Going Shirtless

Ever since I sprouted boobs in the 7th grade, I have dreamed of having a stomach flat enough to excuse shirtlessness throughout the sweltering Iowa summer. I watched the sprinters on my high school track team shed their t-shirts on the hottest days of practice, and glowered with envy as the same girls peeled off sweat-drenched spandex jerseys after the track meet to replace them with dry cotton croptops. Relegated to the discus and shotput due to my weight (I never considered that I was perhaps picked because of my muscled shoulders and wide, athletic back), I did not believe myself worthy of the right to bare skin. I daydreamed about the breeze on my bellybutton as I coasted for miles on a desert-hot day; I meditated on a future in which itchy clothing could be discarded, tossed to the side of the track.

In college, I got into long distance racing, and inadvertently lost 15 pounds by eating less ice cream and training for marathons. And yet, despite the fact that I could run 26 miles in less than four hours, I looked nothing like the women in Nike ads or the celebrities flaunting their abs on the covers of Women’s Health. I spent countless hours combing fitness magazines, weight loss cookbooks, and lifestyle blogs for ways to “whittle my middle,” and finally earn the freedom to wear whatever I wanted. I was the type of girl who didn’t think twice about donning gym shorts at a party, so the holy grail I sought was not high-waisted pants, nor the slinky backless dress, but a simple, supportive sports bra.

A couple of years ago, I started going to greater lengths for this sports bra body. I cut out entire meals, added kickboxing and yoga on top of a 40 mile/week training schedule, and biked 10+ miles each day in commute, all to no avail. I still had an ample layer of fat on my midsection, and I felt worse, physically and mentally, than ever before. I started skipping class, work, and social obligations in order to work out. I clipped low-fat, high protein recipes from Vegetarian Times and hoarded them like silver coins in a small sandalwood chest labeled “GOALS.” One day, after consuming a container of hummus in one sitting, I decided to throw it all up. It felt good to have nothing inside my body. If I gave my body nothing, it would finally shrink to fit society’s (and my twisted mind’s) standards.

But, somehow, it didn’t.

My stomach wasn’t meant to be flat. It was meant to echo with a jovial thwack if played like a bongo drum. It was meant to bunch up when I sit down cross legged to eat a bowl of stir fry. It was meant to jiggle ever so slightly while running down hills, and less slightly while exploding out of a burpee.

But that doesn’t mean it was meant to stay cooped up under loose cotton t-shirts or flowy yoga tops. All tummies are built to withstand some sun contact, and roam free on a heat wave afternoon. Running or walking, sitting or standing, each belly is born with the right to be bare. But it can’t liberate itself—its human has the choice to cloak it or let it all hang out.

That’s why, a couple of weeks ago, after months of counseling and treatment, I finally took my first shirtless run. Physically, it was as freeing as I imagined it would be: less chafing, less back sweat, more opportunities for ridiculous tan lines. But emotionally, it was pretty uncomfortable. I was terrified that someone would stick his head out of a station wagon and yell “Put a shirt on, whale girl!” I was hyperaware of my posture, and kept seeing weird, garish images of back fat flash involuntarily before my eyes.

But no one seemed to notice the girl with a boyish haircut and a lime green bra as she slogged down Scott Boulevard at seven miles per hour. Anyone who happened to glance at me went right back to scanning Facebook on their phone, or scolding their dog for nipping at my ankles. I was just another female jogger, airing out her abdomen on a pleasant summer day.

I understand that, in this respect, I bear considerable privilege:  even though I may sometimes see myself as huge, most others would regard me as relatively slim, and certainly within the range of “healthy” body sizes. I’m fortunate that I must only confront society’s perceived ire, and not real-life, personal animosity. But this intense, ruinous self-consciousness extends to women of all sizes. My shirtless run would have been just as uncomfortable if my stomach were as flat as I always hoped it would be. I could waste myself down to nothing and still be scared of what strangers think. The only way to become comfortable in my skin, no matter its surface area, is to practice baring it.

At the end of the day, it is only our own opinions of our bodies that matter, that either keep us up at night or give us solace and security as we drift to sleep.  That is why we must whittle away at our body image fears, our self-conscious behaviors, and our health-threatening habits in the same way that we once wanted to whittle our middles: with religious fervor, with defiant strength.

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