My husband has a theory. Each and every one of us is stuck in the era during which we were most cool; this is what leaves some men with mullet haircuts and why, in 2008, after the birth of my daughter, I believed Billy Blanks’ Ultimate Tae Bo Workout was the best way to make it back to my fighting weight1,2. I promptly ordered the DVD from Amazon, the best way to shop when your newborn has you under house arrest.
Although I never did the workout back in the ‘90s, I remembered Billy Blanks on Oprah back then as he guided her and her audience through punching an imaginary speed-bag, kicking, and generally killing calories. He was positively grinning, inspiring us all with his sleek, chiseled body and endless energy.
When my DVD arrived, my husband watched me tear it open with my teeth.
“Billy Blanks is still around?” he laughed.
He began to imitate Billy’s speed-bag move. I told him to shut it; Billy was going to help me get back into my jeans.
I began doing the workout during my baby’s morning nap, before which I’d chow down heaps of Honey Bunches of Oats. Later I would recognize this as binging. But in the moment, my baby’s morning nap and Billy became the two constant things in my life.
Welcome to the Ultimate Tae Bo Workout.
Billy wears matching neon-yellow shorts, tank top, and Taekwando belt. The music starts—a steady, generic beat—and he welcomes me to the Ultimate Tae Bo Workout. I slide the coffee table out of the way. We warm up.
Billy is older in this video than I remember, but still lean and smooth, still packed with muscle and energy. We practice punching and I look at the clock; my daughter will be up in roughly an hour, ready to nurse. Should I go the full hour and skip a shower? I mean, who would possibly see me today, aside from Target shoppers, should I choose to venture out?
My abdominal pad of fat jiggles as I do boxing footwork. There are mostly women in Billy’s class—some of them look like me, with a soft belly,3 the result of having either a baby or too many carbs—but I focus instead on the tiny Asian girl with the six-pack abs and the high, immovable c-cup breasts. She is what I’d like to look like. I realize this is delusional; I realize this kind of thinking is exactly what sells workouts like INSANITY and P90-X to bleary-eyed mothers who are up at night with a baby, and in the light of an infomercial, can somehow find their way to their credit cards.
Billy pauses to speak to those of us at home.
“Remember, this is the ultimate test. Test yourself. Ready? Uppercut… now speed bag!”
This is the ultimate test.
“With the cross-punch, hook, one-two!”
One—doing this: Tae Bo—by myself, during the only time my daughter really sleeps, when I myself should probably be sleeping.
Two—doing this: nursing her, crying in exhaustion as I put ointment on my bleeding nipples after the every-two-hours feedings, changing her diaper, and then swaddling and re-swaddling her. Shushing in her ear, rocking her, walking hundreds of laps around our dining room table while singing to her, swinging her against my hip, offering her screaming mouth several choices of pacifiers. Nursing her again, burping her, changing her—and repeating all of this—in an attempt to get her to sleep.
This is the ultimate test. To spend so much time with and be so in love with a tiny little person but feel completely alone when it’s just she and I.
I don’t know many new mothers, certainly not any close by. My family is 3,000 miles away, and those friends who are mothers went through the baby phase years ago and have forgotten all about it. My patient mother listens to me complain at length over the phone about the baby’s colic—at night, the baby cries inconsolably for hours, and as soon as she sleeps, I sleep in the lightest possible way. During the rare occasions when the baby sleeps past a two-hour stretch, I jolt awake, certain she isn’t breathing. My husband, however—who always gets up to help with the baby—can drop out like a rock as soon as she is quiet, an ability I envy, and seethe over.
“To the beat now.”
Billy and his class count out every move, then switch sides to punch it out on the other.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…”
I was never any good at numbers or math until it came to calories. At night, as I waited for my baby to wake for her ten o’clock feeding, I learned Excel to track my daily caloric intake and output. I was never any good at either, but when it came to calories, my math and Excel capabilities exponentially increased.
4, 4, 9 – these are calories per gram of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, respectively.
Since losing a single pound requires a caloric deficit of 3,500 calories per week, that means 500 calories per day.
An hour of Tae Bo burns about 500 calories. Producing enough breast milk for a single baby per day also burns about 500 calories.
Now, since I knew that giving my child a bottle of formula was—according to my interpretation of every shred of advice I’d heard—pretty much like child abuse, I was doubly its prisoner. How I longed to be part of the soft-lit picture of a mother gazing down at her calm, happy baby as it nursed, and how shocked I was to learn that breastfeeding was, in fact, having your nipple nearly pinched off several times a day until it bled. How I loathed the every-two-hours-she-is-sucking-the-life-out-of-me feeling. And the guilt. Oh, the guilt of feeling that way.
If I stopped breastfeeding, my weight would surely double (this is where “fuzzy math” comes in). Also, I somehow established it as fact that my daughter wouldn’t bond with me or love me anymore if I weaned her from nursing.
Yes, this is the kind of reasoning that surfaces when you are deprived of sleep and proper nutrition. This is the kind of reasoning that surfaces when you cannot mentally process any meaningful world news beyond celebrity gossip and when your “body-after-baby” cohorts are Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, and Nicole Richie.
I once read somewhere that people who read celebrity gossip have no sense of belonging to a community in their real life. Perhaps that is true. But for the love of all that’s holy – not only was my sense of community lost, but I made Nicole Richie, who is in the double-digit weight club, my body-after-baby standard. Those visible bones, I thought, were beautiful, and so was the way her clothes just looked so…draped and Greek-goddess-like.
Billy and I ducked and weaved together. I could feel my thighs getting stronger. He taught me to perfect my lace-kick to shoulder height without touching the television console or the coffee table. He talked about working my waist with midriff-targeting moves like “The Washing Machine.”
I memorized the pep-talks he gave during pauses in the routine. During one of his pep-talk pauses, Billy addresses those of us at home.
“When you put this video in, you knew it was the Ultimate Tae Bo workout. You knew it was the ultimate test. So you know, pace yourself; when you finish, you know you did it.”
And of course…
“Be the boss of the workout.”
What I knew was that having a baby was going to be hard because people told me so. They tried not to give unsolicited advice, but I now know, when you see a gleeful excited mother-to-be, you want to warn her that she is about to get her ass kicked.
There is no space for frustration to turn into anger once that soft, helpless creature is in your care. There is no control. A six-pound human is in command, and clearly, you are not the boss of the workout. But I was determined to be the boss of something. I chose food, calories, and creating a deficit between them.
Soon, I could do the entire sixty-minute Tae-Bo workout with hardly a sweat. At the end of the 60-minute Ultimate Tae Bo Workout, Billy tells us to go get some water if we have to. There is a 30-minute bonus feature following this workout. called Amped: Turbo-Charged Fat Burner.
By this time, I had reached my fighting weight, but I knew I could go lower on the scale. Controlling my weight wasn’t new to me—on and off for years I fought hard to be a special number—a special weight. I knew my number from when I had to write it on my driver’s license form at age fifteen, from when I left for college and when I graduated, from when I got engaged, from my wedding day and from the return from my honeymoon, from when we had trouble conceiving, from when I was finally pregnant (that number was four pounds higher than my wedding weight; I begrudgingly gained these four pounds when my husband said I was probably “too skinny” to get pregnant). I knew how much I gained during pregnancy, how much I weighed on the hospital scale before going in for my C-section.
And I couldn’t wait to weigh myself when I got home with my new baby.
I became fixated on finding a way to fit the Turbo-Charged Fat Burner into my day, because by now, my daughter was nearly six months old and she barely slept for the sixty-minute portion of the workout anymore. This led to frustration, and in times of frustration and anger and loneliness (and depriving oneself of calories), I was primed to binge. So I stuffed myself with anything sweet4 I could get my hands on. My husband’s ice cream (I don’t even like ice cream!). Spoonfuls of cold maple syrup from the refrigerator. Baking chocolate dipped in peanut butter5—my ultimate forbidden food—as I held my daughter.
And then, afterward, I had no time for the Turbo-Charged Fat Burner. Trapped in the house with a baby, a light of internal panic was ignited. This is how a new level of madness began.
With my baby on my hip, I open Excel and total the calories from my binge—over 1,500. I begin to sob. I put my daughter in her pack-n-play, wind up a few musical toys, take Billy out of the DVD player and turn on Elmo.
I kneel at the toilet and stick my fingers down my throat, only to discover that I have a very poor gag reflex—nothing comes up but dry heaves and tears. My nose runs. I sit on the floor, crying in unison with my daughter.
Clearly, I was still not the boss of anything.
When my husband came home, oblivious to all this, I sometimes convinced him to give up his much-loved“Law and Order” so he could watch my daughter for thirty minutes while I did the Amped: Turbo-Charged Fat Burner. But it wasn’t enough: in the morning the scale reflected my worst fear; it brought on self-loathing and a vow of renewed focus and strength against my hunger.
The Turbo-Charged Fat Burner begins with the ever-positive Billy.
“Are you ready to press on for another half an hour? It’s the ultimate test! Are you ready? Let’s go!”
I pressed on, as hard as I could. For some people, the rock-bottom of an eating disorder might be a seizure or a heart condition brought on by an electrolyte imbalance due to vomiting or using laxatives. It might be hospitalization due to starvation. For me, rock bottom was when I gained three pounds. The strength, the resolve, to starve myself became my ultimate test; but binging and not being able to purge? That was the ultimate failure.
My goal when my daughter was born was to breastfeed for one year, but as my ultimate failure built, so did my daughter’s interest with solid food. Soon she would be weaned from breast milk. Soon the calories formerly designated for milk production would be transformed into fat and panic. Soon I would have to come clean to my husband about what really filled my day: an inner voice that would stop at nothing to keep talking, to keep being the boss—of the workout, my body, my mind, my family.
1: Pre-pregnancy weight when one felt thin and/or attractive and/or able to fit into her favorite clothes
2: The weight a boxer or wrestler must reach in order to perform in his/her weight class. “Making weight” can often involve great effort in a desperate attempt to lose the last five to ten pounds by means of wrapping one’s self in plastic and sitting/exercising in a sauna or steam room (or running while wrapped in plastic) to sweat off weight. Wrestlers have also been known to “spit off” weight by spitting their saliva into cups until a loss registers on the scales.
3: Women gain fat during pregnancy in order to protect their own bodies from malnourishment once they begin breastfeeding the baby.
4: In Anita Johnston’s book, Eating in the Light of the Moon, she writes about women’s relationships to food: “Certain qualities in foods can be associated with certain feelings or with the suppression of certain feelings. For example, women who crave warm foods such as soups and stews are often longing for emotional warmth in their lives. Those who crave sweets may either be missing sweetness in their lives or trying to make themselves ‘sweeter’” (163).
5: (continued from Eating in the Light of the Moon, p 163): “[Crunchy], salty foods are often associated with frustration or the need to express anger. For many women, chocolate carries images of love or forbidden sexuality.”
Jennifer Genest was a Peter Taylor Fellow for the 2013 Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop. An excerpt from her novel manuscript, The Mending Wall, was recently published by Paris Play.
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