I don’t feel at home in my own body. I feel ugly, slow and soft

I experienced the nightmare of most novice gym goers but it’s not going to put me off

‘Not feeling at home in your own body is not a straightforward scenario.’ Photograph: iStock

I have never felt particularly at home in my own body. Though a lot of people will relate to that feeling with varying degrees of severity, it is a philosophically interesting concept. Modern psychology operates, philosophically speaking, on the idea that minds and brains are the same thing – monism. We take for granted, for example, that by medicating brains, we can heal or treat wounded minds.

Not feeling at home in your own body is not a straightforward scenario. To feel that your body is somehow not reflective of who you are presupposes that dualism – as opposed to monism – is true; that you have a non-physical being or essence which is essentially or fundamentally separate from the meat wagon to which it is attached.

This raises issues for a number of variously interesting and complex body-mind relationship scenarios, but it most recently visited upon my daily life at the gym – a place where I always feel very uncomfortable.

I went back to the gym recently after neglecting it for a couple of years. I don’t look or feel fit – I’m not. The longer I go without taking decent care of my body, the less strong, the less fast, the less efficient it will become. Like most of us, I want to feel healthy and not to give my body much conscious thought, so I need to exercise regularly.


Of course, I feel ugly and slow and soft. I’m self-conscious. I’m embarrassed. If I listen to those feelings, I will quit and never improve, so I just go anyway and remind myself that no one is looking. No one cares. Everyone is wrapped up in their own experience.


Today, the nightmare of most novice gym goers who know they don’t visually fit in happened. After I worked out, and shuffled red-faced and sweating to the changing room trying to remind myself that I was a little more effective than I had been last week, and to focus on that rather than how unfit I felt, I showered and changed into my jeans and T-shirt. A women tapped on my shoulder.

I won’t describe her appearance because it doesn’t matter. She told me that she liked my jeans, and I thanked her politely. She went on to say that they were so much more flattering on my body shape than the trousers I had just been working out in. I stared at her, the moment elongating inside the corridor of my brain.

A couple of things occurred in succession. One was, well, there’s a column in this, because writers can’t waste awkward encounters. An impulse to be ashamed flittered around me, but then dropped dead at my feet. I was not impolite to the woman. I did not cower or go red. I didn’t say anything droll or Wildean. I just looked at her, and thought about the potential reasons why a person might be moved to take this course of action.

Maybe she thought that I didn’t know what I look like, and needed to be told so that I could wear something she thought would be more flattering. Maybe she meant to be nice in some very ham-fisted way. Maybe she saw me trying to improve myself and, like a schoolyard bully, wanted to give me a thump and tell me I shouldn’t bother.

I looked at her, expressionless, unsure of what to say. She began to get visibly uncomfortable. Whatever she had wanted, I evidently had not given to her, because she said, “Well, sorry I interrupted you” sort of huffily, and left.

On my way out of the gym, I considered. Five years ago, that incident would have been enough to have me rush out and never return; all my fears confirmed. Now, it certainly does not feel good to have someone reflect back my least charitable opinion of myself, but I know enough to admire people who do difficult things.

Difficulty is relative to the individual, and when I see people at the gym who, like me, are clearly struggling and trying hard, I just admire them for a split second and go about my business. I am in precisely the right place to make the improvements I need. My critic? Not so much.