I cannot stop looking at my thighs.
It started last week in—where else?—a fitting room. Under the harsh overhead lighting of a Dick’s Sporting Goods, I shimmied my way into a pair of Under Armour compression tights made specifically to withstand the cold temperatures that had recently started to make my 7 a.m. outdoor workouts more frigid. The pants were (as compression tights tend to be) very tight. They hugged and clung to every bend and contour, from my navel to my ankles. For some reason, putting them on felt more revealing than being naked. Oh, and they were besmirched with the sartorial mark of the beast for short, “curvy” women like myself: horizontal stripes. All of the components for maximizing the size at which my legs appeared in the mirror were aggressively present in that moment, in those tights, in that dressing room.
Growing up short and stout, I was armed from the get-go with an arsenal of tools and tricks to trompe l’oeil my way out of the body I was born with. Black is slimming; bright colors are not. Tapered pants and too-tight clothing will do you no favors; opt instead for clean lines and tailored silhouettes. Vertical stripes are elongating. And horizontal stripes are short person kryptonite. I had memorized and abided by these rules my entire life, under the unquestioned assumption that I was doing myself a favor.
Standing there in my skin-tight, horizontally striped pants, one thing was immediately clear: My thighs looked huge. The pants tapered from my already-ample hips down to my calves, like two sturdy ice cream cones. My thighs were undoubtedly, most definitely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, bigger than I’d ever seen them before. Their apparent size wasn't the surprising part—but how I felt about it definitely was.
They looked awesome.
Let me backtrack for a minute. Months earlier, before I found myself checking out my quads in a poorly-lit dressing room, before I would ever consider dropping $70 on a single pair of workout pants (and certainly before I’d ever be caught dead in said tight pants in public), I hadn’t maintained a steady fitness regimen since high school. (And even in high school, said regimen was questionable: I was a “track and field athlete” who couldn’t run more than a mile without stopping and only did the “field” part because I thought shot put looked cool.) In college, I had friends who played on sports teams and dorm hallmates who couldn’t skip a run for fear of getting grumpy. Meanwhile, I struggled my way through a cycle of stops and starts that would last for years. Eight, to be exact: It would be another eight years before I actually made fitness a regular part of my life, rather than a resolution-fueled phase that would invariably be dropped after a few days, a few weeks, maybe a couple months (if I was lucky).
And it wasn’t for lack of trying. In fact, I tried it all. I tried running, and every step was punctuated by thoughts of how much I hated running—a ticking internal metronome of cold, hard vitriol. I tried kickboxing, and even liked it, but convinced myself that both the requisite fitness level and the monthly fee were far beyond my means. I attempted a steady relationship with the elliptical at my neighborhood gym. I tried Zumba, for god’s sake. I tried Zumba, you guys. Nothing stuck, and I resigned myself to the life of the sedentary.
Throughout all of this, I struggled with the same body image issues that I would guess the vast majority of American women also confront most days. I was never severely overweight, but I was also never what one would call "slender" or "skinny". My brother once described me as “stout,” and despite the vast amount of shit I gave him for it, it was a fairly accurate assessment: I was short but not “petite,” with thick upper arms, a belly, and that ever-present leg meat. My body parts were substantial. And for the majority of my years as a body-cognizant person (so, everything after I turned 10, pretty much), I carried disdain for all of them.
Do a quick search for “thighs” on any major women’s interest magazine website, and you’ll inevitably find innumerable results instructing readers how to “smooth,” “sculpt,” or “shrink” thighs that are “lumpy,” “stubborn,” or just plain “fat.” Fashion magazines devote endless real estate to the offering of guidance on how to hide, slenderize, or minimize our thighs with optical illusions and other sartorial wizardry. It’s one of those aspects of female anatomy that is simply meant to take up less room. (See: "thigh gap", a frenetic cultural zeitgeist literally focused on negative space, wherein the value is placed on where a woman isn't.) They’re meant to be minimized, subdued, tamed into submission with dark tailored pants. And unless you’re Beyoncé, they most certainly aren’t meant to be stuffed into skin-tight pants and flaunted about.
Yet, there I was in that dressing room, unable to stop checking myself out, liking the substantial legs I was looking at. I was feeling accomplishment and satisfaction where conventional body standards would say I hadn't earned the right to feel those things at all.
That moment came six months after I had, for the first time in years, found a way to work exercise into my daily life (without then abandoning it swiftly thereafter). I had joined a local group which met almost daily to focus on strength and endurance, using everything from jump rope to burpees to heavy, cast-iron kettlebells. I squatted and ran and pressed and sprinted. Over the next few months, some parts of my body shrank. And others — my arms, my shoulders, my thighs — grew. My hamstrings now curve outward; my quads protrude such that I can barely see my knees when I look down; my calves are snug against the fabric of my jeans. My body is changing. And, with it, so is the way that I think about it, talk about it, and see it.
To be completely clear: I don’t have the physique of an athlete. Fully dressed, I look pretty average (and probably still rather stout, though my frame has changed a little). You wouldn’t see me walking down the street and think, “Wow, I bet that girl can deadlift her body weight!” But I can, and I do. It has changed everything for me.
I was conditioned from the outset to see my thighs as a “problem area” or a “trouble zone”. But that vocabulary disappeared after I finally put them to use. Putting my thighs to work has caused my brain to look at my body and think about what it can do, more than what it looks like. Even though I still don’t have the quads of a figure model or the hamstrings of a professional athlete, I pay attention to my thighs when I’m dancing, hiking, walking up the stairs. I feel them with every move, every ache, every flex. I’m so much more aware of their presence, and that’s turned my resentment and disdain into appreciation and gratitude. They aren’t things to be shrunk, tamed, or minimized. They are limbs wrapped in muscles that carry me through a hill sprint, a heavy squat, or a weighted lunge. When I look at myself in the mirror, my internal lexicon has totally shifted from words like “meaty,” “beefy,” and “flabby” to words like “capable,” “solid,” “tough,” and yes, “strong”.
Oh, and they look pretty kickass in my new striped pants.
Image: SOMBILON ART & PHOTOG/Flickr