On Competitiveness, Body Image, and Learning to Look at My Own Paper

I laid in the tub in two inches of barely tepid water, audible sounds of regret escaping my mouth. “Can you see? Has it turned grey?” In that moment, I was experiencing the inevitable result of being a competitive person without a suitable outlet or a marketable focus. If I choose to enter a competition, I want to win. I have always wanted to win. I have no aptitude for (or interest in, let’s be real) team sports and I’ve reached an age when no one forces your peer group to stand in a line to see who is the best speller, so other petty competitions have borne the brunt of my laser focus. The pettiest things. Could I keep the #1 spot on the friend leaderboards for every song of a popular dance-based videogame? Win the all-important bar karaoke night Halloween costume contest? Can I do a little more? Go a little further? Could I do everything I cared about just a bit better than everyone else? Better than my previous best? And if not, why not? What was wrong with me? 

It is inevitable because my need to win and be the best is too strong that eventually I would go too far. It was probable, given the state of my body and American society’s general feelings about the overweight, that going too far would involve inflicting pain on my body related to a weight loss competition.

While now much of my peer group has arrived at the “love yourself, mind your business about other people’s bodies” mindset, anything before the mid 2010s was a fertile time for open self-loathing. Sometimes my friends and I would spend the better part of a party talking about how awful our bodies were, how much weight we wanted to lose, and our strategies to trick our bodies into believing themselves sustained on whatever diet was the New Diet That Would Fix Everything, Overnight Preferably. At a party! A place where we should’ve been celebrating something or someone and being alive and eating the good cheese! Instead, for years, I chose to play the role of the virtuous fat person on a diet, ignore the food, and talk about how I was also denying myself food in other places; some of my friends would do the same. Sometimes it was just me. I wasn’t in such self-denial that I believed that if no one saw me eat, they wouldn’t think of me as a fat person, but rather, if no one sees me eat, they can’t confirm any other opinions they might hold about how I got that way. I think of a friend who has stabbed a dagger into my heart at several dinner parties over the years when he talks about obesity and obese people with such vehemence in his voice and anger on his face. I’m obese; what does this mean about what he thinks about me? I don’t eat much around him. It’s hard to be a “good” fat person. And I want to be the best.

In those days, some of my friends and I would diet together but it was always a competition. Who could win dieting by dieting the hardest?  I could diet harder than anyone. I would go places they wouldn’t, do things to myself I wouldn’t wish on anyone and won’t go into extensively for fear of writing a comprehensive self-harm how-to guide. Back then, I wouldn’t talk about these strategies because I wasn’t there to help others succeed, I was there to win. I held no illusions that I’d lose enough weight over an eight week competition period to finally love or even like myself so if the only prize was winning, I was in it to win it. That’s how I ended up in my bathtub, weeping, afraid the hard, frozen disc of flesh on my upper back was frostbitten because I was trying to get an edge in effortless calorie burning by icing my brown fat, a tip from the author of my then-current New Diet That Would Fix Everything, Overnight Preferably*. This I’d first done through a towel, but a slippery slope led to putting the ice pack directly on my back for fear that it wasn’t chilling my fat enough to ensure my weekly weigh-in victory over a frenemy whom I couldn’t allow to be superior to me in any way. So onto my back that ice pack went. Surprise! A consequence! Albeit a minor one, as the hardened area eventually thawed and therefore my horrified imaginings of a little grey circle of flesh falling off my body and circling the drain were wildly unnecessary. I stopped icing, but I kept competing–you see what you focus on, and all I saw was a risky tip I took too far and not the behavior pattern that led to me taking the risk in the first place. 

I participated in lots of diet competitions during the entirety of my twenties and the first half of my thirties. Websites where you could bet money that you’d lose a certain percentage of your body weight. Others where the only prize was the glory of bettering strangers. In this latter category, there was a website I frequented on which you could compete with specific categories of people or for specific reasons, like “women over 30” or “getting fit for Christmas”.  And on that website, there was one guy who I came to think of as my nemesis though he very likely had never noticed me. I noticed him. He. made. me. furious. He first drew my ire because despite my best and cruelest efforts toward myself he was winning every competition in which we both were participants. I started only joining competitions for women or ones in which he was not listed as a participant, and that would’ve been fine but then he started swooping in and joining every single competition, regardless of whether he qualified, just before they ended so he could win those, too, and it was on the day he was crowned the winner of “Brides! Let’s look good in our wedding dress!” that I snapped, left the website for good, and ate myself into an expensive wedding dress alteration. If I couldn’t ever win, what was the point? At the time, I felt like this guy was stealing my glory, my victory, something I had starved myself to earn, because if I did not win first place, I didn’t achieve anything, and that he was doing it to be a jerk. Ahh! Fuck that guy! What an asshole! Except when I really think about it, I was just projecting my jerky competitiveness onto him. Yes, I wanted those wins.  I needed them. But I think that someone who would do that needed those wins more.

This summer, I started seeing a new doctor. It had been a while since I had a primary care doctor, and I was skittish about starting with a new one. Over the years, I’ve gotten better about excising the sorts of things from my life that trigger bouts of self-harm: I don’t get on the scale, much less participate in weight loss competitions. I don’t tally up calories because I know the dangerous, stupid places I go when I focus on the number. And enough doctors have treated my entire existence as a consequence of my weight that I feared another fall into the numbers. And worse, I was going for knee pain so I really felt the need to batten down my emotional hatches beforehand for dismissal, condescension, or outright cruelty, all things I have experienced in a medical setting, as well as sales pitches for diet drugs and bariatric surgery. I went anyway. 

Although this doctor did ask me to get on the scale on the first visit to establish a baseline, her philosophy is centered in exercise: that if you exercise at a high enough level for 45 minutes, three times a week, cardiovascular fitness will improve and weight and what you eat doesn’t really matter. She believes in this philosophy so much that she included a fitness center as part of her practice. New patients are given a few free classes so even if they decide not to continue exercising there, they can understand what kind of exercise the doctor is advocating. Since I hadn’t self-motivated to the gym in one..two..seven…eigh–a large number of months, this felt like an opportunity to get back into intentional exercise in addition to the incidental exercise I’ve been getting from my beat saber obsession and the physical labor of caring for and exercising an animal whose weight exceeds half a ton and does her best to whip me around like a ball attached to a cup by a string some days. This, too, I was nervous about. What would the trainer be like? What would the class be like? I went anyway.

My anxious mind anticipated a class of shoulder to shoulder people in a room with wall to wall mirrors with a loud, scary trainer. In fact, the class was so small it was the next closest thing to personal training: just myself and one older woman and not a mirror to be seen. The trainer was a man who appeared to be in his late 30s and fit, but not intimidatingly so. His manner was kind and even but impersonal and hands-off. My competitive mind noted immediately that I was much more physically capable than my classmate, and it was the smug self-satisfaction of this that allowed me to still internally deny that I needed to be there while buying the large package. I figured it would hold me accountable to exercising in a way just paying for a gym membership didn’t; that personal relationship with a trainer who expected you to be there in a class small enough for them to notice. 

I started showing up twice a week. Ostensibly my goal was better health through exercise but my two main motivators up and out in the mornings were both unhealthy: to utterly smoke the other (primarily far older, because who else has time mid-morning besides senior citizens and the unemployable?) people in class as a means of feeling better about myself, and the other, which I didn’t even admit to myself at the time, was to seek the approval of the trainer, recognition from him that I was doing better, doing more, achieving the most, winning the class, winning fitness. 

It’s like he knew what I was looking for and so refused to give it to me. Class ended with a “good work” and a fist bump and that was it, the same for everyone, no matter how hard I went. He gave clear instruction, was watchful-ish, but mostly hung back, trusting people to work to their personal maximum capacity, never pushing for more or harder. He told people to take breaks if they needed them, to come back when they could, and if someone did, he wouldn’t draw attention to it.

Even though I wasn’t getting those Teacher’s Pet cookies, I was still dominating at my goal of Smokin’ the Oldies, gleefully accepting every compliment from my classmates about my physical prowess. My bubble of imagined superiority burst spectacularly the first time someone in my age bracket came to class. I had managed, in my estimation, to outdo her for most of the class, but I hit a wall. Ran out of gas. When you can’t lift a weight anymore, you just can’t lift a weight anymore. And still I struggled to outpace her, and the shame of my eventual failure drove a river of silent tears down my cheek, thankfully only on the side no one could see, because it’s bad enough to lose a contest that only you know about but it’s worse to be a poor sport about it. It’s embarrassing that’s what it took for me to recognize that not only was I not better than the other people in class but that I needed to be there, and not for the purpose of “winning gym class” but for me, to be healthy, to work toward actual fitness goals that matter to me and furthermore, that it’s utterly fucking ridiculous to have lived my entire life in an aggressively non-athletic fashion and expect to always be the best in the room at fitness. This combination of things is what finally put an end to my competitive glances, comparing weights or machine settings or reps or squat depth. Letting go of self-inflicted competition and focusing on me was key to coming to really enjoy my time in the gym and my growing comfort and confidence in my own body. 

Then I fell off my horse due to an equipment malfunction, hit my head, and got a traumatic brain injury. I had a headache for a month straight. Every day. I was perpetually nauseated. Small amounts of physical exertion would exhaust me completely. Over the summer, I’d been hand walking Navani on trails, jogging her up the hills, building my fitness while working on her manners. I was getting better at jogging: me, jogging! Recently, the effort of merely walking this same trail (albeit with a spicy horse that day, in slippery footing) had me woozily dry heaving in the direction of a clump of ferns and hoping I didn’t black out while my friend rode ahead, cheerful and unknowing. I was out of the gym for six weeks and spent most of the next five castigating myself for those last two weeks, that it was laziness or some other personal failing that made it so I wasn’t back to wearing spandex in a month or less. Realistically, I went back too soon. 

During the time I was out, I received an email from my doctor’s office saying the gym was going to have limited hours for a bit while they were under construction to “make [my] gym experience second to none” and that some of these limited classes were going to be taught by a new addition to the training staff. Cool! Upon my return, I was interested to see what changes there would be to the gym–the trainer had been talking about wanting some different equipment and I was curious how it would change my workouts. And I know that I haven’t been in the corporate world for a while and had just hit my head and all but I still probably shouldn’t have been totally gobsmacked to learn that the only change was that the old trainer was gone, and the new addition to the training staff was the training staff.

This new guy was different. One of those muscle on muscle types which, like opposing magnetic forces, causes the flabby gelatinous material of which my body is composed to instinctively sidle away so as to avoid notice. He is a pusher, asking people to do more, go harder, calling them out by name. His expectations are higher in every way, wanting people to come half an hour early every time to warm up, to try to come daily. The baseline of what he thinks I should be able to do is higher. He says it’s OK to take breaks, but I’ve never once taken a break and not had him say something about it, which, to me, makes it feel like it’s not really OK.

Coming back from a concussion and its related cardiovascular effects to a trainer like this was a hard transition. I’d have to go into a squat to recover from a segment because my heart was pounding like a hammer and my chest was on fire and I was trying desperately not to throw up or die or throw up and then die and I’d hear “Melissa! You’re supposed to be doing bicep curls now” and each time was a battle between my commitment to listen to my body and my deep instinct to people-please. I’m there to be instructed, so when I’m instructed, I’m going to do my damnedest to do what I’ve been told. I might joke or snark about it but I always give my best effort, so when I’m chastised for taking a break it feels like it’s being implied that this means I’m not trying. I’m sure it didn’t help that one of my most regular classmates almost immediately talked me up to this trainer at the start of the session, saying that I was pound-for-pound stronger than anyone in the class. So even though I’d let go of the competition and turned my focus inward to the point where I have no idea how anyone else’s workout went, other people were noticing and comparing themselves to me. Ha!

This new trainer notices me a lot, making frequent adjustments to my form, occasionally physically moving me into position and fairly often touching me to demonstrate a verbal instruction. He notices if I switch to a smaller weight and calls it out in a way that leaves me uncertain if he’s encouraging me for recognizing that I needed to step down or if he’s teasing me by letting me know he sees me doing less than he thinks I could do or told me I should do. He notices if I have a bruise on my leg showing through the mesh part of my workout pants. He’s a lot more personable than any trainer I’ve ever had, particularly moreso than the previous trainer, who generally kept people at arm’s length. He’s asked about my rings, about my tattoo, about my husband, about my clothes, about my horse. He told me about a girlfriend he had and how she could never walk past the sparkly ring case at Costco, and how he imagined me as a more practical sort of person. Even as I was delighted to be seen as a practical person in a positive sense (Jason refers to me as a “naysinger”, or a person who finds the problems in other people’s ideas, and he insists this is not a bad thing although to me it doesn’t feel great to be seen as a rainer-on of parades) I was taken a bit aback to be imagined about at all, much less to have a question about my wedding rings segue into how I compare favorably to an ex. Before the holiday break, when I’d had a total of four classes with him, we evidently reached the “hug goodbye” stage. Then, one day post new year, my guts were unhappy, which maybe had something to do with my diet consisting of a flat of Terry’s chocolate oranges, sparkling apple juice, and not much else for the previous eight days or so, so I canceled my gym reservation for that day via the app. “Easy.” I thought. “Being able to cancel without having to speak to a human being, this is the future I always wanted.” Several hours later, the dour clangs of bells and howling of wolves announced that my phone was ringing and it was my doctor’s office. As I answered, I wondered why they’d be calling–I knew I didn’t have a doctor’s appointment on the books for several weeks. I was startled to learn it was the new trainer, calling because he’d noticed I was supposed to be in class and then had canceled and was worried about me. Worried about me? For real? I was gone for six weeks and no one said boo but with this guy I cancel one class and it’s worry-worthy? And not the kind of no-call no-show that could lead someone to believe I ended up in a ditch on my way to class but a garden variety Seattle “don’t feel like it so I’m gonna cancel just before and pretend I never even RSVPed yes”,  and he’s at DEFCON phone call levels of worry?

I needed to figure this out this guy’s deal. I couldn’t tell why I was so uncomfortable, why my blood pressure spiked from anxiety on workout mornings. Was it just my problem with change in general? Was it him pushing my boundaries in a way I don’t like? Or are the touches and the personal attention and the excuse to call and making sure that I knew which class was his all red flags that he’s got a bit of a crush? I posed this latter to Jason, who kept a very carefully straight face when he told me that he didn’t think I had to worry about that, and for a moment I hoped this trainer did turn out to be mildly infatuated with me just to prove to Jason that it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that a man could find me attractive. 

But Jason was right. I’d stopped paying attention to other people’s workouts when I stopped competing with them, but in the interest of solving this mystery, I did some observation and self-reflection, and saw everything I’d been missing. The mystery is that there isn’t one. This guy is a committed personal trainer, gregarious and well-meaning, and I think the wholly-appropriate touching is an extension of his casual physicality. I found that he largely treats everyone the same; it coincided with this period that two of my classmates separately complained to me about how closely he pays attention to form, calling him “eagle eyed”. I learned that my discomfort had nothing to do with him. My old nemesis, resistance to change, played a role. I’m not used to being pushed to do anything, so that was uncomfortable. My initial discomfort with the touching is about my discomfort with my body; I shrink from touch like life is an airplane seat I’m trying not to overspill. To have someone reach out and unexpectedly touch me was shocking. Before I learned that his touches were reliably instructional and professional, I struggled to keep from visibly flinching, tensing in fear of…whatever. So that was uncomfortable. I’ve spent my life trying to succeed without being noticed and I was uncomfortable with being noticed and corrected so often, especially in contrast with how rarely I was corrected previously. With the phone call, he was just doing exactly what I had wanted a personal trainer to do: He was holding me accountable. Calling me on my shit. And, as it turns out, being called on your shit isn’t a comfortable process. Most of all, I was uncomfortable with where I was versus where I used to be. I struggled so much during these workouts, particularly upon my initial return. I would find my edge almost without warning; I’d be fine one rep and head-between-my-knees-utterly-wrecked-please-just-leave-me-alone-because-I-cannot-have-my-last-act-on-this-Earth-be-a-bicep-curl on the very next. It was uncomfortable and hard and I think subconsciously I wanted to quit. Organizing the facts in such a way that the solution is that he must have a taste for vitamin Melissa would make it so not only could I quit, I could justify quitting as being the only moral solution, patting myself on the back on my way to the couch. But that’s not what it is.

Once I finally got over myself enough to tell him how much I had been struggling in these workouts and why, he changed them to help me be successful. And now that I am starting to recover and not ending every workout half a breath from disaster, I’m able to see the value in his making himself and the facilities available beforehand to roll out and offer guidance. The subject of the old trainer actually came up briefly recently, and I guess due to his casual attitude about form, some people were injured. So maybe eagle eyes aren’t so bad after all. 

As for the pushing, I have decided it’s my new anti-competitiveness challenge: In the face of applied pressure, I  commit to do only what I feel I can do in that moment, to not compare myself to others or what I have been capable of historically. If I can give more, I’ll give it. If I think I might be able to, I’ll try. But I will also push back when I’m being goaded beyond my limits, to challenge myself while safeguarding myself, to advocate for myself when I need modifications, to be as kind to myself as I’d be to others. Perhaps in the way the first trainer helped me to let go of my need to win and for others to lose, this one will push me in a way I need to help me find out who I can be.

When I started writing this essay, I thought it was about one thing. Or like max three things with an underlying core of one thing. I thought that although I had overcome my wandering eyes at the gym, I would probably continue to struggle with my competitiveness in other areas. Like, for instance, at the barn costume party this year.  I haven’t been as bold about letting my freak flag fly at the barn; there was no way for anyone there to reasonably know or understand the depths of my obsession with the costumed arts, and so with each of my ideas, a little moderating voice piped up. “Is this too weird? Too much?” I was torn between the impulse to go as hard as I could toward the most elaborate idea that all of my intersecting hobbies would allow and damn the time frame and sleep deprivation so I could snatch that crown, or to dial it down a notch and not make other people uncomfortable with how obviously heavily invested I was in victory. I did tone it down (and I’m glad I did), and I didn’t win. It was fine. I thought I might care more but for the first time in my life, I actually did have fun just participating. Or as another example, I’ve been playing video games competitively with Jason and sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t and either way, it’s fine. It’s never been fine before. Never.

It made me wonder if competitiveness was as inherent to my character as I believed. My maternal grandma would oft-regale with the tale of the time little Melissa flipped the board in a game of Hi-Ho Cherry-O, scattering tiny plastic cherries everywhere, proclaiming “Grandma, I don’t like to lose!” The family always roared in laughter, and instead of nipping that awful behavior in the bud little Melissa learned that competitiveness and poor sportsmanship were tied to positive attention. My paternal Wisconsin grandparents with whom I spent a lot of time were both devotees of the Packers and Vince Lombardi (Packer Jesus), who in His gospel preached that winning was not everything, it was the only thing, and that if you showed him a good loser he’d show you a loser.  This testament was reinforced constantly throughout my childhood, along with the expectation that I would be the best at everything I tried because I was somehow special, better than other kids, destined for more, and if I fell short of the mark, I didn’t try hard enough and I was squandering my potential.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to see how a kid with these influences could be a lonely, ill-liked, bad-tempered poor winner and sore loser who grew into an adult in competition with everyone, neurotic about needing to win, but also desperate to not be seen doing anything poorly. Going for reward with the expectation to be the best and fearing the censure that comes with failure, even if now those expectations and censures come from within. This holiday season, I finally started watching Community (five years after everyone else has stopped talking about it, so right on time for me) and Season 1, episode 19, “Beginner Pottery” was like a Very Special Episode directed at me, Melissa Jeff Winger, and I was in exactly the right place to hear it. “[Melissa], you’re a normal person. There’s nothing very special about you at all. You’re going to be great at a few things, but really crappy at many more. And that takes a lot of the pressure off! So you can live a full, happy life. Oh, and sorry it took me so long to tell you that. And it was only in your imagination. My bad. Kind of a sloppy mom.”

Now that I’ve been able to back off from being in constant competition with everyone at everything, I better understand what a toxic presence it was in my life, how it robbed me of fun and joy and connection with people, how tied it is to fear, shame, anger, jealousy… and that it ironically also steals any pride I have in accomplishments because they aren’t accomplishments if they’re the bare minimum, if I’m performing as expected. Accepting that I was trapped in a million competitions of my own design, exhausting and demoralizing myself for little to no reason, was the first step in setting myself free from them. The freedom to be crappy at something really does take the pressure off. 

 

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*It didn’t fix everything and it made my eating disorder significantly worse, because now it was a New Diet That Will Fix Everything, Overnight Preferably-sanctioned eating disorder! I’m still working on undoing the damage from that one. 

Related but also completely unrelated story: Once the original trainer was significantly late and an old man who seemed to primarily use the class as a social activity took it upon himself to be the leader, saying repeatedly he “had to get you ladies moving” and it made me so goddamn mad that this frail old man whom I could probably bench press before whipping him overhead by his ankle like a kind of elderly lasso and then flinging him through the plate glass window into the parking lot had the audacity to act like he was qualified to physically train me but because I’ve been raised and socialized female I just went along with it and turned my anger on myself later for allowing it.