The Bearable Enlightenment of Weights

By Lise Funderburg

O the Oprah Magazine
November 2001

I took a trip. I packed nothing — although believe me, there was baggage — and I traveled far and wide. Without ever imagining such a destination, I ended up in a surprising place of comfort and joy: my own body:

The trip, after decades of aimlessness, turned toward its end a year ago, when in a moment of harmonic convergence, a friend I’d made at my gym started to offer personal training sessions. Russell Swan, Esq. (a lawyer for the government with a master’s degree in public administration), started training people just because he likes to. I signed on for one session a week.

In our first few months, I felt like a walking bruise. I experienced pain and stiffness that consigned me to the right side of escalators for days at a time. Russell laughed at my complaints (although he also checked to make sure the aches were appropriate muscle soreness and not injury). When he asked for my goals, I said I wanted to preserve a feminine silhouette. Tone, not bulk. I admitted that my underlying aims were one part health but two parts vanity. In terms of health, I knew that weight lifting increases bone density — an excellent defense against osteoporosis, a condition that runs in my family. A more developed, balanced musculature also reduces the risk of injury and improves athleticism and endurance. Who could argue with such benefits?

Vanity, though, ruled. Like many American females who have adolesced before me, at puberty I launched into a chronic state of worrying about not measuring up and for decades lived with a body that failed me: in mirrors, stretched alongside lovers, in or out of clothes. Since my 40th birthday; I have felt a more urgent need to combat the signs of aging that show up with greater frequency, inside and out. Inside, my body has begun to develop quirks — none of them good. A chronic knee thing. A chronic wrist thing. A pinch here, a twinge there. Outside, well, I believe I just mentioned that birthday; And so the purpose of regimes — for skin, hair, or physique — has, for me, shifted from improvement to preservation.

After I’d been working out with Russell for a while, the aches abated. Since then, changes have surfaced. I feel previously unknown muscles switch on from a dead sleep — strength coming from odd places. I find myself bouncing up stairs. I run faster. I jump higher. My arms have become so articulated that I now go sleeveless in the dead of winter. Don’t try to stop me. Russell tells me to “dig it out” at the end of a hard set; when I’m running alone, up that last long hill, I tell myself to dig it out. And I do, with a big strong sprint that leaves me panting and proud.

I didn’t come into the training sessions a complete slouch. I have a history of athleticism. For several years I’ve used aerobic exercise to manage stress and sorrow: But this is different. Weight lifting has elevated my body to a new level of fitness. I have more to draw on, whether I’m uniting my body; mind, and spirit in yoga or speeding toward nowhere on the elliptical Cybex.

As it turns out, I am also relying on something I hadn’t ever noticed: my own determination. Russell was the one who pointed it out. “What I really didn’t expect, even though I knew you,” he told me one day, “is how competitive you turned out to be.” (Russell has watched me struggle to make peace with failure when I couldn’t lift another time, another pound, another set. He has reassured me that even if I fail in a specific instance, I make progress — by testing my limits, and then pushing beyond them. Who knew that losing meant winning?) Russell went on to say he saw that drive emerge over time, a fight that kicks in every time he bumps up the weight or increases the reps. I am competitive, I thought. I do want to win. “Everyone’s competitive about something,” Russell said. ‘At its core, competition is passion. It’s hope.”

A few days ago I was in a rush to dress for work. I had to find something that could withstand an hour-long commute, rainy weather, a day in the office, and a cocktail party afterward. The dog needed walking, my teeth needed brushing, and the train needed catching. I tugged on a pair of pants — the first ironed item within reach — and immediately noted two facts. First, the otherwise drapey material pulled tight across the tops of my thighs. Second, they felt comfortable that way.

In the past I would have judged the fit flawed, thrown the pants into a heap (for the day when I lost weight), and plowed through the closet for something else, something more forgiving, more camouflaging. This day; though, I thought, Hmmm, those squats and presses are really building up my legs. And then I headed off in search of the beagle’s leash.

Now I no longer look at every reflection of myself and see a map of disappointments. I see vigor, curves, and force, an organic tumble of sensual, sexual energy; I stand straighter. I breathe deeper. My heart opens. I dress differently — I feel better about how I wear clothes but also less concerned with the whole enterprise. I don’t buy as much, and when I do, I buy to complement, not compensate.

My transformation, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. I’ve turned 42. I can bench-press all I want and gravity will still take its toll. My skin will continue to lose its elasticity. My metabolism will continue to slow. But this fitness I have now is not about recapturing the sheen of youth. It’s about rediscovering a time from my early life when the body was in service to the spirit, when it was an expression of drive and joy and grace without all the filters of what women should or can’t look like. I feel a power and freedom I haven’t known since I was a girl. And that allows me to know myself better as a woman.