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Girls on Girls

Looking at other women pushes one woman to look within

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I go to the gym three days a week. While there, I subject myself to all kinds of torture. Painful, gut-wrenching stuff dreamed up by my trainer, a 52-year-old man with the body of an action figure. I sweat. I curse. I call on Jesus, hoping for some kind of supernatural help. Then I leave, sore and hobbling, and two days later I return, under the pretense that maybe this time it'll be easier.

I'll let you in on a secret: It's never easier.

Pain and progress are addictive. But then again, so is the respect I think I get when I detail my struggle, like I just did. Or better yet, post photographic evidence online (guilty!). Lately though, I've realized that it's high time I re-evaluate my reasons for putting myself through such affliction. What am I doing it for? And more importantly, who am I doing it for?

I've posed this question to lots of women in my life lately, because I have an odd, freakonomic theory that I wanted to test. My small, non-scientific subgroup offered the same answer I often tell myself.

"I work out for me," one said.

"I do it to feel strong," chimed another.

My kosher answer? I do it for the endorphins. I do it so I can eat a cone (pint?) of Jeni's Brambleberry Crisp ice cream without guilt. These are the "right" answers that have nothing to do with men, or with numbers on a scale.

But then come the second-level influencers. We all have them.

"I also want to look good in pictures," one friend honestly explained over a cup of coffee. I agreed with her, but I wouldn't let it go at that, because I'd already dug to the bottom of my own motivations, and I wondered if hers were the same.

"OK, but who is looking at those pictures?" I pushed. "And why do you care what they think?"

Silence and an eyebrow-raise were the only answer I needed. We both knew the answer, because neither of our husbands is all that active on Instagram. We work out for the health benefits, sure. But ultimately we want to be admired — not just by men, but by other women.

I remember the first time I admired another girl's body. We'll call her Julie. She flew over the hurdles at track practice with ease. Her black hair, pulled into a ponytail, glided behind her, as her legs, toned from years as a gymnast, propelled her forward. The track coach told the team to watch her form, but all I could do was stare at Julie's body.

What I felt wasn't sexual. I didn't even really feel jealous or inferior. But in that moment, I silently accepted that my friend, who normally wore jeans and a T-shirt like the rest of us, looked very good in a pair of shorts. In fact, she looked great.

Girls do this all of the time: We admire the beauty in one another. It can sometimes cross into icky thigh-gap-envy territory, but most of the time, I'm convinced that my feelings toward other women are more about esteem. I respect women who take care of their bodies, just like I respect women who excel in their careers or shine as mothers or serve in the community. They are worthy of honor. Or so I think from my high horse.

But here's the problem: When I evaluate another woman — even for the great things she's done or how great she looks — it quickly turns into self-evaluation. Because if I admire a woman for her body or her work or any other earthly thing, I have to ask myself a very difficult question.

Do I deserve her admiration in return?

I want the answer to be yes. I crave respect in life like I crave water after a workout. I'm thirsty for it. If I'm honest, I work hard for it.

I don't think I'm alone in this addiction to admiration. And clearly I haven't made that much progress, since I was obviously trying to convince you how badass my workouts are. (Don't you like me? Don't you love me?) The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Yeah. I have a problem. I'm working on it!

But weeding out pride, conceit and self-judgment is a slow process. It's work that happens on the inside, slowly over the course of a lifetime, not during the course of a workout. You probably won't ever see it, because that work — the real, meaningful work — cannot be seen by the naked eye, or in the naked body.

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