“Tabula Rasa” by Jean Banas 37″ x 46″, acrylic on canvas.
Every Wednesday at seven, I subjected myself to the week’s worst humiliations in the interest of narcissism disguised as good health. Each week, I jumped, bounced, and jiggled my way from fatness to slightly-less-fatness. I looked around the gymnasium, at the people at their various workout stations, comparing my body to her, and her, and him. I saw what I was. I saw what I was not.
I had signed up for a weight loss challenge at my gym, not unlike The Biggest Loser, and often, I felt the weight of the word “loser” hang on me like the extra fat I carried around my midsection. At the kickoff party, where over one hundred chairs were set up and filled between the two basketball hoops, I had said “sixteen pounds” into the microphone at the makeshift stage, dedicating myself to this number for the next sixty days. The program teamed me with a small group of other losers and a trainer, a handsome, young man my younger self would have loved to fawn over. I wanted him to be excited when I said I’d lost a pound or two. But he never was, and I suspected it was because I always knew, to the eighth of a pound, how much weight I’d lost and how much I had left to lose. I was, and continue to be, incredibly aware of my body.
When he said, “I want you to add oats for breakfast,” I grumbled and said, “I just eat eggs.” I adhered to a very strict paleo diet so I didn’t have excuses to eat food I shouldn’t. So, I routinely said no to most legumes, to quinoa, to dairy, to anything starchy other than yams. I saw him try to not roll his eyes or sigh dismissively. While I wanted to be a prized student, I simply couldn’t be. Even now, twenty years after high school, I find I am the same person I was back then. Then, as now, I occupied a space between excellent and average, the B+ zone, a place of invisibility. And when you’re invisible, no one expects a damn thing from you.
My life has been a series of phases where I’m either losing or gaining weight. When I run into people from my past, I think of what they must think of me. Did they meet me in 2006, when I was running and proud of how my body looked? Or maybe it was in 2011, when I hit the highest mark on the scale. What must zip through their minds? She looks great or what a mess or she used to look so much better.
I thought about this at the gym, as I snapped my minty gum and curled the ten-pound dumbbells for two minutes or lost track of the number of squats I could drive through my legs in the same interval. My new gym friends didn’t know that I’d lost twenty pounds on my own before the challenge began. It was hard to know when my victories would mean anything to them. When I lost five more pounds, it was just five pounds, not twenty-five pounds. It didn’t feel like enough.
Before each class, we texted each other to make sure none of us would skip. With my human buffers around me, eventually, I would forget a little of what I was doing and concentrate on form and technique instead. With each pound lost, I could be more of myself. But if I had to go through class by myself, I would spring back to silently hating myself the entire time, focused acutely on my body, my breathing, my sweat.
When I started the program, the sales pitch involved asking me why I was there. “Because this is what I do,” I’d said. When pushed, I just said, “I yo-yo,” and left it at that. No one there needed my history of gains and losses. The only thing that mattered now was my new goal.
What I couldn’t say was that I’d just moved back to my hometown after losing a teaching job I loved in a city that made me feel good about myself, despite being fat. I hadn’t expected to like Baltimore, and I hadn’t expected it to like me back. In my last year there, I had regained the weight I’d previously lost, but I didn’t hate myself for it. Yet in my hometown, I did. I was ready to yo-yo down again.
After I signed up, my best friend asked me what I wanted out of the experience. I simply said my scale number. Which was only partially true.
“It’s sad that one day you’re going to be sixty,” she said. Had she stopped there, I would have agreed. “And you’re going to look back and resent the fact that you spent so much time obsessing about your body. And your weight. And how pretty you think you aren’t.”
If only it were really that easy. Dear self: resist the temptation to judge and to compare yourself to her, and her, and her. To guilt yourself when you slip and eat something decadent and forbidden. To belabor your shortcomings and magnify them beyond hyperbole.
But, really, she got it right. When I sat and thought about it, in my most honest reflections, I thought, If I’m going to be fat, I want to be fat and fucking beautiful.
So, I kept going to the gym. I worked out five or six days a week on my own and met with my trainer on Thursdays. I only had one five- and one ten-pound kettlebell at home, so I bought more and heavier bells. I did planks and lunges and squats and swings at home before work. I counted my calories in an app on my phone. I kept my fatness close to me, never very far from a conversation about food or fatness or eating.
I’d visit my mother, and after the pleasantries, I’d show her the app and say, “I’ve lost more weight.” The chart would show my progress as a terraced slope.
Every other Monday, we had to weigh in at 7:00pm. I resented the evening weigh-in, when I’d worked all day, eaten, drunk water, and added weight to my body. I resented going to the gym twice in a day since I always worked out in the afternoon, right after work. Mostly, I resented having to sit in the audience, arms folded across my chest, and be reminded of the body image support group I’d had to go to when I was twenty-one.
At the second weigh-in, I was four pounds down. At the third, an additional four. I was halfway to my goal. I was so concerned with my own progress that I hadn’t seen any of the paper signs posted around the gym, showing the Top 25 Losers. But at Day 45, I finally noticed. I was number 24. When I took my best friend to boot camp that week, I pointed at my name on the paper.
On Thanksgiving, I paced myself, making sure I clocked each morsel, each crumb, into my app. I could not let myself go. The challenge was still at the forefront of my mind. It wasn’t that I wanted to win; I simply wanted to stay on the list.
At the gym the following week, I ran into a teammate who had given himself over to the holiday weekend. Before this, he had been doing so well, and I had meant to tell him that he was looking good. Another teammate had bailed for the previous three weeks, and for the remainder of the challenge, we officially lost her. But one girl, Kaytlin, gave me something to aim toward. Years before, when I had trained for the Seattle half-marathon, I had always chosen someone far ahead, someone I could challenge myself to catch up to. Someone I would eventually pass.
I started spinning again. It was an activity I had loved when I was twenty and had worked front desk at a gym. I found power and strength and forgiveness on the bike. I could get lost in the music as the flywheel carried me forward, through the speed work, intervals, and heavy mountain climbs. I’d end class with a pool of sweat under me and laugh it off with friends I’d made. Soon after, I added a lifting class to my schedule, where I stayed near the back of the room, and worked on my lunge technique and began to add more weight to my chest presses and bicep curls.
I never caught up to Kaytlin. She ended the challenge as number four, a stunning prize of loss. At the finale, she participated in a Before and After photo contest, a cruelty where we applauded the best Loser’s photos. I valued her ability to stand in front of everyone and reveal an old, fat photo next to her current self. She deserved our applause, but some other woman who had lost nearly a hundred pounds over several challenges won instead. Kaytlin simply hadn’t lost enough yet.
In the final weigh-in, as the announcer held the mic up for each participant, I chomped hard, like an anxious cow, on a fresh stick of Mint Bliss and removed every article of clothing I could, plus earrings, rings, and my fitness tracker. In the background I heard, “her goal was seven pounds! How much did you lose?” “Nine pounds,” a woman’s voice said just before I saw her disappear in a tunnel of seated Losers offering high fives.
“Sixteen point eight,” the trainer said to me, writing my number on the sheet with my name on it. I struggled to put my clothes back on, the earrings, the rings, the tracker. I had to ask him again before I walked up to the mic. Was it really true? Did he have me right? He leafed through the pages and found my name. “Sixteen point eight,” he said again, as he weighed the next woman in line. I had passed my goal by .8 of a pound.
As I walked to the mic, in front of a sea of fellow Losers, I caught the eye of my trainer. He looked as if he knew the number already—five or maybe ten pounds, tops. He would eventually tell me that he knew I could meet my goal all along, that I needed tough love. I knew to not believe him.
The truth is that I had been invisible, even to him, hiding myself in plain sight while trying to erase the parts of me I didn’t like. It was that same tactic I had begun in high school, something that kept me safe. But I didn’t want to be invisible anymore.
I smiled as I leaned toward the mic and the too-cheery announcer. She said my name and my goal as my trainer whispered the information in her ear.
“Sixteen point eight,” I said. I walked through the tunnel of high fives and sat with my team, and Kaytlin and I exchanged phone numbers, texting each other for the remainder of the weigh-in, which made our new friendship official.
Later that week, the Top 25 list was posted around the gym. I looked at the bottom of the sheet and scrolled up, expecting to see myself near twenty-four again, but my name was at lucky number eleven. I took a picture of the sheet and texted it to my best friend.
“💪” she texted back.
On my way out, I stopped by the front desk to sign up for the next spinning class and saw that a spinning friend had already signed me up. I tucked a wayward strand of sweaty hair behind an ear and walked to my car, feeling more conspicuous than I had in ages.
Jenne Knight writes poetry and essays, and her work appears in Bodega, The Rumpus, and The Common, among others, and new work is forthcoming from wildness. Her poem, “Elegy for my Father” was nominated for Best of the Net 2016. Please visit www.jenneknight.com for more information.