Freedom

I was in high school the last -- and only -- time I ran with just a sports bra to protect my midsection from the eyes of onlookers. 

What was I, 16, maybe? Actually half my lifetime ago.

I ran a relay with my track teammates in a state tournament that summer. We wore matching sports bras, of course. Neon yellow and black. I remember feeling self conscious, eyeing the stomachs of my teammates, wishing mine curved this way or that, or had definition of any kind. 

My pride survived the day, and I was sure to never be seen running without coverage again. 

My stomach's always been one of the first things I'd say when asked the question, "If you could change one thing about yourself..."

Well, first I'd complain that I could only change one. Then I'd rank it. First, my stomach. But then my nose. What about my hair? Can I also have different toes? Is there a three-for-one deal? Why am I answering this question?

For me, my stomach was too flat, but wide. Shapeless. There's no hourglass. Certainly no defined abs. Puffy. Misshapen. Not enough curve to my lower back and not enough curve to my hips. Just... a stump.

Naturally, like any girl who's literally ever grown up, I spent too much time looking at the cover of Cosmopolitan. Look at those bodies. I compared myself to my more curvy friends, with their taut tummies and ability to breeze through a room without wondering whether anyone noticed the puff of flesh that couldn't squeeze itself into the waistband of their jeans properly.

A picture exists of my sister, friends and I at a birthday party when we were maybe 9 years old. We're all in our swimsuits, water balloons carefully placed in our childish bikini tops, giggling. I realize now it's total pedophile bait, but in 1991, it was adorable. But I remember looking at that photo and comparing my 9-YEAR-OLD body to that of my best friend. Even at 9 years old, she had a better body than me. Still, to this day, I have that thought when I look at the picture. 

I mean, let's be real, though. Still, to this day, I look at her and have that thought. I've got gorgeous friends, man.

But let's fast-forward to today. My 33-year-old body is significantly different than my 9-year-old body (OK barely, but who's counting?). This body runs and this body eats and this body curls up on the couch and this body snuggles with animals and this body does all kinds of things that are pretty incredible. 

Until last weekend, this body did not run in just a sports bra. Oh no. In fact, when I'd see others doing just that, I'd mask my jealousy with snark.

"Put a shirt on, geez," my inner-9-year-old would bark in my mind. 

All I wanted, though, was to do the same. To be comfortable doing the same. To have the confidence to do the same. To not feel exposed and vulnerable and pale and jiggly and insecure.

Funny, though, what happens when you have to run in the blazing sun on the country roads while the heat index melts your face off at 101 degrees. All that insecurity goes right out the window. Along with your shirt. 

As happened at the Ragnar Great River Relay last weekend. A quarter mile into my first run I stopped in my tracks, paused my Garmin (come on, of course I did), and tore off my already-soaked tank top. 

It felt... freeing as shit. 

I felt good. I felt cooler. I felt free. I just didn't care. It didn't matter. 

Until I happened upon the race photographer. 

Running without a shirt is one thing. Being photographed while running without a shirt is horrifying. Things happen to your body while running. They move and distort. Do I really need photographic evidence of this phenomenon? 

Too late.

But it stopped mattering. I ran a total of 20 miles out there last weekend in the stifling heat. I declared a new rule: If at any time I have to run, and the heat index is more than 90 degrees, there will be no shirt. And that will just have to be okay. 

So that's the first thing I did on Sunday when I had to run a few easy miles to shake out my legs. I felt a little like an awkward bird, at first. Worried the neighbors were staring, or all the taut-tummied girls were hiding in the bushes snickering at the gall I had to run so imperfectly exposed. 

But then I decided, fuck it. 

I will be self conscious at the beach. I will be self conscious in a dress. I will be self conscious when I'm feeling bloated at work and I just want to unbutton my pants. 

But I refuse to be self conscious when I'm out there running. Out there kicking ass and fighting for a goal and pushing my limits and doing something. Or, as lady hero Ronda Rousey phrased so eloquently, out there not being a "do nothing bitch."

So, free your damn selves. Maybe that doesn't mean running shirtless. Maybe your free is different than mine. But do it. You probably earned it. Even if you didn't, won't it feel good to be a little less scared?