All high schools have their factions: sporty kids, theater kids, kids who are made immeasurably cooler by the fact that they have cars. As a teenager, I attended a small New England prep school for the arts. There, we didn't just have factions; we had majors. I was a theater major, meaning my afternoons were spent in black leggings and jazz sneakers, trying to perfect the Sanford Meisner repetition exercise. That's where you stand opposite another actor, saying observational phrases back and forth to each other, over and over and over again: "Your hair is brown." "My hair is brown." "Your hair is brown." "My hair is brown?" "Yes, it's brown!" Try explaining this exercise to another major — or any rational human being — and you'd have a hard time making him or her understand what the hell it was, let alone why it was important. Meanwhile, across campus, the dance majors were occupied with another kind of exercise that made no sense to the rest of us: Pealotties. That's literally how I thought "Pilates" was spelled. I didn't even know it was a class. All I knew was that several days a week, my dance-major friends would come back to the dorm, moaning about how Pealotties had kicked their asses. For months, I assumed Madame Pealotties was some particularly brutal dance teacher; when I learned it was a form of exercise, I felt grateful that my own afternoon workouts were merely emotionally straining ("MY HAIR IS BROWN!!!"). I was a varsity-level emoter, but when it came to physical ability, forget it. I was a fat girl, and uncoordinated to boot. I couldn't get through a remedial jazz dance class, and clearly this mythical Pilates thing was designed for long, elite, balletic bodies.
Even after high school, when I began my obsessive on-off relationship with the gym, I always wrote Pilates off as a skinny girl's workout. All that talk of core work? With my doughy middle, I probably couldn't even get in the right position to do a "Pilate." Even if I hit my goal weight, I'd never be lithe enough to set foot in one of those airy, cream-colored studios with their mysterious spring-loaded handles and ominous reformers. Until last month, that is, when I found myself face-to-face with a springboard, thinking, "Okay, Madame Pealotties. Prove me wrong." Right now, I'm on a streak of tackling my fitness fears. Despite all the work I've done in this project, for me, fitness is still something fraught with negativity — about myself and about the exercise itself. In the past, working out was something I did to punish myself, to make myself smaller, to counteract calories I consumed and ease the panic of being in my not-skinny body. I thought myself too weak and damaged to be good at anything physical, and often I did injure myself. But, that wasn't my body's fault. It was my brain, insisting I push too hard for too long. After all, pain was the point. Slowly — really slowly — but surely, I am cultivating a new relationship with exercise. To that end, I've sought out all the workouts I used to avoid, just to give them a shot and see what happens. I tried barre classes earlier this summer, leaping way outside my comfort zone. When that experiment turned out well, I decided to go for Pilates and hang out in the discomfort zone a little longer. Plus, I had a friend there.
I first met Cadence Dubus, the owner of fitness studio Brooklyn Strength, back when I interviewed Jemima Kirke for this column. Though she teaches many fitness styles, Pilates is one of the primary methods Dubus focuses on, both in personal training and group classes. Considering her compassionate, body-positive approach, I figured hers was the class for me. True, I would certainly humiliate myself, because I just wasn't built right for Pilates. I'd either collapse on the very first exercise, or else yank the springboard right out of the walls like I was The Hulk in a tank top. But, Cadence would be chill about it. The first class I took, Cadence began by handing out those squeezy Pilates rings and I waited for her to tell us to do something I would not be able to do. Then, she had us raise the ring up and down slowly — which, okay, I could do. But, I was sure this would turn ugly any minute. After the warm-up, she sat us down on mats with our legs extended, instructing us to grab the spring-loaded dowels for support and slowly roll backwards down onto the mat. If that all sounds incredibly simple and not at all collapse-worthy, that's because it is. Here is the big secret about Pilates: You can do it. Everyone can. I'm not a fan of generalizations when it comes to bodies and how we use them, but I will bet you all my lunch money that, no matter your size or fitness level, you could walk into a Pilates class and crush it. In fact, I'll double down and make an even bolder claim: I bet you'd like it, too. Perhaps you're already in on this big "secret" I discovered while rolling up and down on the mat that day. But, if you're not familiar with Madame Pealotties, here's a little bite-sized history: While most associate it with the dance world, the method was actually created in an internment camp. German-born Joseph Pilates was living in England when WWI broke out, and was imprisoned with other German nationals for the duration of the war. During that time, he developed his technique, working with other prisoners and hospitalized German soldiers so they could maintain physical and mental health. He mounted springs on hospital beds for those who were bedridden and created moves one could do while partially immobilized or weak from lack of exercise. It's no surprise that those who worked with him did indeed report better health and physical ability. It's safe to say that people in the internment camp were not working on their "bikini bodies." That's why Pilates, at its core, is about maintaining your body's functionality. As Cadence further explained, "Pilates is a rehab technique, and the fitness side happens as a side effect of having an efficient body." That's why everyone can do it. I had walked in assuming Madame Pealotties would be some judgy bitch, telling me to come back when I'd gotten a hundred pounds thinner and a foot taller. But, this form of fitness respects every body. We think it means things like longer and leaner, but, "it was never designed to do that," says Cadence."Every person’s muscles will get longer by doing Pilates — if they need to get longer. But, your body might look different from someone else’s longer-muscled body." Just look at Joseph Pilates himself. In great shape? Yes. Ballet dancer? Not so much.
For this and other reasons, Cadence is thinking of starting a class specifically for plus-sized women. Many attend her classes already, "and I often hear the same concerns," she says. "'Oh, my core's really weak,' or, 'I've never been very athletic.'" Yeah, that sounded pretty much like the story in my head. Spoiler: That's the story in everyone's head. Many of us not-thin women think we're automatically excluded from certain exercises because we assume our larger body parts will literally prevent us from doing them. (Says Cadence, "People think that they can’t do a roll-up because they have a big stomach. We teach pregnant people all the time! You can have a gigantic stomach and do a roll-up!") We always seem to find a way of saying, 'we can't; we're not able.' "We just love to say 'weak' in this culture," Cadence reminds me. She instructs her fellow teachers not to use that word, even when it's the first one that comes to mind. "I use different words like, 'your hamstring isn’t engaging,' or, 'this hamstring seems to be having more trouble aligning.' Whatever it is. But, I’m never going to just say, ‘Oh, I think your arms are weak.' Because, relative to what?" In fact, she points out that larger bodies are often incredibly strong. "I learned that a long time ago, from working with a client who was obese. To carry around a body that's 300-plus pounds, you have to have some pretty serious muscles." That experience taught her to approach plus-sized clients as capable and strong. "Make that assumption," she urges, "rather than, 'Oh, this person probably never works out.'" That's why, when she told me I could do it, I believed her. And why I was not surprised to feel a difference in my body almost immediately. In some ways, it is visible. There are parts of me that are more defined than they were in June, and my kick-ass posture creates at least the illusion of greater height. But more than that, I feel the difference in everything I do. Just as intended, Pilates has helped support all my other physical activities so I can further develop strength and stamina (which Pilates alone won't do). My knees feel better when I jog on the treadmill — and I hadn't even realized they were feeling lousy before! When I lift weights, I'm aware of all the muscles engaging. I don't just throw my body weight back when I pull open a heavy door; I use my arm and my back and my abdomen. I do it better, because I can. It may seem minor, but in feeling all these tiny shifts, I'm suddenly aware of my body as a functional object.
That may be the greatest gift Madame Pealotties has given me: awareness of my own great capability. Pilates is not only rehabbing my physicality, but also my understanding of what fitness means and what it feels like in my body. That's the dream, right? To stop chasing thigh gaps and just feel good knowing we're helping our bodies run better? At least that's my goal — but it's not easy to bear in mind when you've spent a lifetime thinking of exercise as a way to minimize yourself in bits and pieces. When I get stuck in that mindset now, I like to envision old Joe Pilates standing alongside that Madame Pealotties I made up in my mind years ago. She might stand there, seven feet tall and size triple-zero, all raised eyebrows and pointed fingers: "What are you doing here?" she'd sneer. "You think you can do this with those arms? With that tummy?" Then I imagine stocky, strong Mr. Pilates rolling his eyes at her bullshit and nodding at me to go on. "Yes, with those arms and that tummy. Who else's arms are tummy are you going to use?" This body is what I have to use. If I can't work with it, then I can't work at all. And I'm not here to sit still. The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Ant-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you just wanna say hi, that's cool, too.