As a girl (in the 1960s and 1970s), I was fearless, self-confident and wholly comfortable with my body. That is, until I became a teenager. Then, as quickly as a flip of a switch (or so it seemed), everything changed.
Aside from the raging hormones that could have alone turned me into an alien, I had unfamiliar feelings and longings. And I didn’t fit neatly into the role of a 14 year-old girl who had to wear skirts (dress code) to school. But, generally, I liked the way I looked. And I liked the way other girls looked, too.
Except, I was supposed to be looking at boys. Once I realized my “mistake”, I knew “fitting in” was something I would have to study, like any other subject in school. And I figured it would be hard, like Biochemistry (yes, I was precocious at 14), but I was smart and a good student. So, I thought, “I could do this”.
It was harder than Biochemistry and you couldn’t learn it from a book. My high school girl friends were “into boys” in such a natural, innate way. I withdrew into myself because I knew that this difference was too basic and I couldn’t fake it. I wouldn’t make close friendships because I had this secret and this unease about where friendships ended and romance could begin. I needed to keep people at bay. Invisibility was my goal when it came to talking about boys, what you did with boys, make-up, etc. Just blend in.
All through high school on Saturday nights, I used to take long walks around the East Side so my parents didn’t know that I was friendless or weary of feeling like the outsider. Only years later, did I learn that someone else was doing the same thing because she had the same issues, except her route was different enough so that we never bumped into one another. We would have recognized each other because we knew each other from camp and Hebrew School.
Inside, I was confused and sad and I knew, just knew, that my troubles were my fault. How could I fix something that I couldn’t even talk about? I medicated with food and alcohol. Brilliant. I added significant weight gain to my problems. And nothing makes teenage life worse than being fat. Now I was a liability to be around if you wanted to talk up cute boys. I was less than background; I was avoided.
I remained heavy through my college years. I was still struggling with wanting to be straight and not wanting to deal with this horrid, scary secret. On campus, a right-wing newspaper printed the names of the members of the GSSG (Gay Students Support Group). I was secretly grateful that I was too scared to join. I remained anonymous but I saw the effects of being “outed” on some of my friends. What happened to them confirmed my every nightmare. “Out” meant parental disapproval (and worse), no chance of having children and discrimination. I wanted my parents to be proud and I wanted a family. But I also wanted love. What did I do to deserve this fate? I had to have done something so unspeakably wrong to be exiled to a long and lonely road.
But sometimes the desire to feel whole can make a person go to crazy extents. During college, I kept trying to put myself in situations where I might meet lesbians but only at a distance. Two girls giggling in a bathroom piqued my interest, but I stayed in the background. Invisible. My comings and goings seemed mysterious enough so that my friends assumed that I was a Soviet spy meeting my handler. No joke. They still tease me to this day.
When I was graduated in 1985, I resolved to live a double life – try to marry a man and have an emotional (or romantic?) relationship with a woman. I had a hard time keeping up with the lies about why I was a no-show with my college friends or why I spent so much time with a particular woman when my mom would ask. I was a handful of shards of glass, each reflecting a portion of me, but not adding up to the whole.
I joined a gym to relieve some of the stress of my life and because I simply got sick and tired of literally wearing the weight of my troubles. I joined a gym to stop the “you would be so much more attractive if you lost some weight”. I really channeled my anger and fears into exercise. I was angry at G-d for making me gay and I was fearful of what would happen if I acted on those feelings. Maybe you can imagine how sweating buckets can calm you down and make you so tired that you needed to adjourn those quandaries until the next day. And, the next day, and so on. I used work-outs at the gym to avoid my issues. The upside was that I was really getting into good shape.
When I got thin, the family’s mantra “you are so thin and pretty now, I am sure the boys are knocking down your door!” returned. In truth, I tried boys. There was one lovely man I came close to marrying. But he sensed the issues that lay right under the surface and called me on them. “Do you need to sow some wild oats or should we just not have female housekeepers?” And then, “should I wait?” “No,” was my anguished answer. (“If only you were female,” I thought.) G-d bless him and his family forever. (He has a lovely wife and two adult children now.)
In New York City in the 1980s, there were still no positive images of lesbians, let alone images of feminine lesbians. What was I thinking throwing away a solid relationship with a wonderful man? But, he and I both deserved to find our heart’s desires and soul mates. At least he did; I couldn’t see how I was going to meet someone. I didn’t want to be with a butch woman; I was a woman who wanted to be with a feminine woman. They were invisible (unless they were on the arms of butch women). I was looking for a hypothetical feminine, pretty, Jewish (not essential), well-educated, funny and slightly neurotic lesbian. Whoa, tall order. I figured I would be alone for the rest of my life. If it sounds sad, you can be sure that this is an understatement of how I felt.
Somewhere, on the other side of town, was a woman in a relationship who was wondering if she would ever meet her soul mate, her heart’s desire. We would have recognized each other if we met because we knew each other from camp and Hebrew School.
If I was going to leave a relationship with a wonderful man because of this “girl thing”, then it was high time I started gluing the shards of my life together. Even though my father’s “I would welcome him as a son-in-law” echoed in my head and threatened to push out my brains through my ears, I tried to be open and honest with my family, my friends and, yes, me. And that required coming out.
My told my friend NYCFOB (dear NYC friend of blogger) in a cab, “you know my boyfriend John? Her name is [girl’s name].” I could see her brain working; a lot now made sense to her. “It changes nothing between us,” she said simply. She gave me a gift of a lifetime – in those few words, she said to me: “I am your friend even if you lied to me because I get that you thought it was necessary. And I don’t care about the gay thing.” Then, “who else knows?” She needed to know whom she could call and with whom she could shriek about some serious scoop. I still think she doesn’t know that we know that she has the biggest heart and a wellspring of love and acceptance tucked beneath a New Yorker’s veneer.
As for my parents, let’s just say that their rejection was hurtful and ugly, although it had a happy ending. Imagine a nice Jewish girl whose grandparents were the pre-World War II remnant of Russian Jewry, and parents who were poor children of immigrants of the Depression Era. That means I was raised to need my parents’ approval on a daily basis. Imagine that nice Jewish girl being cast out. The gym was my haven. I could sweat and lift weights and expel some of the anger and hurt I felt. As I processed all the changes and charted a rough course for my life, I started not to want to be invisible or ignored anymore. I had arrived – 115 pounds, toned body, good looks. I was ready to fit in and conquer all social settings – gay or straight.
So, I joined a hip and groovy gym. It is a rule of life that if your gym is hip and groovy, you will work out in a sea of tall and beautiful women in that blond, willowy way with perfect gym outfits. I wasn’t ready to be “out” because I still preferred ambiguity. Secretly, I wanted cute boys to talk to me as some sort of vindication of my sexual appeal – that men might want me even if I wanted women.
The muscled, handsome straight (and hell, even gay) guys talked to them and not to me. Even the trainers didn’t pay attention to me. I was still invisible. I know it doesn’t make sense, but nothing relating to body image, sexuality, and desire has anything to do with logic. It was probably because I was too scared that if I came out, there was no going back.
Life got a lot better over the years. I realized that you have to be a little out in order for people to find you. Family hurts healed (with my mother’s wanting to ride on our synagogue’s Gay Pride float and my father’s making a huge stone sculpture of two women with a child). I had good romantic relationships (and some horror shows, let’s be honest). I was happy. I had friends. I was an up-and-coming lawyer. I found my groove.
Still, the gym was complicated. Working out made me feel strong, in control and let me expiate work anxiety and stress. I started to understand that maybe I didn’t fit in because, for me, the gym was not my primary social outlet. I went there to get sweaty and release endorphins. Ahhhhh. Still, I wanted to be noticed. I know, I know. It doesn’t make sense but it is what it is.
At Rosh HaShanah evening services in 1996, I was living the quintessential lesbian drama – my present girlfriend sat to my left and my ex-girlfriend sat to my right. I was looking up at the ceiling, finally introducing myself to G-d. (This alone should have wiped away my sins for the year.)
In the midst of this bad movie, I heard a singing voice I recognized. I turned around and I saw her. She was my best friend at sleep-away camp when we were 10 year-olds. We went to Hebrew School together through senior year at high school. I thought, “she is too cute to be gay”. It’s that internalized homophobia ingrained in many of us who came of age in the 20th century and, no matter how we try, it still sometimes slips out. (And I had very attractive exes.)
I looked for her after services, but she had left in a flash. Ten days later, at Yom Kippur service, I was carrying the Torah around the synagogue during a ritual where the Torahs are marched around the sanctuary. I saw her again. POB (soon-to-be partner of blogger). I knew somehow that we were living in parallel bubbles that “kissed” ever so slightly over the years. We were both in relationships and just looking for friendship.
Our friendship was deep and supportive. We leaned on each other when things got hard in our relationships. We pushed each other to re-invest our emotions in those long-term relationships. Nevertheless, our relationships ended between 1998 and 1999. In spring of 2000, we realized that we were each other’s intended ones. We fell into a happy rhythm of life together and started to think about having a baby.
Still, the gym was an important part of my life. Sometimes we would go to the gym together after work, around 8pm. We didn’t work out together; we needed our separate areas at the gym. I was working out the toxicity of life as a young partner in a law firm; she was just getting a fitness work out.
Then my mother had a recurrence of breast cancer. I needed a punching bag and boxing gloves. Our gym had those. I watched others and then just copied them. Tears would stream. The rings on my fingers under the boxing gloves cut into my flesh. I was bleeding and I was punching G-d as hard as I could. In summer 2002, POB and I had a little boy. In January 2003, my mother died. I needed to punch out my unspeakable pain and sadness, but with newborn and two working moms, there was no time for the gym.
2002 through 2008 were rough years. Setting aside various economic and professional upheavals (which don’t matter much in the end, anyway), POB’s mother’s chronic illness worsened to a point that hospital stays on respirators were not uncommon. Ultimately, she died. Our son presented with some developmental issues, which are resolving (something for which we are grateful everyday). There was much joy and happiness, of course, in those years, but joy and happiness don’t make for interesting writing. And besides, as a neurotic, urban-dwelling Jew, it is my cultural duty to emphasize the gut-wrenching, the embarrassing, the bizarre and the ooky.
When our son was six years old, POB and I were able to clear some personal time in the family schedule. I chose to return to the gym.
What a difference six years makes. My first day, I was in the locker room and to my horror I discovered that I packed form-fitting running tights that go down just below my knees and a geeky t-shirt that stopped at my waist. Two things to note: I couldn’t remember when last I shaved my legs, and if this outfit looked good on me, I wouldn’t need to go to the gym.
Now, our son is 9 years old. He is 70 pounds and still jumps in my arms when I come home, so I need strong leg, stomach and arm muscles so as not to end up in traction. Now, I do sit ups and pull-ups.
I hate pull-ups but I do three sets of three (sometimes four). And all the gym boys think it’s really cute that a gray-haired, middle-aged lady can do unassisted pull-ups. No, joke — I get compliments, fist pumps and high-fives from male trainers and regular gym rats. And they give me technique pointers. And I know that some of the women are watching me. They are not checking me out; they are wondering how they could try a pull-up when no one is looking. At long last, the “buff and beautiful” (even the trainers) notice me and talk to me. It took some gray hair and a few pull-ups to be the belle of the gym. Of course, now I don’t need that kind of attention. At 47, I have lost some elasticity and agility, but age has given me determination and self-confidence, and, yes, helped me negotiate a comfortable detente with my body.
And now I am visible at the gym? The gym gods must be crazy indeed.
So, this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my life, my family and my wholeness. It does get better.