It’s Day 124 since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Hong Kong. And maybe week 15 (or is it 19?) for generalized panic-buying mayhem, mindless scrolling through TikTok videos, and Zoom happy hours – anything to put off the gloomy resignation for our current state of affairs. The days all seem to blend together in one big depressing block of humanity. When you can’t tell your Saturday from your Tuesday, you’re oddly a lot more aware of the made-up-ness of the way we live.
My last attempt at Dalgona coffee, instead of taking on a shiny, fluffy rise, deflated like a dusty carnival balloon. The below is what it is supposed to look like.
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Also, there are only so many dance challenges I can record (cross: privately try) before accepting that rather than resembling a K-pop idol, my limbs have all the gracefulness of Shelob in her lair. That’s after she was stabbed by Sam.
Why am I doing dance challenges, you ask? Because on March 19, my gym issued a mass email to every member, saying they were apologizing for the inconvenience, but that due to a gym visitor who tested positive for the coronavirus, they were closing for an indefinite amount of time. They promised that they’d reopen 2 weeks later, but, well, they didn’t, because during this time, we’ve all experienced the promise that schools will be closed for x number of weeks, only to read that they’re very sorry, but the schools’ reopening date has to be postponed again…and yet again.
And the gyms closing shouldn’t be so disappointing. But it was.
I started exercising sometime during my first year in college. I, for some reason long forgotten, had decided that it would be an awesome idea to try on the dress I’d worn at my high school graduation only a few months prior – a gray shimmery thing that I’d gotten on sale at a Goodwill near my home. All thin polyester (a cloth texture I favored back then as avidly as I favored Wet Seal as my go-to apparel store- so a LOT), it had as much stretch as a sheet of paper – that is to say, none. It either fit you or it didn’t.
I couldn’t treat it like my white cotton t-shirt, which I pretended to wear in S and constantly rode up in the back, or my jeggings, whose fabric had begun to suspiciously thin in the glorious bit of fabric right in my crotch. I took care to keep my legs tightly together at all times.
So I put on the damn dress. Despite a few well-placed wiggles to get it into place, it behaved.
I mean, it didn’t look good. But it was on.
After I was finished admiring myself in the mirror (extra oblivious to the way it tightened across my midsection), I peeled it off. Or, well, I tried to.
The thing lifted to just under my arms, and then I couldn’t get it to budge. Have you ever slid a cute ring on in a store only to realize, in horror, that it won’t progress any further than the joint of your knuckle, and then the top half of your finger is slowly getting pinker and pinker, and then the skin around the ring starts to turn a sick shade of ivory, and then OH GOD THE SALES CLERK IS COMING OVER AND SHE’S GOING TO OFFER TO TRY TO PRY THE NORMAL-SIZED RING OFF YOUR HULK-SIZED DIGITS, AND NOW EVERYONE IS LOOKING, AND –
Yeah. It was like that. Except the finger was my entire body, and that sick ivory shade was slowly spreading right underneath my underarms, where a flattering ring of perspiration had settled. And no sales clerk was coming over to try to cut the dress open. So I, with a strength only found in rare moments of sheer desperation, burst out of the dress, which tore neatly down its side with a RRRRIPPPPPP.
And then I cried.
That was when I began dieting for the first time in my life. I don’t want to go too into detail about the years that followed, but the preoccupation with my weight and size was not unsubstantial, and ruled my life in ways that I’m ashamed of. I don’t really remember how much I exercised (probably because my idea of personal hell was (is) walking any faster than 3 miles an hour), but I remember seeing a lot of calorie-counts on treadmills.
And then I discovered lifting weights.
I began slowly – first practicing deadlifts with just the naked bar, carrying out a few awkward and crooked reps before scurrying away again before the meatheads of the gym could criticize my awful form. Ten minutes a day.
Eventually, I not only worked my way up to squats and bench press, but also began keeping massive tubs of whey protein in my pantry and shiny little cartons of pre and post-workout powders in such glorious natural flavors like electric raspberry blue and sour pink lemonade.
For the first time in my life, I loved exercise, and the scale wasn’t even moving. There were no calorie counts. There was only the bar and the weights.
My body began to change in ways I’d never imagined (okay, I still don’t have a booty, but I’ve long ago resigned that to my square-pancake-ass genetics, which I am not even that upset about, because at least I can wear short skirts. And it would have been hot in like, the 90s and 2000s, or something, where people hurled around “you have a big ass” like it was an insult (just watch Sex in the City Season 5, Episode 5 – poor Miranda).
The point is that, for the first time, I derived pleasure from meeting my goals not from as many calories as I could burn, but by how much more I could lift. And I’d never been happier with myself.
Going to the gym became such a ritual for me that at one point, I’d rise at 4:30 in the morning to be at the gym by 5:00. I began work at 8 in the morning those days, and tried my best to be in bed by 8:30 to ensure that got a full night of sleep. I packed a duffel with not only a fresh change of clothes, but my makeup, a towel, and a protein shake, to bring to work. I don’t know if the protein shake did anything (and I’ve long stopped taking protein), but it sure helped me feel that I was in a secret community of gym goers (though I must admit that neither my lats nor my pecs grew as formidably as some of the other frequenters of my gym.
I shoved protein bars down my throat like my life depended on it.
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I was so militant about my training schedule that I wouldn’t allow myself to miss a single day. Six days on, one day off. It could have been midnight, and I’d still go. Hungover, I’d still go. A night of 3 hours of sleep would still see me hauling myself out of bed in the dead of Boston winter, my breath curling in wispy curlicues as I crunched through ice sheets and hardened snow.
Eventually, I even stopped weighing myself. And instead of calorie-counting on the treadmills and waiting for the number on the scale to go down, the only thing that mattered was how much more I could lift this week than the last week.
And then the gym closed on March 19.
Big deal, right? Truly first world problems.
If anything, I part of me felt joy that there was no open gym to guilt them into going – I mean, if the gym’s not open, there’s nothing I can do about it, right? The world is begging me to lay in bed all day and eat these delicious local corn snacks that remind me freakily of Andy Capp’s hot fries.
But near the end of that first week without the gym, I took a look at my apartment floor, littered with the white and teal paper bags from Deliveroo, and decided that there was only so much distraction that I could get from eating in bed and pressing “Next Episode” on Too Hot to Handle before my body missed some serious movement.
I checked my body in the mirror, wondering if my butt had deflated as much as I thought it had or if it was really a trick of the bathroom lighting. I hypothesized on the number of sets of hip thrusts I would have to do once the gym opened. (I wondered if those hip thrusts ever did anything to my butt anyway, since I’d never taken a progress photo and just hoped really hard that leg days had not just given me monster quads but a semblance of a bottom as well).
Sometimes, against my better judgment and previous vows that the scale would only make matters worse for me mentally, I weighed myself, absolutely certain that my completely sedentary lifestyle had led to a few extra pounds – pounds that I had absolutely no hope of shedding, now that I wasn’t in the gym pounding iron.
And so, my disappointment not being able to go to the gym, which had dependably been there for me, like a well-meaning but occasionally toxic friend – in Boston and in Hong Kong – felt raw and strong but silly at the same time. I knew that it would be fine. But I didn’t feel like it was fine.
So I made do at home. I did ab workouts, courtesy of Chloe Ting’s YouTube videos, where she chirped “Just 10 seconds more, you can do it!” and grimaced at the burn in my midsection. I went through yoga videos, fast forwarding through the parts I hated, like chair pose, or stretches that exposed my totally not-flexible limbs and smugly believing that I had of course finished a whole workout.
I never even attempted any weight workouts designed specifically for you “at home” – you know the ones, with full water gallons and broomsticks and textbooks, all of which made for awkward replacements for real dumbbells, and which I never had at home anyway.
Once a week, and sometimes at noon, I’d take to the trails, making sure that I schlepped uphill as vigorously and determinedly as possible – thighs burning, heart pounding. By the end of each session, my backpack was always soaked and I’d head home in a taxi, too exhausted to even consider walking back.
And then three weeks ago, the gym reopened.
New features included an air purifier at the entrance, spraying the space with wet mist. iPads now featured a mandatory submission form, where gym-goers entered their names and phone numbers along with travel history and illness history. Each bench was appropriately “socially distanced” with yellow tape neatly squared around its perimeter. And when I finally was able to reestablish my routine of visiting 4-5 times a week, I realized that the pressure, the one that I exerted over myself, the one that said Lily you must go to the gym exactly 5 times a week or you will absolutely turn into green Flubber like in that Disney movie or Ditto the Pokemon wasn’t…actually…realistic.
I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, suggesting that lockdown is a walk in the park, mentally or physically (especially since Hong Kong has never been under full lockdown, and the most draconian measures can only be what I’d refer to as “Lockdown Lite”). There are also emerging accounts of eating disorder symptoms exacerbating during our time of social distancing and self-isolation, where needing control, a prominent feature of eating disordered behavior, is relinquished.
If you, like me, become anxious when an exercise routine is interrupted, you might be relieved to know that nothing bad happened to me during my month off.
I spent my time on other things, like reading The Alchemist, and watching bad TikTok videos. I moved my body gently through downward-facing dog and climbed the stairs sometimes until sweat dripped down my chin. I spent a lot of time in my favorite place in the world – that is to say, my bed. I mostly ate what I wanted – sometimes past the point of fullness, and sometimes I didn’t eat very much at all.
These were the things I could control, in a time where where our governments wrestle with having very little of it, and our individual selves, in the here and now, wonder when we can eat out again. And my body, like it has my entire life, gave me breath, and strength, and nourishment.
And really, that was enough.