There’s a thing that happens to fat kids. Or at least, it happened to me.
Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge how hard it is for me to write the words “fat kids,” because they are so incredibly fraught with anxiety and shame. They carry – literally – a lifetime of doubt, of fighting to believe that one is still worthy of joy, love, happiness, even when one is overweight. I never, never, never, want any kid to feel any of what I felt as someone who’s struggled with weight my entire life, so it’s hard to even say the words.
For fat kids, everything active that “normal” kids do is harder. At least, it was for me. Pull ups. Situps. Learning to waterski. Playing soccer. Running. All of it.
Don’t get me wrong, in many cases, fat kids are as strong as other kids. But what they aren’t, or at least what I wasn’t, is as confident in their bodies.
It’s taken a great deal of self-analysis and deliberate, almost dogmatic self-encouragement, for me to accept my non-skinny body and still demand a great deal of it. I ask it to play volleyball, to run, to hike mountains, and in most cases, it obliges, albeit with the occasional protest.
But sometimes I am faced with a situation where – even though I KNOW I am a strong and confident 40+ woman who can do anything I set my mind to – I suddenly become that fat, timid kid who couldn’t climb the rope for the Presidential Physical Fitness test.
It happened to me this past week, on the tail end of a marvelous vacation. I’d hiked my way through Southern Utah, up “strenuous” climbs in Zion National Park and even up one trail in the pitch black of night. I’d done most of the trip pushing through a minor ankle injury that made every step a little more precarious. I wasn’t as fast as my hiking buddy, but I’d finished nearly everything he’d done. I felt good…happy, strong, confident.
And we were heading for the famous slot canyons of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. For those who are wondering, a “Slot Canyon” is a narrow path that’s been carved into sandstone by flash floods and water flow over time. I’m sure they aren’t meant for man and woman to traverse. But because they are so magical, traverse them we do. Here’s a picture of a very wide and accessible one that we visited earlier in the trip.
Now, I won’t lie, when I heard “Slot Canyon”, my knee-jerk reaction was to wonder if I’d fit; that’s the lifetime of being just a bit too big for comfort kicking in. Rationality indicated that I would, as did the eagerness of my hiking buddy to add this to our trip, so I set that foolishness aside and prepared to enjoy myself.
And for a while, I did. I had to suck it in and make sure I found the right contours in the rock to accommodate my, ahem, curves, but it was a riot. I was laughing and having a blast.
Then, we came to the first of two sections that required some climbing. I took one look at the height, did the math, and was instantly despondent. In the space of a moment, I was reduced to a trembling child, fearing, above all else, that I wouldn’t be able to do what the other kids could do, and that I would look foolish trying.
If you want to get to know Spooky Gulch and its tiny crevices, here’s a good description, but keep in mind that, on the advice of our shuttle guide, we were going the opposite way from what’s described in the article. This would wind up being a good thing in the end, but at that moment, it was a crisis for me. I was certain I wouldn’t be able to get up that first section. Certain of it.
My hiking buddy, who loves to climb and has complete confidence in his own body to get him where he wants to go, scrambled up like a monkey and then looked down at me with a grin. But I was flummoxed.
In the end, it took him hauling me from the top and a stranger down below giving me a boost, and then basically just planting his hands on my butt and shoving, for me to clear the obstacle. And all my mojo was gone. Shaky, embarrassed, filled with adrenaline of the not-good kind, I slogged forward. Then the 2nd obstacle appeared, and I heard myself, to my chagrin, whimper “I don’t know if I can do it” in a tiny voice that I hated to hear coming from my mouth.
With little choice, and his own brand of confidence, my hiking partner blithely assured me I that could, told me he’d help by anchoring my foot, and basically forced me up. Surprisingly, I popped through this one pretty quickly; I even heard another stranger exclaim in pleasant surprise when my head cleared the top.
After that, it was easier, but the residual fear of being weak – and all the scars of fat kid embarrassment – followed me through the rest of the canyon, so that I don’t remember much of it. I’m sure I missed some amazing pictures because I was so far gone into my head that I couldn’t even look beyond my feet.
As we cleared the slot and sat to have lunch, I fought the shake in my hands and the welling tears in my eyes. I was so freaked out that I couldn’t even figure out how to turn the water valve on my water bladder. We faced another slot canyon and I honestly gave thought to bailing, right then and there.
But my hiking buddy just tossed me a bagel and told me how to switch the water valve without making me feel even more stupid than I already did. We talked a bit about technique, and he offered me his gloves, and then we set off for the 2nd slot, known as Peek-A-Boo. I discovered, to my joy, that we were going to go DOWN this slot, rather than up, and for some reason that seemed better, even though Peek-A-Boo was supposedly full of water, which had a lot of our fellow hikers freaked out. My hiking buddy was determined to stay dry, and I was pretty much resigned to getting wet. But I felt like I could handle downhill. I’m always on friendlier terms with downhill.
And then something wonderful happened. As we entered the slot, we tramped along a bit, and then came to a big pool of water ringed with sandstone. Ah well, I thought, it’s time for me to get wet. My hiking partner did this nifty thing where he basically plank-walked his way over the puddle, inching his way in a spread-eagled fashion. He made it look easy and quite impressive. As I looked at the pool and prepared to step into it, he suggested that I try it his way. No way, I said, laughing. I can’t do that.
Sure you can, he said back. Give it a try. Just don’t fall in.
So I did, and by God if I didn’t make it across. At one point, I was what felt like completely parallel to the pool (I suspect it wasn’t quite as bad-ass as that, but it felt like it) staring at the water, thinking “Man, this will suck if I fall in. ” But I didn’t, and with a whoop, I cleared the pool and stood up, laughing in relief. My hiking buddy was laughing too, regretting that he’d been too busy watching me (and hoping I wouldn’t fall in) to snap a picture.
And on we went. Eventually, I had to get my feet wet, though he managed to pull off some Spider-Man worthy moves and stay dry.
It was a riot, and I was soaked and giddy when we finished.
Later that afternoon, we met up with the strangers who’d helped shove me over the first obstacle, and they were smiling and chatting with us and no, they didn’t laugh at me or or make fun of me for my struggles. When I thanked them for their help (again) they seemed surprised that I felt I needed to, even though they’d literately had to shove my butt up a rock crevice.
So, here’s the marvelous thing to learn from all of this. It’s nothing new or revolutionary. It’s that we are often our own worst enemies in situations like this. Everyone ELSE in that canyon figured I’d make it up eventually. Sure, maybe they felt a little embarrassed for my flailing attempts, but odds are, they were more worried about themselves than me. Even after watching me struggle, my hiking buddy kept pushing me to try stuff beyond my comfort zone, because he figured I could do it.
Sure, it’s a little annoying that I needed the external affirmation before I could get over myself. But how great that it was there when I needed it?
And how lucky that we did the downhill portion of the hike last. 🙂