The Bald Truth

Hair loss feels like such a petty, shallow, vain thing to care about, much less obsess over, until it happens to you, and then it feels like a completely reasonable sinkhole into which to fling endless resources. I’ve struggled with thinning hair since my teens, so I had it just long enough to understand its social value before it started to slide down the drain. 

Losing my hair felt like the death knell to my femininity. I often feel like I’m failing at performing being a woman in the WASP-aspirational way I was raised and which society has reinforced. I’m short, thick, rectangular, and even at my heaviest, never had much in the way of land assets. Even when the fashion-minded talk about the rectangular build and how it can look good in anything, they’re talking about the tall, sleek, uber-fit rectangles, your Gwyneths and Tildas. My measurements fit the rectangle standard but looking good in the way society deems acceptable in any clothes eludes me. So instead, I tend to refer to my body as potato-shaped. I’ve mostly come to terms with it; my frame is my frame and no amount of wishing will make it otherwise. I should know, having spent an inordinate amount of time as a child wishing that someday I could go to school and unzip my body and Cindy Crawford would step out and wouldn’t that show my bullies? Somehow? The grand unzippening never happened, so here I am, a sturdy potato. It’s just…I don’t see a lot of odes to the seductive qualities of the potato.  And that’s fine; my husband finds me attractive and being largely invisible to other men makes my life easier and safer. But sometimes it’d be nice to see an ode, you know? A “Damn! That potato could get it.”  Losing the hair on my potato made it feel like there was nothing good about my appearance at all, that every day onward would be a deeper descent into cave trolldom.

He bought a phone just for pictures of this wide-ass potato


I can’t think of a bad time that isn’t negatively enhanced by hair loss. Or a good one that isn’t slightly soured by it. It’s inescapable. Everywhere I go, there’s my scalp with less hair on it, a little misery that’s part of me. For example, when I was thirsty and tired and wrung out and fed up in Paris, I also felt bad for looking bad. It’s no secret I’m not a fan of getting haircuts, but it’s worse to pay full price for the snicking off of two wisps of hair and then leave the chair feeling devastated because they still somehow took too much. Salon small talk can be tedious, but as a balding woman, instead of small talk, I got nosy questions, semi-sympathetic pats, always followed by a product pitch of something I’ve definitely either tried or researched before. Everything is just a little bit worse.

Losing my hair in my twenties sucked, not to put too fine a point on it. It sucked getting ready to go out with my roommate, her trying something new and fun with her gorgeous mermaid hair, me left carefully arranging mine in only way I could to obscure the worst of the thinning, which because my hair is also fine and curly, meant damaging it through heat styling because curls pull what little hair there is together and expose the scalp more. This style would last for as long as I didn’t sweat or hit wet air. In Seattle. Going to hang out in crowded, hot bars and clubs. Doomed from the moment I picked up the blowdryer. 

Well hello boys, I’m sure you’d be happy to go home with any one of us unicorns. Any one of us.


But the fun didn’t stop there. Was I going outside? Better bring a hat, lest I risk a scalp sunburn and peeling that will make it look like I have the world’s gnarliest case of dandruff. Oh, but then I can’t go anywhere afterward that involves removing the hat, because hats aren’t kind to the normal-to-thick haired (or so I hear) but they’re ruthless to the balding, matting and swirling it in the least attractive way possible. At the height of my hair loss, I would have felt less naked to be seen topless than in the vulnerable moments when I would furtively switch between my riding helmet and my baseball cap. I also needed to bring a hat if it looked like it might rain, because if my hair gets wet it’ll look even stringier. There will be absolutely no: swimming, water balloon/gun fights, spontaneous frolicking in a fountain. And slowly, over time, I became a Hat Gal, even though I’m not really a hat person and they aren’t particularly flattering, but at least they allow me to pretend anything at all might be going on underneath there in a way the hatless cannot.

There’s no such thing as a good photo when you’re balding; they all casually shatter lies told in the mirror. It’s hard to be in denial looking at photographic proof. So I’d dodge photos, mirrors (especially those nightmarish full wall jobs at the gym), reflective surfaces, and eventually social gatherings on days when I felt particularly poor about my appearance. My selfies always cut off somewhere on my ever-taller forehead.  And it’d be one thing to be incapable of taking a decent photo if the result was only for me, but social media is such a huge component of acquiring any sort of following for this kind of writing. You have to project a fantasy just to capture anyone’s attention for even a moment, and no one stops scrolling instagram to fantasize about being a balding middle aged potato on vacation, much less click on her profile to find out what she’s about to even get to this blog in the first place. It feels like my chances of success are bound to my looks, and that means I get to nail myself on two accounts, for not being attractive enough to draw in a readership AND for not being a good enough writer to overcome the obstacle of being Gollum the travel blogger. And that’s a heck of a lot to put on any given photo. 

Society is brutal to the balding, like it’s something we chose. “He’s such a piece of shit; look at his terrible hair.” The balding are brutalized for losing their hair, for covering up their hair loss poorly with combovers and bad wigs and hair plugs, for being vain enough to care to try, or for not doing enough about their awful hair when it’s so obvious to everyone. In fiction, it’s common for the bad or immoral characters to be bald or balding, less so a sympathetic or heroic character. In the rare case that the bald character is a woman, their heads have been shaved by someone’s choice, to empower themselves to be “more than women” (ie, like men)  or have their power stripped; women with naturally thinning hair are virtually nonexistent.

 “Just shave your head,” people say, as though it obscures the problem. Women don’t often go glossy bald like The Rock, and that would be the only way to hide my uneven stubble patch. And also I don’t ever want to accidentally be mistaken for a skinhead. So no, shaving is not the solution for me, but I cordially invite anyone compelled to respond to this with “Get over it, it’s just hair, it’s not a big deal” to shave their own heads before doing so. Since it’s not a big deal.

When the problem first emerged, my mother immediately found a scapegoat in a class trip to Mexico and an admittedly ill-advised and, in retrospect, culturally inappropriate set of cornrows that I got because they looked so cute on my classmate but did me absolutely no favors. I’d say it was a good thing that social media didn’t exist then but admitting their existence openly on this blog sort of negates that point. Just know that your life is better for never having had to look at them, unless you knew me during that time period, in which case you should know that your life is slightly worse for it. Anyway, she wasn’t suggesting hair loss from traction alopecia, which can be caused by the extensive wearing of tight braids (I knew mine were a mistake right away and so they didn’t last long), but rather something more nebulous and racist that she’d dance around and come right up to the edge of saying while everyone in earshot had the decency to look appalled.  Even in recent years, when my mother would call me on my birthday, she’d mention what a shame it was about my hair, repeat her horrid theory of origin, and why are you so angry? I just feel like I can never say the right thing, if this is how you feel, don’t bother coming to my funeral. *CLICK*

Sometimes I think about what a loving, supportive mother might have had to say about her daughter’s devastating hair loss and its accompanying blow to her self esteem; I do this by imagining the exact opposite of whatever it is my mom actually said. 

Gosh, I just wanted to walk around looking bad all the time, you mean there’s another way?! This cutting observation was delivered a month before my wedding, a time so stressful (in no small part thanks to her) that even more of my hair was falling out. But a reminder of how bald I look to everyone when I was already so fragile was very helpful, I’m sure. 


A 3.8 billion dollar industry exists to part the balding hopeful from their money, hawking hats with special hair follicle stimulating lights, pills made from shark cartilage, plasma injections, and surgeries with “minimal scarring”. I’ve been to doctors and dermatologists. I’ve taken dietary supplements and massaged in creams and unguents. I’ve used “stimulating” mint shampoo that left my head burning and trickled on dropperfuls of expensive liquids. I’ve purchased special brushes and wrapped my hair at night. I’ve co-washed and eliminated sulfates, fites, and parabens. I’ve patted on powders and sprinkled on fibers and hours later looked ridiculous as they clumped up or ran down my face. I was leery of transplantation surgery; even now, I have no idea if it is a thing that actually works. They’re all so cagey about total costs and success rates with up-front financing that it feels exactly like a for-profit college for the head. Will your hair follicles take up steady work after they’re done here? No guarantees, but you owe us the money no matter what! There are tattooists who specialize in scalp micropigmentation, in which dots of tattoo ink interspersed between hair follicles convey the impression of greater hair density, but results are only as good as the artist, it’s time consuming, expensive, and will fade over time. Short of Aladdin’s lamp, these were all the paths available for regrowth and camouflage. Were I to find said lamp, I know without a doubt that I would only have two wishes left after I used my first on a head of thick, lustrous, bouncy-with-the-perfect-amount-of-natural-wave rich girl hair. Growing out of my head, thank you very much, I don’t want any of this monkey’s paw bullcrap so I don’t want a hairstylist’s plastic practice head or Jennifer Aniston’s head in a box or some other head with amazing hair growing out of my body somewhere. I MEAN IT. 

…I haven’t spent any time thinking about it at all, as you can tell. 

And time kept marching forward while I researched my options and read other women’s stories and slowly struck more miracle cure hopefuls from the list, and my hair continued to thin until even my old tricks weren’t working very well anymore. Products and volumizing techniques can do a lot, up to the point where low follicle density and strand fineness intersect, when adding volume makes a human head resemble nothing so much as a dandelion in seed. 

Hair loss groups online could be a double-edged sword. It was good to feel like I wasn’t alone and to read about things that people had tried with some success, but I had to limit the amount of time I engaged with them. It’s one thing to be part of a support group to come to terms with a final loss, but there’s no coming to terms with anything when there’s even a ragged scrap of a hope that things could change, especially when the issue is so tied to femininity. I didn’t find it a boon to my mental health to be in a virtual room full of thousands of other women like me in an ongoing situation, all desperate as I was to not be like me. It’s the same reason I can’t stand to be around enthusiastic dieters in any context any longer; part of so many people’s ideals about their “journey” involves loathing everything they view as being part of the “before”. But they catch so many befores in the wake of their enthusiastic self-loathing, statistically the majority of whom will never reach the after. Where do you go from there, once you’ve learned to hate yourself so well? It’s support that poisons with every touch. 

Last fall, I thought, “Lots of people use wigs to look their best. Maybe it’s time to transition to being a wig-in-public person.” I went down another internet rabbit hole, found the much smaller subsection of specialty wigs that would fit my petite head (because of course, why shouldn’t I have as much difficulty shopping for wigs as I have for clothes and boots and gloves and feel like the whole package, an entire body of inconvenience?) and bought the one wig that was sort of the length and color and style I wanted, sort of. Even for a lower density wig, it was so thick that it looked deeply unnatural on my head. But I wore it around the house anyway, looking to find some level of comfort so as not to draw attention to it.  On the day of its debut on a gathering with friends, I chickened out and plopped a hat on top, figuring having it poke out the bottom was a way to dip my toes. The plan was to meet up at their place, walk around downtown for the city’s annual holiday lights display, and then spend more time together afterward, but as we walked the lighted path, I could feel my wig working up off my head underneath the hat despite all the measures I’d taken to secure it. I sped up away from the group, hid behind a tree, and tried to adjust it while also struggling not to cry. This fix lasted bare minutes before the wig worked its way loose again, and my vanity and my shame were both behind the wheel when I told my friends that I had to get going and disappeared into the night rather than admit how ridiculous I am, save for when I get around to writing about it.

So wigs were not really cutting it. Or at least this wig wasn’t. After my potential coronavirus exposure quarantine in March and the subsequent shutdown of much of the country, I found a silver lining: it was time to try something else. Something you’ve probably heard of, but since this isn’t an ad or a testimonial, I’ll refer to it as medicated foam. When I saw a doctor about this issue at 20, he said that medicated foam wouldn’t work for me because it was designed for men’s hair loss. The product was introduced for women in 2014, and because of the pink tax, individual retailers still sell it at a higher price per ounce than the men’s (up to 40% more!), despite the formula and percentage of active ingredients being exactly the same. It’s also not as widely available at retailers, because of course. So for these reasons, I elected to use the men’s, which means that every time I touch the can, I see at least four reminders that it isn’t for me: MEN’s medicated foam®, not for use by women, WARNING: for use by men only, DO NOT USE: if you are a woman. I ignore them all as I purchase a three pack, admiring the absolute pettiness of spirit it must take to sell one’s product in a pack of three and then say that you should use the product for at least four months to know if it’s working, because screw you for trying, baldy! 

There are a number of drawbacks to this medicated foam but only one that made it an option of last resort, and ironically, it’s one of the earliest ways you can tell if the product will work for you or not. It’s the reason that made a period of sheltering in place the ideal time to test its efficacy. That reason is The Dread Shed. You see, the active ingredient encourages new hair growth by causing hair at the end of its growth cycle to fall out, which means that about two weeks after I started rubbing foam into my scalp twice a day, hair started falling out of my head at an alarming rate. It was horrifying to rake my hand through my hair while showering and come out with a handful…over and over and over. I didn’t even know I had that much to lose! I struggled to celebrate this physical indicator of efficacy because for a while, I looked worse than ever, and if anyone other than my husband saw me without a hat during an essential outing, it was only because I couldn’t wear a hat in that environment. 

Every time I rubbed the medicated foam into my thinning spots, I caught myself repeating the same mental plea. Please. Please. Please. Who did I think was listening, in charge of such a petty thing as even hair follicle distribution on my head in particular? Why do I think it would listen to my entreaties now, after all these years? And still I could not entrust my head to foam and prayer alone, having seen other women have faster or more success incorporating other steps into their routine. I would do anything to grow my hair back, I’ve said, loudly and often. Anything, I said, as I unwrapped the sterile needle-tipped roller meant to punch holes 1.5mm deep into my scalp to allow better penetration of topical solutions and stimulate blood flow to the region. Many things, I amended after the first few passes, my scalp aching and pricked with blood. Maybe I’ll just see how the foam does on its own. For science. 

And then one day around three months in, I realized I felt hair, not skin, under my fingers when I shampooed. When I stepped out of the shower and looked in the mirror, I didn’t immediately feel panic and despair. It was growing back. 

I’m now at the five month mark and my hair looks thicker than it has in years, with a new crop of baby hair standing straight out and haloing my head in frizz. It’s not a pretty effect. I love it. There’s just one area resisting new growth, and so I am getting over my squeamishness at hearing the sound of each of the dermaroller’s 192 individual needles break the skin in that region once a week. For science. And vanity, clearly. There’s a pandemic on, murder wasps have made it to Bellingham, and the pentagon has acknowledged that UFOs exist. I’m staying inside, tending my crop.

On Competitiveness, Body Image, and Learning to Look at My Own Paper

I laid in the tub in two inches of barely tepid water, audible sounds of regret escaping my mouth. “Can you see? Has it turned grey?” In that moment, I was experiencing the inevitable result of being a competitive person without a suitable outlet or a marketable focus. If I choose to enter a competition, I want to win. I have always wanted to win. I have no aptitude for (or interest in, let’s be real) team sports and I’ve reached an age when no one forces your peer group to stand in a line to see who is the best speller, so other petty competitions have borne the brunt of my laser focus. The pettiest things. Could I keep the #1 spot on the friend leaderboards for every song of a popular dance-based videogame? Win the all-important bar karaoke night Halloween costume contest? Can I do a little more? Go a little further? Could I do everything I cared about just a bit better than everyone else? Better than my previous best? And if not, why not? What was wrong with me? 

It is inevitable because my need to win and be the best is too strong that eventually I would go too far. It was probable, given the state of my body and American society’s general feelings about the overweight, that going too far would involve inflicting pain on my body related to a weight loss competition.

While now much of my peer group has arrived at the “love yourself, mind your business about other people’s bodies” mindset, anything before the mid 2010s was a fertile time for open self-loathing. Sometimes my friends and I would spend the better part of a party talking about how awful our bodies were, how much weight we wanted to lose, and our strategies to trick our bodies into believing themselves sustained on whatever diet was the New Diet That Would Fix Everything, Overnight Preferably. At a party! A place where we should’ve been celebrating something or someone and being alive and eating the good cheese! Instead, for years, I chose to play the role of the virtuous fat person on a diet, ignore the food, and talk about how I was also denying myself food in other places; some of my friends would do the same. Sometimes it was just me. I wasn’t in such self-denial that I believed that if no one saw me eat, they wouldn’t think of me as a fat person, but rather, if no one sees me eat, they can’t confirm any other opinions they might hold about how I got that way. I think of a friend who has stabbed a dagger into my heart at several dinner parties over the years when he talks about obesity and obese people with such vehemence in his voice and anger on his face. I’m obese; what does this mean about what he thinks about me? I don’t eat much around him. It’s hard to be a “good” fat person. And I want to be the best.

In those days, some of my friends and I would diet together but it was always a competition. Who could win dieting by dieting the hardest?  I could diet harder than anyone. I would go places they wouldn’t, do things to myself I wouldn’t wish on anyone and won’t go into extensively for fear of writing a comprehensive self-harm how-to guide. Back then, I wouldn’t talk about these strategies because I wasn’t there to help others succeed, I was there to win. I held no illusions that I’d lose enough weight over an eight week competition period to finally love or even like myself so if the only prize was winning, I was in it to win it. That’s how I ended up in my bathtub, weeping, afraid the hard, frozen disc of flesh on my upper back was frostbitten because I was trying to get an edge in effortless calorie burning by icing my brown fat, a tip from the author of my then-current New Diet That Would Fix Everything, Overnight Preferably*. This I’d first done through a towel, but a slippery slope led to putting the ice pack directly on my back for fear that it wasn’t chilling my fat enough to ensure my weekly weigh-in victory over a frenemy whom I couldn’t allow to be superior to me in any way. So onto my back that ice pack went. Surprise! A consequence! Albeit a minor one, as the hardened area eventually thawed and therefore my horrified imaginings of a little grey circle of flesh falling off my body and circling the drain were wildly unnecessary. I stopped icing, but I kept competing–you see what you focus on, and all I saw was a risky tip I took too far and not the behavior pattern that led to me taking the risk in the first place. 

I participated in lots of diet competitions during the entirety of my twenties and the first half of my thirties. Websites where you could bet money that you’d lose a certain percentage of your body weight. Others where the only prize was the glory of bettering strangers. In this latter category, there was a website I frequented on which you could compete with specific categories of people or for specific reasons, like “women over 30” or “getting fit for Christmas”.  And on that website, there was one guy who I came to think of as my nemesis though he very likely had never noticed me. I noticed him. He. made. me. furious. He first drew my ire because despite my best and cruelest efforts toward myself he was winning every competition in which we both were participants. I started only joining competitions for women or ones in which he was not listed as a participant, and that would’ve been fine but then he started swooping in and joining every single competition, regardless of whether he qualified, just before they ended so he could win those, too, and it was on the day he was crowned the winner of “Brides! Let’s look good in our wedding dress!” that I snapped, left the website for good, and ate myself into an expensive wedding dress alteration. If I couldn’t ever win, what was the point? At the time, I felt like this guy was stealing my glory, my victory, something I had starved myself to earn, because if I did not win first place, I didn’t achieve anything, and that he was doing it to be a jerk. Ahh! Fuck that guy! What an asshole! Except when I really think about it, I was just projecting my jerky competitiveness onto him. Yes, I wanted those wins.  I needed them. But I think that someone who would do that needed those wins more.

This summer, I started seeing a new doctor. It had been a while since I had a primary care doctor, and I was skittish about starting with a new one. Over the years, I’ve gotten better about excising the sorts of things from my life that trigger bouts of self-harm: I don’t get on the scale, much less participate in weight loss competitions. I don’t tally up calories because I know the dangerous, stupid places I go when I focus on the number. And enough doctors have treated my entire existence as a consequence of my weight that I feared another fall into the numbers. And worse, I was going for knee pain so I really felt the need to batten down my emotional hatches beforehand for dismissal, condescension, or outright cruelty, all things I have experienced in a medical setting, as well as sales pitches for diet drugs and bariatric surgery. I went anyway. 

Although this doctor did ask me to get on the scale on the first visit to establish a baseline, her philosophy is centered in exercise: that if you exercise at a high enough level for 45 minutes, three times a week, cardiovascular fitness will improve and weight and what you eat doesn’t really matter. She believes in this philosophy so much that she included a fitness center as part of her practice. New patients are given a few free classes so even if they decide not to continue exercising there, they can understand what kind of exercise the doctor is advocating. Since I hadn’t self-motivated to the gym in…eigh–a large number of months, this felt like an opportunity to get back into intentional exercise in addition to the incidental exercise I’ve been getting from my beat saber obsession and the physical labor of caring for and exercising an animal whose weight exceeds half a ton and does her best to whip me around like a ball attached to a cup by a string some days. This, too, I was nervous about. What would the trainer be like? What would the class be like? I went anyway.

My anxious mind anticipated a class of shoulder to shoulder people in a room with wall to wall mirrors with a loud, scary trainer. In fact, the class was so small it was the next closest thing to personal training: just myself and one older woman and not a mirror to be seen. The trainer was a man who appeared to be in his late 30s and fit, but not intimidatingly so. His manner was kind and even but impersonal and hands-off. My competitive mind noted immediately that I was much more physically capable than my classmate, and it was the smug self-satisfaction of this that allowed me to still internally deny that I needed to be there while buying the large package. I figured it would hold me accountable to exercising in a way just paying for a gym membership didn’t; that personal relationship with a trainer who expected you to be there in a class small enough for them to notice. 

I started showing up twice a week. Ostensibly my goal was better health through exercise but my two main motivators up and out in the mornings were both unhealthy: to utterly smoke the other (primarily far older, because who else has time mid-morning besides senior citizens and the unemployable?) people in class as a means of feeling better about myself, and the other, which I didn’t even admit to myself at the time, was to seek the approval of the trainer, recognition from him that I was doing better, doing more, achieving the most, winning the class, winning fitness. 

It’s like he knew what I was looking for and so refused to give it to me. Class ended with a “good work” and a fist bump and that was it, the same for everyone, no matter how hard I went. He gave clear instruction, was watchful-ish, but mostly hung back, trusting people to work to their personal maximum capacity, never pushing for more or harder. He told people to take breaks if they needed them, to come back when they could, and if someone did, he wouldn’t draw attention to it.

Even though I wasn’t getting those Teacher’s Pet cookies, I was still dominating at my goal of Smokin’ the Oldies, gleefully accepting every compliment from my classmates about my physical prowess. My bubble of imagined superiority burst spectacularly the first time someone in my age bracket came to class. I had managed, in my estimation, to outdo her for most of the class, but I hit a wall. Ran out of gas. When you can’t lift a weight anymore, you just can’t lift a weight anymore. And still I struggled to outpace her, and the shame of my eventual failure drove a river of silent tears down my cheek, thankfully only on the side no one could see, because it’s bad enough to lose a contest that only you know about but it’s worse to be a poor sport about it. It’s embarrassing that’s what it took for me to recognize that not only was I not better than the other people in class but that I needed to be there, and not for the purpose of “winning gym class” but for me, to be healthy, to work toward actual fitness goals that matter to me and furthermore, that it’s utterly fucking ridiculous to have lived my entire life in an aggressively non-athletic fashion and expect to always be the best in the room at fitness. This combination of things is what finally put an end to my competitive glances, comparing weights or machine settings or reps or squat depth. Letting go of self-inflicted competition and focusing on me was key to coming to really enjoy my time in the gym and my growing comfort and confidence in my own body. 

Then I fell off my horse due to an equipment malfunction, hit my head, and got a traumatic brain injury. I had a headache for a month straight. Every day. I was perpetually nauseated. Small amounts of physical exertion would exhaust me completely. Over the summer, I’d been hand walking Navani on trails, jogging her up the hills, building my fitness while working on her manners. I was getting better at jogging: me, jogging! Recently, the effort of merely walking this same trail (albeit with a spicy horse that day, in slippery footing) had me woozily dry heaving in the direction of a clump of ferns and hoping I didn’t black out while my friend rode ahead, cheerful and unknowing. I was out of the gym for six weeks and spent most of the next five castigating myself for those last two weeks, that it was laziness or some other personal failing that made it so I wasn’t back to wearing spandex in a month or less. Realistically, I went back too soon. 

During the time I was out, I received an email from my doctor’s office saying the gym was going to have limited hours for a bit while they were under construction to “make [my] gym experience second to none” and that some of these limited classes were going to be taught by a new addition to the training staff. Cool! Upon my return, I was interested to see what changes there would be to the gym–the trainer had been talking about wanting some different equipment and I was curious how it would change my workouts. And I know that I haven’t been in the corporate world for a while and had just hit my head and all but I still probably shouldn’t have been totally gobsmacked to learn that the only change was that the old trainer was gone, and the new addition to the training staff was the training staff.

This new guy was different. One of those muscle on muscle types which, like opposing magnetic forces, causes the flabby gelatinous material of which my body is composed to instinctively sidle away so as to avoid notice. He is a pusher, asking people to do more, go harder, calling them out by name. His expectations are higher in every way, wanting people to come half an hour early every time to warm up, to try to come daily. The baseline of what he thinks I should be able to do is higher. He says it’s OK to take breaks, but I’ve never once taken a break and not had him say something about it, which, to me, makes it feel like it’s not really OK.

Coming back from a concussion and its related cardiovascular effects to a trainer like this was a hard transition. I’d have to go into a squat to recover from a segment because my heart was pounding like a hammer and my chest was on fire and I was trying desperately not to throw up or die or throw up and then die and I’d hear “Melissa! You’re supposed to be doing bicep curls now” and each time was a battle between my commitment to listen to my body and my deep instinct to people-please. I’m there to be instructed, so when I’m instructed, I’m going to do my damnedest to do what I’ve been told. I might joke or snark about it but I always give my best effort, so when I’m chastised for taking a break it feels like it’s being implied that this means I’m not trying. I’m sure it didn’t help that one of my most regular classmates almost immediately talked me up to this trainer at the start of the session, saying that I was pound-for-pound stronger than anyone in the class. So even though I’d let go of the competition and turned my focus inward to the point where I have no idea how anyone else’s workout went, other people were noticing and comparing themselves to me. Ha!

This new trainer notices me a lot, making frequent adjustments to my form, occasionally physically moving me into position and fairly often touching me to demonstrate a verbal instruction. He notices if I switch to a smaller weight and calls it out in a way that leaves me uncertain if he’s encouraging me for recognizing that I needed to step down or if he’s teasing me by letting me know he sees me doing less than he thinks I could do or told me I should do. He notices if I have a bruise on my leg showing through the mesh part of my workout pants. He’s a lot more personable than any trainer I’ve ever had, particularly moreso than the previous trainer, who generally kept people at arm’s length. He’s asked about my rings, about my tattoo, about my husband, about my clothes, about my horse. He told me about a girlfriend he had and how she could never walk past the sparkly ring case at Costco, and how he imagined me as a more practical sort of person. Even as I was delighted to be seen as a practical person in a positive sense (Jason refers to me as a “naysinger”, or a person who finds the problems in other people’s ideas, and he insists this is not a bad thing although to me it doesn’t feel great to be seen as a rainer-on of parades) I was taken a bit aback to be imagined about at all, much less to have a question about my wedding rings segue into how I compare favorably to an ex.  Then, one day post new year, my guts were unhappy, which maybe had something to do with my diet for the past 8 days or so consisting of a flat of Terry’s chocolate oranges, sparkling apple juice, and not much else, so I canceled my gym reservation for that day via the app. “Easy.” I thought. “Being able to cancel without having to speak to a human being, this is the future I always wanted.” Several hours later, the dour clangs of bells and howling of wolves announced that my phone was ringing and it was my doctor’s office. As I answered, I wondered why they’d be calling–I knew I didn’t have a doctor’s appointment on the books for several weeks. I was startled to learn it was the new trainer, calling because he’d noticed I was supposed to be in class and then had canceled and was worried about me. Worried about me? For real? I was gone for six weeks and no one said boo but with this guy I cancel one class and it’s worry-worthy? And not the kind of no-call no-show that could lead someone to believe I ended up in a ditch on my way to class but a garden variety Seattle “don’t feel like it so I’m gonna cancel just before and pretend I never even RSVPed yes”,  and he’s at DEFCON phone call levels of worry?

I needed to figure this out this guy’s deal. I couldn’t tell why I was so uncomfortable, why my blood pressure spiked from anxiety on workout mornings. Was it just my problem with change in general? Was it him pushing my boundaries in a way I don’t like? Or are the touches and the personal attention and the excuse to call and making sure that I knew which class was his all red flags that he’s got a bit of a crush? I posed this latter to Jason, who kept a very carefully straight face when he told me that he didn’t think I had to worry about that, and for a moment I hoped this trainer did turn out to be mildly infatuated with me just to prove to Jason that it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that a man could find me attractive. 

But Jason was right. I’d stopped paying attention to other people’s workouts when I stopped competing with them, but in the interest of solving this mystery, I did some observation and self-reflection, and saw everything I’d been missing. The mystery is that there isn’t one. This guy is a committed personal trainer, gregarious and well-meaning, and I think the wholly-appropriate touching is an extension of his casual physicality. I found that he largely treats everyone the same; it coincided with this period that two of my classmates separately complained to me about how closely he pays attention to form, calling him “eagle eyed”. I learned that my discomfort had nothing to do with him. My old nemesis, resistance to change, played a role. I’m not used to being pushed to do anything, so that was uncomfortable. My initial discomfort with the touching is about my discomfort with my body and the assumption that most people would recoil from me if given the option; I shrink from touch like life is an airplane seat I’m trying not to overspill. To have someone reach out and unexpectedly touch me was shocking. Before I learned that his touches were reliably instructional and professional, I struggled to keep from visibly flinching, tensing in fear of…whatever. So that was uncomfortable. I’ve spent my life trying to succeed without being noticed and I was uncomfortable with being noticed and corrected so often, especially in contrast with how rarely I was corrected previously. With the phone call, he was just doing exactly what I had wanted a personal trainer to do: He was holding me accountable. Calling me on my shit. And, as it turns out, being called on your shit isn’t a comfortable process. Most of all, I was uncomfortable with where I was versus where I used to be. I struggled so much during these workouts, particularly upon my initial return. I would find my edge almost without warning; I’d be fine one rep and head-between-my-knees-utterly-wrecked-please-just-leave-me-alone-because-I-cannot-have-my-last-act-on-this-Earth-be-a-bicep-curl on the very next. It was uncomfortable and hard and I think subconsciously I wanted to quit. Organizing the facts in such a way that the solution is that he must have a taste for vitamin Melissa would make it so not only could I quit, I could justify quitting as being the only moral solution, patting myself on the back on my way to the couch. But that’s not what it is.

Once I finally got over myself enough to tell him how much I had been struggling in these workouts and why, he changed them to help me be successful. And now that I am starting to recover and not ending every workout half a breath from disaster, I’m able to see the value in his making himself and the facilities available beforehand to roll out and offer guidance. The subject of the old trainer actually came up briefly recently, and I guess due to his casual attitude about form, some people were injured. So maybe eagle eyes aren’t so bad after all. 

As for the pushing, I have decided it’s my new anti-competitiveness challenge: In the face of applied pressure, I  commit to do only what I feel I can do in that moment, to not compare myself to others or what I have been capable of historically. If I can give more, I’ll give it. If I think I might be able to, I’ll try. But I will also push back when I’m being goaded beyond my limits, to challenge myself while safeguarding myself, to advocate for myself when I need modifications, to be as kind to myself as I’d be to others. Perhaps in the way the first trainer helped me to let go of my need to win and for others to lose, this one will push me in a way I need to help me find out who I can be.

When I started writing this essay, I thought it was about one thing. Or like max three things with an underlying core of one thing. I thought that although I had overcome my wandering eyes at the gym, I would probably continue to struggle with my competitiveness in other areas. Like, for instance, at the barn costume party this year.  I haven’t been as bold about letting my freak flag fly at the barn; there was no way for anyone there to reasonably know or understand the depths of my obsession with the costumed arts, and so with each of my ideas, a little moderating voice piped up. “Is this too weird? Too much?” I was torn between the impulse to go as hard as I could toward the most elaborate idea that all of my intersecting hobbies would allow and damn the time frame and sleep deprivation so I could snatch that crown, or to dial it down a notch and not make other people uncomfortable with how obviously heavily invested I was in victory. I did tone it down (and I’m glad I did), and I didn’t win. It was fine. I thought I might care more but for the first time in my life, I actually did have fun just participating. Or as another example, I’ve been playing video games competitively with Jason and sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t and either way, it’s fine. It’s never been fine before. Never.

It made me wonder if competitiveness was as inherent to my character as I believed. My maternal grandma would oft-regale with the tale of the time little Melissa flipped the board in a game of Hi-Ho Cherry-O, scattering tiny plastic cherries everywhere, proclaiming “Grandma, I don’t like to lose!” The family always roared in laughter, and instead of nipping that awful behavior in the bud little Melissa learned that competitiveness and poor sportsmanship were tied to positive attention. My paternal Wisconsin grandparents with whom I spent a lot of time were both devotees of the Packers and Vince Lombardi (Packer Jesus), who in His gospel preached that winning was not everything, it was the only thing, and that if you showed him a good loser he’d show you a loser.  This testament was reinforced constantly throughout my childhood, along with the expectation that I would be the best at everything I tried because I was somehow special, better than other kids, destined for more, and if I fell short of the mark, I didn’t try hard enough and I was squandering my potential.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to see how a kid with these influences could be a lonely, ill-liked, bad-tempered poor winner and sore loser who grew into an adult in competition with everyone, neurotic about needing to win, but also desperate to not be seen doing anything poorly. Going for reward with the expectation to be the best and fearing the censure that comes with failure, even if now those expectations and censures come from within. This holiday season, I finally started watching Community (five years after everyone else has stopped talking about it, so right on time for me) and Season 1, episode 19, “Beginner Pottery” was like a Very Special Episode directed at me, Melissa Jeff Winger, and I was in exactly the right place to hear it. “[Melissa], you’re a normal person. There’s nothing very special about you at all. You’re going to be great at a few things, but really crappy at many more. And that takes a lot of the pressure off! So you can live a full, happy life. Oh, and sorry it took me so long to tell you that. And it was only in your imagination. My bad. Kind of a sloppy mom.”

Now that I’ve been able to back off from being in constant competition with everyone at everything, I better understand what a toxic presence it was in my life, how it robbed me of fun and joy and connection with people, how tied it is to fear, shame, anger, jealousy… and that it ironically also steals any pride I have in accomplishments because they aren’t accomplishments if they’re the bare minimum, if I’m performing as expected. Accepting that I was trapped in a million competitions of my own design, exhausting and demoralizing myself for little to no reason, was the first step in setting myself free from them. The freedom to be crappy at something really does take the pressure off. 



*It didn’t fix everything and it made my eating disorder significantly worse, because now it was a New Diet That Will Fix Everything, Overnight Preferably-sanctioned eating disorder! I’m still working on undoing the damage from that one. 

Related but also completely unrelated story: Once the original trainer was significantly late and an old man who seemed to primarily use the class as a social activity took it upon himself to be the leader, saying repeatedly he “had to get you ladies moving” and it made me so goddamn mad that this frail old man whom I could probably bench press before whipping him overhead by his ankle like a kind of elderly lasso and then flinging him through the plate glass window into the parking lot had the audacity to act like he was qualified to physically train me but because I’ve been raised and socialized female I just went along with it and turned my anger on myself later for allowing it. 

A Holiday Pony Party

Last Saturday, the barn had its holiday party. The day’s schedule featured multiple events: a horse parade, a costume contest, and an obstacle course. This is all great fun for the humans, but for a sensitive, reactive horse, it’s like asking them to participate in a day-long episode of Fear Factor. 

I have a sensitive, reactive horse. If an object, say, a mounting block, has moved position since the last time she encountered it, Navani views it with fear. The kind of fear that indicates she has heard the stories about Pinnochio and is suspicious that other fairies might be out there, granting wishes of sentience willy-nilly. And of course, every object dreams to be free, free to move about and predate on horses. Other, less cautious horses.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

So in the time I had between the invitation and the event, I did everything I could to help set Navani up for success. I introduced her to each element of her costume as it was completed. As new obstacles appeared in the arena, we’d work around and on them. I was especially proud the day we went through the new gate: she listened as I asked her for subtle movements to position me to reach the latch, and when the latch was free, she even bumped the gate open with her nose so we could pass through. I started to feel more confident. We might not cover ourselves in glory during the competition, but we’d probably avoid a Friesian-size freakout with everyone watching.

And then, five days before the party, the tarp tunnel appeared. 

It was nothing more than a large blue tarp affixed to the side of the arena, but the amount of fear it generated was equivalent to its size. Navani spotted it through the arena gate while still in the parking lot and hated it so thoroughly, immediately, that she threatened to rear. If a differently-positioned mounting block was worthy of suspicion and fear, this tarp represented the end of life on Earth. My confidence plummeted.

By the end of the first session in the arena with the tarp, I had convinced her to walk through the tunnel in both directions, in-hand and mounted. I had not, however, convinced her that the tarp posed no threat to her well-being. I thought perhaps asking her to work on a line in a circle near the tarp would desensitize her to it, but she’d veer in on the circle on the tarp side and speed up dramatically when she passed it, looking back to make sure no tentacle slithered out to snatch at her legs. Nothing lasting is built in a day, so I accepted the progress we’d made and determined to expose her to the tarp as much as possible before the party.

The next time we saw the tarp tunnel, someone had scattered pool noodles underneath, also known as foamy fear spaghetti. But I had a secret weapon. After my fall in October, I needed to take a break from riding in order to allow my brain to heal. It was the ideal time to begin clicker training, which I started by loading the clicker: sounding the click every time I gave her food. I did this for short periods over several days, varying the location of the practice space and where I would click so there was no question that the treat was click-related and not location-based. I was also careful not to click whenever she started getting pushy about asking for the food: nudging me, my pockets, the treat pouch, so as to avoid inadvertently teaching her bad habits. She’s a big girl and I don’t want her thinking it’s acceptable to shove people around if she believes they have treats. The way she’d slurp my whole hand into her mouth in her joyous dive for hay pellets was gross and left me a bit concerned for my fingers, but I hoped she’d be more polite as she grew confident that food was coming and accustomed to taking pellets from a cupped hand. Before party prep began, she had started learning to touch a target with her nose but we hadn’t done anything beyond that. 

The difference between the session with the clicker and the session without was almost unbelievable. It had been a couple of weeks since our last click session and I wasn’t sure she’d remember or had made the connection that a click meant food was coming. But that night, she proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that she fully understands its meaning, and her willingness to try everything increases when she knows there’s a potential for food. In a previous obstacle exposure session, I introduced her to a pedestal: a tire with a sturdy wood circle affixed to one side. The idea is to ask her to step up onto it, and though I’d had some success, it took a lot of asking while she circled around it, trying to show me that there actually was no need to go over this thing or touch it at all, really. But that changed as soon as she got the first click for putting a hoof up. She understood what I wanted, saw the value in offering it, and now steps up with no qualms. Same for the wooden bridge that teeter-totters as the horse walks across–suddenly even stepping on and crossing from the raised side was no longer as insurmountable as she’d insisted previously.  The click bridges the communication gap, the reward cements the behavior.

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds and horses in particular.”

The tunnel was still scary, and the scattered noodles didn’t help matters. Each time through represents real danger…to me. I have to be mindful of her body language and mental limitations every time I expose her to a new fearsome object at home or in the field: her reactions can be big and fast. So, for instance, even though she looks to me for protection from the terror of the tunnel, I cannot allow her to walk through behind me because of what might happen if her fear gets the better of her, whether that’s rearing up and coming down on top of me, or smashing through me to safety like a bowling ball to a pin. It’s a real consideration, as not every walk-through was achieved calmly and more than once I ended up knocked against the arena wall as she shoved past me in her rush to be out.

I don’t know if the idea was that she was supposed to carefully pick her footing through the noodles, but, direct as always, she mashed her way right over the top of them. When I clicked mid-tunnel and she came to a dead stop to collect her reward, noodles shifting underfoot, I began to understand the power of this type of training. She was still nervous and didn’t want to be in there, but the click had happened and so she suspended her discomfort for as long as it took to crunch a small handful of pellets. By the end of the session, I even convinced her to touch the edge of the tarp with her nose a few times;  even with the promise of a food reward she wasn’t eager to do that. Still, it was a vast improvement in her overall comfort level. 

The night before the party, I planned to do a last costume exposure/fitting and some preliminary grooming because Navani is a firm believer in the skincare benefits of a mud facial and a crusty face for the party just wouldn’t do. The joke was on me for showing up at the barn with a plan, because as I crunched through the gravel, arms stuffed with costume, the barn owner called out to me. “Hey! Melissa! You riding your horse today? Because they put up a tent for the party, she’s afraid of it, the ceiling is low, and I don’t want her going through there and wrecking it.”

Of course. Of course this new, out of place structure was, in horse-o-vision, a flappy horror from the pit of her deepest nightmares. It was new and out of place and clearly in cahoots with the tarp tunnel, which, in addition to the pool noodles, now had a second loose tarp underneath. Because it wasn’t dangerous enough already, right? I knew that the plan was to set up the course that day in preparation for the party, so with the tent up and the new tarp, I figured at least that was the last of it and I probably wouldn’t find an arena full of live snakes the next morning or a cannon that fires glitter and screams on either side of the tarp tunnel. Probably. One more night of clicker-enhanced bravery training would help ensure a safer party for everyone. 

We worked on everything, acquainting her with the new tent and the sound and feel of a tarp underfoot combined with pool noodles, and afterward, I asked her to work in a circle again, near the tarp. This time, she didn’t come in off of the circle nearly as much on the tarp side (after a couple of reminders) and she was able to keep a consistent pace and respond to my instructions. I had enough time left to braid her tail and clean up her four-scoop fear poop before I had to clear out of the barn for the night. We were as ready as we were going to get.


The Big Day

Since I didn’t accomplish many of my grooming goals the previous evening, I was out and at the barn extra early in the morning. I knew that in the chaos that was to come, there wouldn’t be time or space to get her gleaming, so I took advantage of the opportunity, wrapping up just before the horse yoga class taught by a local vet. Over the course of an hour or so, she walked us through stretching the horse’s legs forward and back, relieving tension in the neck, and finally the “full body wave”, which starts with a butt crunch, moves into a back lift, and then into a neck release. Navani thoroughly enjoyed the process, and by the end, she was so relaxed, head hung low, bottom lip dangling, that she gave off the appearance of being drugged. She seemed even more relaxed than the last time she was actually drugged, potentially because no giant grinding dental bit attached to a drill ever made an appearance. In this relaxed state, she was even receptive to me hugging on her neck, which she normally barely tolerates. I was glad that the day started off with something that relaxed her, made her feel good, and helped improve our bond. I was going to need to cash in on every bit of goodwill I’d ever engendered in her shortly.

Immediately after yoga, it was time to get her costumed and ready for the party. I was all over the place in my ideas leading up to our first ever costumed event, ultimately going with a nod toward the pagan by dressing her as a tree. With a holiday sweater and a red velvet bow on my helmet, I was an accompanying gift. The kind you can’t return and endure with a grimace, perhaps, but a gift nonetheless. To construct the body of the tree, I was inspired by fleece horse exercise sheets, which sit under the saddle and extend down the back and over the rump. To bring the greenery up to her neck, I sewed a felt wreath onto her breast collar (I wanted color and texture to be consistent between the two components and also she’d try to eat a real wreath.). I braided her mane in a running braid down her neck and fixed in some artificial poinsettias, the first and only idea I never deviated from in the six different costumes I considered. And to top it off, I made her a star-shaped leather brow band for her bridle, finished in artificial gold leaf. It practically blazed in contrast to her dark fur. 

Because of the new tables and chairs taking over the front of the barn for the party, I had to get Navani ready in her stall instead of in the normal tacking-up area. We also couldn’t take our normal path to the arena, and the back path is less a path and more an obstacle course in its own right, having to step over extension cords and thread between farm equipment and trucks and trailers and after we got past all of that, the front barn door was 80% closed (horse brain: “different! bad! danger!”) and oh, there’s a glimpse of that tent she was concerned about yesterday and just as we passed the dark gap in the door, someone unseen inside ripped off a loud swath of duct tape and before I could react, Navani had already jumped in fear and landed full bore on the edge of my foot*. 

With the wet weather and ensuing sloppiness of the nearby trails, our outdoor pony parade turned into a parade around the arena which devolved into chaos after two or so laps, with horses going every which way, practicing obstacles, and people with cameras darting among them. We tried and were successful at some of the obstacles: the tinsel curtain, the platform, and the tippy bridge, and with all of these she understood that I was asking her for the same job under saddle as with the clicker, which I think is an impressive association and I was glad to see willingness from her even when it was clear I was not packing treats. The tarp tunnel, however, I could not convince her to approach mounted. I asked her several times and each time she would slant away, flap her lip, or otherwise communicate her concern by disregarding my cues utterly. I could’ve continued to raise the issue. She might have eventually acquiesced. (Maybe. She can really hold on to a thought!) But it was also possible that she’d explode in her fear and cause other horses to panic in her wake, and that was a risk I was unwilling to take.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski , awkward “good girl” face is all me and 100% on brand.

I’d already decided that with Navani’s tunnel reticence we wouldn’t be participating in the official competition, and it was right around then that an entirely new group of new obstacles were dragged into the arena, including another giant tarp, which, like its brethren, was a fear-based entity. This is when we got into the most trouble we had all day: stuck between two tarps she feared to approach, she stopped listening to my cues and started veering on a collision course with a person on the ground having a conversation with someone on a horse, neither of whom were paying any attention to their surroundings, including the freaked-out horse dancing in their direction. It’s a Christmas miracle we didn’t crush anyone, and it was at that point I got off: I didn’t have control or at least enough influence and we were becoming a danger to others. I used the rope halter to introduce her to the new stuff in a more controlled, safer way, and then decided she’d had enough for one day and put her away. Though I wish I’d kept her out long enough to watch the neighbor’s mini pony try the obstacles and see how that bold little critter stomped through and touched everything immediately, as I feel she could learn a thing or two from its utter confidence.

I’m of several minds on the introduction of new spontaneous obstacles during the party itself. I think that if you want to have a fair competition and a trial by fire of sorts where no one gets opportunity to practice, this is the way to do it. Or maybe there wasn’t time to fully set up the night before. Or maybe they were being considerate of the space needs of the horse yoga class.  And I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to have less fun because I or my horse couldn’t handle it, which is why I don’t invite myself along on rides where we might be a burden on more experienced horsepeople. But another part of me, the part that felt vulnerable, the part that’s still recovering from a traumatic brain injury, the beginner rider and beginner horse owner of one of the most reactive horses in the barn part is upset that these new things came in when I was mounted, no warning and no choice in the matter. It added more wild cards into a situation that didn’t need them. “Unpredictable events out of my control that could spin out into a deadly situation” is part and parcel of interacting with horses, horseback riding is an inherently dangerous activity, and I cannot blame others for the risks I assume with the horse I chose to buy. But on the other hand, it’s a holiday party, not a serious event. Ultimately I’m left feeling a little annoyed and also feeling that I have no right to be annoyed because it’s not like I helped plan, pay for, or execute the event. How can I complain when other people went to so much work to host a good time? They couldn’t know Navani and I would struggle in this way. At least from the ground, she was more willing to investigate the new obstacles, though touching the snowman with her nose was right out and she was also offended when I took his little claw and used it to pat her.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

Even with the foot-mashing and the attempted trampling, I would say we had a successful day. Considering her costume and all the other horses (some new!) and their occasionally loud, blinking costumes going in all different directions at different speeds plus all the people and the new objects and the music and everything else, she took it remarkably in stride. Sometimes when I see her snorting and reacting when a flag flaps in the wind, I despair at the idea of ever turning her into the warhorse of my renaissance faire dreams. But I also know that we couldn’t have done any of this a year ago. Six months ago. She’s improving because she’s starting to trust in me. The promise of a food-based reward motivates her, no doubt, but it’s the trust that brings the follow-through. I know it, when I see fear etched in her body language and nothing but trust in her eyes when she follows me into a scary place because I’ve asked. I couldn’t have asked her for a two tarp noodle maneuver earlier in our relationship. That we did so much, relatively calmly, is a testament to the trust we’ve built over time. 

We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with by next Christmas.

Photo by Liz Ostasiewski 

*It’s fine, don’t write my obituary yet.