I used to do yoga. Once a week, one of my best friends from high school — a certified instructor who still smells comfortingly of patchouli — would show up at my house. I’d unroll my yoga mat (it was green and began to absorb the scent of my feet more and more every week) and she would unroll her purple one that never seemed to smell at all. She’d guide my breathing and force me into positions I was initially certain my body was never meant to bend into and my dog would lay beside my mat and yawn, occasionally standing up to do a downward facing dog that put mine to shame every single time.
I never looked forward to those workouts. What I enjoyed was seeing my friend and the way I’d feel when it was finally over. Yes, there were moments tinged with the kind of bliss she swore would eventfully overtake my entire being. There was the time I rolled back and put all my weight on my shoulders and held my legs stick straight in the air. There was the day I flung my entire body up against the wall and scissored my feet as instructed. But mostly I liked the remaining waves of patchouli that would linger after she left and how it reminded me of Madonna’s Like a Prayer album that we both used to play incessantly and, despite her considerable efforts, I always knew there was not a savasana-centered shot in hell that I would ever turn full yogi.
For a time, I became a big walker. This particular choice of workout was a gigantic deal for me because it meant buying sneakers. As someone who exclusively wears heels for every hour of every day (seriously: even when I’m home, I’m in flip flops with a wedge), purchasing totally flat footwear meant something real. I first tackled the flat streets in my immediate vicinity, but soon I felt the need to challenge myself and I began to scale the steepest hills in my town. I’d stick earbuds in and listen to a lot of U2 and try not to get mowed down by cars as the backs of my legs would begin to burn. When Tallulah, my Maltipoo, entered my life, I would bring her with me. There was no music on the walks we took together. Not only did I need to make sure I could hear approaching cars so I could keep her safe, but I used the time to talk to her. Look, Tallulah, I’d say. This is a grate in the ground and puppies cannot walk over them because they would fall in and cause mommies to cry. And look! There’s a deer! No, do not bark at that deer. We are in the deer’s house now. She was good company and I’d love to lie to myself and say she soaked up my wisdom, but I can’t say she was the greatest workout partner. She would literally stop to smell flowers, and as adorable as it was, it interrupted my flow.
For a little while, the next workout I did only involved flexing my arm as it held a fork covered with cake. There were maybe three months where I ate cake every single day. I want very much to blame Uber Eats or Door Dash and their willingness to deliver dessert straight to my door from the local diner, but my lack of willpower is the only thing that should hold any blame and I knew it every single time – and I kept doing it until I finally stopped. Pieces of cake should always be big and special; my thighs, however, should not.
I did the circuit-training thing for a time. I got into that – the reps involved, the stations we moved to every few minutes, the feeling of calories seeping out of me along with all those rivulets of sweat. The sense of accomplishment came at a time I needed to feel accomplished, but the classes were so crowded and I was doing stretches and lunges and burpees in a way that felt floppy and not at all precise and maybe even totally incorrect. There just wasn’t enough personalization involved, and I stopped going one day and, just like that, I never went back.
One summer I decided I would go to my parents’ pool several days a week and swim laps. I bought bikinis that wouldn’t slide off as I did the Butterfly and I thought of how strong my arms would be come autumn, but I realized after the first day that whatever physical strength I would gain by swimming at my parents’ house would be nothing compared to the mental calmness I’d lose by spending so much time at my parents’ house.
I know it doesn’t help my abs, but sanity in general seems far more important.
I bought an ab roller I never used and a trampoline I used many times. I’d turn on Estranged from Guns n’ Roses – a long fucking song – and I’d run in place until it was over. Then I’d flip to Mr. Brightside and do jumping splits and I’d hop off the trampoline after a few more songs had played and my chest would kill despite being bound in by a sports bra and, for the rest of the night, my feet would feel like they were sort of floating and my tits would hurt like somebody just punched them.
And then one layer cake-filled night something shifted and I found myself on my couch where I Googled “Private Pilates Lesson.” I still have no clue how my mind settled on Pilates, but I think that scene from Sex and the City – the one where Samantha was naked when Richard’s assistant walked in and complimented her amazing body and she just shrugged and said, “Pilates” – may have been my entire motivation. I also think a workout that partially involved laying on my back appealed to me and the laziness I’d almost allowed to take over, but I was through with laziness and I wanted to try something new and I booked that private Pilates class and entered the appointment into my iPhone’s calendar and I almost felt that maybe I was about to conquer something unknown.
I was terrified before my first lesson and my workout pants felt tight, but my instructor was encouraging and she was fun and I hobbled out of there after fifty minutes knowing I’d come back for more. I started with two private lessons a week and I’d sit on the bench that was just inside the door of the studio and I’d pull on those socks with the adhesive dots on the bottom and stare at the sign directly across from me: In 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 sessions you will see the difference, and in 30 sessions you will have a whole new body.”
We shall see, I’d think every single time.
Ten sessions went by, but I didn’t fully feel different. Still, it was the first kind of workout I had ever done in my entire life where I didn’t contemplate canceling every single session every single time. Each time I went, I was introduced to new positions. I’d bridge. I’d swan. I’d teaser until I almost cried. I’d fling my legs into those straps and trace wide circles with my legs until they began to shake. Then I’d come home and eat carbs and wonder the next morning why I wasn’t skinny yet.
It was during the last week of June when something shifted – and there’s an actual chance this shift could be permanent. I cut complex carbohydrates from my house and from my life. I stocked up on protein and vegetables. I bought an omelet maker because, intelligent though I am, I cannot properly cook an omelet and I never could. I bought something I saw on Amazon called The Wonder Core and started doing at least 200 sit-ups a day along with 100 bicep curls. And I started attending group Pilates classes, first three days a week and then four and now five or six.
It’s summer, but I set my alarm for 7:00 every morning. I wake up and drink some coffee and slick my hair back into a bun and pull on pants that are no longer tight and I pick a tank from what now feels like a humungous stack. I give my dog a treat and tell her that I always come back and I drive the six minutes to the Pilates studio that now feels like a new home. I’m one of the regulars, and nothing feels like more of a triumph than that nobody there is ever surprised to see me anymore.
The instructors at this place are fantastic and they have shown me that one slight tweak to a movement causes muscles to kick in. I feel badly when they touch me while I’m sweating, but they never appear fazed in the slightest. I’ve gone from being the one who had to be tended to during certain poses to being the one they tell to put on an extra spring to add an additional challenge. I planked the other day and pulled my navel into my spine like they always say I should and my shoulders were pulled back in the way I never could master before and the instructor whispered that she felt like a proud mama. I did a bridge on my tippy toes instead of on my heels and lifted my ass higher than I ever believed I could using just my core. This morning, I managed the short spine movement without anyone standing over me to be sure I wouldn’t kick myself in the face and the feeling of pride was something that felt very real and it was something I knew I truly needed in that moment.
I left the class asking if it would be weird if I returned to the evening class so I could get another workout in before tomorrow morning.
Every once in a while, I donate clothing to a charity and one of those donations is happening later this week. When I got home from class today, I took my iced coffee and my dog upstairs, stripped off all my clothing, and tackled one of my closets to see what fit and what I should finally say goodbye to forever. Perhaps the last thing I felt like doing was trying on sixty-eight dresses, but I’m in this mindset of simplifying things and my closet seems like an easy place to start, so I turned on Seinfeld and pulled on the first of many dresses. Two piles started to form: one of stuff I think my sister might like (or stuff she at least won’t raise an eyebrow at in a visual form of judgment – our style is very different from one another and it probably always will be) and one pile for the charity. Gone went the orange slip dress I can’t even believe I bought in the first place. Also thrown into a pile was anything made out of eyelet that I must have purchased in a moment where I talked myself into believing I was sweeter than I actually am. But besides hanging every single thing neatly on hangers in the kind of order that would make my mother weep with joy (strapless to sleeveless to short-sleeve), what I finally saw was that my body had changed. Dresses that didn’t fit in June fit perfectly now and some are actually too big. I stood before a full-length mirror and noticed the defined muscles of my back as I pulled something made of yellow chiffon over my head and I could see that my thighs had narrowed significantly.
That sign, it turned out, had been a prophecy.
I looked online last night as lightening flashed fast and hard across the sky and wondered if I should buy my very own Pilates reformer, but I decided to stick with what I’m doing now. I know that work starting up again will necessitate changing my workout schedule, but I’ve already prepared for it. I’ll be doing two evening group classes, one weekend class, and one private class because this is – fucking finally – it for me. Part of it is that I’ve always been critical of myself and now I feel confident in how I look – well, more confident anyway – but more of it is this pride I feel in myself for deciding to change, for committing to change, and for finally putting down that enormous forkful of buttercream covered layer cake.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter