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The naked truth: My journey to reclaiming fitness

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There I was, standing in front of Stern Field — fully clothed and yet, somehow, entirely naked.

It was Admit Weekend, and I’d been wandering Stanford’s campus with the bright eyes and sensory overload that only a ProFro can truly know. I was passing what seemed like my fifth Arrillaga when something caught my eye across the street — a group of girls tanning.

It was an innocuous enough sight: a group of five, maybe six, students, splayed out on a picnic blanket, enjoying the beautiful California weather. And yet, as I stood before them, it did not seem innocuous at all.

At the time, I was at the lowest weight of my teenage years. It was a weight I took pride in, and one whose maintenance had strict requirements: workouts every day, no snacking after 7 p.m., long stretches where I’d shun one food group or another until I’d trash the whole idea and begin anew the cycle of guilt and self-doubt I came to know as “fitness.”

My relationship with food and exercise, however, had not always been so turbulent. In fact, looking back, it’s quite clear that these patterns of extremity began emerging around the time that the concept of college began to feel more concrete: during my senior year of high school. At the time, though, I saw the rigidity of my lifestyle as a natural extension of the person I was. I was someone who considered myself a health nut, who enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment after a particularly challenging workout, who valued this elusive idea of fitness. In a world that was beginning to feel uncontrollable — a world characterized by seemingly arbitrary college decisions, family and friends who I’d soon be leaving behind and a life ahead of me with which I was thoroughly unfamiliar — I found the one thing I knew I could control: my body.

So it was that, in the weeks leading up to Admit Weekend, my habits went into overdrive. Daily workouts morphed into twice-a-days. I lived religiously according to my Apple Watch’s assessment of my day — had I burned enough calories? Was I being too inactive? For me, Admit Weekend symbolized the impending unknown; the moment I got on that plane to California, I knew that I’d be barreling towards something for which I felt woefully unprepared. I wasn’t sure I’d be successful at any aspect of college life, whether it be making friends, getting good grades or adjusting to dorm life. But I was sure I could succeed at being fit.

It was precisely this certainty that caused me so much surprise that day on Stern Field. With my weight as low as ever and my lifestyle as strict as I knew how to make it, I always assumed that I’d feel more confident than ever before. Surely, after all, my strictness would be rewarded; I would of course be proud to show off the body for which I’d worked so hard.

And I wanted that to be the case, wanted so badly to be as carefree as the students before me. I wanted to imagine my future at Stanford and see myself in their place, lounging under the sun, baring my skin as if it was nothing, cost nothing. But my desire for control had only left me with less of it. I had taken the beautiful, empowering tool that is fitness, and I’d warped it into a tool that enabled me in dangerous ways, a tool that embodied every ounce of my fear. And I used it to exert control I should never have had over an area of my life that I had never needed to change.

That day, it wasn’t a group of tanning girls that I was confronting, but something far more unpalatable: I was confronting a version of myself that I didn’t recognize. I wasn’t lying half-naked on the field that day, but even fully clothed, I was somehow naked, somehow more exposed than I’d ever felt, vulnerable in the vastness of my insecurity. What had begun as a normal set of worries about heading off to college had become a tsunami of self-doubt that threatened to swallow me whole.

As spring quarter marches on and Admit Weekend approaches once again, I can’t help but reflect on how much I’ve grown since this time last year. Looking out at that same field now, it strikes me that what I’d been focusing on obsessively in the weeks leading up to Admit Weekend was not fitness after all, but simply a reflex that used fitness as its facade. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the volatility of my life that warned me to be smaller, to take up less space in the world in hopes that it would help me fit in to my new life. In failing to reject this reflex, I had taken fitness — something that was supposed to make me stronger — and I’d allowed it to make me weaker.

In the months since that realization, I’ve worked tirelessly to shape fitness into something positive again. Some days I work out once, others twice, and some days not at all. I eat pasta when I want it, salad when I feel like it and Nutella far too often. I feel empowered by the lifestyle I live, because it’s no longer something I do to make myself smaller, or to distract from feelings of anxiety, but something I do purely for the enjoyment and accomplishment it brings me.

Still, though, when I catch sight of the sea of tanning bodies that make up Stern Field on sunny days, I find myself wondering if the impulse to be smaller, somehow less of who I am, will ever fully disappear. Though I no longer place emphasis on my weight, it’s impossible for me to pass the scale at Nearillaga without wondering what it would read. And when my friend and I place a bet on who can go longer without saying the word “calorie,” I find myself biting my tongue more often than I’d like.

But as I stand on Stern Field, I cannot wonder for too long. For now, where I am will have to be enough.

After all, I have some tanning to do.

Contact Larissa Bersh at lbersh ‘at’ stanford.edu.