If you asked me 10 years ago what would make my perfect evening, I would have said that a perfect evening consisted of at least 2 hours of swimming training, followed by a packet of crisps in the car, waiting for J, secretly listening to the final strains of evensong echo in the car park. Then going home to bed.
Swimming was my physical outlet. It was cathartic. I remember thinking that it was perfect, because no-one could tell if I was crying. The tears pricking my eyes merged with the stinging water of the pool. Some more strokes forward, and tears were just another drop in an infinite number, through which I swam furiously. You had to be strong to swim. Just keep swimming, and everything would be ok.
But it wasn’t. Soon after that, my health meant I had to stop. My way of dealing with the stresses and pains inside my mind was ripped out of my hands. I felt impotent, and my relationship with any kind of physical activity deteriorated. When I started year 7, I decided fervently that I hated all kinds of sport, because they were a reminder of what I could not do. I was awful at lacrosse, gave up trying in netball, and took to deliberately hitting the tennis balls over the fence into the town park, so that I would spend my sport session walking out of the school grounds and through the gates into the park, to pick up all my wayward balls. The worst of all was cross country, when we were made to run round the same park in a t-shirt and shorts in the middle of January. All the best girls were at the front. They ran with ease all the way round. And I walked, bringing up the rear.
It only made problems worse. If you weren’t sporty, you weren’t cool. If you weren’t cool, who were you? Why would they talk to you, unless it was to jeer at your inability? I wanted to scream to them to say that I could do it. I wanted to do it. But after 2 years of not trying, I became so unfit that by the time I tried, it was painful. And then I gave up completely. I developed an infallible strategy of persuading my male sports teachers that I had severe period pain, every time we had sport. I just didn’t think I could do it.
As a result, I became very self conscious about my body image. It was the worst in gym class, dressed in leotards, and being instructed how to do flips and tumbles. Everyone else was tiny, and I had this podge of fat. We were told in biology aged 11 that we would all put on weight in our early teenage years, affectionately termed ‘puppy fat.’ But in an all girls’ school, the notion of the ‘thigh gap’ became much more important, and seemingly everyone around me, aged just 12 and 13 was stick thin, and was taking measures to ensure they stayed so. I was sure that I was not thin enough because I didn’t do sport, when in reality, I was of a perfectly normal 11 year old weight. I was sure that all my problems, bullying and anxiety, could be put down to my weight. And I bottled everything up in my mind, with all the anger and hatred whirling around and around. I had no outlet for it. It was like a Molotov Cocktail just waiting to explode. I had given up swimming through it all. I wasn’t strong enough to swim anymore.
When I moved school at 13, my self-consciousness was debilitating, and the first thought in my mind whenever I met someone new was: do they think I’m fat? But soon afterwards, I made the conscious agreement between my body and my mind that I was not going to let this define the rest of my school career. I couldn’t face being with the girls, on the hockey pitch. It brought back all the fear. So I joined the boys’ recreational football team, and sustained my first sports injury, a broken wrist. Because if you were the only girl on the boys’ team, you were obviously the only choice for goalkeeper. But I didn’t mind so much, because I enjoyed it. I could run around on the pitch, and the boys didn’t make snide comments like girls do. In the summer, I played cricket.
Gradually, over the 5 years I have been at my ‘new school’ (it’s not so new anymore!), I have got back into girls’ sport, and played some netball and rounders. But I have always struggled with fitness, and feeling comfortable enough to wear a t-shirt and skort. Last year, when I finally got an all-clear to swim again, I was so uncomfortable wearing a swimming costume that I wrapped myself up in a towel all the way from the changing rooms to the diving blocks. And then the bleeding started again, and once again, just keep swimming was no longer an option.
But I realised that I had to find another way out. I couldn’t spiral downwards again. I didn’t want to leave school with a self-consciousness about my body image, and I needed a physical outlet for mental pain. So I started running.
Over Christmas, J received a fitness challenge as part of RAF training. 30 days. And he forced me to go with him. It was my worst nightmare at first. Dressed in clinging leggings, I was sure that everyone could see my weight, and running in public, through town, I was convinced they were laughing at my red face. When I got back home, I shut myself in my room, and collapsed on the bed. But although I was drained, it felt so good, and I felt more confident about myself. I had believed that I could, and I done it. For the first time in 10 years, I had voluntarily gone out on a 20 minute run. It felt amazing. I felt so happy.
Everyday, my brother and I have done at least half an hour of exercise, and the minutes have slowly increased to the point where we are now running for an hour, once a week. Last Friday, we were running at night for the first time. J is strict with the days of the challenge, and so whereas I suggested we might swap ‘100 squats, 80 sit-ups, 30 press ups’ we were due to do on the Saturday, with Friday’s run, he insisted we went, equipped with head-torches and reflective jackets. I’m so glad we did.
There was something very powerful about running together in the dark. It was a clear night, and the stars were super bright, the brightest I’ve seen them for a long time. On the left of the road, there was a purplish streak, and it faded to black on the right. The moon gave everything a hazy glow, and made the raindrops on the trees shine ephemerally as we sped past. The sound of our feet, landing in time together on the pavement, was like the beat of a drum spurring us onward. It was biting cold, but I felt so warm, and not just because I could feel my legs burning. I could process my emotions in a physical escapism that I have not felt for 10 years. Even when the stitches kicked in, we carried on, and felt the pain melt away. And by the end of the run, I felt as if we could conquer the world. There was no self-consciousness, but a self-awareness and sense of self-acceptance.
So, though, 10 years ago, I would have told you that swimming was my sport, and running was the worst thing in the world, I would now tell you the opposite. I have become a runner. This week, burdened by so many stresses, coping with mocks, and competitions and music auditions, and university decisions, and friendship dramas, I have found so much comfort in thinking and praying whilst running. They seem to go together.
Over the course of these 30 days, I may have lose weight, I don’t know, I don’t check anymore. But what’s more important is that I have become able to tune into myself, and listen, and see. I’m so much happier. I’m so much closer with my brother. We’re a running team. And I’m sure that as we move into month 2, I will become in tune to so much more.
Each day, I take step one. It’s just me and my thoughts, following the beat of the drum, feeling a glorious pervading love for the divine world around me, and sense of appreciation for myself and who I am. It lasts until the final step.
Even if you think you can’t go on, if you are drowning in self-consciousness, self-deprecation, and a distance from your self, you can, or you will. Just keep swimming. Just keep running. Just keep going. Believe.
Every time I reflect on this, I feel so so sad that the state of our society is such that there are 12 and 13 year old girls, and boys, who are forced to be so preoccupied about their weight. It makes me so angry that often bullying stems from issues of size, and that so many children and teenagers are suffering from self-consciousness, and a lack of self-confidence. And the problems that arise from such a culture are not just short-term, but can cause mental health struggles into adulthood. If you know someone who is struggling, with weight, with bullying, with low self-esteem, or is just having a bad day, please be there for them, and point them in the direction of help.
Someone who smiles, who gives a hug, shares a story, runs or walks with you, holds your hand, or just sits and prays with you, is someone who will change your life, and change the world, one small action at a time. I have learnt that you are so much stronger than you originally conceive, and if you believe, anything is possible. It’s often the believing part that is the hardest. In sharing our belief, we help others to see a light, when so much the world around them is dark.
Perhaps in doing so, we can be that bright star in the night sky, that voice of God’s glory here on earth. We can show another runner that they can.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that as I wrote that final line, this song came on my iPod. If nothing above resonates with you, just give this a listen.