I first became aware of my body in a middle school biology class. I wore a skirt and stood at a lab table. I remember hearing, and then seeing, a pencil roll towards me and land at my feet. A male classmate crept over on all fours and the moment he stopped by my shoes I realized he was attempting to look up my skirt. I kicked the pencil away, my face burning. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Shame filled me for days. I didn’t want my body to be looked at. Especially not in that way. I hadn’t even kissed a boy yet. I didn’t want one to look at my underwear. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t even sure if he had been trying to look up my skirt. What if it really was an accident? What if I had just assumed that he was looking up my skirt? Did that make me a pervert? Should I not have worn a skirt? I decided that the answer to all these questions was “yes” and wore pants for the rest of the year.
To keep my mind off my 14-year-old body being viewed as a sexual object, I threw myself further into track and field, where it was viewed as a machine. What was once something I did after school to kill time before my mom picked me up after getting off work soon became my raison d’être. I had a close group of friends on the team. We would run laps around the middle school field in a tight pack. Occasionally we would go across the street to the high school track. We watched the varsity girls run relays and sprints and hurdles and were reminded that we were about to join a nationally ranked program, and that training hard was the only way to succeed. The front runners on my team were allowed to join varsity, eighth-graders competing against seniors in high school. When we saw them run with the older girls, we were constantly reminded of the rewards of strength, hard work, and dedication.
These values stayed with me when I made the varsity team as a freshman. We were expected to be at practice six days a week. If we missed more than three days, we were off varsity. My training as a sprinter consisted of a series of workouts, often drawn up by the sprinting coach, Schultz, and explained to us while we stretched. Stretching took at least 20 minutes. I learned to isolate my muscles, and I knew exactly how I needed to stretch each one of them to ensure that I had full range of motion.
Then the workout would begin. Sometimes we would do 10 200-meter repeats. Sometimes we would do extended fartleks, running the straightaway of the track and jogging the turn for two miles. Sometimes we would do a specialized practice to focus on starts. We had weight room sessions after practice, lifting to increase our arm strength. There was one drill where we held a 15-pound dumbbell in each hand and pumped our arms for 30 seconds to strengthen our biceps and get us used to moving our arms faster. We would finish up every day with a core routine, six minutes of nonstop ab workouts that brought me to tears the first time I did them. But soon, they became second nature as we all crunched in unison.
I learned to relish the burn that I got from workouts. Sometimes, when our head coach, Levy, oversaw our practice, he would yell out how many times we would repeat a sprint. “Purcell, you can do five or six. Up to you.” I would always do the extra one, desperate to prove myself. As we ran, he shouted out the seconds going by so we would know exactly how slow we were going. “25, 26, 27, 28, 29… ”
Racing was the time to prove myself. All the work I put in, 10 months every year for five years was tested by the 30 or so seconds I was out on the track. Waiting for races to start, I would stand in a group of girls and wait for races to be called, clenching sweaty palms, steadying garbled breath. My bladder would press on my tight, high-cut spandex bottoms as the familiar nervous pee sensation grew. The rubber scent of the track was salty and dense. I would jump a few times, thighs to chest, and shake my legs out, feeling every muscle in my body move in the exact way I wanted it to. The official would blow a whistle. “On your mark!”
While a few races stick in my mind, there are many I do not remember. My breath and the blood pumping in my veins would overtake me and I usually lost my vision to black and white blurs towards the end of a race. Sometimes I would fall over after crossing the finish line. Once, I threw my body across to win. My right side was cut and rubber-burned for a week.
As I slowed down from a race, first to a jog, and then a walk, my vision would come back. I would look up at the board to check the times. Part of me would be happy for winning. The other part of me would be upset with myself for not having broken a personal record. I would consider what I did wrong. Maybe my start was off. Maybe I stopped driving too soon. I would turn around and see Levy, writing on his clipboard, not looking towards me. “Time?” he’d ask. “27.9,” I’d say. He’d wait a while before responding, and I’d hover uncomfortably next to him. “K,” he’d reply, and would turn away from me. I’d be hit with a feeling of failure and step off the track, cursing myself.
I quit track in the spring of my junior year of high school. The tendonitis that began in my knees in eighth grade had spread to my hips. Every time I walked my body cracked. If I took a wrong step, pain would shoot up my sides. My running wasn’t where it had been two years ago. I spent nights wondering if I peaked at age 15. When I went to my coach to hand in my uniform, he asked if I was quitting because I was having problems at home. I said that I wasn’t, opened the door of the gym, and left.
I barely ran my senior year of high school, choosing instead to focus on school and music and my friends. I noticed a change in my body quickly—because I wasn’t running six days a week and working out, my muscles lost their definition. My thighs went from defined to fleshy. My bras stopped fitting as I re-went through puberty, which was stunted due to intense exercise. I became curvy. Part of me welcomed this change into a womanhood that I thought would never come. The other part of me was embarrassed by the size of me. I began wearing baggier clothing that would hide my boobs so I wouldn’t get looked at in the street. I hated how my thighs looked when I sat down, stretching across the entire seat of the chair. My arms became weaker and flabbier as fat collected. I couldn’t fit into most of the clothes I owned and had to buy new ones. I was uncomfortable in this new body that wasn’t toned or strong.
During my freshman year of college, exercise took a backseat. There were friends to make and groups to audition for and parties to go to. I chose to restrict what I ate rather than exercise. When I ran for North Shore, we were given loose meal plans that ensured that we would be eating for performance. We ate around 3,000 calories every day to help us build and maintain muscle. At college, with no muscle to build, I ate salads, french fries and ice cream almost every day. I wanted my Stevie selections to match those of my best friends, two five-foot, conventionally skinny girls who fit into every item of clothing they tried on. For spring break freshman year, the three of us went to California. While we were in Los Angeles, we shopped a lot, looking for fun vintage clothing. I remember tears rolling silently down my face as I struggled to put on yet another pair of jeans that didn’t fit me, overhearing them exclaim how good the other looked. After a few days, I decided to stop trying on pants and instead watch them and give feedback. I wanted to be like that, and so the less I exercised, the less I ate. I felt worse and worse, and wasn’t even losing weight.
I remembered cases of exhaustion on my team. One of my teammates was iron-deficient. Another had diabetes. I remembered watching my teammates faint in front of me and Levy running towards them, yelling, “Has she eaten in the last two hours?” Even though I scared myself into eating more, I started feeling better. I went on runs again. I tried to ignore the nagging voice in my head that told me to go faster.
Diet culture has not been particularly rampant on campus during my time here. Diets are frowned upon, met with protestations like, “Diets are so bad for your body!” and “You have a fine body, why would you ever want to lose weight?” and “Love yourself!” If you wanted to diet you were a Bad Feminist and a Bad Woman. Changing your body meant that you didn’t love your body, and not loving your body was Bad. I was tormented by the angel and devil on each shoulder as I scrolled through Instagram and saw my high school classmates at bathing-suit institutions—schools in Florida where the most popular major seemed to be going to the pool. I would end up in a rabbit hole of model-girls who were my age or younger so frequently that I had to unfollow them all.
Instead of diet culture, Oberlin students participate in busy culture: two people coming out of the library comparing how busy they are and how little they’ve eaten because they have no time for food. “I totally skipped lunch today. I was sooo busy.” My stomach rumbles just listening . It’s cool to miss meals because you’re “busy.” Yet, if I call it the “homework diet,” people get mad at me. So, I learned to shut up and continue putting unholy bites of my lunch into my mouth.
College hookup culture made me reconsider my body. Long gone was the machine it used to be. I had grabbable hips and often had to force unwanted hands off them. Even though I had a conventionally “desirable” body type, I hated people acknowledging my figure. People I slept with would say, “you have such a nice body.” The eighth-grade science class flashed across my mind. I would respond, “stop talking.”
I don’t miss the injuries or my demanding and impossible coach, but I do miss running competitively. Training gave me a sense of control. It was in those moments on the track where I knew my body most intimately, where I understood every muscle and its function, where I knew that I was strong and capable. I’m trying to get back to that feeling. I was home recently and decided to go to the track for a run. I wanted to get a few laps in, nothing fast, just feel the bounce of the rubber against the soles of my Asics. As I walked through the metal turnstile, I drew in the atmosphere of the complex. When we ran we were on exhibition. Having a body, I think, is being a constant, living exhibit. I’m still negotiating the terms of that exhibit. I stretch a bit, and I feel the familiar burn in my calves, the one that lets me know that in this moment, I’m in control. It feels safe. I step onto the track. Right now, the sun is setting, the best time to run. The air is cool. The track feels soft, and warm, and resilient.