I haven't been slim since I was in maybe 8th or 9th grade. I'm sort of okay with it at this point; my internal numbers (e.g. blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol) have always been excellent, none of my stupid illnesses have been caused by my weight, and I've got some awesome clothes that wouldn't fit anymore if I lost a lot of poundage. I struggle on a regular basis to keep myself from internalizing the shame that a lot of people project on me for being, well, FAT.
It's really all over the place, if you're aware of it. There are articles all over the place about how to lose weight (many of them aimed at women, specifically), "regular" sized clothing often only fits and flatters slimmer folks, and the alarmist talk about the obesity epidemic is getting to the point where it could be considered an epidemic on its own. Lots of folks can't seem to stop thinking in black and white; they can't seem to think beyond, "Fat is bad." And naturally, this morphs into, "Fat people are bad," and then evolves into, "Fat people aren't normal; fat people are unnatural; fat people are disgusting." Often, this sort of thinking isn't explicit, even to the people who think or believe in it. It might just manifest itself in an inability to find a person attractive if they're larger than a certain standard, without a conscious understanding that the lack of attraction is built on prejudice.*
But the point of this post isn't to discuss fat acceptance or fat hatred, although I do operate under the general assumption that if you're not about fat acceptance, you can leave now (because to engage in fat hatred is to hate me, and I don't really like people who hate me, ya know?). The point of this post is that my daily struggle to deal with a fat hating society has brought to light something about my body that I don't understand.
The summer before my senior year at college, a friend of mine approached me about going running together. It was a bit quiet and lonely, since it was summer time, and a lot of our friends were home for the summer, not sticking around campus. I had a lot of free time and was feeling ashamed of my body shape at the time; she had gotten news from the doctor that if she didn't improve her internal numbers, her health was in serious trouble. It seemed like a good set-up. She was already in better shape than I was, so she planned to run the half mile or so to my apartment, and then together we'd run a mile loop around part of campus, and then she'd run home.
The first day, I couldn't make it a half-mile without having to stop. It was demoralizing. By the time we stopped to (power)walk, she had to do all the talking,** because I couldn't even breathe. There were stitches in both my sides. I felt as if I was going to die.***
She kept me on schedule, though; it was hard to cancel at the last minute, so I would just go. Eventually, we stopped going together because I wasn't ready to start working on pace yet, just distance, and I couldn't keep up with her without pushing myself too hard and crapping out early. But by then, I was going running because I wanted to, because it was habit, because I loved it. I began expanding my loop, often going a mile and a half. I didn't lose much weight, but my body began to change, began to become a running body. It was fantastic.
One afternoon, about two months after I first started running, I went running without eating anything all afternoon, and during my period. I'd done both those things before, and I wasn't feeling particularly hungry or anemic. I made it through the first mile of the run without any problems.
As I began the last half-mile stretch, my calves began to burn. Not as if I was pushing myself too hard. It actually felt as if they were on fire. They felt completely hard and tight, too. Something was definitely wrong. I tried to run through it for a couple of minutes, but it was just excruciating, even for my high pain threshold. I finally decided to just stop and walk the rest of the way home, assuming that it was just some unfortunate incident that only occurred because I was trying to get a better mile and a half than I had done previously.
To quote Dr. Cox: "Wrong wrong wrong wrong; wrong wrong wrong wrong; you're wrong." The calf pain was at least twice as bad when I stopped to walk. Even worse, I felt extremely lightheaded, and my vision was beginning to fade. The last time I'd experienced anything like this was when I watched my first surgery as an intern at an animal hospital (well, you would have, too, if you had seen the doctor pretty much digging into that dog's elbow, looking for a bone fragment!). And that hadn't come with obscene calf pain.
I had to sit down on someone's front steps. I was planning on trying to rub my calves, to get them to stop hurting, but first I had to lie down and try not to lose consciousness. I succeeded, and after a few minutes, I began rubbing my calves and popping my feet in and out of my sneakers. Eventually, I felt well enough to walk the rest of the way home. I was scared out of my mind, though, and was too scared to run after that. I called my doctor, whose response was, "Well, you almost passed out, but you didn't, so call back if you pass out."
Then, running became something I did infrequently, and with great fear. I ran only a few more times after that and before I graduated, and only once with a friend. I felt too guilty to run with people after that, because I kept having to stop because of my calves. I moved and started my first job, and when I was feeling up to exercising, I still didn't do it, because the few times I did felt too risky (plus, running in a cul-de-sac is SO BORING). I joined a gym that did almost all circuits with a personal trainer, quitting only when work got in the way; I only ran a few times on the treadmills, and it only went well once. The trainer assumed that my calves just needed strengthening, something I knew was false. This wasn't out-of-shape pain, or pushing-myself-too-hard pain. The first time it happened, I had been running without any problems for two months, after all.
After moving again, I only ran twice before giving up completely. I live in one of the hilliest areas of Boston, and it just wasn't the best way to get into running again (hills + strange calf problem = no thanks). But during my first winter, anticipating that I might face fat-related prejudice at graduate school interviews, I joined a nearby gym (and the only reason why it didn't help me before interviews is because interviews messed with my schedule!).
Meanwhile, I've been trying to determine why the fuck this has been happening. I can't predict when it'll be a problem, which is extra-frustrating as a scientist. It's not that my blood sugar is too low (I've made sure to eat enough during the day, but it often happens anyway). It's not my shoes (because it sometimes doesn't happen). It's not that my calves are burnt out or that I'm pushing myself too hard (I went yesterday after a couple days off, and ran at a slower speed). It's not hydration or menstrual cycle or low potassium (the first thing I suspected, and the reason I started drinking orange juice for the first time in 15 years). I have no fucking clue.
So I'm going to the doctor, finally (different PCP this time, one who doesn't need me to pass out before she'll help me), but I'm concerned that if we determine it's not a heart problem, she'll just tell me to use the elliptical, since that doesn't make my calves hurt at all.
But wait! you say. Why not just use the elliptical? Then you would be able to exercise without this silly problem affecting you!
Why, what a great point that I've obviously never considered! I respond.
Well, okay, I mean, it's fair. But there are two reasons why it's, well, not fair.
First off, we're steeped in a culture of fat hatred, one where, "Losing weight is easy, you dumb cows" is a common sentiment. And that involves, "Exercise is easy, idiot" as well. But obviously, if losing weight were super easy, I would have done it already to get people to stop treating me like I'm disgusting because of the size of my body. DUH.
While some folks who have succeeded in either changing their diets or incorporating exercise into their lives will just brag that it's super easy, many other people comiserate that it's difficult and offer suggestions to make it easier for other folks. And one of those suggestions works for me so well that I'm even surprised at how stupid my brain is. That suggestion? Pick an activity you will enjoy, because if you don't enjoy it, you won't do it.
The reason why I'm surprised at how well this works for me is that I don't love running that much, mostly because I hate exercising and I don't like being sore or having sports injuries. I'd rather just go home and curl up in bed with Loki and Netflix and candy. But if I go to the gym, I just hop on the treadmill and get going, no questions asked. And it's because it's so damn useful. Not because I actual believe that the zombie apocalypse is going to happen, but because if it did, I could run away from zombies (or towards delicious brains) much more easily. It's stupid, but it works. It makes me want to run. The elliptical would be great if I wanted cardio and weightloss. But I want to be better at running. So put me on an elliptical and after a few minutes, I'm so bored out of my mind that I need to stop as quickly as possible. I'll leave work late intentionally so that there are available treadmills by the time I get to the gym; otherwise, I'll have to wait or use an elliptical. Nope.
The second reason why I'm not accepting, "Well, use the elliptical" as a solution is because it's not a solution. It's avoidance. What if this weird calf thing is actually a symptom of something more serious, like a vascular disease or malformation? What if I could DIE because this thing went undiagnosed?*** I want answers, even if it doesn't change the fact that I might have to use the elliptical or stop having cardio workouts all together (noooooooo).
My appointment this Monday will the the first step in solving this strange problem. Meanwhile, I forgot to stretch after the gym last night (and no, stretching isn't related to the problem, I tried that!), so with my calves sore and tight, I'm dreading tonight's workout even more than I was before. Oh well!
* To me, this sort of goes with people saying, "Oh, I'm just not attracted to people who are [insert race here]." Considering the variation of folks we're attracted to (I don't know a lot of people who have a specific type, and many who I do know who have a type are currently with someone who is not that type), I'd say it's pretty suspicious if you're just not attracted to an entire group made up of one ethnic background. Not that you're lying, but it's definitely internalized prejudice, in this case racism, and I recommend that you do some thinking.
** And people who know me know I LOVE talking (and people who don't know me should know I love talking just by the length of this post).
*** I may or may not be dramatic sometimes.