In many video games, the body of your avatar does not change with time or experience. In Dragon Age: Inquisition or The Outer Worlds, you can apply scars to your character’s face, but they don’t accrue new ones as time goes on. These characters can become absurdly powerful, stronger both physically and mentally, but their muscle mass and silhouette are stagnant. Their bodies are their bodies—but their power is something else entirely.
Power, in games like these, is represented through skill trees. You master one skill, then you have the ability to build on it with new skills and new approaches. It’s comforting to wrap yourself up in an avatar, one that always has its ideal outward image but inwardly is vastly malleable. But I realized after some time that in sinking into this fantasy, I was running from my own body. Creating harmony between my body and mind was like pushing two weak magnets together. Sure, you can make them touch, but they’re not going to stay that way for long.
If I eat this cake, I’ll have a salad tomorrow. If I have a candy bar, I have to commit to a diet. I love cooking and tasting delicious things, but I’ve had periods where putting food into my mouth required an intense series of negotiations. For a summer in my teens, I dedicated myself to the task of “only eating if you’re actually hungry,” then stopped when I almost fainted in a Marshalls. As an adult, I downloaded a meal-tracking app, thinking would give my life structure, something to break me out of a depressive state when nothing else could. I obsessively logged each and every portion of a meal, adjusting so that I would be below what it deemed its calorie limit. I emerged from a six-month depression fog to realize that all my pants were too small.
For a couple years I got rid of all my mirrors. I hated looking at myself or even acknowledging that my body had any shape or form. My wardrobe became an endless parade of black, blousy shirts and dresses. Having a body itself was the problem, in my mind. The more that I could do to distract from it, the better.
I went to the strength training gym after a month of psyching myself up. They offered an introductory class to get people acclimated to the equipment, so I wandered into the cramped space on a Sunday morning. It kicked my ass, but I was not for one second bored.
Eventually I settled on joining the Olympic Weightlifting class. Olympic Weightlifting consists of two moves: the snatch and the clean and jerk. Snatches have you use momentum to lift the barbell above your head. For cleans, you only raise the barbell to your collarbone before jerking it up over your head. My cleans are okay, but my snatches need a lot of work.
Each of these moves requires mastery of another move to get absolutely right. To build strength for a snatch or a clean, you should be deadlifting and doing squats for your legs. The coach who teaches this class, Lady, always says that if a set isn’t beautiful, it doesn’t count. If you’re not doing it right, then you’re basically not doing it.
“You don’t want droopy breasts,” my mom once shouted at me in the car after I told her I didn’t want to have to wear a bra every day. You don’t want cellulite, you learn via osmosis, a combination of folk wisdom and scare-mongering news reports. Being a woman means hearing a lot about what your body should be. In order to stay skinny, stay youthful, there are a whole series of tonics to drink and creams to apply. I lived with a woman who had a facial skincare routine that consisted of more than ten products. All this so that your body can stay the way it’s supposed to forever.
My mother has weight problems that caused significant health issues for her. Heart disease and high cholesterol run in both sides of my family. As I grew up, my mom pushed me to go to the gym and constantly scrutinized my weight. Until I hit college, I weighed a max of around 110 pounds. Once, when I asked her if I could buy new bras because mine were too tight, she told me that she wouldn’t get any because I “didn’t want to have breasts that big.” The obvious, unspoken commentary was that I needed to lose weight.
For a long time, I have enjoyed the idea of having a body more than the actual experience of it. Bodies that exist only in the hypothetical are safe from age, wear and tear, injury, illness. I liked the idea of my body being graceful, so I danced. I liked the idea of it being strong, so I took kung fu lessons. Over time, I stopped liking the idea of my body being anything, the experience of existing itself driving me to nausea.
My mom, whenever she talked about ballet, would always say that it gives you the most beautiful body. Pre-puberty, I had no idea what she meant, but now I think of the flat stomachs, modest breasts and spindly arms of the women who star in movies. But more than just grace, dancing was an easy way for me to stay active as a child. It made sense to me: You learn the choreography, and then you get better. Along the way, I suppose, your body becomes beautiful.
The character creator in The Sims 4 may be my favorite of all time. The body isn’t controlled by a series of sliders. You push and pull on it directly, manipulating it like a piece of clay. I could push in on my stomach, removing the piece of belly fat that I have in real life. I could push in on my chest, making my breasts more manageable. I push in on my hips, make myself what I thought was “more proportional.”
These characters—with small thighs, flat stomachs, straight hair—lived, had families, then eventually died. Then I would start a new save, begin again. I had little to no interest in playing their descendants—I wanted another try at making me. I wanted to watch me grow older, see all the different ways my body would droop and grow weaker. I wanted to know if there was any way my body could get older that I could mentally accept.
I first saw results after two weeks of weightlifting. I was climbing the stairs to my boyfriend’s walkup and noticed, suddenly, that I was not winded. I remember thinking about my legs, about how strong they felt in that moment. They’re thick, yes, but like tree trunks, strong and steady. My body finally felt like a tool, something that does things.
There aren’t any mirrors in my weightlifting gym. It’s in what used to be a retail space, and at night, you can sometimes see yourself reflected in the huge floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of the space. When I lift, I strain to see my reflection in the glass. I want to see what my body can do.