My sister and I used to make up stories about ghosts haunting our childhood home. We began telling these tales when I was about 11 and she was 9, shortly after our family moved from a single-story home in a bustling and diverse neighborhood to a two-story house in a quiet, tony New York City suburb. We dreamed up Garcia the Friendly Christmas Ghost as the days grew shorter and darker. Other, unnamed spirits seemed to hang out only upstairs, where the floorboards creaked and my bedroom was isolated from the rest of the house. Unlike most kids my age, I hated spending time alone in my bedroom.
At the same time I believed in ghosts, I was also battling my own demons.
Recently, I recalled that there was one time each week when I sought out the solitude of my bedroom, when no spirits could touch me, or help me.
Every Saturday morning, I gathered up my journal — not the one with updates on boys and school, but the other one that held what I considered my deepest shame: evidence of my changing body. And I grabbed my tape measure.
After sneakily weighing myself in my mother’s bathroom, I would hole up in my room to methodically measure my body parts, one by one, top to bottom, and log the numbers. My neck, biceps, wrists. My chest — above, along, and below the nipple line. My natural waist and my “bellybutton waist.” My hips, thighs, calves.
Every last inch was accounted for, and compared with the list of celebrity measurements that I’d compiled. It was a strenuous project that I kept secret.
Secret, that is, until my sister and I were recently waxing nostalgic about Garcia. I told her my story without thinking, and we both looked at each other, surprised. “Oh,” she said simply. “Yeah,” I responded. The memories flooded back.
All my numbers were larger than those of the supermodels and actresses I followed in magazines. At 11, I was going through puberty and already felt woefully betrayed by my body. I was convinced I was growing to be the “wrong” type of woman, whatever I thought that meant. “Right” was thin. “Right” was tall. “Right” was a flat tummy, pert breasts that couldn’t hold a pencil beneath them, thin thighs that would let the light shine through.
When I wasn’t hiding in my room measuring myself, I developed my first workout routines. In the basement, far from the upstairs ghosts, I followed Billy Blanks and Karen Voight through cardio-kickboxing and “toning” weight-training routines. It was the mid-’90s, the era of exercise tapes that promised the long, lean body I ached for.
I began to look forward to coming home from school each afternoon to my private boot camps. I marveled at Billy’s and Karen’s bodies: They radiated strength and power. I admired their boulder-shoulders and their well-muscled behinds, which looked like torpedoes when they squatted.
I marveled — but I didn’t aspire.
It would be years before it would occur to me that I could be strong and powerful, too. At the time, I simply wanted to be the opposite of what I was. I aspired to be long and lean, thin to the point of disappearing. Like a ray of light. Like a ghost.
These days, disappearing is not on my priority list. It is not the motivation behind my workouts. And neither is bulking up. It’s a strange reality that right now, with calves as thick as my thighs were at 11 years old, I am satisfied as I am. I still look forward to my afternoon workouts, and I love moving my body with an appreciation I didn’t have 25 years ago.
I can’t pinpoint a specific Aha! moment when my outlook changed. I suppose it happened gradually in the process of growing up — which included expanding my fitness horizons as well as coaching young girls, who in turn helped me reconnect with my own inner child.
I think, finally, I can lay my childhood ghosts to rest.