If there is one Propane article that I have read over the 18 months which resonates the most, it’s this one by Jonny, What Fitness Did For Me. It struck a chord on many different levels & It’s one I’ve returned to on numerous occasions. So why does it resonate?
Because I was that slightly chubby, awkward girl at school, the one who was always picked last for team sports, the vaguely cross-eyed geek hovering on the periphery of social acceptance, never quite fitting in.
I hated PE
At school I didn’t enjoy Physical Education at all, I’d go as far as saying that I hated it. I’d do anything to avoid PE lessons, to the extent I’d make myself sick in the toilets before the weekly trip to the school gymnasium or would gratefully accept a detention for “forgetting” my kit for the 3rd week in a row. I was ok at running, primarily because I could do that without having to speak to anyone, but I wasn’t brilliant. Mediocre at best. I wasn’t good enough to join the Harriers or the school cross country team and my hand eye co-ordination was so bad that I couldn’t play tennis or rounders or hockey. As for gymnastics, I had the grace & athleticism of a newborn hippo. I basically sucked at sport.
At university I breathed a massive sigh of relief that I no longer had to participate in compulsory PE & I did no sports at all for 4 years. I smoked profusely, drank to fit in to student life, stopped eating in order to be smaller (I was fat, after all) and flirted with anorexia.
By the time I left with my 2:1 and moved to London I was a fully fledged size 6 bulimic subsisting on a couple of bags of quavers and an apple most days, topped up with weekend binges of gargantuan proportions.
You could say I took intermittent fasting to a whole new level. Exercise consisted of walking between tube platforms & the occasional trudge home from work when there was a bomb threat.
By the time I met my now ex-husband I had a sub 18 BMI and saw food as the enemy most of the time. I tried to eat properly for the sake of our relationship and managed to put on a few pounds. It was also much harder to hide my disordered eating now that I was living with someone.
One day he caught me struggling to do up my size 6 jeans and said not quite jokingly,
You’d better not get fat on me
This propelled me terrified straight out of the door & to a newly opened gym in Ally Pally where I quickly morphed into a fully fledged leotard wearing cardio bunny. For the next decade and a half the gym was somewhere I punished myself for what I had eaten that day, pounding the treadmill for hours, step classes, spinning, sometimes for up to 3 hours a day. My gym membership enabled me to eat a bit more while maintaining a waif-like sub 56 kg frame, constantly in the pursuit of being less than I already was.
Fast forward 15 years & I’d yo-yo dieted my way through 3 post-pregnancies, a 3 stone self-inflicted cheese & wine baby, and an acrimonious divorce. The gym was simply somewhere I escaped to in order to chastise myself for being fat, or for not being able to shift my baby weight fast enough. It was an ongoing quest, the goal to be smaller, and my subsequent shame at the numbers on the scales.
I hated the gym, it was simply a necessary evil in order to remain thin.
It wasn’t until 2011 after recovering from a knee operation and a stern “no more running” from my surgeon that I started to look around for an alternative to the road and the treadmill. The internet was suddenly abuzz with catchphrases such as “strong is the new skinny” and images of women with washboard abs lifting dumbbells and barbells. I’d been diagnosed with coeliac disease back in 2002 and had my bullimia & nutrition pretty much under control but I still panicked at the numbers on the scales even if my clothes told me I was tiny. Giving up cardio (or most of it) in favour of picking up heavy things was hard.
It required a veritable seismic shift in mindset which took a good year for me to really accept.
It was worth it though to see the numbers on the weights going up, weekly, monthly, sometimes even daily. I started to really enjoy eating, because the more I ate the more I could lift, and strangely the increasing numbers on the scales no longer bothered me. Besides, my clothes weren’t getting tighter either, I was somehow getting leaner & more defined with hardly any cardio at all. This was a revelation!
The sheer joy at getting stronger was priceless, not just in the gym but at home too. I could pick things up and move them when before I’d have had to ask for help. I was a single mum and here I was not needing a man to help me move and carry heavy things. A defining moment for me was one day needing to take an old 3 seater sofa to the tip. I dragged it out of the house, levered it into my boot and from the boot into the skip at the recycling centre while grown men stood watching, slack-jawed in awe. The feeling of smug self satisfaction was so good. Here I was, a middle aged woman & and on my own but I was STRONG.
I know it’s a cliche but it’s true: I got divorced, had a breakdown, got strong and found myself. My relationship with fitness was a perfect metaphor for my own internal growth
The gym was no longer somewhere I went to punish myself for what I’d eaten, it was somewhere I went to grow, to get stronger, to flourish and push myself. I ate to perform and I came to realise that the numbers on the scales were simply a reflection of my relationship with gravity. The only numbers that really mattered were the ones on the plates I loaded onto my bar. It was a true voyage of self discovery “today I want to pick up that bigger weight, can I do it? What could stop me?”
The only limits were my own self doubt and the stronger I got in the gym the stronger I got within myself.
If I could pick up 100 kg from the floor over and over again then I could certainly parent 3 children on my own or achieve the other things in my life I’d previously been afraid of. Being a single mother didn’t scare me any more, hell I was good at it! So good in fact I could parent 4. So I did, and I fostered.
After 3 years of consistent weight training I felt confident enough about my new physique to take my fitness to the next level and I entered a figure contest. The diet and prep was very tough and as part of the process I learned that being lean & having visible abs weren’t as key to my fitness goals as I thought they were.
It was the training and being strong that I was in love with.
I got on stage in my sparkly bikini and loved the moment but I was glad to go back to eating for performance and being strong again. Powerlifting was a natural progression for me. There is nothing quite so empowering as ripping a bar weighing twice as much as myself from the platform. It says:
I am a woman & yet I am strong. Here I am subverting stereotypes of womanhood and middle age and I won’t be confined by society’s narrow definition of femininity.
Last weekend I competed at my first powerlifting meet & I picked up a weight which made me unofficially one of the strongest women of my age and weight in the country. Not bad for an ex fat girl who hid in the toilets during PE.
Believe me, It really is never too late to find your strong.
You can hear more about Jo’s Journey in the below video, click the image to watch:
Jo Beck is a Mother of 3. She fosters for Gateshead and is a Part Time Administrator and avid baker. She competed in UKBFF Masters Bodyfitness in 2015 and received an invitation to the British Finals. She is now a GBPF & YNEPF 72kg Masters 2 Powerlifter, coached by Propane Fitness.