Fear Formulas

“What do you feel is not allowing your knee to get higher?”

I (Coach Will here 👋) had my hand a few inches above my student’s knee, as they stood basically still, save for the tiny tremble of effort through their whole body. They were standing tall on one leg while drawing their other knee in front of them as high as they could.

It’s a position that clearly--and demandingly--reflected the student’s active hip flexion; how far could their hip joint rotate forward, into a flexed shape, at this exact moment?

As their brain skittered around, trying to hold every last part of the body still (via intense internally generated forces, or contractions), I could tell that they were parsing my question. They were reaching into themselves, scanning for a clear, coherent signal amidst the bombardment of active, taut sensation.

“My...fat, I guess,” they said sheepishly, touching the folds of skin near their belly button.

There are moments, in regular daily life, when we stumble across a fissure, a small gap, that reveals the inner turmoil that defines each of us. There is fear there, but also a whole hidden mechanism to manage that fear, and make us “presentable” to ourselves.

Each of our ‘fear formulas’ is necessarily different, reflecting different experiences and struggles, and therefore manifest different rationalizing mechanisms. But when it comes to body-image, in our modern world that struggles as deeply with over-consumption as it does with starvation, that fear formula has one factor that seems nearly universal: shame about body-fat.

Of course, society had pummeled (as it does each of us) this student--from early childhood--into seeing themselves as needing such a mechanism in response to their body-fat.

It had force-fed them images of digitized thinness; it had capitalized on food-industry-sponsored research that demonized those long chains of hydrocarbons called fat to sell them “food” in bright packages; it had distilled the infinite manifestations of curiosity and joy and beauty into a single, non-real form that was only characterized by what it lacked: body-fat.

Reinforcement from well-meaning parents, friends, family, doctors, coaches, teachers and trainers had only made the message more clear: “Fat is wrong. I am fat. I am wrong.”

Society had shaped an image that wasn’t true (one’s body fat level is not a good indicator of overall health), but was a daily source of fear and pain, demanding the complex, rationalizing inner dialogue that made their body livable.

Standing there, hip-flexed, sweat just beginning to emerge from their brow, I saw my student had gazed into this inner space. And more, I could tell that they had suspended their inner cacophony of judgement, for just a moment.

They set their leg down, giving in to the fatigue from powerful end-range training. “I don’t really touch that part of my body,” they said.

My heart broke a little.

In a flash, I could see them as a child, watching their mother struggle with diet after diet; I could see them in college, changing outfits three times before going out with friends to try and cover their belly; I could see them recently after work, bone-tired and hating their own hunger.

I could see how much of themselves they had shoved into the shadows, out of their own reach. And I could see that, maybe for the first time, when they touched the tissue at their belly they felt more than the shame of too much fat.

They felt their skin, and their fat, but also their heat, and the tension of muscles and tendon. They felt the incessant but calm churn of their gut biome. They felt the power and precision of the human hip complex, a feat of evolved engineering, millions of years in the making.

Too engrossed with the demand of the simple hip-flexion task to run the same-old script of self-hate, and further engaged by my gentle questions (and not more criticism), they had momentarily brought their midsection back into the light of their consciousness. There was fear there, surely, but much more too.

“Nothing wrong with touching your belly,” I said, smiling. “Let’s do another rep.”

Go find your gold,

Coach Will