Ever since my gym teacher stood, arms folded, laughing at my inability as a four-year-old to tuck myself into a ball and perform a somersault, exercise has been a foreign concept.
Team sports were an orgy of disappointment – of realizing I was the weak link leading us to yet another defeat – while individual endeavors were equally dispiriting. Running made me feel like my lungs were about to explode, I never learned to ride a bike, and swimming made me realize you could sweat underwater and almost drown in the shallow end of the pool.
Pre-lockdown, my body was a willing receptacle for pints of beer, cigarettes and sandwiches. My body had become this doughy thing I carried around with me. The only interaction I had with my physical self was the realization that my skin is brown – a fact that set me apart from my largely white social circle. It was something I came to define myself by.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit and we were all placed in lockdown, I thought it would be business as usual; hours sat at my desk, punctuated by eating, with the added bonus of working from my kitchen where my fridge was in reach. Living alone, though, the lack of human contact soon became punishingly apparent, especially when it came to seeing my best friend.
Normally we would see each other at least once a week but now I didn’t know when that would happen again. For him, the outside world had become truly treacherous because he is immunocompromised. Perhaps due to his powerlessness against an invisible threat, he started exercising from home, and the results were immediately apparent. On our weekly video calls I could see him bulking up, filling the picture frame increasingly each time. Each time he would try and convince me to workout with him.
I was starting to notice myself in the mirror and not feel apathetic about what I saw
Eventually I relented, mainly out of boredom. I balanced my phone on the kitchen table and we started doing pushups, sit-ups and jumping jacks over video call. It was excruciating. Those familiar feelings of exhaustion and inadequacy bubbled to the surface, telling me to quit. Yet, glancing up at the screen and seeing my friend, miles away, sweating with me and cheering me on, it was just enough to keep me going.
Soon we were having video call workout sessions at least every other day. I thought I was doing a selfless act, giving him a sense of structure while he was stuck at home, yet a month into our regime I realized I was the one looking forward to the workouts. I was starting to notice myself in the mirror and not feel apathetic about what I saw – I was even enjoying the process that had gotten me there. On one particularly humid afternoon we dragged ourselves through an hour of 1,000 reps, and that familiar exhaustion became something to savor – a badge of honor rather than an aftertaste of failure.
Working out had become a vital lifeline to my friend, empowering him in the face of an anxiety-inducing virus. But it had also allowed me to feel embodied for the first time in my life. Exercise had stopped being a vain activity I had condescendingly convinced myself I was above. It was an enlivening reminder of the very stuff of my existence. This brown skin had become a nice place to live in.
Now, just to tackle that somersault once and for all.