“Ask him about the orange one,” I say to my brother Mark, elbowing him in the ribs. “Tell him your wife is interested in it.
“Yeah, right,” my brother says, shrugging off my request.
“No, really,” I try again, tugging at his sleeve and pulling him back in the direction of the tangerine bicycle in the center of the bike shop.
We are there because I am considering a bike, although I haven’t ridden one since I was in high school.
The store clerk comes over and asks if he can help us and I grab my brother again. “Tell him we all are interested in cycling,” I whisper, but he doesn’t seem to hear me.
“My sister is interested in a bike,” he says.
The clerk’s head swivels in my direction, reminding me of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but suddenly all eyes are on me and I don’t want them there.
“We – all three of us – are interested in riding the Stowe Bike Trail,” I mumble, although my brother and sister-in-law have expressed no such interest.
The thing is, I don’t want the eyes on me – the questioning eyes, wondering why I, who am obviously not athletic, would even consider getting on a bicycle. At least that’s what I feel the clerk is thinking. He may not be, he’s probably not. But that’s how I feel and so, I inwardly plea for my brother to step forward and take some heat off of me. Because he can’t read my mind, he doesn’t and thus, I try to muster some inner courage and bluff my way through the conversation with the store clerk.
I promise to come back and to take the bike he recommends for a trail run, all the time wondering if I can even get on a bike and whether or not the clerk will be watching if I do, a fear that could just keep me from fulfilling my promise. I might just be able to do it, but not if he’s watching. Not if anyone’s watching.
I leave the shop dissatisfied, knowing nothing about the tangerine bike and very little about the bike the clerk recommended, having nervously cut him off from asking any more questions by offering to return at a later date.
“I wonder what type of bike the orange one was,” I say, getting into the car. And, I really do wonder. I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to look stupid. I didn’t want the store clerk to know that I was interested. I didn’t want to expose myself in that way.
“Aww, Kimbi. you really wanted me to ask? I would have if I’d known you really wanted me to,” my brother says.
Um, yeah, that was what all the whispering and nudging were about, I think, but I let him off the hook. “It’s okay. You couldn’t have known. It’s just I can’t ask. I don’t want the attention. All I can think is the guy is wondering why the fat girl wants a bicycle,” I say. And, that’s exactly the problem. Sure, I am considering the bike to try and get in shape and yes, I’ve lost some weight and yes, I’ve been walking and probably the store clerk if he knew all this would be supportive, but it doesn’t change the way I feel and it doesn’t help me rise to the occasion. Although I should happily be surveying the bikes and asking questions, I feel like running away and maybe I can’t do this bike thing after all, because who am I to think I can be buying a bicycle?
This isn’t a new thought. It’s a familiar one and its not always exercise or body image related, but it’s always about feeling vulnerable. I just don’t like that feeling and when it kicks in so does that deer caught in the headlights phenomenon. I freeze or flee or lie – declaring that all three of us are interested in cycling the bike trail, for example. Anything to not feel so exposed, so defenseless, so ready to be mocked. I know how ridiculous it is, how this feeling can hinder me, prevent me from experiencing some potentially cool experiences, but it’s a feeling that’s hard to kick and regardless of whether it has to do with riding a bike, getting a physical or entering a room of strangers alone, I have to try really hard to remember that I’m probably the only one picturing that chubby little girl on the playground. And, again, I emphasize that it isn’t really about body image, although that’s the form it takes, because we all have an inner self that’s naked and vulnerable. For some that vulnerable self takes the form of a short bald guy or a tall, clumsy girl, a braces wearing nerd or a chubby kid. Rarely, do we see that inner self as beautiful. She’s awkward or ugly, fat and found wanting. And, so I try tricks to keep myself from being seen in the full light of day while at the same time working on finding a way to do just that. Because in spite of it all, we all want to be seen and accepted. Everyone’s in search of the Superman to her Clark Kent and I may have found the key to finding mine.
I stumbled upon it earlier this year when I found myself “interviewing” my gynecologist during an annual exam. Somehow when I’m doing my job, the glasses come off, the cape comes on and my inner chubby Clark Kent becomes Super Reporter. So, today, after I finished my interviews for my Obamacare article, I googled some bike shops, called them up and explained that I was a freelancer interested both in gathering facts for a potential story and in getting a bike for myself. The story? How does a complete novice, who isn’t exactly fit, go about choosing a bike? The questions they asked me were the same as they would have been if I were just an ordinary customer – what is your experience, what are your goals, where do you expect to ride – but the consequences were different. I didn’t run, I didn’t freeze, I didn’t lie and while I still felt nervous, I didn’t feel fat or naked. There was no hidden self. I had revealed her at the get go. I tricked myself into believing I was wearing my job as an armor, protection from my feelings of inadequacy. The trick was on me -- Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same, the glasses fool no one. And, that little chubby girl on the playground? She’s a writer who may soon own a bike.