She Had Thighs of Steel: Novel Lessons About Life and Happiness From an Old Lady
Last night as my BF and I were enjoying each other’s physical company, he commented, with genuine pleasure, that my legs looked simply terrific. I encase them in black thigh highs, and lately I’ve been able to see the muscles increasingly define to steely quality.
After some forty years of hard work the cellulite is gone. I’m almost 66.
This is not a conversation I expected to be having, certainly not after having spent a good portion of my younger life obese.
When I was my twenties, I read a novel, the title of which is long lost to me, that described a woman character who was a life-long skier. The author wrote that “she had thighs of steel,” a condition which, at that time in my life, was deeply attractive. And well out of reach. Especially since my thighs would have better been described as a combination of cottage cheese and Jell-O.
Yours would too, if you’d had a love affair with Little Debbie snacks and Charles Chips.
However, those few words locked into my consciousness for life.
Like so many I have battled weight issues. Put myself through the grinder of eating disorders. Abused my body over the course of my life chasing the chimera of perfection.
The notion that as the age of 70 slowly began to materialize on the not-too-distant horizon that I, too, would have such legs would have been, to my twenty-something self, a source of hilarity tinged with great sorrow.
I wanted that body right here, right now, with all the impetuousness and impatience that are the hallmarks of youth.
But here we are.
The other day I read a Medium.com article by a fellow military peep who had people- mostly in their thirties or barely there-tell her what they would say to their 25-year-old selves.
Part of me had a good guffaw at this simply because of the implied notion that after those five years, arriving at this magically mature and ancient age of thirty might impart some kind of great wisdom.
The other is that thirty is just so old, which so many people seem to believe.
Still, it was fun to ponder the question. As I consider my options at 65, one thing that came up for me when I reviewed this article was what I wish I’d known, or at least had a glimmer of, in my twenties.
I would stare at my spreading butt and very generous thighs, having read that description of the skier.
My body would be one of the crucibles for learning some of life’s most important lessons.
That was incomprehensible back then.
When I moved to Colorado in the early 1970s, I hitch-hiked (yes I did) to Vail in the winter. There, a kind man put me on a ski lift for free, for I was from Florida.
The fairy tale-like snowy world astounded me. What astounded me far more were the rich, gilded women in their black ski tights, their fluffy, fur-lined parkas.
Their legs were tight as piano wire, slim and hard. At all ages. I was a lump by comparison. The words in the book came back to me.
Thighs of steel.
At some level I honestly believed that if I had legs like that, a body like that, I’d have a life like that.
This is the lie that the entire weight loss economy banks on. I bought into it completely. At first.
I never learned to ski. I tried, but I have Reynaud’s Syndrome. Sitting silently on a ski lift while heading to the top of the mountain nearly cost me my fingers.
Of course gear has improved since then, but by today the Colorado ski crowds are so bad I won’t even bother to try. I still wanted those legs.
The beauty of these well-groomed athletes left me stunned. If only I had a body like that the world would be my oyster. Surely all my problems would melt away as soon as the fat did.
In the early Eighties I was living in Australia, and began my journey to dump some 80 plus pounds forever. I chronicle that story in my book WordFood: How We Feed or Starve our Relationships. I turned myself into an athlete along the way.
Yet as so many of us who have been obese find out, sculpting my body to be more athletic didn’t get me a terrific job or a better life or happiness.
Nor will this body image bullshit that is currently the rage to rewrite our body shame, shared by the newly-branded Weight Watchers and all the other Koolaid drinkers who are trying to convince us to be well vs. be fat. Our journeys are unique to us.
So is the emotional journey to realize that it isn’t about body image or obesity. It’s far deeper than that.
In 2015, I was riding Icelandic horses in that gorgeous country. I planned three long trips back to back, with a weekend in between to do my laundry (I got right filthy) and rest a bit before heading back out.
While in Reykjavik, I discovered a store (http://reykjaviktoday.is/rcg/place/Hestar-og-Menn-Horse-supplies-accessories) which sells horse riding supplies and gear.
The Icelanders love their horses. Nearly all of them ride. They also ride during winter when the tourists clear out. That’s a bit unimaginable to me given how damned cold summer is up there, but I’m not an Icelander. Still, the gear. My god, the gear.
On my first trip to this store I was in the market for good riding tights. By this time I’d been slim for years, having found a routine that worked. I’d been doing adventure travel and the workout demands were brutal.
So when I asked about winter riding gear, the young woman pointed me to a pair of long black pants. Slim and tight.
I eyeballed them with a questioning eye. The kind of questioning eye possessed by anyone who has ever lost the equivalent of a young adult off their person when they move themselves from the double digit sizes to the single digit sizes.
Who, me? These? Are you kidding me?
I grabbed a pair off the rounder and headed for the changing room. There, I slipped on the black tights. Stood back in shock.
I looked precisely like those women in Vail. At 62, I had those legs. That body.
The shopgirl handed me a riding jacket, which, due to a sizing issue, was on sale for nearly pennies. The down-filled jacket with its fake fur collar did it.
I reached down and squeezed my thighs in a state of shock. Hard as steel. I bought two pairs of those tights (at $200 each, but they were well worth it).
I spent more than a grand in that store.
Anyone who has ever bought a size 2 skirt just because she could zip it up can relate. We’ve all been there, if we’ve won a weight battle.
The incredulity with which we greet that new image.
The fact that we actually can fit into certain sizes.
We become superb shoppers simply because shit fits.
Here’s the piece: having that body didn’t make me a nicer person, or more popular, or richer, or have a better character. Not a damned thing changed externally, with the possible exception of garnering more unwanted male attention, (even at this advanced age).
What did change was the effort I put into hard personal work. My body didn’t change my life. My attitudes did.
The willingness to take on big challenges, which, because this is how I’m wired, included adventure travel.
Looking like one of those rich, carefully-groomed international skiers in Vail didn’t do jack for who I was a human.
While it’s nice to have a healthier and lean body, and yes it is nice to have thighs of steel, that particular gift to myself doesn’t establish who I am. It allows me to do what I want to do. Big difference.
In precisely a month I will be climbing Mt. Kenya, which is 17,058 feet high. When I made that decision this past July I began a harder, more dedicated training program focusing on this BHAG (Big Hairy Ass Goal) the same way I did for Kilimanjaro five years ago.
I have hiked or jogged nearly 70,000 stairs with a heavy backpack. Run about 70 miles, hit the gym for legs and upper body, swam, cycled. It’s endless. The work that I continue to put in pays off in muscle, power, body confidence.
All that’s nice. Again and this bears repeating, it doesn’t make me rich, or a better person, or more popular, or any other damned thing that the $60 billion weight loss business would love for us to believe.
There isn’t a magic moment which arrives with a thin body, when suddenly the birds sing, a rainbow appears, and everyone loves us because we’re not fat any more. That’s patently bullshit.
However, the collective Koolaid is immensely powerful. We still believe this crap. Industry counts on it.
At nearly 66, I have the kind of body that I’d have killed for in my twenties. Beauty queen measurements. A near six-pack as I near seventy.
However now my skin sags, my face has wrinkles and my hair is going gray. I lost all my teeth to eating disorders and I have a multitude of scars.
But holy crap, can I rock a red dress and four-inch heels. I look terrific.
And by god I have thighs of steel. Shapely, powerful, gorgeous. I can fit into tiny designer clothes if I choose.
But let’s call it what it is. Frankly, who gives a shit about any of this? ( all right, all right, the BF does) Because these things don’t define me. Nothing external does, although huge portions of the world’s economy bank on our obsession with our body image. Our faces. Those things which are fleeting at best, and costly at worst.
My discipline does help define me. In much the same way that completing a college degree teaches us how to complete a major life goal, teaches us how to research, think, ask good questions, the journey to (at least in my case) a body that better fits my bone structure and the fitness to go with it taught me that I was capable of completing a major goal.
In much the same way that completing a degree — or several degrees — doesn’t guarantee you a great job and big income, dropping nearly a hundred pounds thirty years ago and getting into superb shape didn’t guarantee me anything.
With one exception: the journey taught me patience with the process. It showed me that a willingness to work at something genuinely difficult would pay off over time.
It taught me to trust myself. My focus. My commitment. It taught me that where I put my attention and effort would likely pay off if I were patient.
That my body- the vehicle that allows me to play in this world- is vastly more healthy is a side benefit. Not an end in and of itself. Just a bennie.
That lesson has been translated into completing two books. Getting clients. Learning to work hard to make a relationships work. Dealing with emergencies, serious injuries, life’s inevitable shit sandwiches. It all gets so much easier.
Getting skinny, having steely thighs gave me none of these things.
Learning discipline, patience, and perseverance did. Developing a sense of humor, being willing to call bullshit on my ego did. Committing to the immensely difficult task of personal development did. None of this work is done.
It will never be done.
But that’s the whole point.
Do I bask in the compliments from my admiring other half when he raves about my uber-muscular legs?
Damned right I do.
However, and here’s the real piece, he wouldn’t be here if I were a selfish, shallow, self-absorbed, egotistical, obsessive POS who focused solely on my appearance.
If I lived in a prison of fear about crow’s feet or frown lines or sagging skin or grey hair.
If I obsessed over every tiny body flaw or whether my hair and makeup were perfect each time I left the house.
Whether I look like a rich Vail bitch (all due respect to them, just saying) doesn’t define who I am. My character does. That bit of muscular emotional sculpting ever ends.
There is always some aspect of my inner self that needs challenging, needs facing, needs hard work.
To my military friend whose thirty-somethings are advising their “younger selves” (please forgive my giggle at this), as I get ready to go run my 2400 steps at 6200 feet and in 40 degrees with my thighs of steel this morning, here’s a piece of perspective, for what it’s worth:
Whatever you focus on, grows. What you attend to, develops.
If you put all your energy into your fears about your body, your appearance, you will grow your worst insecurities and egotistical tendencies.
You’ll support the economy, live in terror, doubt and discomfort. You’ll never, ever be satisfied with yourself.
You’ll be in prison for life.
If you water the seeds of character, competence and caring, you will grow your courage, your community and your capacity to handle anything life hands you.
Along the way your appearance, which is mercurial, will take care of itself.