If you look closely you can see my reflection, quivering with both pedantic and puritanical indignation

Currently, it is Advent in the Christian liturgical calendar. Advent is the time during which Christians engage in spiritual preparation for Christmas. It is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter: A time for reflection, prayer and meditation on the coming feast. Advent calendars were meant to help in that preparation. Every day, you would open a window revealing another symbol from the Nativity story — an angel, or a star, or a shepherd — until finally the whole Nativity scene appeared on Christmas Day. There were no sweets or treats in the calendar. It wasn’t about that. It was about, as Christians often say, “the reason for the season”; it was about Jesus.

In Ireland and probably elsewhere, Christmas is no longer a Christian holiday for many people. It no longer has much, if anything, to do with Jesus. It is a cultural celebration of family, light and generosity at the darkest, coldest time of the year. Its central icon, if it has one, is Santa Claus, not Jesus. We count sleeps til Santa, not days til Jesus. (Side issue: Why is measuring time in ‘sleeps’ associated with little kids, when they’re the demographic by far most likely to sleep more than once in each 24-hour period? I don’t have kids, I don’t know. Do they wake up after a nap thinking, “Right, that’s another sleep out of the way. That’s three more to go. Bring on the Hatchimals, Beardo!”)

You might think think the decline in Christianity would lead to a decline in Advent calendars, but you would be wrong. People still buy Advent calendars, or, rather, they buy things that are referred to as Advent calendars, but have nothing to do with Advent. These new, pseudo-Advent calendars have sweets or chocolates behind each door. They’re mostly aimed at the human market, though I did find one for horses on Amazon too. It’s not just sweets though. You can get a protein bar one from My Protein and my local off-license was selling a craft beer one. Most of these calendars start on December 1st. This annoys the pedant in me, because Advent doesn’t necessarily start on the 1st of December. It starts (at least in the Catholic church, the one with which I am familiar) on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. Hence the four candles on the Advent wreath — one more candle is lit each Sunday in Advent. Sometimes the first day of Advent might happen to be the 1st of December, but it can be at the end of November or any of the first three days in December. So my first objection to these pseudo-Advent calendars is just nitpickery.

I do have a more substantive objection though. I honestly do not care what religion anyone practices, but I do care about the overall well-being of the society of which I am part, and, to me, using the concept of Advent to sell sweets and alcohol does not seem like a hallmark of a healthy culture. In fact, it seems like a symptom of a society that is utterly lost in the endless insanity of consumer capitalism. Every spiritual tradition I’m aware of balances self-indulgence with self-denial, giving its adherents space for both celebration and reflection. No sane person wishes it could be Christmas every day. That would be bad for our health and tedious beyond belief. Nor does any sane person want every day to be a day of fasting and self-denial — that’s not good for anybody either. We all need balance. But big business doesn’t care what we need, only what it can convince us to buy. So we get ‘Advent calendars’ that, so very far from turning our minds to the meaning of Christmas, just prolong the over-indulgence.

I’m not trying to Scrooge anybody’s buzz here. I just think we should stay alert to the power of capitalism to lull us into tipsy, sugar-induced compliance with a culture and lifestyle that is unfulfilling even to those of us privileged enough to enjoy its ‘comforts’ and hideously unjust to everyone else. If you’re celebrating Christmas, I wish you a truly happy one — not just a merry one.  Meanwhile, as we near the end of Advent, I’ll give the last word to Patrick Kavanagh:


We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Do calories count?

Recently I saw this picture on Facebook:

I have no idea who Christina Dodd is. I suspect I don’t want to know…

Ah, calories, those evil little feckers, hiding in our food and our wardrobes, trying to make us fat. We’re taught to count them from a very young age, often with a view to taking in as few of them as possible and, preferably, somehow burning off even more of them than we take in. Many of never even learn what a calorie is, only that we’re supposed to avoid them as much as possible. We learn that ‘good’ food (i.e. diet food) has fewer calories than ‘bad’ food. I once heard a young woman ask, in tones of horrified incredulity, “Is there calories in FRUIT?” You can see where she was coming from: Fruit is good for you, and calories are baaaaad! How could there be calories in fruit?!

But, of course, there are calories in fruit, as there are in all foods. (In fact, for the most part it’s a pretty good rule of thumb that if something has no calories in it, it’s not food.) So what is a calorie? Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy, just like an inch is a unit of distance. Like inches, calories are no longer widely used for scientific purposes. The SI unit of energy is the joule (J). However, in everyday language, many English-speakers (at least here in Ireland anyway) use the term ‘calorie’ when we are talking about a unit of energy in food. In fact, there is another layer of complexity here: Typically, nutrition labels give us the amount in kilocalories and kilojoules. A kilocalorie is 1000 calories, just like a kilometre is 1000 metres.

All of these terms are ways of of talking about the amount of energy in something. But what do we mean by ‘energy’ in this context? Back in school, I memorised the definition “Energy is the ability to do work.” The word ‘energy’ comes from the Greek ‘energeia’, which literally means ‘being at work’ (thanks, grad school Aristotle class!). It seems to me that, in the most general terms,  ‘work’ means causing something to change. So producing heat is ‘work’ in the sense that it makes the air around you warmer. But our conventional understanding of ‘work’ also comes under this definition: If, for example, you lift a bucket of water up off the ground, you’re doing work because you’re overcoming the force of gravity and making the bucket move in a way it wouldn’t do if it was left to its own buckety devices. The force of gravity is actively holding the bucket on the ground, so it takes work to overcome that force and change the situation. This work takes energy. For humans, like all animals, this energy is comes from food.

The calories on the nutrition label are telling us how much work the food will theoretically enable us to do. Different kinds of food have different amounts of energy in them, because they have different ratios of fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Fats are the best at storing energy, so foods that are high in fat have a lot of energy packed into a small portion. Carbohydrates (including sugars) are also able to store quite a lot of energy, though they don’t manage to pack it in quite as densely as fats. So, for example, a strawberry might have only one tenth the amount of energy contained in a chocolate even if the two are exactly the same size, because the chocolate has much more fat in it.

But, wait!There’s more! We don’t all convert food into energy in the same way. For one thing, not all our digestive systems work at the same level of efficiency. Some of us are able to absorb more energy from our food than others. And, of the energy we do absorb, some of us are genetically predisposed to use it up quickly in short term work, while others are more inclined to store it away in our fat cells for future use.

Then there’s the fact that different bodies need different amounts of food intake just to keep ticking over, leaving aside any exertion. We often associate ‘burning calories’ with exercise, but the majority of the energy your body needs is just for staying alive. Even when we’re asleep, our bodies are still doing lots of work performing various jobs like breathing and repairing damaged cells, as well as generating heat, which different bodies also do at different rates. The amount of energy your body needs to do this basic ‘staying alive’ work is referred to as your ‘basal metabolic rate’ (BMR). It is difficult to measure an individual’s BMR accurately, but you can get a rough estimate of your BMR by using the Harris-Benedict equation, or one of the more recent variations of it. A version of the Harris-Benedict equation is often used as a basis for estimating how many calories a person needs to eat in order to maintain, increase or decrease her weight. But it only gives a very general guideline because not every body converts food into work at the same rate of efficiency. Two people of the same height and weight can have very different BMRs, for example, if one is more muscular than the other. This means that two outwardly similar people could eat the same diet and do the same exercise and yet end up experiencing quite different effects on their weight.

All this means that the calorie content listed on a nutritional label is really only a rough estimate of how much energy the food might give you, depending on how close you are to average in terms of how you absorb and use up energy from your food. It’s important to remember though, that while calorie content might give you an idea of the quantity of energy in food, it tells you absolutely nothing about quality. To listen to a lot of diet talk or food marketing, you could be forgiven for thinking that low-calorie is the same thing as ‘healthy’ when it comes to food. The way calories get demonised sometimes, you’d think if we all consumed nothing but Diet Coke we’d live forever. But that’s obviously rubbish. The way a lot of ‘diet’ foods are marketed seems to me analogous to the following scenario:

I’m in the market for a new car so I head to my nearest dealership.

Me: I need a new car.

Car Salesperson: How long do you want it be? Say, from headlights to brake lights. Four metres? Four and a half?

Me: Eh, that’s not my primary concern, I want fuel efficiency, comfort, safety features …

Salesperson: Cos we have some very short cars.

Me: Honestly, I’m really not that worried about how long the car is. I’m more concerned about …


Me, backing slowly away: Oooooh…kay..

I mean, the length of the car is not irrelevant. It is useful information. Especially since my parallel parking skills are not great.

Image from Reddit; presumably from the Yay Misogynist Stereotypes Subreddit. Again, pretty sure I don’t want to know…

But the length of the car is by no means the most important criterion on which to choose a car. Similarly, for me, knowing the calorie content of food is useful, but it is by no means the most important piece of information I want to know about any food I’m going to eat. Personally, I sometimes count calories as a quick and dirty way of estimating whether I am eating too much or too little in a given day. This can be handy if I’m eating out, or eating meals I wouldn’t normally eat for some reason. I don’t generally want to be eating too little or too much if I can help it. But it’s very difficult to get the quantities exactly right, and counting calories is only ever a rough guide.

On the other hand, if I focus on quality and make sure I’m getting a good balance of macro- and micro-nutrients, it’s much less likely that my quantities will be way off. To go back to my friend’s incredulous question, yes, there are calories in fruit. Fruit has a lot of sugar (in the form of fructose), and sugar is very high in energy, which is just another way of saying it has a lot of calories. But fruit is, on the whole, other things being equal, really good for you, not just for its vitamins and minerals but also for its sugar, its calories. We need those calories, not only to do what we think of as work, but even just to stay alive. Calories are not the enemy. They are not bad things in food that make you fat, and they are not imps living in your wardrobe making your clothes tighter. In fact, like weight or Body Mass Index or so many other concepts that get thrown around in discussions of fat and health, they’re not actually things at all. They’re just measurements of things. To get the most use out of a measurement, it helps to know what it is a measurement of and how that measurement fits in to your overall project. In terms of healthy eating, I happily admit that calories count, but with the caveat that there’s much more to healthy eating than counting calories.

Why I don’t weigh myself

About eight years ago, I gave up weighing myself. I was, at that time, very fat. I was in the grip of an eating disorder – addicted to eating in general and to certain foods in particular. I didn’t know this when I threw out the scales though. I just knew that I was sick of beating myself up for being fat. I had done that for years and it hadn’t made anything any better. It certainly hadn’t helped me lose weight; I just kept getting fatter. Worrying about my weight just seemed to make me more miserable, even when I was doing my best to be healthy. At that time, my best was limited, not least because I had serious mental health issues that were largely unaddressed, but I was nonetheless doing my best. I genuinely couldn’t do any more or any better. And here’s the thing: It was enough. Just enough, but still enough. I survived. I’m here to tell the tale. The small little actions, the tiny first steps were enough to get me moving in a happier direction. One of these steps was throwing out the scales. Since that small start, I have lost a lot of weight. In clothes sizes, I’ve gone from a 32 to a 16, so I … suppose I’m about half the size I was? (Seriously

Me around my top weight. More fatass; equally badass.

though, I doubt clothes sizes are anywhere near that logical or consistent.)


The standard way to tell this story is to valourise the new, thinner me and to show a kind of contemptuous pity for the old, fatter me. But I don’t see it that way. After all, I took the first, scariest steps when I was still very fat. It was size 32 me that had the guts to walk into the university rec centre and start learning how to lift weights surrounded by sporty-looking undergraduates. It was size 32 me who had to open up to others about how I was eating even though a huge part of me really believed I could not cope with the pain of living without excess food to comfort me. I was then and I am now a brave, strong and hardworking person. That has not changed. I didn’t become brave, strong or hardworking because I got thinner; instead, I got healthier because I already was those things, and I got thinner as a side effect of getting healthier.


This is not to say that everyone who is brave, strong and hardworking will be slim or lose weight. I believe I was what you might call ‘artificially’ fat because of my compulsive overeating. That means I’m quite different from those people who seem to be naturally fat, people who just happen to be bigger but whose eating is not disordered, and who are not depressed, unhealthy or miserable. In any case, whatever the reason for their size, fat people are as brave, strong and hardworking as anyone else. Character has nothing to do with weight one way or the other. I’m not saying I lost weight because of some kind of moral superiority. My point is that, in recovering from my eating disorder, I had to draw on character traits I already had, not just develop new ones. To put it another way, I had to start from where I was. And I had to start with respect and love for myself. Self-loathing and beating myself up had got me nowhere. Obsessively tracking my weight had kept me in the insane cycle of trying to diet, failing, gaining weight and hating myself more and more.

We’re taught that ‘the scales don’t lie.’ Of course they don’t. They’re inanimate objects. But they only give us a very small piece of the truth.  After years of trying and failing to get thin, I had come to treat the number on the scale as if it were a word spoken directly to me by God, a little mystical revelation right there on the bathroom floor, a precious insight into who I really was and whether or not I deserved to exist. I peered at the number like diviners poring over entrails or fortune tellers over tea leaves. But no matter how hard I looked, there really is only so much information I could get from a weighing scales. Scales just tell you (roughly) how much mass is in a thing. (Strictly speaking, pounds, stones and kilos aren’t measurements of weight. They’re measurements of mass, which is not the same thing at all.) Think about that old riddle: Which is heavier, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead? The answer (sorry, Limmy) is neither; a pound is a pound. It’s counterintuitive, because we know lead is much, much denser than feathers. But the weight or mass of something doesn’t say anything about its composition, its structure or its density. This is true of simple physical things like feathers and lead; it is even more profoundly true of human beings.

So I don’t worry too much about the scales and what they might have to say about me. And I don’t do ‘before and after’. I try, as best I can, to love, respect and nurture the person I was, the person I am and the person I will continue to be, regardless of my size. And I respect the hell out of any fat person going into the gym for the first time, or any eating disorder sufferer of any size who is ready to face up to the reality of their food behaviours. That takes courage no scale can weigh.

My big fat belly

It sometimes seems to me as if my belly has been nothing but trouble my entire life. Up until a few years ago, nausea and vomiting were frequent occurrences for me. I felt sick so often that I gave a name – Gary – to whatever the hell it was in my belly that was causing all these problems. It’s not just Gary in there though: my fear, anxiety and depression also seem to live in my belly. Gary had a flair for the dramatic – he caused me to make many a hasty exit from polite company – but the emotions are a bit subtler. They show up as dull aches or nebulous weights in the space below my navel. In recent years, Gary seems to be largely dormant, thanks to a dramatic improvement in my diet and lifestyle. But this doesn’t mean all is peace and quiet in my belly. When I feel hurt, scared or afraid, I feel it in my belly first and most.

My belly is where I feel hunger, too, and I don’t like hunger. It took me a long time in recovery to start to learn that it is normal and healthy to feel hungry coming up to meal times and that I do not have to drop what I am doing at the first pang. I have learned to be able to sit with physical hunger and not panic. The ravenous soul-hunger of my eating disorder is a different matter. I feel that in my belly too. No wonder I over-ate so much for so long.

On top of being the site of so much inner discomfort, my belly has the cheek to

Pro tip: If it burns any part of your body, it’s not food. It may be poison, or some kind of corrosive substance. Definitely not food. Seriously: Do not eat stuff that burns you.

look wrong as well. I have a big fat belly, and it has, as my inner teenager puts it, Ruined Everything. I love clothes and fashion, but I have never felt free to really enjoy getting dressed because I’ve always had to compromise with my belly. Jeans and skirts have never looked right on me because the ones that fit around my belly were loose on my skinny legs. Even now, 12 stone down from my top weight, I feel I have to choose clothes to ‘camouflage’ it.

This is not some insane body dysmorphia; I did not pull this out of the air. Bellies are seen as ugly, shameful, and even frightening in our culture. Viewers of RTÉ’s recent guilty-pleasure series Frock Finders will have heard Annbury boutique’s Danny Leane repeatedly refer to the bellies of his plus-size clients as ‘the danger area’. The desire to get rid of belly fat is so common that you can get stock images of women literally cutting at their flesh with scissors, not to mention all the ads promising to reveal which foods or exercises ‘burn belly fat’.

Thanks, Shutterstock! This really fills a need.

No wonder my belly hate goes deep. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I pass the time by imagining what I would do if I won the lottery. Plastic surgery to get rid of my belly is almost always the first thing I think of. Not a house, not a car, not a once-in-a-lifetime holiday – no; abdominoplasty. Then, I think to myself, if I’m going to get rid of the belly, I should also get rid of the loose skin and fat on my upper arms. And, while I’m at it, I might as well get them to lift and reduce my breasts. And then there’s that loose skin under my chin and behind my knees. And the tops of my thighs are quite flabby too, and now that I think of it my ass is really disgustingly saggy… Apparently, at least on some level, my dearest wish in life is to undergo painful and potentially dangerous elective surgery in the name of beauty. And not just one surgery; once I get started, there’s no end to what I would change about myself. It’s almost like it was never really about my belly.

Susan Bordo, the brilliant feminist theorist, tells how young undergraduate women in her classes wanted to look like Kate Moss because, “She’s so detached. So above it all. She looks like she doesn’t need anything or anyone.” (“Never Just Pictures” in Twilight Zones, p. 127) The persona portrayed by the waif-like catwalk models of Moss’s era is what Bordo calls “the unfocused princess of indifference”.  (“Never Just Pictures”, p. 128) Fashion has changed since the heyday of heroin chic, but the beauty ideal of our culture is still one of extreme slenderness, with a flat stomach stretched, taut and smooth, across jutting hipbones. And that ideal still represents the same detached, ethereal otherworldliness. No belly means no hunger, no fear, no needs. No demands. Bellies remind us of our own hunger. Women’s bellies in particular also remind us of pregnancy and babies, and what are babies but cuddly little balls of need?

Our whole conception of femininity centres on meeting the needs of others, especially men. As women, we are not supposed to have needs, and we are certainly not supposed to remind others – again, especially men – of any needs we might dare to have. Women’s needs are shameful in our culture. So we hide our hunger (“Oh, I’ll just have salad!”), and we hide our bellies,  just like we hide our pads or tampons, so as not to upset the menfolk with the reality of our needs and our humanity. Given this context, I am full of admiration for those women who love their bellies and who enjoy them and show them off. I am not yet one of them. I can’t say I love my belly. I have only begun the task of learning to accept my belly, and loving it, like loving myself in general, is going to take work. But the work has begun, even on my belly. I may not be quite ready to show it off, but I am cross-examining my desire to cut it off. Considering where I’m coming from, both personally and culturally, that already seems like a pretty big shift.

Fail better

When you talk about your fitness ‘journey’ (sorry!), failure is only every supposed to appear in the rearview, as a bump on part of the road you’ve already travelled. But I find failure is a constant in my life. I don’t just mean that I make mistakes and get things wrong, but then I keep trying and eventually I master it. When I say failure, I mean really hitting a wall, coming up against an obstacle you truly can neither move nor surmount. I’m talking about that unblinking, uncompromising ‘I CAN’T’.

Swimming is one of these for me. I can’t swim. I’ve tried, and I can’t. I’m not saying I never could, but right now, I can’t. I started lessons for the third time back in May. My hopes were reasonably high. The teacher has a fantastic reputation built on years of success with everyone from international athletes to hydrophobic beginners. I’m no athlete but nor am I especially afraid of water. My biggest fear, before I started, was putting my face down in the water, because all my previous attempts to do so had left me coughing and spluttering and feeling like I was going to die of sheer panic. But within twenty minutes, this teacher had me putting my whole head under water with only minimal anxiety. The next step was to hold on to the side of the pool, duck my head under the water, and let my legs float up behind me. Again, not only did I manage to do this, but by the end of the lesson I was enjoying it. I enjoyed it so much that, in the days following my first lesson, I made time to go to the pool and practice by myself. All was well. I was sure that this was it, the moment when I would finally learn to swim. All the pieces seemed to be falling into place. I had come so far in my fitness journey. I had strength and stamina. I had the motivation and discipline to practice. Clearly, I just needed to complete the lessons and I’d be off like a happy little fish.

Then, I went back for the second lesson. This time, I had to go just a little step further, to put my face down and let my legs float up without holding on to the wall. I tried. I tried again. I kept trying. “I’ll get it,” I told myself. I was already telling myself the triumphant, ‘happily ever after’ story. This is just a blip. In my mind, I pictured how I’d soon laugh about this as I swam in the Atlantic off the West Cork coast this summer. But instead of the ocean seeming friendlier, the pool was getting scarier. For the first time, I started to feel fearful at the feeling of being in the water. I still kept trying, but I was running out of willpower and getting nowhere nearer my goal. Time after time, I tried to let go and float and I just could not do it. Every single time, I froze, petrified with irrational fear. “I am in a safe place,” I told myself. But I didn’t believe me.

The third lesson was miserable. To her credit, the teacher told me straight out what was going on. She said my confidence had quite naturally taken a knock after the challenging second lesson, and that she could help me get past it if I’d keep trying. Finally, she said, “I can pull out every trick in the book, and I will. But at some point you’re going to have to do this yourself.” And I realised that, for now, I was not able to. I mean, really, properly not able to. I could not do it. I gave up. I quit. I bailed out. All the stuff successful people are never supposed to do. As of today, I can not swim, and I don’t know if I ever will be able to.

Enjoying the ocean from a safe distance at Peine del Viento (The Comb of the Wind) at San Sebastián/Donostia in the beautiful Basque Country.

My short-lived hopes of competing in powerlifting ended in a similar way. I am eternally grateful to powerlifting and to the people who taught me to lift. After a lifetime of mostly miserable experiences of exercise, powerlifting was so liberating for me. It was hard, but I could do it, and it was fun. On the good days, I got through whole gym sessions without feeling like I was going to die. On the really good days, I just thought, “Yeah, I’m probably going to die, but what a way to go.” But then I fell prey to Squat Fear. Some lifters have no fear, others feel it but are not too troubled by it, still others eventually fight their way through it and learn to cope with it. I did none of these. I couldn’t. Standing under a heavy bar, I simply lost the ability to force my body to do what I wanted it to do. I realise this is incomprehensible to people who don’t feel this fear and frustrating for those who have learned to push through it. I get it a lot from well-meaning lifters who want to be encouraging. Powerlifters, as a rule, are extraordinarily encouraging, and I’ve had lots of them tell me things like, “Ah I had that before alright. You’ll get over that. The only way is to just do it.” I know they’re right and I know they’re trying to help, but the thing is, I CAN’T. In that moment, whether under the bar or in the pool, I lose the ability to make myself do what I want to do.

Maybe this is simply weakness of character. Certainly, we’re taught to believe it is shameful. A lot of fitness culture rests on the idea that there is really no such thing as ‘can’t’. Failure is always a choice. If you were just willing to work hard enough, you could get through it. Giving up, it seems, is not only failing at fitness, it’s failing as a person. But I am not ashamed of my choices to quit swimming lessons or squatting or other activities that were grinding me into small, self-loathing dust. Like Niall Toibin said about being from Cork, I’m not proud or ashamed; I’m grateful. “Is maith an t-oide teip.” Failure is a good educator. I’ve learned that, while I want to keep striving to overcome my fears, I’m willing to pick my battles. Some goals just cost more than they’re worth in terms of time and energy. Others are so important that I hope I would fight for them with my dying breath no matter what the odds of failure.

I’m not sure I’ll ever devote serious energy to powerlifting again. I’m in my late 30s and I’ve accumulated a few minor recurring injuries I don’t want to exacerbate too much. One or two strength and conditioning sessions a week keeps me ticking over, and leaves me plenty of time to work on mobility and cardio, areas in which I’m weaker. Maybe there will come a day when I once again get that itch, that ‘I’ll have no peace if I don’t bench press 50kg for reps today’ feeling. But maybe I’m just no longer willing to pay what it would cost me to keep pushing myself in that arena. Maybe my powerlifting phase was just a transitional thing, a gift from the universe to get my cardio-challenged body into the swing of regular exercise. I’m fine either way. I’ve made my peace with that failure. I’m okay with that ‘can’t’. I still respect the hell out of powerlifters, but I no longer feel the need to be one of them.

On the other hand, I still really do want to be able to swim. It’s a basic life skill and it’s a great form of exercise. Most importantly, one of the things I learned from my most recent failure is that I love being in the water and I do have a yearning to experience that combined with the exhilaration of exercise. Learning to swim is still truly important to me in a way that squatting heavy no longer is. I don’t regret quitting swimming lessons back in May. I don’t mind that I failed. I was up the walls with work at the time, and I was physically and emotionally drained. It’s okay to get slapped down with a ‘can’t’. It’s even okay not to get back up, immediately or ever. But it’s only okay under two conditions: First, that I truly believe not just that I can’t overcome my fear of swimming but that I truly never could. Second, that I am willing to live with that failure. If both those were true, I could in good conscience vow never again to get into a pool. But actually, I believe I could overcome the fear, and I really, really want to. That means at some point I’m going to have to get back in the water and try again, when I feel ready. Otherwise, I’m just being dishonest with myself. Failure to swim is an inconvenience, a pity, maybe a regret. But failure to be honest with oneself is a crippling, dehumanising tragedy. I may never succeed fully at being honest with myself, but I hope I never stop trying.

It’s not a sprint…

I ran the Evening Echo Women’s Mini Marathon today. I say ‘ran’ it, but it was actually barely a jog and it took me about an hour. That said, I’m pretty happy with myself. Having missed quite a few practice runs during the last few months, I thought I might just have to walk some or all of it. In the end though, I managed to keep it at a light jog for the full 4 miles.

When I thought I wouldn’t be able to jog the whole thing, I had forgotten two things. First, I forgot that, when it comes to exercise, I can almost always do more than I think I can. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked at a bar, thought, “Jeez, I don’t know if I’ll be able to lift this”, and then pulled eight reps no bother. Convincing myself to let me try is half the battle.

The other thing I had forgotten is the good old second wind. I forgot that, with endurance exercise, it can feel harder and harder for a while, but then, just when you think you’re about to die, there comes a magical moment when it gets easier and you feel like you could keep going forever. In my limited training runs, I’d been doing shorter intervals of jogging, with walk breaks in between. Eight minutes, ten minutes, twelve minutes. Some of those intervals felt pretty tough, so much so that I wondered how I had ever been able to jog for an hour straight and very much doubted I’d ever be able to do so again. But then, about a week before the race, I thought, “F**k it, let’s just try.” I threw on the runners, did a few stretches and just headed off at a slow — VERY slow — jog, to see how far I could go.

At the half mile mark, I was thinking of packing it in. My legs felt like iron and I couldn’t find a rhythm. Around the mile mark, I had warmed up a bit, and it started to feel just about manageable. I settled in and counted my breaths: in-two-three-four, out-two-three-four. Any time I felt a bit tired, I just slowed down even more. Slow and steady, slow and steady, I told myself. Just keep going. I tried to run mindfully, paying attention to my body, watching for the first signs of discomfort twisting into pain. I don’t mind pushing myself especially when it comes to cardio and endurance, which are weak points for me. But I want to listen to my body, so I don’t push beyond my limits and end up sick or injured.

I was okay, though. I was pushing myself a bit, but not too much. I was at a comfortable level of discomfort, so to speak. A little out of breath, but still just about able to hum a song. Legs working, but not hurting. At the outer edge of my comfort zone, but just about still in it. After a while, I realised I’d passed mile 3 somewhere back the road without even really noticing. I headed back towards home, finishing what turned out to be about a 3.5 mile loop. Sure, my legs were a bit knackered, but I had no more doubts that I could jog four miles. Sometimes things get easier if you just keep going, but you won’t know that until you try.

This reminds me of the way I eat, and the way other people sometimes respond to the way I eat. I don’t diet. I gave that up years ago, along with other forms of food-based self harm. But, as a compulsive eater, I have learned that there are certain foods I cannot eat just one of. Chocolate bars, for example. If I have one, I want another, and another, and another … I lose all control and perspective. So I just don’t eat them any more. Not one bite. Ever. Not at Christmas, not on my birthday — really, truly, never. When I say this, people often respond by saying, “I could never do that.” But just two weeks ago, I would have told you — in fact, I DID tell people — that I couldn’t possibly jog 4 miles non-stop. I’d forgotten that, like a lot of things, jogging gets easier after a while. There can be challenging moments, but then you get a second wind, you get into a rhythm, and after a while it almost feels easier to keep going than to stop. For me, eating healthily is a lot like this. Just keep on keeping on no matter what.

You  may not either want or need to give up chocolate or any other food. After all, I am recovering from an eating disorder; by definition, I’m kind of an extreme case! But just don’t tell yourself you couldn’t. You’d be surprised what you can do in any facet of self-care and personal development — especially when you keep trying for long enough to start feeling the benefits. Whether it’s exercise, healthy eating, meditation or anything else, if it’s honestly not for you, that’s fine. But if you’re not sure, keep an open mind about what you can do. Don’t assume you can’t do something just because you never have. Most of us are vastly stronger, tougher and braver than we think. Most of us would probably be blown away by what we can be and do if we are only willing to try.

What the Fitbit can’t track

Me in blue HH lifejacket, nervously contemplating the Lee.

For my birthday in June 2017, I got a Fitbit Charge 2. I particularly wanted a fitness tracker that could monitor my heart rate, because I’m trying to build up my cardio fitness. But my reasons for wanting a fitness tracker go deeper than that. It’s about objective verification of how virtuous and hardworking I am, what a good girl I am, how disciplined I am. I try to work hard and do the right things, but no matter how much I do, it never quite seems to be enough. All too often, ‘enough’ feels out of my reach, some days by a hair’s breadth, other days by miles. Especially on those bad days, when my thoughts are tormented and my emotions are in turmoil, when I feel overwhelmed by the distance between what I am and what I think I should be, seeing my fitness tracker data gives me a bit of peace. When I sync the tracker with the app on my phone and see all the steps I’ve taken that day, all the minutes I’ve been active, the spikes and lulls in my heart rate, the smartphone screen gives me the approval I find it so hard to give myself. The Fitbit app tells me it’s okay to rest now, that I’ve done enough, that I am enough, even if I don’t feel enough. That’ll do, pig; that’ll do.

I get that there is a dark side to this. I know it’s kind of insane to look to some app on my phone for permission to sleep. I also understand the Black Mirror concerns, the fear that digital technology and social media are taking over our lives and causing us to value image over reality. I see all this, but the Fitbit still fills a certain need in me, at least for now, because it seems to offer me clarity and objectivity about myself. I don’t trust my self-perception and I certainly don’t trust my self-evaluation. For good or ill, it helps me to have the data to back up my feeling that I’ve worked hard. But, at least for me, the Fitbit is about more than physiological data. I don’t just want to track my fitness; I want to be the kind of person who tracks her fitness. I want to be disciplined, dedicated and determined, and I want others to see me that way too. It’s easy to dismiss this as hopelessly egotistical and self-seeking. But seeing the objective, unvarnished facts about oneself is important to personal development, physical or otherwise. Similarly, mistrust of our own perceptions is wise if it means we recognise our limitations. The problem is when we start to think the picture is the reality or when we start to think that the data is the whole story. Sometimes it makes sense to demand the data but the trick is knowing that the truth can’t always be reduced to the facts.

The second or third day of wearing the Fitbit, I went rowing with Naomhóga Chorcaí (an activity I heartily recommend, by the way). It was my first time rowing in an actual boat rather than on a machine, and I was eager to see what my heart rate would be like. And, of course, I wanted to add to that all-important ‘active minutes’ total for the big sync reveal at the end of the day. So you can imagine my disappointment when it occurred to me that wearing a fairly large and fairly expensive watch might not be a great idea when learning to row in a cross-hand style. Reluctantly, I took it off.

It took me ages to get the hang of rowing the naomhóg. We were nearly back to the rowing club before I got the rhythm of it. The woman behind me, Diana, had to take the oars and row with/for me over numerous stints before I started being able to copy what she was doing. Once I got the hang of it though, I really didn’t want to stop. The few moments in which I actually managed to keep in time with the others were blissful. The joy of physical exertion, working together, being out on the river Lee in my beloved Cork on a mild summer’s evening – it was truly a beautiful experience. And even though I didn’t exactly take to it like a duck to water, the truth is that even getting into that boat was a huge accomplishment for me. For most of my 20s into my early 30s, I was so fat they might not have had a lifejacket big enough for me, and I would not have been fit enough to pull my weight. I probably would have been too inflexible to clamber into the boat even had I summoned up the courage to try.

The lady right up front in the blue shirt is Diana, who did most of the actual rowing for me. I’m right behind her, a vision in blue cotton and exhilaration.

Even after huge weight loss and fitness gain, it took me three years to try it out. The first year we took students to row with Naomhóga Chorcaí, physically I could have gone out with them, but I was too scared. I was afraid that I’d look stupid, that I’d ruin it for everyone else by doing it wrong, that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. The second year, I was just a couple of weeks out from an operation to remove my gallbladder, and I was under medical orders not to do stuff like rowing. Finally, the third year, when the students went out with Naomhóga Chorcaí, I had both the health and the courage to go too. That was one of the rare nights when I didn’t need the Fitbit app to tell me that I had done enough. No technology could ever have tracked what really mattered to me about that rowing trip, what it told me about myself. Yes, I am a person with an average sized body and a normal level of fitness who can do most things that average, able-bodied people can do. But much more importantly, I am a person who tries new things even if I might be terrible at them and look stupid. I keep trying even when it takes time for me to learn. I’m glad there are pictures of that evening, but it wouldn’t matter if there weren’t. I don’t mind that I didn’t have the Fitbit on. I know what I did. That’ll do me.