confidence is blooming inside of me and I’m letting that guide me now.

I signed up for a 5K later this year because I wasn’t going to say ‘never’ to running. I plan on joining a Crossfit class with my friend because I can’t say ‘never’ without ever trying. I may never win a competition but I’ve already won where it counts.

After a recent bench pressing session with Natalie, we spoke about my form and how much I had accomplished this year.

I told her, “I’ve never felt like I was athletic or that I could be good at anything physical before. That was never me or I thought, it could never be me. It’s amazing to think that it’s me now.”

She listened and she understood, because she had been there too. We shared that moment and I got back to work at the bench. I’m chasing a new personal record and there’s nothing stopping me now.

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14 thoughts on “For the 5th Grader Who Said “I Can’t”

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  1. I 100% understand when you discuss this new image of beauty. I feel most beautiful after a long run (yes, I am one of these folks who love to run!) when I have that post runner high and that glow to match it. I have run during heavier times and thinner times – but there is some kind of connection I have to God and to life during those runs that brings me back to me. And that is more important to me – now, anyway – than the number on the scale. I love reading about your transformation. I am so glad you are having a great time now with your physical challenges!

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    1. I love that you run! And that you’re a yogi! Two things that have that ‘aura’ for me which I find so inspiring. That connection you speak of during runs is what I’ve always been searching for, with or without exercise, and it’s been trippy to feel so in tune right now after being closed off for so long. Who knew it would take benching 85lbs to get me there, lol! Thanks so much Ilene. 🙂

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  2. I highly recommend CrossFit and based on what I’ve read in your blog, I think you’ll love it. The best thing about it is that you get to prove yourself over and over again. You get over your fears and learn not to listen to the devil in your head saying you can’t, just like you’ve experienced with lifting (which is a huge part of CF, as you might know). It’ll teach you more about life and yourself than any other sport I’ve tried (which I have to admit is not many, but anyway, I hear this from seasoned athletes as well 😀 ). It’s awesome to see the development you’ve made through the posts you are writing. I’m genuinely happy for you! Keep on rockin’ 🙂

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    1. Awesome Elina, thanks so much and I genuinely appreciate your encouragement to try Crossfit. One of my best friends recently joined a box and she’s IN LOVE with it! Right now it’s more of a financial commitment, but I’m definitely feeling that urge to raise the bar another level past powerlifting. So it’s definitely on the agenda for later this year!! The games are coming up soon and I can’t wait to watch all of those incredible athletes go all in. Such an inspiring sport!

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  3. great post! I found you from the Linkedin group. Love your blog! great work. Shared this post too – it is an important message that needs to be shared

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  4. This is such an inspirational post! We all struggle with self doubt and feelings of insufficiency, but tend to forget that everyone else does too. Feeling strong and confident from exercise is a wonderful feeling. I’ve been slacking lately because things have been busy in my life. Time to make exercise a priority again. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks so much for your comments and for stopping by Crystal! I agree, it’s way too easy to get locked into our own little worlds. That’s part of what I love about blogging. By sharing these posts you realize that you’re not alone and a lot of people are in that same boat with you. Thanks again!

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  5. Glad you’re now aspiring to have a “fire in your belly” instead of being the other girl with “no belly.” And, girl…you took me back with the Sweet Valley High book reference 😆

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    1. Thanks so much- the fire feels good! I know, I was a MAJOR Sweet Valley High fan back in the day. Between the Wakefield twins and the Babysitter’s Club girls, I was wrapped up in constant teen drama alongside my own teen drama. 🙂

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