In February of last year, on the last day of my trip to Rio de Janeiro, I had the entire day to myself. I spent the morning riding skycars up to the Sugar Loaf Mountain and traipsing around a series of fetching wooded paths populated by tiny monkeys the size of squirrels. In the afternoon, I paid up at my hotel, stored my bags behind the desk, and took my book, my towel, and my self out to Copacabana Beach for an afternoon of reading and snoozing. I had several hours before my departure for my late evening red-eye flight, and I had a big old Stieg Larssen novel that needed finishing.
In the bags that I’d packed in my room in the United States, at the time uncertain as to the cultural significance of different beachwear in Brazil, I included both a one-piece and a bikini. I’d read warnings about Brazilian beach bodies being a shock to the American eye – everyone wears a thong! many of them look awesome in a thong! Alert! Alert! Potential embarrassment ahead! Apparently, according to these guides, Brazilians are both more fit and less prudish than the typical American beachgoer. That knowledge put me in something of a bind. I was in trouble either way – I would be revealed as a Tourist if I wore a prudish American 1 piece or a 2 piece that revealed my gooshy two-babies-grew-here belly.
The fact that I pondered this dilemma at all reveals a cultural bias that I wish I didn’t have.
In Brazil, all ages, all sizes, every single adult wore a 2-piece thong, no matter the state of their butt, belly, or skin. Saggy old skin, heavy bodies with rolls under the bra strap and at the thighs, young and tanned, medium sized and cottage-cheese-thighed. I wore a two-piece, along with every other imperfect, beautiful body that day. Nobody in Brazil cared. And when I say nobody cared, I don’t mean nobody said anything or nobody pointed and laughed or nobody smirked and rolled their eyes. I mean nobody cared. The absence of caring blared at me like an alarm. It was an incredibly foreign feeling, and highlighted for me just how hostile American beaches (and malls, and restaurants, and streets and cities and schools and suburbs and everywhere else) can be. Not a single person spared a moment to ponder the bodies on display – not mine, not even their own. I unclenched. Spread my blanket. Smoothed my extra baby belly skin into a position where it didn’t get pinched by the corner of my book. Pondered the cellulite puckering my upper thighs, but did not attempt to strategically hide it with piled up sand.
Awash in body acceptance, comfortably bare-bellied under the roaring sun, I applied sunscreen and read about the snow.
Today I attended “boot camp” –a 45 minute YMCA class run by an incredibly fit woman in her late thirties who could kick your butt. Every one of you. Guys, too.
In this boot camp, we did 3 sets of a 4-exercise circuit, and then did 3 sets of a different 4-exercise circuit, and then did 3 GASPING sets of a 4-HIDEOUSLY-CRUEL-AND-IMPOSSIBLE-exercise circuit, at which point we all collapsed onto the ground and she cracked her metaphorical whip and told us to get our lazy tails in the air and do twenty squats. After drinking some water, of course. She doesn’t want us to die. Just suffer.
I go to classes like this several times a week at lunchtime, according to my “200 workouts in 2013” New Year’s Resolution. Today’s was my 41st workout of the year – I’m making progress toward that goal.
As a result of pursuing this particular goal, I’m stronger, my resting heart rate is a touch slower, and the small sprinkling of musculoskeletal ouchies that have been plaguing me lately are flaring up less often. The black bags under my eyes are less present in the mornings. I drink a lot more water, to keep up with the inordinate amount of sweating. Aside from perpetually having at least one set of muscles sore from “yesterday’s workout,” I feel pretty great. As New Year’s Resolutions go, this and the daily yoga are the most wildly successful at improving my daily life.
It’s funny, because if I’d made my New Year’s Resolution a weight-loss goal – the one I often make, the one I haven’t been able to keep since my thyroid died in 2010 – I would be utterly failing. The scale has budged not a bit, except to fluctuate up or down a pound or two. Haven’t lost any inches, either. I can’t tell you how disheartening it’s been to have a goal to lose 15 pounds, and to do work towards it, and to consistently fail. I can’t tell you how many workouts I skipped or poor food choices I made in 2012, because I knew it just wouldn’t do any good – I’d still weigh the same old same old, no matter what I did.
All I did was change the metrics, and it changed my outlook. I’m healthier because I’ve chosen to aim for “healthy” instead of “skinny.” [Insert every essay ever written about women and judgment and body image in America right here – I don’t need to repeat it.] [Also, I’ve been a judger. I’m trying not to be, anymore.]
I struggled a lot with culture shock in Brazil. The Portuguese immersion wore my down – I spent most days hungry because I didn’t have the energy to navigate a non-English fumbling attempt order a ham and cheese popover. The traffic kept my stress level elevated at all times – at any moment I was certain a bus would come hurtling over the curb and crush me against a crumbling city building. I could never relax as I walked through the city streets, keeping an eye on the air conditioning units precariously perched on window sills and an arm curled protectively around my bag.
But I loved the beach there.