Shame and Redemption

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“You’re too fat to retire.”  That’s what I heard in my head when I read the email that the administrative staff wouldn’t sign off my checklist because my retirement was scheduled for 19 days after my fitness test expired.

The news had the feeling and resonance of a mortar landing nearby. My vision dimmed and I grabbed my desk to right the vertigo. Even now I’m not sure if that was fear or anger.

It’s not that the test was that difficult. A 1.5-mile run, pushups, crunches, and a waist measurement, but it had been chasing me for years and I had extenuating circumstances this time.

There were wars and there were “campaigns:” a real-life and continuous series of skirmishes where I rigorously monitored my own body based on the requirements of an inflexible institution founded by men. The My struggle with the Air Force’s idea of what my ideal weight should be began about three decades ago when I noticed that the standard for an airline “stewardess,” (it was 1987) was suspiciously close to the standard for Air Force women. I suspect we were seen in the same patronizing way by our male superiors. I, for one, never really thought the inches around a waist would matter much when a commercial airline was crash landing. Nor when an IED went off nearby. Sarcasm and defensiveness aside, I couldn’t crawl for cover from the increasing thickness of my midriff. Turning away from my computer as if I could see the violent crash coming and my whole life passing before my eyes, my fight for fitness over the past twenty-six years flooded my memory.

1987-1991. Basic cadet training, United States Air Force Academy. I am sitting in a large auditorium, listening to a presentation on Air Force standards. I quickly scanned the chart for my specific numbers. The ideal weight for “females” 68 inches tall like me was 136 pounds. I would learn later that these numbers matched figures for the Air Force at large – but all Cadets had to meet a more stringent requirement of a strict 10% below the Air Force’s maximum weight for our height.  I didn’t know that the Air Force would later allow me to be 164 pounds. I just knew that, as a cadet, I had to keep my weight at 147.6 pounds to stay out of trouble. I was dismayed. Not only did I feel like I had been reduced to a biological species by the term “female,” I also realized I had been a girl of 13 the last time I had been “ideal.”

I was on the “fat boy” program one time as a cadet. I wondered why we nicknamed the program after boys until I attended the briefing for everyone considered overweight. They held the lecture in the largest hall the Air Force Academy had. I suppose the size of the crowd could have been an indicator of unrealistic standards, but I’ve since learned to call this kind of experience by its more contemporary name: “fat shaming.” I recognized the football linebacker who stood up in the murmuring moments when we were waiting for the speaker. He shouted, “Hi, my name is Chris, and I’m fat!”  We erupted into nervous laughter shifting uneasily in our chairs. There, among hundreds of people, surely everyone was staring at 19-year-old, size 10, me and taking note of how fat I was.

The pounds melted off me one summer and I kept under the 10% rule until I graduated.

The cadet physical fitness test required pull ups, a standing long jump, pushups, sit ups, and a 600-meter run. I remember a time during my freshman year, when I had built a reputation for falling out of training runs with my undiagnosed exercise-induced asthma, when a sophomore sneered in my coughing face, “Don’t you dare get bedrest from the doctor.”

I dared to see the doctor because I didn’t dare fail the test. My 104-degree temperature measured a full-blown case of bronchitis. But I didn’t know what “bedrest” was, despite the clarity of the term. I continued with my day. When the sophomore asked about my fitness test during the noon meal, an intentional period of time where upperclassmen ate and freshmen were “trained,” I croaked out that I went to the doctor. He forbade me to speak for the rest of the meal. All the upperclassmen turned a firestorm of training on my fellow “doolie” at the table, and all I could do to help him was to knock over glasses, create distractions, and build my misery. We were among the last three or four people in the dining hall that day, beaten down by the “training” and youthful fury.

I don’t cry. Usually. As I hustled out of the dining-hall, I heard a familiar voice call out, “Torrens!”

With perfect facing movements, I turned to find my brother, a senior cadet, was also one of the last three or four cadets in the dining hall. He normally stayed out of my business, reminding me to get my “chin in.”

“How was the PFT?”

I burst into tears. I’m not sure if he had ever seen me cry. Not even when he had my 10-year-old leg twisted behind my head with my arms in a vice, pinned in a wrestling move as he hissed in my ear, “Just ask me to stop and I will. Just cry and I’ll stop.” Maybe he got bored, but I never cried to make him stop.

Maybe that’s why he called my squadron and told the sophomore, accurately, that telling me not to go to the doctor was illegal order. But that is another story.

After I recovered from the bronchitis, I ran well, earning a great score on the makeup PT test.

Here’s the rub. I spent more than 30 years trying to cram myself into often unrealistic body measurements under the guise of fitness standards. While trying to meet those standards, I fell in love with running. Still, I hear the voice of fat shaming enter my consciousness as I begin to unconsciously shape that word into “slogging” (slow+jogging), and it’s true, I’m not very fast. But I like to run long and slow. Alone. Meditatively. Off planet.

I couldn’t let those Basic Cadet Training runs defeat me, so I started jogging around the Academy grounds once we began the school year. Rounding corners to find wild turkey Toms bouncing off their wings to threaten me, reaching the overlook to the Academy grounds where no one could ask me  to recite rote knowledge like Schofield’s quote, exploring the powerlines to discover the terrifying training site actually was only a few buildings and a chain link fence. To this day, no form of meditation suits me better.

I began running to prove I could and to police my “overweight” body. I kept running to soothe my mind.

  1. I report to my first duty station. Sixty days of leave between graduation and that scale. The young woman at the scale calls across a 20-foot room to the other woman recording results, “153 pounds!” I am mortified. The entire section of ten people now know how much weight I’ve gained – h. ow fat I am. I run my fastest 1.5-mile time, grateful that the Air Force didn’t follow cadet standards and that this small distance was now the only fitness standard required—beyond keeping my pounds under control.

  1. 1994. I try the Cabbage Soup Diet and dip under 150 pounds.

  1. 1998. I find myself within two pounds of the 164-pound max.

  1. 1999. and I want to rock up on my toes for the half inch that will buy me two more pounds. I don’t. I just hit the 164-pound mark.

  1. 2000. Laci Le Beau’s Dieter’s Tea. I fight either side of the demarcation, grateful they don’t weigh me in my joint job in Korea.

  1. 2003. I arrive back from Korea to start my graduate school program. They no longer require a limit on our weight. I run marathons. I try yoga and pilates. I ride my horse. I spend my time reading and going for long hikes with my Australian Cattle Dog, “Seattle”. I eat a new unprocessed foods diet. I read books. I am under the old mark and killing the new fitness test that has the same run plus sit ups, pushups, and a waist measurement.

  1. 2006. I am back to my 1996 weight. Fresh off my second marathon, lean and tanned, I earn the top score for my waist measurement. The little captain measuring me, five months pregnant, tinkles a fake giggle and asks, “I wonder what I am?” Her waist is five inches smaller than mine. She proves her point and I’m reminded that the standard is the same for every woman, no matter her overall size.

I’m not sure when the battle became real. The infinite “they” say that stress plays a big factor in weight gain. I don’t know. I’m not sure what plays a factor.

  1. 2008. I know training for a marathon while deployed in Afghanistan corresponds with gaining 15 pounds.

 

 

  1. 2009. Foot surgery.

  1. 2010. Foot surgery, correcting the internal, debilitating scars from the first one. My initial runs back prove to me how much abdominal muscles play a role in fitness. I have never been as strong again.

  1. 2012. I know my husband’s impending request for a divorce helped add about 8.

I could beat most of those pounds back, each time. A bit more extreme exercise. A lot more extreme dieting. All my friends, just a few years older, shook their heads and said, “You just wait. Perimenopause. Menopause. You just wait.”

I think my wait is over.

No lab test, no endocrinologist, no psychologist can explain the nearly 20 pounds I’ve added over the last two and a half years. The best I can say is that I’m working on it.

Another two surgeries in January of my retirement year came complete with long recoveries and I had only started my running workouts two weeks before that phone call. The running was genuinely wonderful. I reveled in the opportunity to work out because I could. I wasn’t able to do pushups yet because of my elbow surgery, but with every interval workout and every squat I pressed, I knew I was getting fit because I wanted to. After more than six months of not being allowed to run, my mind was thirsty for the rhythm.

So, the email on that Friday was a bit like ending up in the Air Force cross hairs of manipulation and management. The regulation reads that the retirement date has to be within 365 days of the current test. My retirement date was within 384 days of the current test.  Somehow cracking down on the nearly retired makes government sense. No need to re-read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

So I’m too fat and unfit to retire?  Really? I arrived home after the bad news, furious and determined.

With a kind person measuring my waist, because that part of the test really is quite subjective, I was still close. I thought about the times the “official taper” allowed the cloth of tape to sag away from my skin. And that time the person pulled the measuring tape so tight it almost hurt. I would be hoping for the second type of person in a few weeks. I thought of the times the tape ran high on my waist where I’m thinner, and low where it cuts into my muffin top. And then I thought about the multiple people who have been dismissed from the Air Force for being unable to pass their waist measurement. How subjective had their tape tests been?

This specific number that all Air Force people must meet, higher for men but still not connected to their height, emerged from studies, popular now, claiming abdominal fat is a risk factor for heart disease. These studies didn’t account for the fitness of the subjects, they merely correlated waist size to heart health. I read recently about the “waist-to-height ratio.” As an inexpensive way to predict overall fat, it at least takes into account how tall a person is, even if it doesn’t remove the subjective waist-measuring methods

Contemplating my overall fitness, I reminded myself that I could always do the maximum number of sit ups and earn the top score. Really, these sit ups are just crunches where elbows folded across my chest need to touch any part of my thighs. They are always easy for me. I thought of both women I supervised. These women, with multiple C-sections, their scarred bellies no longer suited for the move, their male doctors unwilling to grant more time for a sufficient recovery, spent months training for this portion of the test. Since the crunches didn’t actually engage the core muscles, what did they prove for combat fitness?

I could always pass the run. I’ve never stopped loving running. My 15-year-old treadmill is probably not calibrated right. Fortunately, I’m fairly sure it says I’m running slower than I am. A treadmill isn’t the best choice for accuracy considering I don’t have to push forward. I can merely spring up and let the platform move underneath me. Still, I knew I could handle this part of the test, even if I would run several minutes slower than my usual time. I have always felt this one component of the test made sense because at least it measures endurance.

I guessed I would have a waiver for pushups this close to my surgery.

And yet, after adding up the points that Friday night to equal 74.2, I would still be less than a point away from a 75 passing score. I hadn’t scored far enough above the minimum requirements.

A few days later, I finally realized something didn’t add up. Even though I have completed  all the components of the Air Force Physical Fitness test every time for more almost three decades, I hadn’t remember that I would have a composite score adjustment for being unable to do the pushups. Making a new calculation of the points from my three-out-of-four components, suddenly my score was solidly passing.

Then, unexpectedly, I sustained a fall resulting in a concussion and whiplash. Suddenly the only component of that final fitness test I was required to take was the ever-subjective, ever-lingering waist measurement. The 30 seconds spent with three separate wraps of the measuring tape, 21 days before my retirement was anticlimactic. I passed. I beat back the boundaries just long enough to be allowed to leave the institution that had hounded my self-esteem for 26 years.

Knowing now that I passed the test doesn’t change that pistol shot of alarm I felt reading that Friday email. It doesn’t change the way my 9-year-old fatigues bound against my perimenopausal waist as I compensated for my presbyopia by leaning back to read: “You must take (yet) another fitness test.” It really wasn’t more than a skirmish—it was something I could easily surmount, as I had for all these years. In its own bureaucratic and perfectly logical illogic, that last fitness test felt like an appropriate ending to my military time. I’m proud of my career and my accomplishments.  Yet, I’ll always feel as if I went out with a whimper.

Just yesterday, though, I went for a run. Somewhere off planet.

3 Replies to “Shame and Redemption”

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