The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts by Hanne Blank

Alrighty, what was my reaction to an exercise book by a fat woman — Hanne Blank (she/her) — when I’m already in an exercise routine? Well for me, exercise can be like a toxic ex-boyfriend. Or, even like a best friend who died. When I was in elementary school, I recall being named the fastest kid on the playground, who even beat the boys (I have evidence from a fellow elementary school boy: a drawing complete with a stick figure me hauling ass and the statement “Melanie is cool because she is faster than the boys”). I loooooved swimming and hated when I had to stop. And who didn’t enjoy parachute day at public school? Or line dancing with boys (OMG, YES). Then there was a whole Richard Simmons phase I had during which I memorized and danced to all the songs your grandparents love. Ask me today, and I can still do many of those dances from memory.

But come middle school, I remember a gym teacher with a Marine haircut who just, like, yelled at everyone, but was also probably in his twenties and eyeballing some of the more mature-looking girls. That was 7th grade. I failed the Presidential Fitness Test (sorry Mr. Clinton). In 8th grade the gym teacher was a former cheerleader, and now the cheerleader coach, and she looked like a cheerleader (OMG, NO). You ever meet a gym teacher reliving their glory days? Yet I did learn some skills, like proper weightlifting and archery (what the liability hell was that??) and how to play badminton listlessly. I failed the Presidential Fitness Test (Sorry again, Mr. C).

Come high school, you basically get a gym teacher who is trying to turn the gym class into extra practice for whatever team that horse’s ass is teaching. Football, basketball, the cheerleaders, whatever. The rest of us are basically sent over to do pretend sit-ups and stay out of the way. Fitness at this time (please tell me it’s changed) was determined with a caliper. They would pinch your arm and calf fat and measure it. Then write it down. In this government institution called public school. Never did I learn how to strengthen my endurance, balance, or control my breathing. At the end of every year we were required to run a mile. I have never run a mile because I couldn’t breathe, meaning I failed the Presidential Fitness test in 1999. I think Clinton knows how I feel. He was president for a long time.

And after that, I was 100% positive the reason for exercise was to not be fat. And if you were fat (I was by kid standards), then the point of exercise was to punish you for being a piece of shit. Warning: there are some swears in this post. Physical assessment seemed more about whether you lost weight and how much you sweated. If you weren’t soaking wet and breathing as hard as a buffalo, you weren’t really trying, now were you. Thus, I started to feel funny about swimming and bicycling. Those didn’t make me “sweat enough.” And I would walk for miles without stopping, but I was never going “fast enough.” And I loved dancing, but I wasn’t losing weight.

Essentially, I gave up until I started seeing a doctor yearly like grown ups do. And she asks, “What are you doing for exercise?” Talk about panic. Whatever I said wasn’t enough for her. Tai-chi? That’s not exercise. Walking with my husband? Well, if you can still talk, you’re not going fast enough. Aquacizing? Nothing in the water gets you moving hard enough. Challenging yoga that made me sweat buckets? But yoga is just meditative. Okiedokie.

So, I quit exercising and told her why. It was a very fun “Look, lady…” kind of conversation, and she realized the error. While I had contemplated finding a new doctor, it occurred to me this lady may not know what her “helpful suggestions” were doing to me, her patient (hint, the answer is basically filling my large intestine with water every time I engaged in non-mandatory movement because I was so panicked). Then the pandemic hit and I couldn’t go back to yoga or swimming. And I didn’t exercise unless I was dragging around a stick (if you’ve been here a while, you likely remember me dejectedly dragging a stick through 2020).

But something at the end of 2021 made me change. I was reading What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon, and the ending chapter lit me up. I started slowly with a 1 Mile Walk at Home video and did that every single day for two months. Just the same 1 mile, which I could listen to on my phone (I know all the moves) or do while look at my laptop. Music has certainly become more electric since I used to exercise in the 90s, and that helps. Then, I switched to a 2 mile video with an energetic guy who doesn’t mention calories or losing weight. He simply cautions that you not reach so high you punch your ceiling fan, that you move your pet out of the way that you don’t trample it, and that you don’t crank the volume so loud you bust a speaker.

So, back to Hanne Blank and her informational book, The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts. Blank immediately opens with a humorous attitude, which set me at ease and made me laugh out loud. But the laughs slowly reduced, making me think Blank chose humor as a rhetorical technique to put me at ease and relate to readers. She covers the honest benefits of moving, such as lowering blood pressure and regulating insulin, and the mental health boosts and enjoyment lots of folks feel after accomplishing a goal, such as doing an activity faster, lifting more weights, etc.

Helpful sections include how to dress (and there is a Resource Guide at the back that points readers to specific fat-friendly brands and stores) and how to get off the floor if you can’t due to age, disability, weight, or injury. She describes those past relationships we have with fitness and feeling rejected when we do work out because people want to know why we have the audacity to be there. Thankfully, Blank also covers concern trolling, those folks who make comments about your insulin, blood pressure, etc. because you are still fat, even though they are unaware of what you eat and how you move — or your entire medical history.

If you’re already into working out, Blank also gives advice on how to pick a new trainer and gym and proper shoes for types of movement. I appreciated that the book goes over how to treat an exercise-related injury and when to seek help. Even more practical, I learned quite a bit about doing some basic movement routines at home that aren’t full-blown workouts and how to measure success if your goal isn’t to lose weight. Getting directly into my own concerns, Blank gives a measurement for knowing how to push without overdoing it and hurting or discouraging yourself. The math is simple for any activity, and you’re never going “110% — XXXTREEEEEEME!

For those who feel shy, Blank describes strategies for the locker room and responses for all sorts of comments. Funnily enough, though I have gotten mad about exercise, I don’t care who sees me. For a few years I went to the University of Notre Dame pool and showered naked afterward, and those showers were in a hallway that everyone coming back in from the pool had to walk through. I guess I learned this confidence after I took aquacizing at a community center, and the class started at 6:00AM and was made up of women in their 80s + me. They always got naked, except me and the woman who had had one breast removed due to cancer when she was younger. Her choice to change in private led to me showering naked. I felt I owed it to boobs everywhere. I will say that when I was at Notre Dame 85% of students had been on at least one varsity sport in high school, so you may imagine how “good looking” everyone was. Once I was out of the pool and in the shower, I was very “varsity smarcity” even though no one ever made rude comments to me. I confess a whole lot happens in our heads, and I was just mentally telling stories. Which, the 18-22 year-old students may have been doing, too.

Lastly, I’m included a quote from The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercising that struck me. There really are two kinds of “fat girl” feelings about exercising, and for a very long time, I was the later:

And for every fat girl who leaps into newfound movement with a sense of joy and liberation at finally feeling like she’s allowed to do something she’s wanted to do for years, there will be those who find the whole issue of adding physical activity to their daily lives so unsettling that they’ll have to approach it several times from different angles, stopping and starting and running into walls, before they finally figure out a way to do it so that it doesn’t feel too weird to be tolerated.

CW: None, though Blank mentions that you might have at some point hated gym class at school or felt bad about your fat body, dealt with workplace weight loss competitions or even struggled with an eating disorder. None of this is in detail; it is an acknowledgment of what you may have experienced.

61 comments

  1. I miss dodgeball. Nothing like getting smacked in the side of the head to wake you up in the morning. That sounds sarcastic but it’s really not lol. I hear they don’t play it in schools anymore and to be honest, it makes sense. Huge liability now. I had a brutal kick. So much so the gym teacher was like, “Why the hell aren’t you on the soccer team?” The answer was that I wanted to be, but I would never do anything that cost my dad more money. (Single dad and mom wasn’t paying child support.)
    I was always horrified to change in the locker room in school. That paranoia that someone will see something weird about you and tell the whole school was real. Never happened but was real all the same. (Like you said, much of shit was just in your own head.)
    I want to get into hiking this year. Nothing crazy just something leisurely with great views. We tried to go to 3 different places on Monday and all of them said no dogs. D:
    I really hate those stories of people talking shit about other people at the gym. Fuck off and mind your own damn business. This applies to most things dealing with the public too. Did you ever see the story of the big guy dancing at a club with his whole heart? Some girls made fun of him and posted it online. Then a group of women posted an ad to find him and asked him to come to their dance party. Sometimes humanity redeems itself but I hate that it has to be a dick first.

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    • Firstly, elementary school gym class — AMAZING. Thank you for making movement fun, gym teachers! In high school we were all so shy in the locker room. You’d do that weird trick where you’d have your shirt on and half put on another shirt and suck your arms in and out and eventually pull the original shirt off while wearing the new shirt. I think we were all magicians back then.

      I will say I found your city nice to walk in. The sidewalks were good, crosswalks were effective. That was just downtown, though. Does the place that did the huge Christmas lighting let you walk with dogs around there?

      I DID see the thing with the guy, and the follow up was they had a HUUUUUUGE party for him. All these women wanted to dance with him! It was great! I also saw the one with the woman (not sure if she was Sikh or Muslim; she had a head wrap and covered all of her skin except her hands and face) walking on a treadmill and a guy took a picture to embarrass her because she has prominent side burns that go down, almost like a beard. She responded to his online bullying to explain that in her religion, people do not alter their appearance because they exist as god made them. While I’m not religious and I have many “yes, but…”s on the tip of my tongue, the guy apologized to her and felt ashamed.

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      • I’m not sure about the Christmas lighting thing. We really need to get out more and check stuff like that out. We’ve been here going on 5 years but 2 of those have been pandemic years and even before that, we’re not huge fans of crowds.

        Good. That guy should apologize. People need to stop bullying other people in general but especially about their appearance. I don’t go out in society to impress anyone but I really don’t do it so you can make fun of me to make yourself feel better. Go do something useful like work on being a better human being. I dislike people greatly these days, but I don’t go around judging innocent people. I DO judge the entitled pieces of shit like the customer at work that complained about having to get covid tested before entering Poland for vacation while people from Ukraine don’t have to. Yes, true story.

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        • Okay, I don’t know why, but that story of the guy wanting to go to Poland made me laugh. I mean…Americans are so goofy. It’s bizarre that now there is a war, and potentially it will become WWIII, just how uber goofy Americans look. Like the trucker convoy protesting COVID lockdowns…after the lockdowns ended?? I saw a news story on Reddit about a guy who felt terrible that he supported the convoys because he spent his who life savings ($13,000–also an American thing) on supporting the convoys under the impression that they would refund him.

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    • I was talking to a high school friend about locker room changing the other day. She and I were the last in our class to develop boobs, and need a bra. It was excruciating changing and making what everyone knew anyhow plain to see!!

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  2. Had to smile at your story of the kids who were not in the soccer/baseball team etc were just left to their own devices in gym class. I was a total duffer at team games and anything in the gym that involved jumping over boxes or balancing on beams. The only thing that spared me the wrath of the gym mistress was that I could dance! In adult hood I’ve tried just about every exercise regime you can think of – aerobics, step, Jane Fonda, jogging. Despite all my efforts I never lost any weight. It wasn’t until I read a book by Bob Greene who was personal fitness trainer to Oprah that i realised I’d been doing it all wrong. So I bought a heart monitor and that was one of my best ever investments – I know now whether I’m exercising at the right level for my heart/lungs

    Weight loss is a side benefit (it doesn’t always materialise) – exercise has such a beneficial effect on my mental health that I wouldn’t be without it.

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    • Yes, although I am a fat woman, I am a big believer in exercise! It’s difficult to point this out to thin and/or fit people that fat people feel the same joy in movement that they do, just maybe not the same movement, or in the same way.

      Please tell me you Jazzercised, Karen! 😀

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  3. I swam 10km a week for years without losing weight, which I would like to have done. Now I don’t I’ve gone up about 10 kg and have to watch what I eat. We never had ‘gym’, I never went to a school that had a gym but I played sports non-stop. I was really skinny until I was 30 (a few years of amphetamines in there!) but then parenthood, a paunch and so on. I’m glad you’ve found an exercise regime that suits you.

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    • Good gravy, did you just confess a drug habit, Bill? You get spicier every week. I certainly hope you do something as a truck driver to prevent clots, never mind what your belly looks like. I know a guy who was in his 20s and drove from Colorado to Florida straight without stopping and got a clot. Which he didn’t know about, he just woke up from a coma and learned what happened to him. He still gets transfusions as a result.

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  4. I’ve been back and forth over the years on exercise – when I allow myself to just enjoy it for its own sake, I really like walking, rowing and swimming – but then the minute I let myself feel like a failure for not losing weight or being as good an athlete as other people, all the enjoyment goes out of it. (And I’ve never had the “runner’s high” that a lot of people do, no matter how hard I work). For a while I attended kettlebell classes with a wonderful, very encouraging instructor – he knew just how to push us while being encouraging. But one week he was off and the replacement seemed to think she was an army drill instructor, and kept shouting “if you wanted to be lazy, give up and go and lie in the park!” and so on – so of course that killed my enjoyment and I never went back. I like swimming as well but all the pools have been closed until fairly recently – and at the moment I have to be pretty careful not to get water in my right ear under pain of losing my hearing. Eventually I like to think that I’ll find a version of exercise that I like and can do regularly without any obstacles!

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    • The back of this book has a resources page that lists websites where you can find workouts and YouTube videos that aren’t shouty or made for people who are already fit. I always picture your neighborhood being rather cute and hope it’s a safe place to walk. Also, I know some hospitals have fitness centers for staff to help reduce stress. Does yours have that?

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  5. Love this! I never passed a presidential fitness test either (Sorry Reagan). When I was a kid in elementary school I ran all over the playground, would go home and run around the neighborhood at home. Exercise was play and it was fun. Then came middle school and gym class and suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore but humiliating because I wasn’t fast, or very strong, and I was short. High school sucked even more. But my school used title 9 to start a girls soccer team and my best friend made me join and suddenly exercise was fun again. I was not good enough at anything to play on teams in college so the exercising stopped until I moved off campus and didn’t have a car and started biking to class. But then I graduated, got married, moved to a different state, bought a car and stopped exercising other than walking the dog. Years went by. And then a coworker challenged me and a bunch of others to start biking to work. Game on! I got a new bike and loved it so much I started biking on weekends on the bike trail near my house. Then I got an exercise bike for indoors during the winter. Then I got a road bike for longer outdoor bike rides. Now I have 3 bikes (soon to be 4), a cycling coach, have done bike racing, and two years ago started doing strength workouts which were so hard at first. But now I have muscles everywhere and I love it sooo much. I have learned to eat to fuel my activity, don’t count calories, and don’t exercise to lose or maintain my weight. I exercise now for fun and muscles! I think women in general, and fat women in particular, have been so messed up by cultural BS that it is really hard to find the fun we had when we were kids. So I am glad there are books like this one and women athletes of all shapes and sizes and abilities speaking out about the issues.

    Sorry for such a long comment, couldn’t help myself 🙂

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        • The inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports is getting a lot of attention right now, but I wish more people would focus on the problems that are actually threatening women’s sports, like the prioritization of men’s sports, the failure to provide equitable opportunities for women (enough spots on teams), the failure to provide equitable treatment for women (like failing to give women facilities/equipment/coaching that are as good as what schools give the men), and persistent underfunding. So many programs are not in compliance with Title IX.

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          • That’s a great point. I know that photo of the women’s basketball NCAA workout space compared to the men’s blew up on social media, and the situation was rectified. The fact that they had to protest online shouldn’t even happen. And then there was the years’ long wait for the victory for women on the U.S. soccer team. But as fabulous as those moments are, I think of all the public school girls left behind.

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    • No, I loved this comment! I think my post really hit something within folks, because everyone’s comments are quite long, and I’m glad. Bicycling is awesome! I used to get up early and bicycle on this park trail near my apartment. I made sure I had a bigger seat so I was comfortable, and I had a basket on the front so I could put my anti-skip CD player in there (LOL). Currently, I don’t feel safe walking or biking where I live, but the new house will likely change all that. I can’t wait!

      I do wonder if competitive sports in high school kills fitness for lots of people. If you play soccer and have fun and are moving around, then why would a school have a competitive team for which you must be very good and dedicate LOTS of hours every week for practice just so you can travel around and play games. Students who can’t make the team are screwed. There’s no just-for-fun intramural sports.

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      • Yay for cycling! It would be great to have just for fun intramural sports. My city has some adult teams, softball, flag football, soccer, and I think kickball. In spite of playing soccer in high school, until my friend made me join the team, I had never played before. Since the team was brand new, they needed players and we had just enough to field a team and no extras that first year. So even though I wasn’t very good, they couldn’t say no! 😀 The second year we had more girls so there were always a few on the bench, but if you wanted to be on the team, no one was turned away. Don’t know what it’s like all these years later. We rarely ever won a game, but we all had fun. 🙂

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  6. I failed the Presidential Fitness Test during the Clinton years too. I’ve never been able to do a pull-up, and the only sport I could play well was badminton. I started running in law school to handle stress and became somewhat athletic. I haven’t kept it up because of the impact on my knees. These days, I walk about five miles a day. My goal isn’t to lose weight (it’s to handle anxiety/stress). It’s nice to see a book about exercise that acknowledges that weight loss isn’t everyone’s goal.

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    • Wow, 5 miles takes some time, so you must be very dedicated to it. My workout video is 2 miles, and that takes 30 minutes. Do your girls or spouse get into walking with you, or is it more alone/meditative time?

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      • It’s mostly meditative (hence that path in my backyard), but I also walk with my husband at night. Sometimes, if I have a conference call that doesn’t really require my active participation, I’ll walk while listening in. It’s been one of the perks of working from home!

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  7. The Presidential Fitness test is such a SCAM and a SHAM and damaging to kids. There’s a great podcast episode from Maintenance Phase (Aubrey Gordon!) about it. I am so glad you’re healing your relationship to exercise. It’s a crime what bad gym teachers and basically, oh, everyone has done to kill the joy in exercise. I am so glad that women are taking joyful movement back. Are you on Instagram? @tiffanyima is a wonderful follow for anti-diet physical movement inspiration.

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    • The only social media account I have is actually this blog! I used to have Twitter, but let it go a while back. As I go through the interpreting program, I’m thinking about things like online history. Can I remember everything I posted on Twitter? No. Did I post anything bad? Unlikely, but you never know what is a faux paux in another culture that I didn’t think of before taking my classes. So, I deleted it just in case. Now, it’s entirely plausible that Grab the Lapels is incriminating to the moon and back, but I’ll stand by keeping it and explain retroactively if needed.

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  8. Thank you for sharing your journey around exercise, and this book sounds very positive, healing and practical – hooray! I help people learn to run and I tell them to always have something left, there’s no need to feel awful when exercising. I would struggle if I had to run hard enough to not be able to chat as that’s what running is for for me, a chat with a friend as we go somewhere and look at some stuff!

    At school, I was a year ahead of myself and so a year younger than my year cohort and no gym teacher stopped to think that might be why I was smaller and weaker than everyone else, so I felt rubbish about myself all those years, and later. Later on, I found that i can run a long way, slowly, and, most importantly, I could help other people achieve because they could look at me and find someone relatable. That means more to me than my so-called achievements.

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    • Whenever I know someone is a runner, I think, “Oh, clearly that person is fit and on the move.” I never even thought about running being a friend activity. I have to imagine it takes some good lung capacity to be able to run and talk, but for a doctor to say run faster so you can’t talk, because you need to work your heart harder, feels cruel.

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      • It’s not even true, it’s rubbish! Not that we are talking about that here and it’s certainly not my intention, but if you want to use fat as your fuel you need to be running in a zone where you can easily hold a conversation. But I don’t use it for that – it’s my main social thing, running, and stress relief, too, added in to the running in nature bit (even in my suburban area). For example, this last week a good friend who is very vulnerable health-wise has been dealing with Covid, and I’ve been trying to advocate for her, support her, been desperately worried: Thursday I went out for a sunrise run alone, stood in the park and wept at its beauty, and went and walked round a churchyard, not religious at all but tradition and care and all it stood for helped me, then ran home. Really, really helped.

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          • Erm, not sure that was it, more stuff being in Latin / Henry VIII wanting to remarry. Anyway, this was a Church of England one, but a nice one. I like cemeteries, too – there’s one a few miles away that has my great-great aunt in it.

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  9. Wow this book sounds so badly needed, for so many reasons. Reading about your experiences with doctors, and the joy of exercise being taken from you was so sad Melanie, and I’m sorry you had to experience that, but I am also overjoyed that you found comfort and motivation in this book – huzzah! I do remember you stick dragging phase….

    I do love exercise, and it’s a part of my routine because i realized that when I wasn’t doing it (i.e. after giving birth) it had a direct affect on my mental health, and I never truly felt like myself. Still though, this post is such an important reminder that exercises can be weaponized by our society, and I need to keep that in mind when talking to my kids about it, encouraging them, etc. These are such important things to keep in mind!

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  10. THIS: “And she asks, “What are you doing for exercise?” Talk about panic. Whatever I said wasn’t enough for her. Tai-chi? That’s not exercise. Walking with my husband? Well, if you can still talk, you’re not going fast enough. Aquacizing? Nothing in the water gets you moving hard enough. Challenging yoga that made me sweat buckets? But yoga is just meditative. Okiedokie.”

    Tai Chi, Yoga and Walking are my current favourite forms of exercise (though not actually in that order) – as well as dancing! Always dancing, in my life. Anyhow, that doctor needs to know that ALL exercise is GOOD exercise particularly if you like it. Of course some exercise isn’t aerobic, or whatever benefit different exercise types offer, but it’s ALL good.

    At primary (elementary) school, my sports afternoon consisted my my being scorer and reserve. It meant I got to sit under the tree and keep score rather than run around out there in the sun! (This stood me in good stead because when my son took up cricket at the age of 12, I became the team scorer.)

    I was never good at athletics because I have strange benign muscle condition (it has a name) that means when you go On your mark, Get set, Go … everyone else would be off and I’d take a step and invariably fall over, because my muscles had stiffened (like a cramp) and just could not take off! Swimming would probably have been good, but I have never like swimming.

    Anyhow, enjoyed your discussion of your history with exercise, and am glad you have found something that works for you and makes you feel good – because how you “feel” not “look” is the important thing isn’t it.

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    • Oh, Sue, the way you described your muscle condition made me laugh, not because it’s funny but because my brain is imaginative and makes everything as cartoony as possible. Likely the reason I ended up in creative writing when I was in college.

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      • I’m glad it did – that was my aim. Fortnately, I had no athletic aspirations and I don’t recollect anyone being cruel to me (because I was only a girl?) so I’m not scarred by it, though the muscle condition contrives (I meant continues here but contrives might be better) to rear its head at inopportune moments. Ever tried to chew a nice chewy bagel with jaws that won’t move?

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  11. What is the Presidential Fitness Test??? But those callipers – we had that too and it was brutal. Also lining up and getting weighed and the teacher saying our weight out loud. To this day I refuse to have a scale in the house. I love hearing about all the different ways you’ve approached exercise and many of them sound similar to my own experiences. This book sounds like a great, measured guide.

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