Help me get the bullies out of my head so I can go to the gym in peace
June 9, 2012 7:31 AM   Subscribe

You were bullied as a child, especially in gym class. You protected yourself from the mocking by being invisible and dropping those classes as soon as possible. You were embarrassed and afraid if people noticed the way you run or move. You didn't learn to dance because of this shame. As an adult, you have gotten over this fear/shame and have become physically fit and strong. How?

I was bullied as a child, especially in gym class. Now I'm an adult with horrible posture and the back/shoulder problems from that. I need to get stronger, but this stuff still makes me want to hide in the corner.

Even non-gym activities trigger this. I don't dance. I don't like running in front of people. I don't like posing for the camera. I will automatically turn you down for volleyball or frisbee. I assume everyone knows that I look stupid doing any of those things, because it was drilled into me as a kid.

I've started one-on-one Pilates training, and my trainer is awesome and supportive. Despite her awesomeness and despite the fact that I actually like Pilates, I actually started crying half-way through one of my classes.

I couldn't beat the bullies as a kid, and now they're still echoing in my head. How do I beat them now?

My question is very similar to this question, but I'm looking specifically for answers about the emotional/thinky part. I'm happy with Pilates, not looking for suggestions on a different activity.
posted by sadmadglad to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I wasn't bullied but I always hated gym class and will never do team sports of any kind (which is too bad because it is a great way to meet people). But I am pretty fit because I walk everywhere and am careful with my diet.

Maybe the one on one is too intense? Maybe the crying is a way of working through something? I would go to a group class, stay right near the back, near the door and left if it got too intense. Then I would keep trying that.

Group ballet classes are also great for posture, but I know you don't want alternate activity suggestions. I think you are just going to have to yell "STOP" in your head when you hear your bully voices and replace them with that of your supportive self, trainer and maybe therapist. Don't give up, or your bullies have won.
posted by bquarters at 7:38 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have similar issues, although I wouldn't describe myself as fit or strong now -- I'm overweight, but healthy and happy. When the memories of all the bullying start up in my head, and my self-talk starts in on how stupid or fat or silly I look -- at the gym or anywhere else -- I close my eyes tight, imagine my 8-year old self as vividly as possible, and give her a hug. I tell her to stop listening to the bullies, to focus only on me, and that things will get better. I forgive her for being afraid. The last thing I say to her is "look how awesome you are going to turn out!" Then I open my eyes. It only takes a minute, but it gets my head out of the bad place and refocuses me on all the good things in my life.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:40 AM on June 9, 2012 [18 favorites]

I was the smallest kid in my class until about my Jr. year in HS. Sports were a no-go, dating was a pain.

Two things helped:

1. Making a decision when I left High School to be a different person. I was changing settings, my history didn't need to follow me, unless I allowed it to ride along in my head.

2. Coming to the realization that nobody was paying any attention to me, except me. It's sort of like this video. People are really too focused on their own lives to pay as much attention to yours as you imagine.

Tough transitions, but you'll make it...hang in there.
posted by HuronBob at 7:48 AM on June 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

There are really only two things I can suggest here, as my experience -- which wasn't about bullying as much as being significantly taller than anyone I knew, so hunching down as a matter of habit to make myself as short as possible -- is somewhat different (but with similar physical results); first, having a girlfriend (or five) that genuinely support you and find you attractive and tell you so is a huge boost to body-related self-esteem issues, and doing public speaking/improvisation/teaching -- basically anything that forces you to get up in front of class and speak extemporaneously -- will help you learn to stop worrying about your appearance, and in doing so, you'll straighten up and feel confident.
posted by davejay at 7:49 AM on June 9, 2012

I've never had this particular problem, but I ran across this suggestion in a book and applied it to other areas of my life and it worked for me;I think that it could potentially work for you and you can try it and see if it changes your emotional part of dealing with this.

Before each of these activities (let's pretend you are going to try a new class/or running/or whatever it is) - write down the activity and give yourself a numerical score as to how much you think that you will enjoy it or you will feel during the activity and after the activity. Now after you complete the activity,go back and reassess your score. Write down your new score and any notes or observations. For me this has helped me realize that sometimes the adventure in my head is far worse than the activity and in reality,the activity is/was fun. From your description, I would start with very mild activities (e.g. walking...followed by tossing a frisbee with friends that you trust...etc.) just because it may help to go from easier to harder,but YMMV.
posted by Wolfster at 7:53 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The first thing I did is get in touch with my own body by doing yoga alone and dancing alone. I mean, *really* dancing. By myself. In a room where no one could see me. It was really cool to move in ways I'd *never* moved before because of self-consciousness. Now, I don't generally do those moves in public, but it helps to know I can, and that my body feels in touch with itself enough to do something like it without it being the first time.
posted by RedEmma at 8:08 AM on June 9, 2012

Well, the nice thing about being an adult is that 99% of people out there DO NOT GIVE A SHIT about looking for someone to bully and pick on for being different any more. You don't have to blend in with everyone in order to avoid bullying. Most people genuinely are going to pay little or no attention to you when you're at the gym because they're paying attention to themselves. Also, you don't know these people and you probably won't get to know them.

I think your idea of working alone with a trainer is a good idea, and then work your way up to public exercise. Maybe go during less active times of the day later on. And if you ever get to the point of group fitness classes, you aren't the only one hiding in the back corner, at an angle where you can't see yourself in the mirror.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:11 AM on June 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you're getting too hung up on the details of what you were bullied about (gym class) rather than the level and type of effect it has on you. Physical sports are a particularly painful point for you maybe, but consider trying to heal from the bullying, rather than focusing on being fit.

Which is also to say, the level of emotional trauma you are describing seems like the kind of thing you should think about going to a therapist of your choice for. Getting really upset in the middle of what seem (to you) as though they should be relatively routine activities is not normal, and not something you need to live with, whatever those activities may be.
posted by contrarian at 8:34 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

It takes a lot of courage, but you can do it. Strength is taking those first steps when you are most afraid. Start small, like you are doing with the trainer now. When those feelings start to surface, acknowledge what's happening. "Hey, this is happening. I know why it's happening and I can't help how I feel, but I can keep marching forward." If you don't get all the way through your activity or work out, it's okay, but go as far as you can and keep trying. Jenfullmoon is spot on that as adults, we don't give a crap anymore. I silently congratulate all folks out exercising, especially if they don't look like a personal trainer. They're at least out doing!

I second OrangeDisks method. I have done this at the suggestion of a close friend. I kind of blew it off at the time, but there came a time when I needed consolation and support and there was no one to give it to me but myself. I actually visualized my young self and gave myself a hug and told myself everything would be all right. It was a very powerful moment that helped me.

Good luck!
posted by getmetoSF at 8:41 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I started working with a personal trainer. She helped build my confidence. At first, I was so scared that I couldn't even do simple stretches. She totally understood about bullying and found easy, simple exercises that I'd feel confident doing. Eventually, she got me doing those routines in a public gym, then occasional drop-in classes, and at public parks and eventually high traffic areas. Then she got me to take a boot camp course. Now I'm pretty confident doing any of that anywhere. She also helped me with healing with some of that trauma and I eventually went on to do a lot more work on just that topic alone.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:43 AM on June 9, 2012

I wasn't bullied, but I was always the last kid picked for whatever teams were being formed in grammar school. I was always awkward physically (and socially, for that matter).

In high school, I started running cross country. I wasn't great at it, but I wasn't bad. I also got into cycling. It's no coincidence that neither of these involve hand-eye coordination. I attribute my willingness to get into these partly due to my social obliviousness (even if other kids were making fun of me, I wasn't very tuned into that) and partly due to the fact that I just plain enjoyed them. Eventually I got into other physical activities that were way out of character for me, but have gotten pretty good at them and get a lot of satisfaction from them.

I used to be self-concious in front of the camera but eventually I stopped giving a damn about that—I think it just took time. That said, I look stiff as a board in front of the camera.

It's true that once you're an adult, nobody else gives a damn what you're doing when you're working out because they'e focused on their own workout. I'm also convinced that expecting to fail at physical activities creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
posted by adamrice at 8:56 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I kind of latched on to the "no dancing" part of your question.

When I was a kid, I was more invisible than bullied. No running, dancing or moving around much. At about 22, I decided I was tired of feeling weird about my body-- seriously sick of it actually. The way I started to come out of my shell was dancing to music I liked. I watched other people dance and picked up a couple quirky moves I thought I could pull off and tried them out, sometimes after a drink. I'm definitely not good at dancing but I like it and it makes me feel connected to my body a bit more. It's also a pretty good workout -- at least, I get pretty sweaty, so I think that has to be something.

The thing about it is that I only had to force myself to go for it one time, and then after it felt so good, I didn't have to force myself anymore.
posted by smirkyfodder at 9:04 AM on June 9, 2012

It was actually a back problem that made me a) buy a bed so I would no longer have to sleep on my sofa and b) look up the class schedule at my local leisure centre and go to circuit training (still overweight, totally unfit). I picked circuit training cause I was fairly certain there'd be no choreography and there'd be no leotards. The instructor made me feel very welcome and gave me a buddy to look after me the first session. Most of the people going to that class were men, it was completely pleasant experience and made me try out some of the other classes, including some aerobics ones. And I soon became fitter and stronger, learned that I can learn choreographies and was losing weight. So for me the key was to just go and hope that this was no longer school and that people generally are way too busy to worry about you in particular.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:11 AM on June 9, 2012

Asking how to "get over a painful feeling" is the wrong question to ask because it presumes the feeling is some kind of odd accretion that isn't really part of you and can be removed like an unsightly mole. In fact, this feeling is integral to who you think you are and needs to be worked through. by being accepted and tolerated while you remain open to new experiences which will change you. (What usually happens instead is the feelings, since they can't be faced, result in you becoming closed off to new experiences because they will initially evoke those unpleasant emotions.)

So, that's the theory. The personal anecdote: I was all those people you describe. Bullied, dance phobic, physically uncoordinated, embarrassed & ashamed. And now I'm not.

The practice: Well, this takes a long time but it goes back to what I say in the theory. You're asking this question, and not even anonymously. Is the non-physicality of the internet what makes that possible? Do you have friends with whom you can talk about this? A therapist?

These feelings are interpersonal and so must be faced that way. In my case, I learned to play group sports with others like myself--those who in the past would be "last picked for a team" if they ever bothered to want to be on one. I started playing volleyball with others who, like me, had no idea what they were doing. After several years worth of social volleyball, I learned the following:
1) Anyone who was even slightly athletic who had never played it before would in 10 minutes be better than I was several years in.
2) such people, being in the minority in the group, would be able to teach the rest of us things (if we were willing to learn) without making fun since they were outnumbered by us.
3) By just learning to move my body and be aware of my environment, I began to learn all sorts of stuff that should have been obvious (and undoubtedly was to others) that had never occurred to me before. For example, just naively trying to hit the ball without worrying about my form or how I looked resulted in my playing vastly better than trying to intellectually learn technique and do what I was supposed to do. In other words, effort and caring about the results was the part that was missing, rather than knowledge and form. My body would instruct me rather than the other way around.
4) Unlike in high school, adults aren't out to make fun of you.

Conclusion: You need to do things which will feel risky but which some thought will convince you aren't really dangerous. Then you have to use your thought to override the feelings which tell you otherwise. Often you might fail at this, but over time, if you persist, you'll make progress.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:20 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Acting class. For the alienated and socially terrified it can seen as scary as skydiving. But as someone who grew up thinking he was a Martian, it was great therapy to break through fears as old as middle school gym class, learning you can expose recognizable human emotions in front of supportive peers.
posted by steinsaltz at 9:40 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was bullied in gym class for different reasons: I was the fat kid, not the "small" or "weak" kid. But it had a big impact on me long after gym class stopped existing. What worked for me to get over the default setting that my body sucked and I couldn't accomplish anything physical was starting to run (which of course meant walking almost exclusively at first) entirely on my own. Even my wife (who knew I was trying to get in shape and who was very supportive) stayed out of it, partially because I asked her.

Running/walking is great because you can be alone, and because you get to deal with your thoughts in a way that you can't if you have to stay engaged with a trainer or a friend. But the single best thing about it for me was how quickly progress showed up. If you can only run one block this week, but you keep doing, you WILL be able to run two blocks next week. At some point you look down and realize that several weeks of that sort of progress have compounded to take you from "nonparticipant" to "beginner." And then it's on.

Running is also great for your core and has helped me with my (bad) posture without that even being a conscious goal.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 9:50 AM on June 9, 2012

Just Dance or Dance Central for Kinect! Learn to move around just like the Normals in the privacy in your living room. It has been nothing short of awesome for me to get a sense of how people move, and how the motions go together. Game will give you very good (but not perfect) feedback.
posted by apparently at 9:51 AM on June 9, 2012

I joined a small group of nerdy, out-of-shape gym buddies. It helped me a lot. You need friends that are similar to you in this respect. You'll probably always have part of that kid inside you, but if you keep going to Pilates, the emotional stuff WILL get easier. Bravo for getting out there. The world is made on courage like that.
posted by thelastcamel at 10:06 AM on June 9, 2012

if you cry quietly in the back of yoga class, no one will notice.

if the yoga or pilates teacher makes you uncomfortable, doesn't encourage everyone to work at their own level, you don't have to go back to that teacher. there are tons of good ones out there who are only looking around the room to make sure you don't do something that will hurt you.

I also like DDR or Just Dance at home for getting used to moving and not having to care how you look.

My personal route was to get into martial arts and somehow just not care that I spent a lot of classes crying on the sidelines. At first I cared a lot, but I wasn't willing to quit, so I just stuck it out. I kind of think slowly getting into yoga or pilates would have been a little more sane. :)
posted by ansate at 10:28 AM on June 9, 2012

Best answer: I would divide and conquer: the subproblems a) get comfortable moving around with/in your body, and b) get comfortable doing athletic stuff in front of people are separable.

To work on (a), I would try walking in nature -- i.e., hiking, but without the focus on climbing big hills and stuff. Take a water bottle, find a safe flattish trail of a mile or so and just move from point A to point B. Being in nature, and the act of negotiating all the little rocks and fallen branches and little changes in terrain, can get you out of your head so fast. The goal here is not just fitness, but getting happy in your own skin.

Second, crying is really OK. If you were learning to ski, you would expect to fall -- not because you suck as a person, but because falls are a natural consequence of pushing your limits. For you right now, crying is falling: it may feel uncomfortable, but is actually a good sign. I bet your trainer has seen it many times before, and it didn't faze them at all. It sounds like what you're already doing with the pilates will pay off -- give yourself some credit for getting this far, and keep it up!

And I think that eventually, you should try to explore some other activities. There are many sports and sport-like things that will allow you to move around, in front of people, with far less self-consciousness than pilates.
posted by inkfish at 10:41 AM on June 9, 2012

Best answer:
Through the years, I have combined meditation, action, and the Iron into a single strength. I believe that when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts.
Henry Rollins was out of shape and bullied as a kid. Exercise is his anti-depressant.

Speaking as someone who got strong and fit later in life, just keep at it. If you need to cry in the middle of a session, cry. Let your trainer know that this is the sound a memory of the schoolyard bullies makes as it dies. And every workout strangles that memory a little bit more.

Do that and continue to work out and get stronger. Cry when you need to and keep at it, no matter what. Lots of people "lock up emotion" in parts of the body. When the body begins to unlock and move more, those experiences often get released. A Pilates instructor will have had clients go through this before.

I used to be much fatter and weaker for my size than I am now. But I figured out what worked for me and kept at it. And then one day, there was that moment when I climbed up into a tree using nothing but my arms and legs. I was 41 or so, and I could tell I had crossed a threshold of physical strength where something I couldn't do before was now possible. And awesome.

Keep working out through the tears. Get stronger, improve your posture, even though the little hater voices keep hatin' on you. Because one day something will feel different in your body, stronger. You will feel like something a previous obstacle is suddenly something you go easily past. And it will feel incredible and you will want MORE. And then rather than tears, I predict a gleeful snarl of "FUCK YOU, little hater voices, I'M TAKING THIS BODY RUNNING! THIS IS FUN!"

Being physically fit and capable moving in your own body is pure awesome.

The human bodymind is designed by evolution to enjoy movement, and respond to it by growing smarter and stronger. BY ALL MEANS, read the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Nothing motivated me more to get exercising than learning what research has to say about physical movement & the growth of new brain cells.

Graceful dancing is as much strength as coordination. And when you get strong enough to feel like you are in control of your body as the music plays, I predict they will have to drag you off the dance floor.

Be patient, keep working at it, and don't worry about "Am I making enough progress?". You have the rest of your life to live in that body. Take care of it and it will take care of you.

Power to you!
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:54 AM on June 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

There is a lot of good advice in this thread. I just wanted to add this observation. Gym class in school is somewhat mandatory. As an adult, people are making time in their busy schedules and paying good money to do whatever it is they are doing at the gym (e.g. any of the suggestions listed above). That tends to wash out all of the bullies. The only people left are either going to be too focused on their own results to pay any attention to what you are doing, or are going to be very supportive because they'll recognize you as a kindred spirit (also carving out time and money to do whatever the activity is). Going to the gym or participating in athletic activities as an adult is just completely different that school.
posted by kovacs at 11:43 AM on June 9, 2012

Best answer: It is not at all unusual for people to cry during yoga or pilates. I have certainly cried during yoga when I was stressed about something and a particular pose 'unlocked' that tension. It feels awkward but more people do it than you think!

I think working one-on-one with a Pilates instructor is a great first step for you. Bodywork is a great way to view your body in terms of strength and ability, and from there extrapolate to the wonder and joy that our bodies are capable of such movements as running, yoga, dancing. Believe that your body is strong and capable--this will take time but you can get there. You might see if something like the Alexander Technique would be a fit for you. Good for you for recognizing that this is no way to live; there is so much joy to be had in movement!
posted by stellaluna at 11:59 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a former fat, occasionally bullied klutz, I can testify that regular activity over a period of months or years builds a momentum of capability and confidence. I don't learn new physical tasks very quickly (Zumba? Feh.) but those that I do learn, I do well. My balance is really great from years of walking, weight training, and running, and balance is one of those things that you want to hold on to as you age.

Stick with the Pilates for now; if that doesn't work or you continue to be very uncomfortable in the class, there are tons of other things you can do. Try swimming, which will strengthen your upper back, and where anything you do in the water will be just about invisible to other people in the pool (I would recommend a coach, though). Seconding stellaluna on the Alexander Technique, which is what I thought of when I read you question.
posted by Currer Belfry at 12:32 PM on June 9, 2012

This might be really terrible advice, since I don't know anything about you. My suggestion is that you get a dog.

Having a dog gives you a reason and a requirement to get out there and walk every day. Nobody expects dog walkers to be beach bunnies or Mr. Universes - they're out there to take care of their beloved pet. No one cares if you dress like a schlub to walk your dog - no Spandex is required. Also, 99% of people you encounter while walking a dog are looking at the dog, not the person. This might remove some of the "under a microscope" pressure you feel.

Pilates will help immensely with flexibility and core strength; walking (and who knows? maybe hiking and swimming and maybe eventually running) with a dog might give you the large-scale body movement confidence you're seeking.

Obviously, there are MANY things to consider before getting a dog. I have no idea where you live, what your schedule is like, or anything else about you. You might hate dogs; I wouldn't know. If it's not an obviously stupid idea, I suggest you contact a foster organization and offer to foster a dog. That way you can try out dog ownership without committing to a lifetime of walkies.
posted by workerant at 1:34 PM on June 9, 2012

Best answer: I feel your pain. I used to get so mortified by my lack of athletic skill. As I get older, I find myself giving less of a shit about what other people think of me and it is really freeing. I mean, REALLY freeing. I'm doing more and more interesting physical activity than I ever did when I was young. I find my anxiety surfaces with sports. I know I can't compete and competing makes me mentally give up before I even start so I do my best to avoid physical activity related to sports.

Your pilates experience is excellent. You should expect some tears and anxiety. The key is you are DOING IT. Every time you put yourself into a situation where this anxiety surfaces and you survive, the less you will feel it. Admit your anxiety and why you feel it. Confessing your fears takes it from being a secret to a handicap on par with a sprain ankle, as in the reason why you have a hard time playing.

Taking individual instruction from someone you enjoy and trust is a great step. Tell that person about your anxiety. Own it. Tell them there may be tears but it's all part of the process. Your instructor will be cheering for you, most people will be cheering for you. Remember that there are more people in this world that were shat on in school than there were doing the shitting and those people are on your side and are more worried about their own awkwardness than yours.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:30 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of the comments in this previous AskMe "How do I gain physical confidence?" (including mine) address similar issues of trying to break the association between physical activity/exercise and negative emotions. You might be surprised and encouraged to know how many people share your feelings.

These days, I feel neutral toward most physical activities [like, oh, that sport's not for me but I can see why other people like it] and actually quite enthusiastic about the ones I enjoy!

Although I have participated in and enjoyed some team sports as an adult, I have found I particularly like either solo activities (running by myself) or group activities like yoga or Pilates where you do it in a room with a bunch of other people but you're not competing with or interacting with other participants. Everyone is busy concentrating on their own performance and not scrutinizing anyone else.

As someone who dreaded PE as a kid and frequently ended up crying in the bathroom after class, I have enormous sympathy for you. But like Foam Pants said, you have already taken the most important step which is just...doing it! It will only get easier from here. Good luck!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:42 PM on June 9, 2012

I have similar sorts of social terrors and I just exercise alone at home. There are all kinds of dance and yoga DVDs that you can do at home and just focus on what you're doing rather than worrying about the social aspects of it. I used to do a yoga DVD in my sewing room because I have a large mirror in there and it was helpful; I could check my form and realize that I didn't look as silly as I felt (this is a good website for previewing and buying exercise DVDs). These days I've been using an exercise bike in my garage while I watch Netflix movies.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 3:18 PM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I match your description pretty well. I was the worst in my gym class, all that jazz. But now I'm pretty fit, squatting 250 lbs and am more muscular with less fat and better health. A few things did it for me.

1. Realizing the "why" behind the modern epidemics of obesity and diseases of civilization - we are outside our environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Consequently, we can improve these things by getting back in it (as much as is possible in the modern world). This was big for me because I've always been a brain-first person, and once health and fitness was a coherent topic it became much more interesting.

2. Having high blood pressure at 26 was unsettling, and I didn't want to get on pills forever. If you're not improving yourself, it's basically all downhill from a far-too-early point. See #1.

3. Realizing that the brain and mind are part of the body, and if you neglect the whole then all parts will suffer.

4. Just plain feeling good - physically and emotionally - after beginning to put effort into making myself better.

Once I realized this was something I had to do, and would be in for as long as I'm standing, the rest just happened. It can be tough sometimes, but it's worth it. I do it for me, and what anyone else thinks doesn't matter (although responses are generally quite positive).
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 4:31 PM on June 9, 2012

I have the same issues and I've found that bicycling feels like a "safe" activity to me. It's hard to ride a bike "wrong."

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) has helped me with interrelated issues, too.
posted by gentian at 4:35 PM on June 9, 2012

I came in to suggest the Fit Fatties Forum for more support for you. You don't mention whether the bullying was related to your size, but regardless of your background and your past and current body size, you'll find a lot of people on the FFF who relate to your situation as described in your post. It is all about creating a supportive, safe space for people who want to be moving their bodies but don't feel comfortable or emotionally safe for various reasons, whether they are fat or not. I recommend you check that out and maybe post a similar question over there to get even more help and resources, although there are tons of great ideas on this page already!
posted by pupstocks at 6:11 PM on June 9, 2012

I married a soldier. Which is not practical for everyone, but man, when I met him, I remember how profoundly amazed I was that he was not a person who worked out to punish himself or make his butt smaller (=all the women and many of the gay men I knew) but because it was fun and made him feel cheerful and made his body feel good.

This totally blew my mind. Doing physical things not as a means to an end (for women, that end is almost always thinner) but just because they are a fun thing in and of themselves? Amazing.

Over time, being married to him has changed my own relationship with my body. I still certainly have bursts of self-loathing, but more and more I find that my goals for my body are less "I want my body to be the right shape and size to be acceptable to strangers" and more "I want my body to be strong and tough and healthy".

Also, I read some Gary Taubes, which changed my diet from a standard "wholesome" low-fat, high-grain one to a crazy diet full of butter. I have much more energy and feel better. And reading this stuff changed my mind about my body, moving me from "I am a bad person who eats too much cake because I don't have any willpower" to "I am a person who can't metabolize sugar very well so I shouldn't eat it". Basically I think of my body more as an amazing machine I should treat well so it can go the distance, and less of something that exists in a state of moral failure.

Also! I like to work out at the local YMCA. I picked the crummy one instead of the fancy one, because I love being on the treadmill and watching an 80-year-old dude in short shorts work the weight machines, or the elderly lady slogging her way through some squats. I feel like everybody is there to do something good for their bodies, not to see and be seen, and I really am inspired by oldsters who give a fuck if you think they look good or not. Awesome!

Also. I feel like, for me, refusing to hate my body my whole life is a powerful act of feminist rebellion. I just don't want to do it anymore, and I regret doing it for as long as I did.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 8:16 PM on June 9, 2012

All of these suggestions are wonderful, although looking back at your posting I realize that you're actually loving Pilates and that you don't want another activity. Have you thought about something like Feldenkrais, or a similar meditation activity? (Tai Chi, for example)

As for the emotional stuff: maybe talk to your Pilates instructor about it? Many 'postures' release blocks, and maybe there are emotional blocks being released too.
posted by jrochest at 11:05 PM on June 9, 2012

I'm in a similar situation, I was picked on in gym class (and out of class) constantly for my weight and lack of coordination. Though it's been well over 20 years, I still find myself very restricted from activities where I fear I will be judged. In fact, the day before you posted this question I was discussing this very thing with my therapist. I really want to go swimming as all my Dr's recommend it for my joints and weight loss. Unfortunately I was teased mercilessly at the pool when I was hitting puberty and so now the very thought of trying to go to a public pool in a swimsuit makes me break out in anxious sweats (I haven't even owned a swimsuit since the 80's).

I'm telling you all this because I think you could benefit from therapy regarding this as I am. It's taken a while for me to work up to it, but I'm finally talking about my body image issues and the reasons for them in a supportive environment. Basically I'm going to go through some steps involving some principles of CBT to help me ease myself into taking some aquafit class. Talk therapy has been really helpful for me to be able to talk through why I prevent myself from being happy and going to the pool (with the requisite tears that some when discussing my childhood). Turns out judgmental assholes who made me feel like crap when I was a kid were assholes, and I should stop giving a shit what assholes think of me so I can get on with being healthy and fit! It's easy to say, not so easy to do!

I originally wanted to answer your question to offer solidarity, but also to encourage you to dance alone at home with your favorite music blasting and no mirrors in sight. I see others have recommended a mirror for seeing how you're doing, but I think the first step is to "dance like no one is watching" and just enjoy how it feels to move your body in rhythm to music you enjoy. I still have issues with gyms and exercising around people (which I'm working on), but at home with the curtains drawn, I dance my ass off and don't care what I look like because no one is watching, not even me. I also use an exercise ball and some therabands to do the basics at home in private, which I highly recommend. Also, I ride my bike a lot which is so much fun and good for cardio.

I wish you all the best with your emotional/thinky bits around this, and encourage you to let the tears flow as it's going to help you get past the hurty parts faster.
posted by smartypantz at 11:35 AM on June 10, 2012

I echo all the brilliant advice on here.

I was overweight and smaller than the others at school (I was a year ahead of my age-defined class which didn't help - but no one realised that was an issue and I just thought I was rubbish). I was bullied generally, not particularly in PE, BUT I was always last to be chosen, "oh miss do we have to have HER?", and last in everything. Ugh.

I tried to be invisible for years.

Then in my 30s I had a high blood pressure issue and started running. Still happier doing that by myself as I'm slow (but have lots of stamina!) and get a bad feeling when I'm at the back of the field. I do races, though, because I will always be faster than people who are injured or didn't train, so I've never actually come last!

I also go to the gym a lot. Classes are generally supportive - I fell over in Body Balance a while ago but we all laughed WITH me as it was pretty funny. I go at the back of the class and that's fine. I'm now 40, fit for my age and love the anti-depressant and relaxing feeling going to the gym and running give me.

And yes: no one looks at you, they are all looking at themselves. I have been looked at when trying to do a pull-up, but people have been really encouraging, which is lovely.

Good luck: you can do it.
posted by LyzzyBee at 2:30 AM on June 11, 2012

Could you do some exercise at home before returning to the gym or one-on-one sessions? For example, working through the 100 Push-Ups program would offer you real, tangible health benefits, as well as allow you to get used to doing exercise -- but in the safest place: your own home, alone.

Once you do that for a while, you'll be more fit and also maybe more used to exercise, reducing its power as a trigger. So then you can go back to class with less anxiety.

Similarly, if you got a bike you could start riding it at home on a trainer, and then take to the streets when you were more confident.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:25 PM on June 11, 2012

Have you considered talk therapy? It helps me, and can be particularly effective support when you're trying to add a new habit.

I second going to your local non-fancy YMCA. The patrons skew older and less image-conscious, and it's generally a very welcoming environment.
posted by blnkfrnk at 5:07 PM on June 11, 2012

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