About 6 months ago, I walked out of Planet Fitness with not only a great workout, but with a reminder to not judge a book by its cover.

My gym is a safe place that advertises itself as a judgment-free zone. After years of working out at Bally Total Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness I decided it was time for a different experience. I sought out a gym where I would feel okay about wearing loose t-shirts. I wanted a gym that would make me feel secure even if I hadn’t put on my face for the day. I no longer wanted to feel embarrassed by my “lady” push-ups. I spent too many years thinking that mat work had to be done at home so the regulars wouldn’t see me struggle while trying to do mountain climbers.

On this particular workout, my husband tagged along with me. He gave me a loving “go team” pat on the rear as we split off in our own directions. I learned a long time ago that I work out best on my own terms, going at my own pace and with my own music blaring through my ear buds.

I headed to the back corner of the gym because I wanted to warm-up with some light stretching. Before my eating disorder recovery, I wouldn’t let myself start my workouts on the mat. I was determined that the gym was for “working out”, not stretching. I was afraid to be seen as lazy. Who wants to see a heavy person sprawled out on the mat? I couldn’t stand the thought of being gazed upon by the treadmill users while my body moved in awkward, unflattering positions.

I had felt too self-conscious to listen to my body’s needs.

I nestled in my little corner and silently thanked the universe for bringing me to the gym during an off-peak time. Despite my gyms, “No Critics” motto, I still feel more confident stretching when the place is empty.

I’m a good stretcher. It’s one of those odd, natural gifts that is either bestowed upon you or not. I’ve always felt a little bit of childhood pride when I’ve been able to mention this detail in conversations. I won an elementary school-wide V-Sit Reach fitness contest. It’s not like I had 5th grade bragging rights for the shuttle run, but man, could I stretch.

After my big win that none of my peers cared about, I was asked to participate in the district wide elementary fitness contest. I remember buying a white t-shirt so my mom could iron on my circular meet patch. The morning of the competition, I watched the spritely kid’s warm-up with butt-kicks and knee-highs on the gravel track. My warm-up was twisting my chubby, little kid body from side-to-side and bending over to touch my toes. In my memory, they needed 2 rulers to measure the distance. I didn’t place, but I still took home a blue participation ribbon. For a brief moment in my world of all things nerd, I felt like I was kind of a big deal.

As a limber adult, I need to really stretch into my stretching to feel a good stretch.

Back in my corner on the mat, I closed my eyes and lengthened my body into various positions. I slowly breathed into each stretch while my body’s stiffness began to melt away. I fell deeper into my poses with every exhalation. I was getting into it.

I gently opened my eyes and caught a guy on a stationary bike looking my direction. At first it was no biggie. I rationalized that when I work out on the cardio machines my eyes sometimes catch the eyes of other people working out too. I decided he would eventually turn his attention back to the overhead televisions or perhaps he might realize that he was being an accidental mat-gawker.

He was a nice-looking, fit man in his mid-thirties. I opened my eyes again and saw him still looking at me. I reminded myself that seeing movement in our peripheral views could easily trigger anyone to glance over more than once. After a few minutes, I discreetly peeked his direction.

He was still looking. In fact, he was staring at me without any reservation.

I quickly became enraged, the kind of surprise-fury that lives right under the surface and catches most of us off guard. I was appalled that he kept watching me. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was done making excuses for him. I was pissed.

This is the point where my mind shifted into my old shadow voices. What is he thinking? Look at that big girl stretching? Shouldn’t she be doing that in the privacy of her own home? Oh dear, has any of my skin been showing while I’m stretching? Did he see my love handles?

My mind would no longer relax. I moved onto the weight machines. I could still feel his eyes on me.

After a set, I headed to the closest trashcan to grab a paper towel and some sanitizer. I was wearing a newsboy golf cap, so my eyes were covered. The trashcan was directly in front of his stationary bike. Without much thought, I made the quick decision to look at him so I could see if he was still looking at me.

I wanted my space and my gym anonymity. My eyes immediately met his eyes. The moment happened so fast but I purposely made certain that my face had an icy expression of hate. His face was blank. I turned to walk away. I had been trying to send him a clear message in those fleeting seconds of eye contact.

My mind raced as I continued to work out. Could he feel all of that nasty energy I was throwing his way? Am I feeling violated? He was kind of cute. He probably thinks that I’m a real fatty trying to dress all cute at the gym with this silly hat. He probably thought my body looked disgusting while he was checking me out. He must have said to himself, “Look at all of her extra weight. She should definitely be here working out” Does he know that I’m here with a handsome man? Hasn’t he seen us talk in here today? Is he attracted to me? Is there a part of me that feels attraction towards his audacity?

I continued exercising and I secretly watched him rise from the bike. He was far away.

I was certainly not going to be caught committing my own pet peeve.

Yet I saw him slightly struggle to get off the bike and in the same instant, I realized his left-side wasn’t moving the same way his right-side was moving. He walked slowly over to the trashcan for sanitizer. He was limping. When he reached for the paper towels, I noticed his arm was awkwardly bent next to his side.

My heart dropped onto the floor. Perhaps he has cerebral palsy? Maybe he had a stroke? Maybe he’s having an MS flare-up? What if he was in a bad car accident? Stop making assumptions! God, he’s so young. I’m such a jerk! How could I give him, of all people, that heinous glare? You’re so stupid.

I continued to work out at each machine, breathing into my reps and trying to free my mind up from my ignorance.

Before my recovery, there was a time when I was incredibly strict with the amount of reps and sets that I would complete at each gym visit. I was rigid with my rep counting instead of focusing my attention towards my overall exertion. In the past I forced myself through workouts with thoughts of weight loss stress and body hate. I was happy to be exercising but it was never enough. I could have done more, I could have pushed myself harder.

Now I actually close my eyes and breathe into the motions, enjoying the burn. I relish in the feelings of moving my muscles. Instead of telling myself, “This is too hard” or “You should be in better shape than this” I now say, “I feel so alive” or “I’m blessed to be able to move like this”. Now the rules are gone and I praise myself with self-love. I listen to my body before deciding how I want to move for the day.

I felt myself sink into my breathing but in the back of my mind, I was realizing how unmindful I had been to a total stranger. I had blindly let my insecurities lead my actions.

Girl Running

In my mind, I ran through Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements. I typically do this when I’m feeling uncomfortable in a situation.

Yes, I was taking his staring personally.

Yes, I made assumptions about why he wouldn’t stop looking at me.

No, I wasn’t doing my best.

Sh!t. I always forget the fourth one.

I realized how out of touch I had been during my stretching. My thoughts had been motivated by fear, fear of what others might think of my body. I took my thoughts a step further and recognized how much of my life has been spent living in my head instead of taking situations for face value. These are the mini-awakenings I keep having during my recovery. I’m thankful for them. They keep me honest with myself and present with others.

The urge to connect with my mat-gawker and share a smile was strong. I decided a smile would show him that I wasn’t a complete ass. I watched him from afar, disappointed in myself. Of course he was watching me. Maybe I was moving in ways he can’t right now. Maybe he was happy to see a bigger woman feeling confident enough to be herself at a gym. Maybe he even thought I was cute? And he was a nice-looking guy. He had actually intimidated me when I glared at him.

I tried to meet up with him at the trashcan for the next couple of weight machines, but it never worked out. This is silly. Just let it go. Let it go.

My husband stopped by to chat and I felt a wave of relief. My attention was jolted back to the present.

As he walked away, I stepped off my machine and at the same time my mat-gawker rose up from his machine. We both stood in the tight aisle, unsure who should pass first. We both walked back and forth around each other. The moment was organic and my heart melted. With a friendly smile I asked, “Shall we dance?” He laughed and his face softened too. He joked back but I couldn’t quite understand him. It was all happening so fast, just like our first, nonverbal exchange.

It didn’t matter what he said. The smiles and chuckles were real.

I grabbed the sanitizer with a peaceful mind. Finally. I felt a million times better. I’m so happy that the moment was serendipitous. We actually ended up doing it again at the end of my workout. I once again apologized and he laughed. He responded cheerfully, “I don’t mind at all”.

I walked away, hoping I would see him again. I began to think about my single girlfriends and who might want to date him. I’m not sure why he felt the urge to look at me for so long but I could tell that once he warmed up, he was easy-going and wholesome. I would love to set up a friend with that kind of catch.

I walked out to the parking lot, hand-in-hand with my husband and said, “Wow….pretty powerful workout today”.

Whitney Gale Signature